Maine Restaurant Week kicks off this weekend, and once again the question arises: Where to eat?
Maine, and Portland in particular, is blessed with so many outstanding choices it can be hard to decide which restaurants to try. Do you go somewhere new, or at least new to you? Or do you return to an old favorite?
This year, once again, I’ve asked some local chefs, food writers and bloggers to weigh in and name a favorite restaurant dish they discovered in the state during the past 12 months. And judging by the number of exclamation points in their responses, they found some real gems.
Not all of the restaurants named here are participating in Maine Restaurant Week, but this should still provide plenty of ideas for where to dine not only March 1-10, but in the days and weeks beyond.
Rob Evans, James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Duckfat, Portland
“Lamb Neck Cavettelli at Piccolo. Why? It’s everything you want in a pasta dish: comforting, flavorful, and refreshingly simple. It’s the kind of dish you could (or I could) eat every night with a glass of wine and not get bored with it. I resist getting it now so Damian doesn’t think it’s the only dish I like on his menu!”
Brian Hill, chef/owner Francine Bistro, Seabright and Shepherd’s Pie, Camden/Camden/Rockport
“I just recently was served a squid tappanyaki dish at Long Grain that was out of this world. Scored fresh squid in a sizzling ceramic dish with a tajine-like lid. The liquid underneath (as far as I can tell) was a fondue of butter, garlic, fish sauce, chilies and cilantro. I am sooo stealing this dish.”
Andrew Taylor, chef/co-owner, Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co., Portland
“Rare beef salad from Thanh Thanh II. I’m not sure the answer to this question ever changes year to year for me. I love this salad so much that I’ve tried to emulate it for years at Hugo’s and Eventide: thinly sliced raw beef, with a palm sugar, lime and chile vinaigrette and topped with fried shallots, fried garlic, ground peanuts, red onion, slices of lime and cilantro. It’s pretty spicy – sometimes too spicy – but it’s usually beautifully balanced, texturally interesting and incredibly vibrant.”
Kathy Gunst, food writer, South Berwick
“Another stellar year for food in Maine, so it’s even harder to choose one great dish??
“I have to choose two: The Black Birch’s pork schnitzel with über tender house-made spinach gnocchi, fried egg and styrian (pumpkin seed) oil – so perfect for a cold winter’s night with its great combination of meaty, crispy, tender, creamy and savory.
“Also, an outrageous sautéed fresh-from-the-water Maine sole dish at Fore Street. Sam Hayward and his crew can cook fish like few chefs!”
Jay Villani, owner of Sonny’s, Local 188 and Salvage BBQ, Portland
“Believe it or not, the fish chowder that Phil makes at Pizza Villa (Fridays only) is one of the best in town. I crave it every week …”
Harding Smith, owner of The Front Room, the Corner Room, the Grill Room and Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room, Portland
“I cannot get enough of the Yaki Buta at Miyake on Fore Street. It is so warm and comforting on a cold afternoon. Familiar but unique at the same time! Fills the soul with warmth and fat!”
Chad Conley, chef/co-owner, the Palace Diner, Biddeford
“My most memorable food experiences tend to be things that are simple and complete on their own – instead of complex composed courses. There are two that stand out from the past year, both from traveling between Portland and Blue Hill to visit friends. The first is sitting in the sun in July, eating oysters and drinking beer on the lower patio at Three Tides on Marshall Wharf in Belfast. I love eating and drinking outdoors, and I especially love how fun and divey that patio is. Such a perfect summer afternoon. The second is a really thick slice of toasted sourdough spelt bread from Tinderhearth Bakery in Brooksville. For me it has to have a quarter-inch of cultured butter and some flaky sea salt on top. This was my daily breakfast as a farmer, and I look forward to having it every time I go back for a visit.”
Justin Walker, executive chef, Earth at Hidden Pond, Kennebunkport
“Sea cucumber at Miyake with chile and lime. Just wonderful. Made it for my wife and I, it wasn’t on the menu. It tasted so fresh and bright. It’s not an easy thing to prepare, and he made it so delightful.”
Frederic Eliot, chef at Petite Jacqueline, Portland
“The calamarata squid in maltagliati pasta, chilies and lemon at Piccolo. It was one of those ‘umami’ moments where everything was perfectly balanced between acidity, seasoning, sweetness. Perfectly cooked tender squid, crunchiness from the bread crumbs, beautiful pasta texture. I crave it all the time.”
Mike Wiley, chef/co-owner, Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co., Portland
“If I’m not at the restaurants, I generally cook at home. Brunch is the exception: If I’m blessed with chutzpah enough to roll out of bed at a reasonable hour on Sunday morning, I happily brave the 45-minute wait for Hot Suppa’s corned beef hash. I believe they have achieved the platonic ideal, nicely cured and slowly caramelized hash, perfectly poached eggs and a generous hand with butter on rye. I can’t imagine that this dish can be improved. Now, if they only stocked Cholula hot sauce, I’d be there every day …”
Bo Byrne, chef at David’s Opus Ten, Portland
“The best thing I’ve eaten this year was at Boda. Next time you go, order the quail eggs and the pork belly skewers, together they’re like ‘Thai’ bacon and eggs. The pairing is familiar, but the flavor is truly unique. Much like my favorite cocktail the John Daly, green tea with fresh lemonade and ginger-peach infused vodka, familiar but unique. I order my second upon receiving my first.”
