With Portland’s reputation as a foodie city expanding as quickly as my restaurant trend reading list, I get distracted by the newest, sparkliest and most innovative kitchen crazes. Molecular gastronomy? Agri-chefs? Peruvian cuisine?
When there are so many directions to look and an abundance of menu options to discover, standard bearers sometimes take a back seat. And that is a shame, because award-winning chefs like David Turin led Maine’s original dining revolution.
“Right, David’s! I always forget that place. It’s great,” is a common reaction, followed with an apologetic, “I still haven’t been to the new location.”
The “new” location, David’s 388 in South Portland, is now five years old, and embarrassed that I too had yet to visit, I fixed the omission in my food canon as quickly as possible. On a tree-lined neighborhood corner not far from Willard Beach sits an intimate, cozier version of Turin’s Monument Square original and home to one of the finest high-end casual dining menus in greater Portland.
What makes it so good? Balance. A little bit innovative and a little bit traditional, chef de cuisine Bo Byrne’s menu is accessible. Each dish is created with a subtle expertise that pushes tamer palates to explore while also offering familiar, relaxing standards for those wanting a home base.
Osso Bucco ($15) sounds much lovelier than “bone with a hole,” right? The David’s 388 crew could call this pork dish any name, and I would still want to lick the plate dry. The pork, braised in local beer until the meat resists any attempt to cling to its namesake, is presented between crispy fried onions and creamy risotto. I spooned the rich sauce like soup, savoring each distinct texture.
But I am skipping ahead. Appetizers, at $8, are the perfect sample size, and they complement the main dishes, each generally priced at $15. The David’s 388 concept is to provide options, and it does so with signature smaller-sized portions. While not exactly tapas, the food is meant to be combined and shared.
The wine list is fine (bottles $32 to $78, by the glass $7 to $8), and both the by-the-glass pinot noir (Angeline, California) and malbec (Acordeon, Argentina) had no surprises, but I vote enthusiastically for the cocktails.
David’s 388 version of the classic Mayfair eschews orange juice and apricot brandy in favor of fresh lemon juice, and includes a savory salt-thyme rim. This gin cocktail is smooth, and I look forward to drinking more of them as the summer months approach.
Appetizers included tuna tartar with coconut-chili truffle oil. When the diminutive serving of bright pink tuna arrived, it was small only in portion size — the taste was gigantic. (To the kitchen’s immense credit, the truffles were flavorful specks and not simply oil with truffle flavoring.)
The lightly fried calamari appetizer was tossed in chili balsamic dressing with feta, kalamata olives, tomato and onion, and once again, I was impressed with the ability to layer unique salt-based flavor upon flavor in a distinct, yet harmonious, manner. This, gentle people, is an impressive culinary skill.
Let us pause between courses to notice the decor. The napkins are heavy cloth and dark, which, although a small detail, is one I appreciate, because white napkins always feel vaguely exhibitionist to me — each stain and spill as evidence.
With a high tin ceiling and comfortable banquettes, the snug dining space feels much larger, and size only becomes an issue with the restrooms, with dimensions reminiscent of a commuter airplane. That noted, the bathrooms are impeccably clean and well-appointed with elegant, modern fixtures.
Some critics may argue that seared rare tuna passed its innovative phase many years ago, but there is a reason for this favorite’s popularity and continued menu placement. At David’s 388, it’s served with asparagus, soba noodles and citrus dressing. The tuna, seared on the outside and cherry red inside, is a classic.
“The Sophia Loren of entrees,” Travis noted while the rest of the table nodded in agreement. “Not to everyone’s taste and to the haters a has-been, but to me? Timeless. A standard for elegance.” I am paraphrasing. My husband has a longstanding crush on Sophia Loren, and I zoned out for this moment of dinner conversation. If he did not say exactly these words, it was something close.
The beef tenderloin, also served rare, was wrapped in smoked bacon, presented on a reduction sauce of Madeira, and accompanied by asparagus and carrots. Madeira and beef is a perfect union of sweet and savory, chewy and smooth.
David’s 388 takes plain haddock and elevates it to royal status with lobster cream and risotto. This white-on-white dish, flavored with vanilla, was the surprise favorite. I was expecting the caramelized onions, but the touch of silky vanilla is a genius idea.
Which brings me to dessert (each $7). Yes, David’s 388 does standards like creme brulee and cookies with ice cream well, but I encourage readers to try something more edgy.
The Chocolate Brownie Napoleon with vanilla ice cream and rum flambeed bananas was as if boy-next-door Bananas Foster grew 6 inches, spent the summer in the gym and arrived at the senior prom in a Ferrari. Chocolate, banana, rum and ice cream — taste after taste and texture after texture.
Ditto the Chocolate Pecan Tartlette with Kentucky Bourbon Sauce. This is easily one of my favorite desserts, but I find it difficult to describe something so crumbly and rich, seductive and perfect, so go. Just go get some yourself. Today.
Once a restaurant gets to the top, how does it stay there? If you are restaurateur David Turin, you do what you do best, do it consistently for many years and then expand to another location. Go to David’s 388. If you live across the bridge, it will save you the trip into town. If not, it’s well worth the drive.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”