Got a little time to explore the dining scene of Portland, Maine?
Change your plans: you’ll actually need lots and lots of time to do it right.
Word on the street is that the East Coast Portland is second only to San Francisco in restaurants per capita. We’re not talking Applebee’s, either. The city is filled with restaurants that make regular appearances in Gourmet, Saveur, and Food & Wine. There’s Cinque Terre, which Epicurious named as one of its Top Ten Farm-to-Table Restaurants in the U.S. There’s Five Fifty Five, whose chef, Steve Corry, was named one of Food and Wine’s best new chefs. There’s Street and Company, which offers some of the city’s best seafood. There’s Bresca, an intimate restaurant (20 seats) for which the chef personally shops for many of her own ingredients and that the Boston Globe says is more like going to a dinner party than a restaurant. The list goes on and on.
And best of all, SOLE food (sustainable, organic, local, and/or ethical) is on the menu at many of them. “Freshness is pretty much par in Portland…it's such a point of pride that many restaurants list the names of the nearby farms where each of their ingredients is grown,” says the Washington Post notes.
A weekend is not nearly enough to taste all the SOLE food goodness that Portland offers. Unfortunately, that’s all we had recently. With children at home in another state and a babysitter who was inexplicably uninterested in becoming permanent foster care, we sampled only a few. Here are three spots you should check out:
I. Honest, transparent, damn good: Fore Street
The front page of the Fore Street website proclaims:
We believe that good food travels the shortest possible distance between the farm and the table. Our menu is founded upon the very best raw materials from a community of Maine farmers, fishermen, foragers, and cheese-makers, who are also our friends and neighbors. Most of these Maine foods are organically grown or harvested wild, each brought to us at the peak of its season. Our cooks are constantly inspired and excited by the variety and taste of these local ingredients.
What can I say? They had me at hello.
Fore Street is transparent, in every sense of the word. There’s no kitchen per se; rather, the food is prepared in the center of the restaurant, much of it in a large brick oven, so all diners can watch as their food is prepared. Even the vegetables are stored in a glassed-in refrigerator; diners catch a glimpse of the bounty on the way to their seats. More than that, however, the menu itself is wholly transparent — you know that the quail is from Vermont, the scallops are from Georges Bank, Maine, the rabbit is from Harrison, Maine, and the pork is from Quebec.
(This was a far cry from the seafood-restaurant-by-the-sea that we’d visited after arriving in Maine the night before; at that restaurant, I asked the waitress which of the seafood options actually came from Maine; she looked at me blankly and told me that the food came from a distributor. So I sat by window, staring out at the sea, eating seafood that likely came from China.)
Fore Street has had its share of attention. In 2002 it was No. 16 in Gourmet Magazine's Top 50 Restaurants of the United States. In 2004, Chef-partner Sam Hayward was named Best Chef: Northeast by the James Beard Foundation. "Food and Wine" called him simply, Maine’s Food Hero.
The food is fantastic, but it isn’t fussy; Fore Street allows the highest-quality, mostly-local ingredients to speak for themselves. The mackerel (from nearby Cape Elizabeth) was wood-roasted simply, bringing out a surprisingly mellow flavor. The monkfish (from the Gulf of Maine) was airy and light, balanced by copious amounts of sweet, local butter. While it was all terrific, the standout may have been a delightful side of morels, served sizzling with shallots, butter and celeriac.
Nah. On second thought, the standout was the dessert. When my husband took his first bite of the warm chocolate-and-cinnamon brioche bread pudding, his eyes nearly rolled back in his head with pleasure. He said simply, “Oh, my.” And then again. "Oh. My."
The folks there aren’t fussy either. The wait staff wears denim and doesn't laugh when you pronounce things wrong. The restaurant-goers are something of a motley crew. Sure, you’ve got your standard urban professionals (and yes, they are all more beautiful and more wealthy than you). But there’s room for everyone in the Fore Street tent. Near us was a heavy-set woman in Aerosoles, gripping her fork like a dagger. At another table sat a college-age woman in a polyester dress; shortly after sitting down, she slipped off her gold flip flops and enjoyed most of her meal in bare feet. There was an old gentleman in a wheelchair, an enormously pregnant woman who waddled. Many folks (myself included) wore jeans.
