The dinner menu at the Congress Squared Restaurant is a simple but interestingly sophisticated one offering representative dishes that reflect modern American bistro cooking. Even our first bite of the complimentary hors d’oeuvre (amuse bouche) sent out by the kitchen was a marvelous tidbit. It was a beet chip topped with a pan-seared scallop and fennel aioli. Indeed it easily foretold of the fine meal to follow: attractively presented fare that wisely adhered to the principle that less is more.
Housed in the meticulously renovated Eastland, now sporting the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel name, this lustrously outfitted dining venue could become a pivotal member of Portland’s restaurant hierarchy. In fact, given its location in the heart of the arts and entertainment districts, Congress Squared is an ideal spot for pre- and post-theater dining or before and after other events in the area.
Any hotel worth its salt these days has to have a formidable restaurant under its roof – a kind of culinary comet to shine for its dining public. So far the hotel, the restaurant and the wondrous Top of the East lounge add up to worthy contenders in Portland’s escalating cityscape of lodging and dining establishments.
The kitchen is headed by executive chef Michael Bates-Walsh, a young but formidable veteran of hotel kitchens along with his chef de cuisine Michelle Stone, who has a solid background in farm-to-table cooking.
The decor is unusual for Portland. It’s done in a rather formulaic sleek motif – a bit institutional in design – but a relief from the usual rusticator look that is the norm here. And once you slip into the buttery soft leather chairs or banquettes and are tended to by the very able wait staff, you realize it’s all so comfortably posh. Dinner at Congress Squared, however, should start with a preprandial visit to the Top of the East Lounge for cocktails where you can revel in the most scintillating space in Portland. Fifteen stories high, the view of the city is dazzling: the harbor, Back Cove, the skyline and the bright lights of the cityscape below are a visual marvel.
My guest and I enjoyed cocktails ($11 to $14) and wine ($7 to $14 by the glass) in the lounge. The wine list is a fine compilation of labels from around the world, with a concentration of California and Italian wines and a similar list in the restaurant. My guest was very pleased with a glass of the Chateau St. Jean Magnolia Grove Chardonnay ($7).
The bar menu holds some tempting small plates too, including the house popcorn that is marvelously candy-crunchy sweet. On past visits, I’ve also enjoyed the smoked swordfish bites ($16) with pickled radish, red pepper coulis and saffron aioli, and the Maine lettuce wraps ($17) stuffed with lobster, pine nuts, julienned vegetables and sunflower sprouts.
After drinks we repaired to the restaurant. Located down a long hallway off the main lobby, you enter an attractive reception area, off of which is a small private dining room perfect for parties of 6 to 10. Congress Squared’s bar area is also very inviting, and quite a few people were having dinner there.
The main dining room seats 70 and was moderately busy that evening. There are tables for two along the street-facing windows, but they’re small and feel remote. It’s better to opt for banquette seating or at any of the larger tables for four, where the restaurant happily obliges parties of two.
The dinner menu is not large with only nine first courses and nine entrees. On past visits I’ve enjoyed the charcuterie board ($9), a nice mix of cured meats and cheeses. An absolutely transcendent preparation of Georges Bank swordfish was an entrée at another time, though at $30 it was a bit pricey. Prices generally are fairly steep here.
At this dinner we started off with Damariscotta oysters three ways ($13). This is a preparation that’s become standard issue at many restaurants of this caliber. And at over $4 per oyster it’s an expensive treat whereas the average oyster tariff is generally $2.50 per bivalve. Still the kitchen’s take on these came off admirably. The three different preparations included a fried oyster, lightly battered, and topped with a green onion and cumin pesto; another was a shooter glass of raw oyster in cucumber and lemon froth; and finally an oyster on the half shell.
My guest ordered a salad of local field greens ($8) garnished with julienned strips of fennel, roasted parsnips and crispy leeks moistened in a Dijon vinaigrette. It was served in an oversized bowl resulting in an incredibly huge portion of salad.
For entrees, my pan-seared duck breast ($29) was not a revelatory dish by any means. Still it was altogether satisfying, moistened with fig molasses and set over a hash of potatoes and duck confit that were well seasoned.
My guest chose the pan-seared local cod ($27), an impressive looking dish set over white lentils in a preserved lemon broth. The fish was very flavorful, flakey and moist, though the lentils were a bland appendage.
Other first courses on the menu include lobster mac and cheese ($19); Bangs Island mussels steamed in Shipyard export ale ($13); and panko-crusted goat cheese ($13). Entrees also offered are seared day-boat scallops ($27); brined pork tenderloin ($26); and sirloin steak hamburger with sea-salt dusted fries ($14).
The dessert menu featured some tempting options including a white chocolate crème brulee ($8) and a warm brown-butter apple crisp ($8). We chose the Tipsy Affogato ($12). Here chocolate ice cream is steeped in espresso and amaretto liqueur and accompanied by a housemade chocolate hazelnut biscotti. The ice cream was from Gelato Fiasco, the local purveyor of premium ice creams.
Given the kitchen’s flair for preparing most everything in-house, one wonders why they’d serve a commercial ice cream in a dessert when homemade would show off their stylish pretentions so much better. Still, C Square is a young restaurant operation and is off to an excellent start.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: