This week, in honor of Maine Restaurant Week, I asked local chefs, food writers and food bloggers to name the best dish they’ve had in a Maine restaurant over the past year.
Some of them couldn’t resist waxing poetic about an entire meal. Others cheated a little and named two dishes.
That’s OK with me. The idea was to provide you with a snapshot of some of the best dishes in Maine, as named by chefs and folks who dine out regularly. (The restaurants did not have to be participating in Maine Restaurant Week.)
I hope this list will give you some ideas about where to dine next, whether it’s during Restaurant Week or in the weeks to come.
Cheryl Lewis, executive chef at El Rayo Taqueria, Portland: It’s hard to come up with just one because there is so much talent in Maine. It’s clear that you can always trust the complex combinations from the chefs at Pai Men Miyake. The black tsuke is my favorite. When the bowl comes with a black pool of squid ink to drag my noodles through, I’m still always surprised by the seductiveness of the dish. It’s not for the faint of heart, but I guarantee that once you’ve tried it, you’ll have to order it again and again, as I do.
Lee Farrington, chef/owner, Figa, Portland: I dined at Opus Ten last week and was completely blown away by the entire experience. First course was a morel and hedgehog mushroom gratin with a Madeira mushroom cream shooter amazing!
Leslie Oster, Aurora Provisions, Portland: The best bite I’ve had in a restaurant this year, so far, is the day boat scallop shooter at Boda … sublimely simple, lime juice, a dash of heat and fried shallots. Perfection!
Michael Sanders, food writer and author of “Fresh from Maine: Recipes and Stories from the State’s Best Chefs,” Brunswick: Toss-up: The charred octopus app with peppers, onions and a simple sauce with lemon, hot pepper and herbs from Trattoria Athena in Brunswick, and a lush plate of braised black Russian kale with that silken soft-boiled egg, crispy pancetta and tangy kombu butter from Bresca in Portland.
Shannon Bard, chef/owner, Zapoteca Restaurante Y Tequileria, Portland: When thinking about the most memorable dish I’ve had this year, the first thing that comes to mind is the fried oyster bun at Eventide. The taste combination was comforting and completely unexpected. Fried oysters are not something I would typically order, but this dish was so good, I actually crave it and recommend it to everyone.
Michael Cain, Map & Menu food blogger with Meredith Perdue, Portland: This year, Meredith and I have recently moved Vignola Cinque Terre to the top of our Portland brunch list. The atmosphere is fantastic and every item on the menu is spot-on, but the poached eggs with an herb hollandaise, grilled speck and a tomato conserva on toast is quite simply one of the tastiest and most picturesque brunch dishes around.
Melissa Kelly, chef/owner, Primo, Rockland: Have to say Chase’s Daily (Belfast) tacos. Always good. Feel good after I eat them too!
Kathy Gunst, food writer, author of “Notes from a Maine Kitchen”: I would have to say there are two meals that really shout out:
The first was at Carmen at the Danforth in Portland. I was blown away by chef Carmen Gonzalez’s light touch with a cuisine that is famous/infamous for being heavy and greasy. Her bacaloa fritters (salt cod) are light and airy and addictive. The pulled pork with a rum BBQ sauce, green mango slaw served on crispy plantains is the kind of dish that hits every note just right: Crispy, crunchy, meaty, sweet, spicy. A warm roasted beet salad sounded pedestrian, but was an explosion of flavor served with crispy bacon, escarole and Cabrales cheese. And then there were the perfectly cooked local scallops on top of a boniato mash (a tropical, Latin sweet potato) with the just-right spice of the criolla sauce.
At the Black Birch in Kittery, I feasted on silky, creamy, buttery-rich chicken-liver mousse with a mulled wine gelee, cumin-roasted cauliflower with golden raisins, pistachio and caper vinaigrette, and a fall-off-the-bone pork shank with a parsnip puree, served with bacon and Brussels sprouts. Perfect winter food.
Shanna Horner O’Hea, chef-owner with Brian O’Hea, The Kennebunk Inn and Academe Brasserie: Brian and I think our most memorable meal in Maine is at The Dolphin Restaurant in Harpswell, consisting of their signature haddock chowder served with their warm wild Maine blueberry muffin. This meal signifies the beginning of the summer season for us, and we look forward to the beautiful drive on the Harpswell coast.
Norine Kotts, El Rayo, Portland: Kung Pao sweetbreads from Tao in Brunswick tender and spicy with just enough crunch from the cashews to keep the ultralight sweetbreads from floating off the plate.
Jason Loring, chef/owner, Nosh Kitchen Bar, Portland: My birthday last year at Hugo’s, (chefs) Andrew (Taylor) and Mike (Wiley) sent out a 3-foot-long plate of charcuterie consisting of salumi, potted meats that they make in house, pork rinds, crazy pickled vegetables, dehydrated crab puffs and much more. And, of course, truffle cheese puffs. I can’t wait to experience the new interpretation they envision for Hugo’s after its facelift. I’ve been filled in on some of the details. And Portland will be very happy.
Lisa Kostopoulos, owner, The Good Table, Cape Elizabeth: Anneke Jans’ (Kittery) farmer’s cheesecake with blackberry sauce, like silk. Have tried to recreate, to no avail.
Jay Villani, owner, Sonny’s and Local 188, Portland: The Tokyo abura-soba is pretty banging over at Pai Men. Can’t get enough.
Shannon Tallman, Edible Obsessions food blogger and cheese buyer at Whole Foods Market, Portland: One of my favorite dishes this past year had to be the crispy frog legs Indochine from the Bresca lunch menu. While the name “crispy” would have implied that they were fried, which is the presentation that I’m accustomed to, it was a surprising pleasure that they were not. They were seared and then coated in a deeply rich sweet chile and garlic sauce. The legs were fat and succulent, and I had absolutely no qualms with sitting in the middle of Bresca and picking them up with my hands and eating them like I would a chicken wing. And, yes, I licked my fingers clean just to get every last drop of that chile sauce.
David Turin, chef/owner, David’s and David’s Opus Ten, Portland: Guy’s “Feed Me” menu at Bar Lola (Portland) with the wine pairings was excellent and very ambitious when I went three weeks ago. I liked everything. Too many dishes to pick just one to rave about, so go there and try it. (Guy Hernandez) could be the best chef in Portland, and he is so humble and easygoing. I don’t think I know anyone I would like to see have a really big career other than him.
Harding Lee Smith, chef/owner, The Front Room, The Corner Room and The Grill Room, Portland: The most memorable meal for me in 2012 was without doubt lobsters at Abel’s on Somes Sound on Mount Desert Island. There is no better setting. My wife Darcy and black lab Dewey and I enjoyed a lazy afternoon grazing on lobsters cooked outside over a wood fire by a weather-beaten old man who had been cooking lobsters there for 50 years. We sailed up the sound, grabbed a mooring and took a dinghy ashore. Sitting there amongst the pine trees nestled in by the water was truly soothing and something that everyone should experience a least once. What a day!
Jeff Buerhaus, chef/owner, Walter’s, Portland: Couple months back the kitchen crew was feeling the flu that was sweeping the city, so we ordered in pho from Saigon (Portland). It was the remedy we needed, like grandma’s chicken soup to a cold. Delicious and got us back on our feet.
Dana Moos, food blogger and author of “The Art of Breakfast”: If I have to pick just one that sticks in my mind, it’s David’s Opus Ten. One of the courses on the nine-course tasting menu was a morel and black trumpet mushroom gratin and mushroom Madeira cream shooter. Not only were the ingredients tailor-made for my palate, but it had to be the most flavorful two or three bites ever. The mushrooms in the gratin seemed deeply roasted to bring out their flavor, and the tiny pastry beneath the mushrooms was a perfect base. This dish was so full of flavor that I forced myself to take tiny bites to extend the sensory pleasure. The Madeira cream shooter on the side had to be the most flavorful and delicate cream sauce I’ve ever had. My husband and I both said we could have made a meal of that course alone, as the taste was a mere tease.
Kate McCarty, Blueberry Files food blogger, Portland: I enjoyed my New Year’s Eve meal at LFK (Portland). I had friends coming into town, and at the last minute, they said they hadn’t eaten dinner. So we walked from my place in the West End to Longfellow Square and had various reactions to asking for a table for four at different places. No one was rude, but at 7 p.m. most couldn’t seat us until 9:45 p.m. or later.
But LFK was hopping, and thanks to their communal tables, there was room for us. It was cozy, good, quick and cheap – perfect. I shared a burger with pimento cheese (!!!) and beef soft tacos and enjoyed a Champagne cocktail.
Anestes Fotiades, Portland Food Map blogger, Portland: In just the last two months there have been a lot of memorable meals and standout dishes. A couple that come immediately to mind were the celeriac and Parmesan popcorn soup on the lunch menu at Bresca – playful and delicious – and the fried whole Maine shrimp at Eventide. However, I think the one item that trumps them all was salad course at the January Pocket Brunch prepared by Rob Evans. It was spicy gravlax with trout roe, Maine potato, creme-fraiche and pistachio marmalade – contrasting flavors and textures that all came together for a perfect dish.
Charlie Bryon, owner, The Salt Exchange, Portland: My dining experiences are limited for 2013 so far, but my most memorable meal/dish thus far was at Shepherd’s Pie in Rockport. The local oysters done escargot and served sans the shell on an old-fashioned oyster plate were (for me) joyful. Such a great play of texture and flavor profile using local ingredients. But truthfully, most memorable dining experiences are aided by the drink and company we share. We shared a bottle of Ridge and sat in a corner booth by the window, so the stars were well-aligned.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: [email protected]