The Front Room’s recessed doorway straddles the right angle of a residential intersection as if to say, is it time for brunch — or supper?
Served daily, both are very popular at this cozy restaurant located on Portland’s Munjoy Hill. It is just the kind of place about which you might suggest going down to the corner for a bite to eat.
Cafe tables, windows with trim painted in contrasting colors, well-tended pots of flowering plants (in October), and an inviting doorway give the restaurant a charming sidewalk appeal.
The interior space, darker but warm and welcoming with few angles or nooks, feels snug in a good way. Ten bar stools face the large windows along Congress Street; cooking pots hang from the ceiling at the wide-open kitchen.
You’re in the heart of the inn, the place where commoners gather. Who needs a dining room? That’s for the phantom gentry upstairs, who get foie gras and butler service during their hushed and proper conversations.
The downstairs folks — that’s us at The Front Room, the crew tucking in amidst the din — get meatloaf, cornbread, eggs, roast chicken, beef stew — and we like it that way. We’re here for good, hearty comfort food.
And we also got service that hardly resembles a butler’s.
We started on the right foot with a light and golden fried calamari with a homemade lime/chipotle aioli ($9).
The house-smoked salmon pastrami over brown bread ($9) struck this old-school Zabar’s deli fan as a strange mixture. I like pastrami seasoning on meat that can stand up to it, and the sweet, cake-like underpinning in this dish seemed amiss under the peppery smoke. (MWF seeks great Jewish rye.) But other customers must love it, as it’s been on the menu since the restaurant opened, so who am I to kvetch?
The half-chicken entree arrived a rosy, crispy golden, flecked with thyme and nestled on a mound of steamed spinach and mashed potatoes ($18). It made me want to sing the praises of bubbes and Gentile grandmothers everywhere. A few bites, however, and the forward taste was all salt, even the spinach wrapped up in the jus.
Braised beef short rib stew was a special ($18), and while the tureen of fairly tender meat and vegetables was attractive and ample, the taste of salt predominated again. We tried to determine if it was only the silky smooth mashed potatoes (gotta love their texture) that bore the heavy touch in both dishes, and ate each component separately, but it didn’t seem so. Each entree platter, while well-cooked and enticing to look at, nevertheless struck us as monotone.
We dug into juicy chicken tacos, an ample portion of enjoyable food for $9. Frills of marinated cabbage topped shredded chipotle-stewed chicken wrapped in tortillas. A not-too-fiery lime/jalapeno aioli accompanied.
A few items we loved with no reservations, such as a large warm and sweet wedge of skillet corn bread, crusty on the outside and crumbly inside, served with a lime-chipotle butter. The $2 slice is huge and so divine, it could be a dessert stand-in.
For the real thing, we ordered espresso cheesecake, a tri-layered confection that was ultra creamy, not too heavy on the coffee flavor, and underscored by a crispy graham cracker crust ($6). Just right.
At The Front Room, the kitchen puts small but intriguing twists on standard favorites — a BLT on French bread or mac and cheese with fontina, for instance. And there’s a lot of comfort food for the money at this locally owned spot. No doubt those features bring in the restaurant’s throngs.
On the night we visited, a sense of warmth came from the decor, fellow customers and entrees. Yet while we were served without error, our waitress might have smiled or shown some genuine interest to convey pleasure at helping our table of guests enjoy the evening.
The Front Room, one of three Portland “Rooms” that chef Lee Harding Smith opened in Portland (The Grill Room and The Corner Room being the others), has garnered avid followers and good press. On a Tuesday night, plenty of people were lining up for supper.
My experience did not measure up to the hoopla.
I’d like to see some of the centerpieces we had — that juicy chicken, tender beef and silky smooth potatoes, for instance — get to show off their innate flavors. Let herbs, burgundy, garlic and such outshine the salt in the well-conceived items. A little hovering and tasting was in order.
A side dish of brussels sprouts with bleu cheese and chunks of bacon followed the same path. It bore too much of the accoutrements to taste the vegetable ($6). But maybe that was the point.
I’ll be back on my own to try more of the consoling food at The Front Room, a relaxed gathering spot for a fall or winter supper.
But a tweak to the seasonings and service, and I’d be inspired to travel from my neighborhood to this spot a lot more often.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer.