Sometimes you wonder why certain restaurants even exist. That very thought crossed my mind after an initial visit to Katahdin Restaurant Wood Fire Grill & Bar on a recent Saturday night. After about an hour and 15 minutes of dining at the top of the stairs in its second-floor dining room, we left nonplussed. However, a return visit offered a more favorable impression.
The restaurant moved to its present Forest Avenue location in 2009 after a long stint a few blocks away. Since then, chatter about this Portland dining establishment has been virtually nil.
In its previous guise, Katahdin was an amusingly funky hangout. There at the strategic corner of Spring and High streets, it stood as the gateway to the West End.
The decor was as mismatched and nonconforming as the patrons. But the place was fun, and no one seemed to mind its idiosyncratic nature after downing a few of Winnie the bartender’s cleverly crafted cocktails. Her trademark drink often included a cocktail in a stem glass accompanied by a chaser in a mini-carafe over ice – all perfectly stirred or shaken.
As for the food back then, California-bred chef and owner Becky Simmons prepared a menu of wispy dishes with fruity salsas – a definite nod to her Left Coast-cuisine heritage.
After getting caught in a tangle of real estate maneuverings, they found themselves without a lease and moved a few blocks west to the netherworld of Forest Avenue off Congress Street.
Their new space is slick and serious. You enter a great looking bar, and if it’s your first time there, as it was for me, you might find yourself craning your neck expecting to glimpse a dining room beyond.
But there isn’t one. Instead, two perfunctory tables are against a half-partition in the bar and a grouping of several tables are in the back. These are reserved for those who won’t – or can’t – climb the stairs to the dining room on the second floor.
The soul of the restaurant is definitely the barroom. This is where Winnie, partner and bartender nonpareil, holds court in a sweep of graciousness and warmth that makes her one of the most popular mixologists in town.
Upstairs, however, the space is a happenstance collection of 10 or so tables. The one at which we were seated was a few feet away from the stairs. If you have a smidgen of acrophobia, you could feel woozy. My dinner guest, a newcomer to Portland and concerned about our cold climate, had a different take. He reasoned that it was an advantage being away from the drafty street-front door.
Whether it was intentional or not, Katahdin’s move to this quirky space was a stroke of genius. With the Portland Stage Company next door, it became the Arts District’s preeminent pre-theater dining establishment.
But here’s the rub: What happens if you’re not there for dinner before the theater? By 7:45, the restaurant empties out as diners head next door for the 8 p.m. show time. The place is virtually abandoned, and you might as well put your elbows on the table and stretch your legs out in the aisle.
Persnicketiness aside, my guest enjoyed a glass of Liberty School Cabernet, 2010 ($12), and auspiciously presented to me was a vodka gimlet – one of Winnie’s preprandial double shots.
The wine list is not extensive but has the usual choices at reasonable prices from West Coast vineyards, Italy and Argentina.
Another trifling issue for me was the difference between the menu posted online and the printed one presented at table. Online, the menu shows such enticing starters as wood-oven baked pizzetta and raw bar selections like salmon tartare, fried oysters and Ceviche as well as squid with lime and sea salt and soup and salad offerings. As for entrees it shows preparations from the wood grill that include rib-eye and frites, grilled pork chop, Pacific salmon with morels and a sirloin burger. Several enticing fish selections cooked in a cast-iron skillet complete the online list.
The real menu was a wholly different, minimalist version. Starters included steamed shrimp dumplings ($12), butternut squash tart ($10.50), baked Maine crab pot ($13.50) and soup ($6.95, cup) and salad ($9.25).
Entrees offered that evening were (hanger) steak frites ($24.75), pork tenderloin ($23.50), chicken fettuccine ($23.50) and a sirloin burger ($14). Our waiter informed us that the kitchen was already out of the one fish entrée on the menu.
This, of course, was what my guest would have ordered. Disappointed, he opted for two appetizers – the dumplings and the crab boil.
The dumplings were tasty, but better versions are available at Asian restaurants around town. The crab pot was a fondue of goat cheese and crab meat, which left my guest unimpressed.
My meal began with the butternut squash tart and an entrée of pork tenderloin with sweet potato mash.
The tart was essentially a quiche enriched with squash. The tenderloin was extremely tender but lacked the luster of a burnished crust that you’d expect from it being cooked on a wood-burning grill. The puree of sweet potatoes and apple, onion and bacon chutney was a delectable combination.
For dessert we shared a cup of house-made espresso ice cream with a chocolate chip cookie. The ice cream was densely creamy and the accompanying cookie added just the right crunch and sweetness.
On my second visit, dining at the bar was admittedly more enjoyable than the experience upstairs. The space is clubby and intimate, and this time the kitchen did not run out of fish – a delicious fillet of salmon served over polenta and drizzled with a citrus dressing.
While Katahdin doesn’t aspire to compare with the trendier places in town, it’s definitely a good choice for a pre-theater meal and offers a sophisticated setting for solid dining downtown.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: email@example.com