Unlike many, I have not had a long or deep love affair with Back Bay Grill in Portland. But that’s nothing more than negligence. I’ve dined there only twice before in its nearly 25-year existence.
Now, like many, I am head over heels.
Feb. 11 brought out Valentine’s Day celebrants who wanted a weekend outing to this intimate, classically appointed restaurant. Our table of four experienced a near-perfect evening, from the minute we were greeted by the affable maitre d’ who checked our coats to our swoon-worthy desserts. I learned why many people seem to have a long-standing – even monogamous – relationship with this outstanding restaurant.
Its quality comes from a keen dedication. Chef/owner Larry Matthews Jr., who became executive chef in 1997 and bought the restaurant in 2002, was fully engaged on the night we visited, keeping one eye on the open kitchen and examining each plate as it left for the table and the other eye on front-of-house flow. Creating a complete and exceptional dining experience is his art, and his standards appear to be sky-high.
Lucky us, for that translates into an atmosphere of unpretentious elegance, a menu that changes frequently and mixes traditional fare with some adventure, and food that sings.
“I love little surprises from the kitchen,” cooed my friend as our waiter delivered an amuse-bouche of Gruyere pastry rounds to our table.
Half a dozen sauteed shrimp, crumbled bacon and pistachios swirled atop a delicious curried sweet potato soup – it was a meld that worked beautifully ($10). Maine crab cake was dense with seafood, crispy with a panko crumb crust, and served piping hot with a mild lemon and pepper creme fraiche and cool slices of lightly marinated cucumber alongside ($14).
Beet salad came as a tower of cubed, roasted red beets over frisee, with goat cheese acting as a creamy mortar and tangy contrast ($10). Pickled daikon and black sesame crackers added clean and crispy elements to the lightly pink, house-cured gravlox ($12). This appetizer bore a particularly wonderful combination of colors, flavors and textures.
In fact, creative textural contrasts added much pleasure to the dishes at Back Bay Grill, starting with this appetizer course. Expert chefs understand that temperature is as important as any seasoning, and this too was carefully monitored.
I would travel many miles for a full bowl of the delicious warm frisee and olive salad with pancetta vinaigrette that was a side dish to a rosy-hued and moist chicken breast, prepared sous vide and marinated with sage ($24).
Sage also informed the tender pork confit that mingled in bite-size shreds among house-made pappardelle (pasta), a pancetta soffrito bringing more savory flavor to the brothy mix ($25).
I’d never seen salmon filet served as a tower, but there it was, like a Scottish castle turret nestled in a faintly flavored moat of dashi broth with shiitake mushrooms and udon noodles ($28). Gently unrolled, the fish was cooked exactly to order – warm with a still-deep-pink center.
Pan-seared scallops were also done just so, served atop a tomatillo coulis (the companion who ordered this dish would have liked more of this sauce), along with avocado relish and a small mound of a superb, lobster-laden risotto ($32).
All the service details are nicely covered here too. Water pitchers are wrapped in cloth, so there’s no dripping. Bread is perfectly warmed and bundled. Crumbs are scraped away between courses. New silverware is presented with each course. A birthday candle is shielded by an upside-down wine glass to keep it ablaze all the way to the table. Timing is impeccable.
The restaurant is small, with a bar/lounge section fronting the wide-open kitchen. The adjoining dining room is quiet and more intimate, decorated with warm colors and furnishings that include surprisingly comfortable banquettes.
Multiple servers move gently but efficiently around each other in the entire space, in a manner that looks effortless. They take pride in their work, but don’t fawn or drape.
Our waiter knew the nuances of several of the wines on the long list that bore no tasting notes, although he got a little flustered in one instance. To be fair, we hadn’t ordered our food yet, so pairing was almost impossible.
Adrian Dwyer Stratton, the long-time maitre d’ and general manager who is also a wine expert, knows the list inside out and circulates easily, making suggestions if you ask and telling a few stories in the bargain.
At our last course, a nest of brittle chocolate spaghetti arched over a luscious white chocolate ice cream with dark chocolate sauce, making the twist on a sundae stunning to look at as well as eat. A “parfait” was a linear dessert, but still divine: Housemade ice cream chunky with pistachios and a small buttery almond cake flanked a cranberry coulis on a long plate (both $9).
I reserve five stars for a meal that is extraordinary, and by that I mean the memory will stick with me for months, if not years. This one came awfully close.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at: