Imagine a swank city cocktail lounge with ambient sparkle, subtle jazz standards, unusually shaped furniture, metrosexual men, and women with long legs wearing vertigo heels leaning against a blue-lighted bar. Now imagine this type of upscale lounge within easy Old Port walking distance.
Seem weird? I thought so too, but if you ever wonder where Portland’s pretty people go to party like grown-ups, Spread is such a place.
Spread, from Fuji chef and Korean artist John Hur, brings urban couture to Portland. The large space separates into pockets of use: Banquette-style seating, two-tops and a funky sequence of lounge furniture. The unique gallery-like space works for small- to medium-sized private parties as well as intimate dinners. Every surface seems to twinkle, and the venue itself invites style.
I generally hesitate to comment on brand-new restaurants, given the inevitable growing pains as a space settles into its identity. But when established restaurateurs expand into a venture that fills a distinct niche for Portland’s art-loving gastro-culture, I look past small server gaffes and menu typos and try to gauge the experience with a kind of golfer’s handicap.
Signature cocktails cost $9, and when crafted by the Spread bartender’s intelligent hands, value shines. A 100 Commercial, with rosemary-infused Hendrick’s gin, muddled strawberry and basil, is as fun to hold in its posh glass as it is to sip.
If your palate prefers a bite, try the Loco Paco, a fiery cocktail with Double Cross vodka (a Slovakian luxury vodka, no lie — distilled in the Tatra mountains), blood orange puree and jalapeno. For a minimalist experience, Patron was generously poured over ice into a salt-rimmed glass.
While I did not taste the wines, I was very much attracted to the backlit wall display that fashioned the bottles themselves into art. And the actual wall art? Those are original paintings by John Hur himself.
The menu divides into three categories: Spreads, small plates and large plates. Think of the menu as less about dinner and more about nibbling while you see and allow yourself to be seen. (Take note: You will want to dress smartly.)
From the “spread” portion of the menu, the Smoked Trout ($8), served with capers, dill and creme fraiche alongside a bowl of toast points, delivered a refined introduction to the dining experience, but the Pommes Frites Gremolata with Garlic Aoili ($4) provided the most exciting moment of the meal.
From the long list of intricate, fusion-inspired items, the $4 fries impressed me most, and the Gremolata — a combination of lemon zest, parsley, garlic and olive oil sprinkled over impossibly crisp gourmet fried potatoes ready to be dipped in the house-made garlic aoli — had my most Yankee sensibilities wondering how this dish could only cost $4.
Large plate choices included Bang Island Mussels ($15) and Pan Seared Rockfish ($18). Regular readers know I will travel far for good mussels, so when Spread advertised theirs served with housed-cured bacon, leeks and mustard, I became ridiculously excited.
However, the Spread mussels experience turned uneven. The first night I tasted them, these mussels transcended any concept I ever held about mussels. Impossibly plump and tender, the bowlful of mussels had been cooked with thick matchsticks of lean bacon and a mustard sauce that balanced happily between sweet and savory. The dish was so unusually tasty, I talked it up and up to my husband.
When I returned with him to point triumphantly at the best mussels in the history of all things mussel, the order arrived just OK. Gone were the thick pieces of bacon, replaced with smaller and thinner bits, and the sauce was sort of bland. Not bad at all, but certainly not life-changing. Try them, though; they are tasty.
Spread’s rockfish was served with white miso, fingerling potatoes and spring vegetables that contained a mix of fiddleheads, asparagus and sugar snap peas. The fiddleheads were a curious (and delicious) inclusion and, once again, I appreciated the creatively presented plate.
Each of the dessert offerings, all priced at $7, sounded fabulous, especially the Shortbread Sundae with lemon curd, blueberry compote and mint. But Banana Cream “Pie” with banana mousse, macaroons and spiced caramel was the table winner. The quotation marks in the name (Spread’s decision, not mine) indicate that while the dessert included all elements of a pie, they were positioned distinctly and separately on the plate. Bits of banana mousse and crusty macaroon, drizzled with the caramel, tasted lovely and sweet.
Spread’s Almond Financier took a respectable second place with honey, mascarpone, apricots and candied thyme. It was, again, presented on the plate with an artist’s eye, and the flavors were unusual in their combination. While I credit Hur’s artistic sensibility, I am told Spread’s new chef is the person responsible for the inventive menu design.
The service, while adequate, needs attention, and I attribute any small timing lapses to Spread’s growing pains. Servers suffered crossover confusion, dessert utensils were omitted, and the time between kitchen to table seemed to languish longer between each order.
Those gaffes noted and accounted for, Spread is still a “wow.” And if Spread is a “wow” now, I anticipate a “double wow” once the restaurant sorts out its growing pains. Spread brings urban chic to Portland, along with an excuse to step outside my typical clothes closet. While certainly not Hollywood’s Rainbow Room in its heyday, I did see two local celebrities in the course of the night.
Look sharp, sample the colorful cocktail menu, and prepare to enjoy an evening of inventive and eclectic dining like well-dressed grown-ups.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”