A friend recently asked where to find a good, reasonably priced steak away from downtown Portland, and the question stumped me. I thought of a dozen restaurants with excellent beef preparations, but none that screamed “steak.” I ticked off a mental list of unique salads, banquet-style slab locations, barbecue joints and mall-side chain options, but I drew a blank at straight-up steak.
I wish I had known about Krista’s, in Cornish.
Originally, the plan was to avoid Portland’s weekend brunch cluster and spend that line time in the car. I had heard through the grapevine that Krista’s serves one of the best breakfasts in the state, and for me, a drive is always better than jostling in a vestibule line, waiting Bingo-style for a name call. (Note: Krista’s advertises that it takes reservations.)
Unfortunately, Travis and I lingered too long in our morning, and we arrived at Krista’s about 10 minutes late for brunch. The hostess, polite and apologetic, explained the timing, and we rolled with it. “Sure,” we said, “the dinner menu sounds great, too!”
As consolation, we ordered brunch-style Bloody Marys from the self-described “small, but well-stocked bar.” Krista’s offers Maine Root organic soda products in root beer, mandarin orange, lemon-lime and blueberry flavors ($2.75), and the crew is happy to make an old-fashioned Italian soda with seltzer and flavored syrup.
Once settled with a horseradish-heavy (in the best way) pint accentuated with two garlic-stuffed olives, I noticed more of the little aspects that make Krista’s such a unique, inviting, fun space.
First, the seating options. An open-air front patio and an interior lounge area with a shiny orange couch welcome diners — this in addition to the wood-accented dining room proper. The best though, was the ceiling of yellow and orange paper lanterns lighting up yet another dining area, this time back porch-style with a lush, tree-lined river view. Citrus colors punctuated the entire space; the casual paper menus and the striped dishcloths serving as napkins were all in limes, yellows and oranges.
Back to the bar and its wine list. There are “wine tastes” available for any of the by-the-glass offerings. Add a clever blend of creative cocktails (like the Maine Blueberry with limoncello, Blueberry Stoli, fresh lemon and blueberries, served up with a sugared rim … Mmm), as well as more than a dozen specialty beers — either “Maine crafted” or “Crafted Somewhere Else” — and the drinking experience is eclectic and fun.
True to its name, the Big Bowl of Chips ($10.95) appetizer was a large bowl of homemade, thin-sliced potato chips, and it commandeered most of our table. Toppings included scallions and crumbles of apple-cider bacon, with choice of either sour or gorgonzola cream. We chose the gorgonzola version, and two ramekins tucked beside the warm, crispy chips, one with thick cream sauce and the other mounded with fragrant, thumb-sized gorgonzola pieces. Dip and repeat.
Here is where I discuss the steak options. Although not local, Krista’s use of Braveheart Farms aged Black Angus beef demonstrates a commitment to quality combined with affordability. (Food science geeks: Check out Braveheart’s DNA Traceback technology. It’s pretty cool.)
The Herb Crusted Prime Rib ($25.95) advertised a “generous” cut of aged beef with thyme au jus, but I would quantify the portion as more than generous. Impressive? Mammoth? Heroic? Whatever the adjective, the inch-thick cut of marbled beef filled half a dinner plate, somehow without dwarfing the “seasonal vegetables and potato” on the plate’s opposite side. I appreciated that rather than just, say, watery broccoli shaken from a freezer bag, these vegetables were snappy, fresh asparagus, summer squash, cauliflower and red pepper with zero hint of wilt. With the prelude house salad of field greens and cranberries topped with homemade crispy onions — even with the decadent-but-slightly-dry mashed potatoes — the entire colorful entree felt balanced, even healthy. (Inasmuch as a giant piece of red meat can be healthy, obviously.) The thyme was a good kitchen call, and its fragrance added much to the experience.
Krista’s menu offers other beef options, including a New York Strip Loin ($24.95), Chargrilled Flatiron ($24.95) and the Special Hunk of Meat (market price) selection that changes regularly. Next time. Also for next time, the Brown Sugar Brined Twin Pork Chops ($18.95).
For non-meat-eaters, try the Grilled Jumbo Shrimp ($22.95). Piled on a soba noodle salad with peanut sauce, four jumbo shrimp made this entree a substantial, spicy-sweet alternative to the meat fiesta.
Since Krista’s presents as a cafe sort of concept and vibe, I expected sandwiches to shine — and shine they did. The Muffeletta ($9.95) is heavy with salami and hot capicola, provolone, artichoke heart and olive relish, all spread on a massive piece of homemade focaccia. Likewise, the Portabello ($8.95) with its marinated, grilled mushroom cap topped with provolone, red onion, lettuce, tomato and hot jalapeno mayo, also on the homemade focaccia. Both sandwiches were perfect.
With the Kid Eats section of the menu, Krista’s appeals to families with children, but not obnoxiously or obtrusively so. The restaurant chooses to incorporate child-friendly options (such as grilled cheese or tortellini with butter and parmesan) as seamlessly as it incorporates a high chair at the end of a table or two, making a pleasant dining experience for all types of families.
Krista’s provides abundant, ample, good food in a bright, eclectic, colorful atmosphere. Try it.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”