One of the “main” reasons I was anxious to visit Southern Maine recently was because I kept hearing about the great food in Portland.
Bon Appétit called it “The Foodiest Small Town in America,” while others in-the-know freely describe Portland as “a foodie’s paradise,” a major dining destination not only in New England but the entire Northeast.
Second only to San Francisco in restaurants per capita, the largest city in Maine may not be a major metropolis like New York or Boston, but when it comes to good food, it’s big on appeal, quality, and innovation. If you know Portland at all, you know it’s fertile ground for creative types, so it’s no surprise that cooking is enthusiastically celebrated and embraced as a fine art. It’s all about showcasing fresh local ingredients and maximizing the unique wealth of resources that circle the city (farms, apiaries, fishing grounds, dairies, smokehouses).
Prior to arriving in Portland, we had tried the requisite lobster rolls, wild Maine blueberry pies and whoopie pies. And we had enjoyed delicious homemade breakfasts at B&B’s along the coast. So now it was time to try a few eateries whose names pop up repeatedly in “Best of Portland” lists.
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We had our first dinner at Fore Street, owned by James Beard Award-winning Chef Sam Hayward. This place helped put Portland on the culinary map back in the late 90’s with its open kitchen containing a woodburning oven, grill, and turnspit.
Long before the descriptors “locavore” and “farm-to-table” became foodie buzzwords, Chef Hayward built up a loyal network of farmers, cheese mongers, fishermen and foragers. With the freshest of the fresh each season, Hayward applies Escoffier’s philosophy of “make it simple” for consistently delicious food year after year.
Just reading the menu was a sensual experience: Roasted Onion, Sweet Corn and Garlic Ravioli, Exotic Mushroom and Kohlrabi Salad, Wood Oven Roasted Heritage Pork Belly, Warm Nectarine Tarte Tatin, Vanilla Lavender Ganache Filled Milk Chocolate Bon Bons . . .
The wonderful seafood choices made me happy; it was a matter of deciding whether I was in the mood for something pan seared, grilled or roasted. I finally ordered the Atlantic Halibut Filet, which turned out to be the best meal I had in Maine — yes, exceedingly fresh, tender and moist, roasted with spices in the wood burning oven, no fussy sauce to mask the natural flavor of the fish. Simple is the way to go.
Our bearded, blue-eyed server was friendly, efficient, and helpful, promptly bringing me the souvenir menus I requested. It was fascinating watching the different cooks at their stations — they’re a well-orchestrated, well-trained team who work very hard and seem to love what they do.
It was equally interesting observing our fellow diners. I’ve been to quite a few restaurants in my time, and never have I seen so many people openly relishing their food with nods, closed eyes, sighs of contentment, and enthusiastic ooh’s, aah’s, and mmmmm’s. That’s when I really got why Portland is such a beloved foodie town. People here love to eat, they know what they like, and from a chef’s point of view, they’re the best kind of people to cook for.
Dutch Apple Pie with Caramel Sauce and Vanilla Bean Ice Cream perfectly topped off our memorable meal at Fore Street. Next time I’d love to try one of their artisan cheeses, chocolates or the tomato tart!
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We had lunch the next day at Duckfat, a small, casual lunch spot known for its crispy Belgian fries fried in — yes, duckfat.
They do serve scrumptious-looking panini, soups and salads, but the main attraction is fries dipped in truffle ketchup or curry mayo. We shared an order of fries and a grilled cheese. Salty and a little naughty, those savory, deep-fried sticks are positively addicting.
Dip, bite, dip, swallow, lick your fingers. I’ve had Belgian fries in Brussels, and while I didn’t think these were quite as good, they came close.
Part of the fun of rubbing elbows in this cozy, talky place is the magnetic poetry. There’s a long board mounted along the tabletop where you can play with words to create life-altering commentary. Food for the mind to go with food for the tummy. Perfecto!
