Paul Dyer and Dan Cross aren’t just talkin’ smack when they say they think their dish will make them “Champions of Breakfast” at one of the signature events of Maine Restaurant Week.
The new chef and sous chef at the Porthole on Custom House Wharf have rewritten the menus at the restaurant, one of many steps they’re taking to try and make the place more of a dining destination than a local watering hole.
The Porthole’s eggs Florentine, smothered in a smoky bacon cream sauce, will be the chefs’ entry into the Incredible Breakfast Cook-off March 5 at the Sea Dog Brewing Company in South Portland. Their version of the breakfast classic has “always been a hit” with customers, no matter where they worked, Cross said.
“It’s probably our number one-selling dish right now on our menu,” said Dyer, who took over the Porthole kitchen in November but has cooked with Cross, the sous chef, at the Black Point Inn and various other restaurants in southern Maine for several years.
As many as 100 restaurants from all over the state are participating in the annual Maine Restaurant Week this year. From Monday through March 10, they’ll offer three-course meals at prices ranging from $20.10 to $40.10 per person.
The breakfast cook-off is a benefit for the Preble Street Resource Center and a chance for about a dozen Maine restaurants to showcase their best breakfast fare. For breakfast fans, it will be like winning the golden ticket to the French Toast Factory.
Dysart’s, a popular truck-stop restaurant in Hermon, will be serving its stuffed French toast made with homemade bread. The Good Table in Cape Elizabeth is making creme brulee French toast, which owner Lisa Kostopoulos says is “sticky sweet and bring-you-to-your-knees delicious.”
The Good Table version is made with French bread that’s soaked overnight in a cream-eggs-sugar mixture.
“At the bottom of the pan, we put brown sugar, a little bit of Grand Marnier,” Kostopoulos said. “If you were to flip out the whole pan, it would look like it was bruleed on top. It’s absolutely fabulous. And then we top it with a pile of fresh fruit.”
Every couple of months, the dish shows up as a special on the restaurant’s menu.
Other dishes appearing at the cook-off will include the Bayou Kitchen’s famous huevos rancheros and homemade donuts from both Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro and Congdon’s in Wells.
The host for the event is Sea Dog Brewing Company, which will be contributing its Maine Lobster Benedict to the cause. Each restaurant will prepare small portions of its signature dish, and the public will vote for their favorites.
Dyer said a lot of restaurants shy away from serving breakfast, but it’s becoming more popular with the public, who see cooking shows that offer new twists on classic breakfast dishes.
“I think breakfast is becoming a lot more popular,” he said, “and there’s not a lot of places around the Portland area that actually do breakfast, at least on a full-time basis.”
Another thing that’s making diners more breakfast savvy is all the scientific research coming out about how a healthy breakfast is good for the metabolism and can help with weight control. Of course, donuts and French toast won’t burn any calories, but at least breakfast is on the radar screen once again.
Breakfast turned up in the National Restaurant Association’s 2010 survey of the nation’s chefs. The survey is taken annually to see what trends are going to be hot in the coming year.
In the breakfast/brunch category, a trend toward ethnic-inspired dishes such as chorizo scrambled eggs, coconut milk pancakes and shakshuka (an egg dish from North Africa), came out on top. Also making the list? Fresh fruit and seafood.
Dyer’s Eggs Florentine is a classic breakfast dish that begins with wilting the spinach in a pan on the stovetop. The spinach goes on top of an English muffin that’s been toasted in the oven with Swiss cheese.
Next, the eggs are poached in water that’s come to a rolling boil.
“The key to poaching eggs: Make sure you add a little bit of white vinegar to the water before you poach them,” Dyer said. “Usually you take them out at home, and they’re all stringy. You put the vinegar into the water, and what it does is coagulate the proteins of the egg, and that’s why they always come out so nice and tight.”
The smoky bacon cream sauce is Cross’ specialty. He cooks the bacon about three-quarters of the way through so that most of the fat is rendered out of it, then it goes on the charbroiler to give it a smoky flavor. Chopped onions are cooked the same way so they also get a little smokiness.
Then the onions are diced with a little garlic and celery and cooked down a bit. Cross uses white wine to deglaze the pan, then adds the bacon. Finally, he adds cream until the sauce is the right consistency, and seasons it with salt, pepper “and a couple of other secret ingredients.”
At the restaurant, the dish is plated with garnishes of smoked paprika oil and chive oil, and served with a side of home fries.
Dyer said he’s participating in the breakfast cook-off because it’s for a good cause. But he’s also hoping to draw some attention to the Porthole’s new breakfast menu, which includes his own version of huevos rancheros and a creme brulee French toast that’s made with homemade brioche and the same kind of batter he uses to make the dessert.
Many of the breakfast items that will be served at the cook-off are customer favorites, according to the participating restaurants, so it will be a good chance to sample the best local chefs have to offer in the breakfast/brunch category.
You might say that, no matter who wins, it will be a breakfast of champions.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]