Lisa Kostopoulos, chef/owner at The Good Table, Cape Elizabeth
“My most memorable taste was last fall at Primo in Rockland. It was one of those days that seems like it would never end, long and lazy. We spent the day at Birch Point State Park, swimming, picnicking and napping on large rocks warmed by the sun. Later we headed to Primo’s bar to dine on small plates. With a perfect, creamy glass of St Vernan, a plate of roasted, locally foraged roasted mushrooms was delivered to us. It was simple, clean and exquisite. With olive oil, thyme, salt and pepper, the mushrooms sang. As I recall, it was a mix of mushrooms, with chanterelles and black trumpets amongst them. It was a perfect taste. I have returned often hoping to find that same plate set in front of me.”
Tim Labonte, executive chef, Portland Harbor Hotel, Portland
“The best dish I’ve had in recent past months was while dining at Petite Jacqueline. Although we sampled many dishes, the Poisson Meuniere really stood out for me. This dish is in all essence very simple to make; a lightly dredged piece of delicate fish, capers, butter and perhaps some fresh chopped herbs. However, it was the near perfect execution of the dish that was able to transcend me to a time when I first learned the preparation of this dish and how excited I was with my newfound ability to sear a delicate piece of fish to the point of crispy, outer-edge carmelization while maintaining a moist center. There’s something to be said for a dish that can bring you back in time and rekindle a self-definitive moment; WOW. Don’t change a thing, you nailed it!”
Arlin Smith, general manager/owner, Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co., Portland
“Patty burger at Hot Suppa. I’ve always raved about the breakfast at Hot Suppa since moving here 5 years ago, and this past year I ordered the burger only because of a trusted friend insisting on it. Now it’s the only thing I can seem to order when I go there. Single or double with melty American cheese, caramelized onion, and BB pickles. My trick is getting mayo on the side, using half on the bun and the rest for my fries that also make this burger experience one of the best I have ever had.”
Jason Loring, chef/owner at Nosh Kitchen Bar, Portland
“The lost bread at Caiola’s on the West End is pretty much the bomb!!!! It’s not bread, but who cares!! This creamy, sweet maple-flavored creation kills it every time.”
Karl Deuben and Bill Leavey, chef/owners, Small Axe food truck, Portland
“(The) rare beef salad (at) Thanh Thanh 2, or GO3 (on the menu), has been a consistently outstanding dish for years. Whenever we needed a break to menu plan or discuss business strategy, the craving for the GO3 often led us straight to Thanh Thanh 2.”
Kerry Altiero, chef/owner at Cafe Miranda, Rockland
“My pal Kristina and I were in Portland for the Harvest on the Harbor, where Cafe Miranda won the Top of The Crop farm-to-table competition. Prior to the event, we were in town and looking for the evening’s repast. The wealth of great food in that fair city was mind boggling. How to choose? Being that we were competing the following day, we thought that a comfortable, healthy, economical and good dinner was in order.
“Fore Street. Sam Hayward and crew. … Looking at all the great stuff on the menu, we decided to order, as I recall, EVERY side dish. Most all were products of the wood-fired oven. Talk about variety! Mashed with a crusty, tater tot-like crust, root veg caramelized to dee-lish-ish-ness, greens, broccolini, wow. Interesting to see the care and attention paid to what is typically an afterthought/accompaniment. We left satisfied (dessert too!), impressed at the quality and value in what are usually considered unassuming dishes.”
Anestes Fotiades, blogger, portlandfoodmap.com, Portland
“For a number of reasons, I’ll go with the rabbit dish at Outliers. I went on opening night with a friend for drinks, and we decided to share a number of dishes, including the grilled rabbit. We soon regretted that decision because both wanted it all to ourselves! It was perfectly prepared and well accompanied by a flavorful risotto, grilled radicchio and wilted greens. I enjoyed it so much I went back a couple weeks later and had it a second time.”
Nick Krunkkala, chef/owner at Oscar’s New American, Yarmouth
“I was able to get a Friday night off this summer and went into Primo in Rockland. I have eaten there many times before, and it’s always good. I remember ordering about 10 different things to start, and it was all incredible. What stood out the most was a rabbit pâté on the charcuterie plate. The waitress then convinced me to get a pasta dish, which I couldn’t really say no to – it was a handmade pasta with an oxtail ragu, I believe. (Anytime you have an opportunity to try fresh pasta from Melissa Kelly, you need to do it.) The entire meal was outstanding, and it’s no wonder Melissa Kelly keeps winning awards.”
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at firstname.lastname@example.org