Housed off the lobby of the Portland Regency, the hotel’s restaurant, 20 Milk Street, has been open since 2004, under the able direction of chef Alan Cook. The dining room is a congenial, attractive space with cushy club chairs around comfortable tables that are spaced nicely apart.
In the realm of Portland dining, this has always been a very civilized room in which to dine, serving well-prepared American bistro-style fare with a concentration on steaks and chops. It offers a nice change from the high-decibel hipster hangouts that usually get all the attention.
With a guest in tow, on our first visit we ordered from the prix fixe menu, a good deal with three courses for $24.95 per person. The fixed menu, though, is limited. Starters included a garden salad, soup du jour and a Caesar salad, which was what we both ordered. The dressing of egg, anchovies and Parmesan was well prepared – a classic Caesar. For entrees there was an excellent grilled heritage Kurobuta pork chop served over a stuffing of house-smoked ham, apple and sage. My guest enjoyed an entrée of sautéed chicken breast over house-made fettuccine with butternut squash and chicken confit moistened with a Chablis sauce.
Other options were cedar- planked haddock and potato gnocchi. On previous visits, these two dishes were less successful. The gnocchi were buried under a sauce of spinach and butternut squash and the fish was overcooked and dry.
Dessert is limited to a selection of house-made ice creams. On this visit we passed on the sweet course.
On our second occasion, the aim was to investigate the more diverse offerings from the regular menu. My same guest eagerly joined me again because the previous dinner was a good experience, even from the limited fixed menu.
This time, an intriguing appetizer of tater tots with duck confit sounded too good to pass up, and we ordered it to accompany our cocktails. This, however, was not a successful preparation, and we couldn’t figure out the point of it. Somewhere within this messy configuration of potato balls lurked the duck confit, overwhelmed by a cheese topping that was slightly burnt. Maybe an inexperienced kitchen’s assistant was responsible for mangling this dish, because it wasn’t typical of Chef Cook’s otherwise competent skills.
The good graces of our meal resumed, however, with our starter courses. Very satisfying was a cup of the lobster stew ($9) classically prepared: A creamy, rich sherry-laced soup base held copious amounts of lobster meat. As a Maine staple, this rendition was very good and a great starter to have on a wintry night.
My guest ordered what’s described on the menu as “our famous crab cakes ($12).” These definitely deserved the tribute. With a delicious, crispy outer coating of bread crumbs, they’re gently sautéed and filled with well-seasoned crab meat. This, too, as a steakhouse classic, was well handled by the kitchen.
What also deserves mention is the restaurant’s wonderful house-made cranberry wheat bread, which is brought to table soon after you’re seated. It’s presented in a cloth-napkin-lined basket set over heated stones to keep the bread warm. This detail has been practiced ever since the restaurant opened, and it’s a nice touch.
The entrée choices cover all the bases. At $36, the most expensive item on the menu is the charbroiled Piedmontese fillet of beef, from a heritage breed raised on a farm in Falmouth. It’s a rich dish, which has been enjoyed on previous occasions. The fillet is wrapped in the restaurant’s house-smoked bacon and enriched with Maytag blue cheese and a Bordelaise sauce. This is a delectable cut of heirloom beef that’s well worth the high tariff. Included is a side dish of the chef’s potato gratin, a very praiseworthy rendition that’s rich with butter, milk and cheese.
Other options included loin lamb chops from North Star Farm ($30), Peking duck breast ($28), the aforementioned cedar-planked local haddock ($27) and the potato gnocchi ($19), sautéed chicken breast over house-made fettuccine in a light sauce of butternut squash and cream ($26) and steamed and grilled lobster (market priced).
We both, however, opted for the grilled hanger steak ($22). Unless it’s cooked correctly, hanger steak can be chewy. Here it was extremely tender, served medium rare as ordered, and was accompanied by the chef’s luxurious potato gratin.
We were less enthused by the desserts that evening, though at other times they have been first rate under the direction of the restaurant’s pastry chef, Amy Acheson. We tried the caramel tart ($8), which was exceedingly sweet, though tempered by a nice graham cracker crust, poached pears and a bracing cranberry-port sorbet.
My guest chose the candy-cane fudge ($10) from an extensive list of other house-made ice creams. It was good, though the “fudge” component was barely noticeable. Note that dessert offerings were from the restaurant’s menu of Holiday Temptations and have changed somewhat post holiday.
The service staff is attentive, though there are never more than one or two waiters at any time, and a hostess is in charge at the dining room’s front desk.
For a restaurant of modest size, the wine list is well represented by bottlings from all the major wine regions, with a good selection of reasonably priced offerings by the glass.
As Portland’s restaurant universe grows by leaps and bounds with inventive cooking at so many of our newest establishments, 20 Milk Street has a rightful place in this town’s dining hierarchy. It’s a popular spot at lunchtime, and for dinner it offers solid, dependable fare, with enough flourish to keep it interesting.
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