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Back Bay Grill
We enjoyed our second dinner at the Back Bay Grill. This longstanding Portland favorite is tucked away in a somewhat iffy neighborhood away from the touristy Old Port scene, but we were warmly greeted and impressed by the impeccable service, inviting decor and delicious food.
Chef/Owner Larry Matthews serves up classic dishes with a contemporary American twist. I appreciated eating exquisitely prepared cuisine in a relaxing atmosphere — nothing stiff, formal or pretentious about the BBG — it’s fine dining with understated class.
I ordered the artfully plated salmon (poached in parchment paper), laid atop lip-smacking quinoa risotto and a bevy of succulent seasonal veggies. The salmon had a nice crust on top and was cooked to moist perfection.
Len loved his roast duck, which disappeared in seconds flat. He was so overwhelmed with its mouthwatering goodness, that when I asked him to describe it, all he could manage was, “Quack.”
Because we skipped starters, we had room for dessert and shared the crème brûlée. Mmmmmm, smooth and sublime!
Between courses, Chef Matthews came over to decrumb our table, quipping, “This is all they let me do these days.”
Like Fore Street, the menu at the Back Bay Grill changes daily, depending on what ingredients are available. The short growing season and ever-changing foodstuffs make for versatile, innovative chefs, many of whom are able to realize their dreams of opening their own restaurants because start-up costs in Portland are reasonably low. All the better for us, because there’s usually a higher standard of quality associated with chef-owned restaurants.
I like knowing these chefs have personal relationships with their suppliers, that friendly competition keeps them on their toes, that they eat in each other’s restaurants and comment back and forth, constantly learning from each other, that they’re part of a tight collective working feverishly to raise the culinary bar in their city. I doubt this could happen in a large metropolis. If I were a young culinary school graduate, I’d head to Portland. There’s a rare energy here that’s hard to beat and it would be exciting to live in a place where the cooking is so positively inspired.
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Right before catching our plane, we picked up a few sweet treats to take home.
Two Fat Cats Bakery is known for their old-fashioned homey treats (cupcakes, pies, whoopie pies, cookies). The place has a relaxed hippie vibe and they’re not in any hurry to wait on you.
Since they won Portland Phoenix’s “Best Cookie in Portland” award three times, we bought 3 cookies — Shortbread with Lemon Glaze, Chocolate Chip, and Ginger.
They were just okay, if not underwhelming. The Ginger was the best and we had a hard time getting Cornelius to let us take more than a teensy bite.
Our last stop was Dean’s Sweet’s, home of the much touted award winning hand-dipped truffles. Though we loved the high quality ingredients (56% cocoa centers, 70% dark chocolate coatings) and the variety of flavors, we felt these were overpriced. We purchased a gift box of 8 pieces for $18.50 (raspberry, orange, blueberry, maple, two salt caramel, vanilla butter cream, double dark), and while they were velvety smooth, rich and yummy, they were half the size of most other artisan truffles we’ve tried.
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We’ll definitely have to go back to Portland someday. Two days is not nearly enough time to fully absorb all the gastronomic riches this cool city has to offer. We didn’t have time to browse the farmers markets or the many food specialty shops — Gelato Fiasco, Standard Baking Co., Maine Mead Works, anyone? And we have to check out Five Fifty-Five, and Hugo’s, and Petite Jacqueline, and and . . .
But we did get that little taste of Portland we’d come for, which has forever spoiled us for homegrown, handmade cuisine, and a rigorous restaurant culture always hungry for that next good meal.
Enjoy this video featuring Chef Sam Hayward of Fore Street discussing why Maine food is so special:
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Did you miss any posts from the Maine series?
- A Mixed Platter of Delights from the Southern Coast of Maine
- Tanglewood Hall: Stepping Back in Time
- Set Sail for the Captain Jefferds Inn
- The Pomegranate Inn: A Haven of Sassy Sophistication
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This post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts. Put on your favorite bib and join the fun!
Copyright © 2013 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.