When the couple at the table next to us left two pieces of chocolate on their plate, nearby diners — complete strangers — leaned over to ask them, “Do you mind if we eat those?”
The departing couple laughed, handed them the plate, then turned to us and said, “Sorry, we’d share with you, too, if we could.”
I laughed. It was just that kind of place; comfortable, and all about honest, good food.
II. Local food doesn’t have to be fancy (or sustainable): Gilbert’s Chowder House
Gilbert’s is exactly what it sounds like: unpretentious, down home, with heaping servings of New England Chowder in various forms (clam, seafood, corn, and even a seafood chili).
The décor involves lobster nets, wooden traps, and a giant swordfish. The wait staff, all women of varying ages, wore jeans and tight tank tops. They mixed drinks like white Russians at the bar, laughed with the dockworkers sitting at the counter. They plunked the food down in front of us without flourish.
Gilberts has won the Maine Sunday Telegram's readers' choice for Maine's best chowder. I had the seafood chowder, which was extremely thick, and filled with chunky potatoes, and tender hunks of Maine specials (haddock, lobster, clams, and shrimp). The bowl’s standout was the shrimp; smaller than Gulf shrimp, the kind many people might pass over at the grocery store, but packed with flavor, and with a solid, satisfying texture. Chowder was followed by a heap of fried whole-belly Maine clams — the breading was light, and the clams themselves were mild and salty, if a bit chewy.
With all of it, we sipped on local Shipyard IPA. Because, hey, beer can be SOLE food, too.
The one disappointment was that the meal was served in Styrofoam, with plastic utensils. Sure, that’s probably why the service was so speedy, but it kind of took the S and the E out of SOLE. Next time, I’d minimize the impact by ordering my chowder in a bread bowl.
In the end, it wasn’t fancy, but the truth is, sometimes chowder and fried seafood, served with a cold beer, is exactly what you want.
III. Wait — how did they DO that? Hugo’s (rather amazing) Restaurant
We should have known by his resume: Rob Evans, the chef-owner of Hugo’s restaurant, came to Portland by way of the French Laundry, where he worked under Thomas Keller. Evans has twice been named a Best Chef Northeast by the James Beard Foundation. He has also been named a "Best New Chef" from Food & Wine Magazine. Hugo’s is Portland’s only four-diamond restaurant. Among other accolades.
Needless to say, it’s a good restaurant. It’s also wildly imaginative.
Our first clue about the restaurant’s ingenuity came with our cocktails. A Dark & Stormy featured homemade ginger brew, rum, lime, and hints of anise and clove; it was both sweet and spicy, hearty and heavenly. A strawberry-infused rhubarb martini tasted like a boozy version of spring.
With a couple of cocktails in our bellies, we managed to be just a little less embarrassed as we moaned over the food, which was daring, inventive, and pretty darned stunning. It’s the kind of food that makes you want to read up on molecular gastronomy. The kind that makes you wish you'd attended culinary school. The kind that makes you realize, “Hey, that which nourishes us can also be the stuff of art.”
A spring-dug parsnip soup was garnished with earthy shiitake mushroom, toasted hazelnuts, and curry oil. Local foraged greens were paired with meaty asparagus, fried capers, eggs, and cornichons. A tender East Coast duck breast was paired with pickled cherries, carrot puree, and Asian-inspired duck-leg dumpling. For dessert, a banana cake was paired with a lovely, subtle, brown butter caramel and cream topping.
Whereas at Fore Street, my pleasure came from knowing exactly what I was eating, at Hugo’s, the opposite was true. Through the meal, I kept wondering, “How did they do this????” The whole experience — the unlikely pairing of flavors, the ethereal aromas — was intoxicating. Well, it could have been the second cocktail, too. Either way, I giggled through most of the meal.
The surprising part of the meal came when I asked about one of our appetizers, a beet risotto with home-grown anise hyssop.
“Would you like the recipe?” the server asked.
“You would give it to me?” I asked. “Hand out your recipe, just like that?”
“Absolutely,” he answered. Two minutes later, he was by my side with a printed recipe, so that I could make the whole thing at home.
Many of the offerings are local; those that aren’t are fully artisanal. Go for a meal, get surprised by the drink, and come home, delighted, maybe even with a new recipe or two.