Mention the Outliers Eatery location, and the follow-up is inevitable: “The place that used to have the airplane tail sticking on its roof?” Putting the politics of Portland’s gentrification aside, Outliers is a model for transformation.
No longer a dingy and dubious landmark, the space now has a charming, neat gray shingled facade. Rather than cottage-style, as its exterior suggests, the dining room features tufted gray leather banquettes and elegant, suspended glass light fixtures. Sculpted copper waves stretch to the ceiling behind the bar.
The space exudes a modern, minimalist sensibility, but rather than cool and austere, it feels warm and undeniably welcoming.
Table settings add interest, with smooth weighted flatware and heavy mottled plates. Little potted herbs grace the outside seating, and I loved the quaint effect of fresh rosemary.
Serendipitously, I visited Outliers on the eve of Hunter S. Thompson’s birthday. This is worth noting, as bits of the gonzo journalist are everywhere.
On the cocktail menu (the “Dr. Gonzo” has gin, whiskey and absinthe) for sure, along with many other literary references that include “Savage Water of Sorcery” and “Betting on the Moon.”
But whereas the cocktail menu only alludes to Tom Robbins and Charles Bukowski, a full-on Thompson homage happens in the bathroom. There are black fixtures, a broken mirror, maps of Buenos Aires and other collectible ephemera, plus a pay phone with a recording that will interest any Thompson enthusiast.
Rather than hipster highbrow and full of gratuitous winking — my fear — Outliers is equal opportunity with its in-jokes, such as “Ice House” cocktail or the nod to its oft-changing menu descriptions with a quote at the top: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”
I would later learn that the staff was short-handed, and the crowd was bigger than anticipated for a Wednesday night. I mention this only because from a diner’s perspective, the whole experience felt seamless. Portland is a city known for its food, and I now put Outliers Eatery on my top five dining experiences list.
Choosing outside seating for the water view allowed me to absorb the neighborhood sensation of the place. Dog walkers passed by, parking was easy, and the whole place felt like a locals-only secret.
The menu includes intentionally vague small plates and main dishes listed only as “oysters” and “halibut,” “duck” and “charcuterie.” Void of any descriptors, we relied heavily on our server’s knowledge, and she was fantastic.
She listed the preparations, repeated as necessary, and suggested that the lack of specifics allowed for more kitchen creativity and flexibility. We agreed.
Oysters ($2.50 each) were Glidden Point and grit-free, and pre-covered with a traditional mignonette alongside the equally traditional tomato-horseradish sauce. It was robust and briny yum in a shell.
If Smoked Salmon Pate ($12) is on the menu, I suggest ordering it. The Outliers version is served with thin slices; sweet, pink pickled onions; capers; and a fan of four crostini on field greens. This ultra-smooth and smoky spread’s portion is plenty for sharing.
Heirloom Tomato and Blue Cheese ($11) is a plateful of bite-sized sweet heirloom tomato pieces presented with a handful of walnuts and crumbled, pungent blue cheese, and includes a poached egg (the kitchen was happy to hold the egg from our order). I got the distinct sense that the kitchen was happy to accommodate almost any reasonable request.
The Outliers version of Maine lobster ($25) was deconstructed with six large pieces of homemade silky gnocchi and an abundance of flavorful lobster hunks scattered on the plate. This dish was a table favorite with its white wine cream sauce, redolent with both coriander and fennel.
The sirloin ($27) earned presentation points with the curly roasted garlic scape on top and the sprig of fresh rosemary garnishing the mashed potato. Satisfaction points for the taste and seared texture, cooked perfectly and pinkly medium-rare.
My favorite, though, was the humble-sounding swordfish ($25). It was marinated and grilled, and had a generous portion of simple white bean salad — although “simple” is such a misleading term, as this salad, with finely diced tomatoes and a sweet-tart oil and vinegar dressing, was a highlight of the meal.
It was so tasty, I found myself researching recipes to re-create it at home.
For dessert? Fried dough. Specifically, two palm-sized pieces of chewy, crispy, sugar-coated fried dough and a side of locally sourced flavorful and creamy maple gelato.
I struggled to find something to criticize, some little imperfection to note for improvement, but I drove home feeling wholly satisfied.
The evening spent outside at a neighborhood table with the distant water view, engaging with passers-by (or not) and chatting on a hot evening about everything and nothing? That’s the stuff of summer memories.
Add an abundance of well-prepared, but in no way fussy, food delivered by a dynamic server who clearly cared about our experience, and the result was among the finest in Maine’s culinary scene.
Top five Maine dining experiences. Seriously. Try it.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”