David’s 388 embodies the spirit of a great neighborhood restaurant. Nestled on the corner of Cottage Road and Pillsbury Street, near Willard Square in South Portland, it exudes the easy charm of a corner bistro.
When, for example, you take your first bite of a dish like the duck canapés ($5) or the crispy goat cheese fritters with truffle oil and micro greens ($9) you’ll discover that those nibbles are just the beginning of more delectable food to come.
Originally home to Barbara’s Kitchen, a 10-seat restaurant known for its creative fare, Portland restaurateur and chef, David Turin (Opus 10, David’s Restaurant in Portland and KPT and Opus 10 in Kennebunkport), took over the space in 2007. Within a few years he was able to expand next door, and this very quaint cafe became a 40-seat dining establishment, which now rarely misses a beat in service, food and ambiance.
Turin and his longtime executive chef Bo Byrne oversee the operations of Turin’s Portland area restaurants. But in the case of 388, where Byrne presided in the kitchen until several years ago, the reins were handed over to his two young apprentice chefs, Dylan Leddy, 23, and Carlos Tirado, 28, who are now sous chef and chef de cuisine, respectively. They have essentially re-worked many of Turin’s and Byrne’s concepts into their own corner of culinary creativity.
The space is arranged in two dining rooms, one in the recent addition with comfortable banquettes and tables and the other in the original room, which is still so sweetly intimate.
My favorite spot is at the so-called chef’s table, a dining counter with four bar chairs that face the open kitchen. There you witness the cooking bravado of this dynamic duo preparing dish after dish of perfectly executed food.
The wait staff keeps up with the kitchen’s tempo, too, creating a level of teamwork that is well synchronized and ultimately creates such a fine dining experience.
When we arrived for our 7:15 reservation on a recent Monday night, the hostess said, “You must be Mr. So and So,” referring to a pseudonym under which I made the reservation. She knew without having to consult the reservation book to take us to our appointed spot at the chef’s table.
My guests had not been to 388 before so I recommended some of my favorite dishes enjoyed on past visits. We started with the aforementioned duck canapés and goat cheese fritters, which we voraciously wolfed down with our cocktails. The duck is arranged on crostini spread with a rich dollop of foie-gras butter and a riotously sweet topping of apricot conserve. The crispy fritters are another must-have. These are lusciously filled with cheese, fortified with truffle oil and accented with micro greens.
No one in our group was drinking wine that evening so we stayed with our well-made cocktails. The wine list, however, is a thoughtful compilation offering moderately priced wines both by the bottle and by the glass.
On to appetizers shared amongst us. We chose another favorite – crispy vegetable pot stickers with grilled Asian marinated beef in Peking sauce ($9). Like the essential dim-sum dumpling, these were very good as were another starter, the seared scallops wrapped in bacon and slathered with a splendid mixture of figs, foie-gras butter and apricot glaze ($9.75). For a light touch we also shared an arugula salad delightfully composed with black currants, Maytag blue cheese, red onions and spiced pecans ($9)
That night sous chef Leddy was cooking solo since chef Tirado was away on vacation. That he managed the whole operation with only the help of an assistant prep cook was amazing. Watching him prepare each dish with such attention to detail was impressive. We couldn’t help to ask, “What’s this and what’s that?” as each ravishing looking dish was plated and whisked away by the wait staff.
It was difficult to decide on main courses since everything we saw being prepared looked so appealing. Dishes like the grilled pork chop over sweet potato hash ($17); the Faroe Island salmon over chive mashed potatoes ($17) or the herb-crusted beef tenderloin arranged over a potato puree ($18) were some temptations we considered.
Nevertheless, one guest opted for the porcini mushroom pappardelle with wilted arugula, oven-dried tomato, goat cheese, Parmesan and white truffle oil ($15). The wide pasta noodles were made in house, and the sauce was deftly prepared – splendidly bracing, sweet and pungent – with a final touch of truffle oil.
My choice of entrée was an intriguing rack of lamb ($23) handled with skill and intelligence. The eye meat was cut from the ribs into exquisite noisettes that were pan seared just pink and tipped into a garlic and rosemary pan sauce; the remaining ribs were charred on the grill as a fine counterpoint to the succulent fillet meat. Along with braised spinach and puree of potato, it was an elegant preparation.
My other guest eyed 388’s highly touted Classic Burger ($13). We had previously watched these humongous mounds of beef patties cooked and charred on the grill and my guest had to have it. It was served on house-made focaccia and blanketed with melted cheddar and very smoky bacon. With it came a mounting portion of perfect French fries, judiciously salted and touched by a hint of truffle oil. Both the burger and the fries ranked right up there with the best anywhere.
Even though we had a lot of food, the desserts that we saw being served were too good to miss. We shared a lemon crème brulee ($7) and the beignets ($7). The addition of lemon in the crème brulee was a great touch, making this standard dessert special. The beignets – deep fried choux pastry – were feather light and deliciously paired with a wonderful caramel dipping sauce. After having excellently prepared decaf espresso ($3.75), we called it a night feeling very well fed and cared for at this uncommonly satisfying bistro.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: