Our car slips into the underground garage at the Portland Harbor Hotel and curls alongside the valet station. Upstairs, the maitre d’ takes our coats and ushers us to a dining table. The chairs are ultra comfortable — two are upholstered; two are leather and dark wood. Loveseats, table lamps and a fireplace also occupy this octagonal room just off the hotel lobby, encouraging diversions besides dining.
One could easily sip cognac while reading, or enjoy a cocktail with friends at the 10-stool bar. The milieu resembles a private library or university club. We are psyched for food to match this elegant and restful setting.
The restaurant’s seasonal menu — seafood chowder, rib-eye steak, roast chicken, seared salmon — is safe. The chef at Eve’s at the Garden, William Clifford, probably aims to please a broad clientele. It’s also Maine Restaurant Week, so a few of the items from the regular menu are bundled into a three-course, prix-fixe menu. Two of the four of us opt for this. It’s a bargain at $30 ($38 with two wine pairings).
A grilled quail ($13 appetizer), an exception on the conventional menu, arrives butterflied, whole figs and greens to the side. I love this delicate dish, the oregano-flecked and honeyed skin golden and crispy, the dark meat moist, with more character than chicken. Using fingers with the tiny bones and looking around at the furnishings, I momentarily imagine myself in a Jane Austen novel.
Our two soups are enjoyable, the oven-roasted French onion ($7) dark and flavor-rich and full of onion strands of good texture (not too soft). Seafood chowder ($8) seasoned with Old Bay has plenty of Maine shrimp, as well as small chunks of scallops and haddock. The accompanying focaccia, airy and anemic, needs to be swapped for something better. With all the wonderful bakers in Portland, this is an easy fix.
All this time, two servers attend to our needs but don’t hover. Dishes arrive in a timely manner, with linens and trays adding a touch of ceremony.
Our entrees need a little more attention. The 10-ounce grilled rib-eye that comes with the Restaurant Week dinner (it’s $27 for the 12-ounce on the regular menu) lacks the grilled crust from a good searing, even though the interior is flavorful and the requested medium-rare. Its side of garlic-seared kale is strongly seasoned and delicious, and the smoky onion steak sauce makes a nice dip.
The roasted vegetable pot pie, the only vegetarian choice on the night’s menu, comes in a bowl topped with two biscuits. The “creamy gravy” dominates the small-cut vegetables as if the dish were a thick soup. Disappointing.
One of my companions enjoys his pan-roasted swordfish steak ($24), cooked perfectly and simply seasoned. It’s placed over creamed spinach, and as such, the ensemble looks plainer than it tastes. A dash of a third color would help the plate.
It’s hard to quarrel with the ingredients of the rustic lobster ravioli, which was the 2010 Lobster Council Chef of the Year entry and finalist ($26). In this involved entree, large chunks of lobster enrobed in a sweet butternut squash puree are sandwiched between two pasta sheets, which are themselves topped with bacon, sage, walnuts and brown butter.
This dish received praise in the contest, but for me, the briny lobster and sweet/savory squash compete with each other rather than complement. The smoky and nutty flavors of the toppings don’t mingle with the filling, and a watery orange liquid surrounds the bowl — it must have separated from the squash.
Once our table is cleared, our waiter immediately brings apple tarts, ordered at dinner’s start with the prix-fixe menu, to two of the four in our party, leaving the others wondering if they’ve been disinvited to the dessert course. One of us has to chime in to ask about other dessert options and request coffee. It’s an unfortunate communication glitch, but the only service misstep.
We fully enjoy the dessert course once it’s under way. Coffee arrives strong and fresh-brewed. A flourless dark chocolate torte ($7) with a light chocolate whipped topping is dense, cacao-rich and delicious. That tart is unusual — flaky crust surrounding a whole baked apple — and has a nice, pronounced apple flavor.
As we depart, we notice an exquisite orchid arrangement near the restaurant entrance. Every detail of interior design — lighting, furnishings, accents — makes for a peaceful and attractive, if conservative, milieu. It is easy to converse and linger in these cushioned surroundings.
The valet returns our car, asks about our meal and opens all four doors for us. We feel like VIPs. If only the entrees elevated to match the atmosphere at Eve’s, the restaurant would be a contender with the best of Portland. Right now, it’s got some catching up to do.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor who lives near Portland. Her work has appeared in national and regional publications.