In Portland’s ever-expanding restaurant scene, Central Provisions is this city’s newest and perhaps brightest star. Chef and co-proprietor Chris Gould has created some of the most inventive food in Portland right now. After multiple visits and some 30 dishes, the restaurant’s trendy small-plate concept has been superbly achieved on each occasion. The format further allows you to create your own tasting menu from a list of nearly 50 small plates ($5 to $26) that form a fusion of cooking styles inspired by the cuisines of Europe, Asia and the Americas.
Gould’s repertoire is both visionary yet so simple to comprehend. Consider this little gem on the menu: bread and butter ($7). Outrageously priced, you think – that is, until you have it. Served on a stone slab are slices of toasted baguette accompanied by a fluffy mound of local butter with the texture of whipped cream. Alongside this is something that looks like a giant egg yolk. In fact, it was until tempered into a shimmering mousse-like sabayon. This is achieved by heating the egg yolk with reduced white beer and gelatin over a double boiler until thickened. It’s then put through an aerosol can typically used to dispense whipped cream. The mixture is forced through it onto the dish in the shape of a giant egg yolk. You then smear the butter and sabayon together on the bread and the mingling of both – smooth as silk – is rapturously good.
The two-story restaurant, open since February, is located in an historic building on the corner of Fore and Dana streets. The interior was gutted and reassembled with the original architectural elements intact while adding a patina of freshness that defines the glisteningly rustic dining space. The main floor dining room is flanked by the gleaming open kitchen where a battery of line chefs prepares the orders alongside Gould and his sous chef, Ian Driscoll. Seating is at some 20 chairs along the dining bar while the rest of the room is ringed with banquettes.
The downstairs bar has its own entrance on Dana Street; it is also reached by an interior stairway from the dining room. There you can enjoy craft cocktails, beer and wine and have the same food that’s served upstairs. There are stools at the bar, and along the perimeter are counters that afford stand-up dining in the traditional Spanish tapas-bar style.
During an interview with Chef Gould at a later date, he said he was amazed that everyone embraced this dining style so readily. He quipped, “People have no problem standing up while eating their foie gras.”
On a visit during a busy Monday night, three of us ordered a total of 10 dishes ($5 to $15), including three desserts. We also enjoyed a special Monday night wine – the $5 glass of red or white, the name of which is not divulged until your server presents the bottle at table. The mystery wine is perhaps unnecessary gamesmanship. But the surprise element is fun.
The red turned out to be an Italian Barbera and the white was a California chardonnay. Wine steward Chris Peterman maintains a distinctive list of bottlings that frequently changes, depending on what the kitchen is serving that evening.
The menu is divided into categories of raw, cold, hot, hearty and sweets. You can order just a few dishes or a great many. We began with a tuna crudo ($10), a stunning presentation of sashimi-grade tuna cloaked in mustard, sesame and radish. Along with it we enjoyed the aforementioned bread and butter.
Then came a chilled beet salad ($9). This was presented on a stone plank and held perfect cubes of golden and red beets sourced from Stone Cipher Farm in Bowdoinham. The beets were bound with Swiss chard in an avocado-fried-egg puree enhanced by lemon vinaigrette and green peppercorns. The amalgam of flavors was exquisite.
Following that was a dish of smoked carrots ($9) served warm with house-made goat cheese and pistachio vinaigrette. The carrots were smoked in hay, cinnamon and star anise.
The seared local scallops ($15) was another amazing preparation. These were placed over a puree of spring-dug parsnips with a frizzle of shaved parsnips and a dusting of pasilla chili powder – a Mexican chili that exudes a rich, fruity earthiness with hints of bitter chocolate.
A hearty lamb breast ($13) followed. A magnificent wedge of pressed braised lamb – spoon-tender – was adorned with charred pears, a piquillo pepper puree, candied fennel and puffed farro. It was a gorgeous dish of remarkable flavors and textures.
Perhaps the most unusual of the savory plates was the caramelized sheep’s cheese ($10) from Spain. It’s grilled on a flat top and coated with root vegetables and 15-year aged balsamic vinegar. It looks like a cheese-filled puffed pancake, but glistening with caramelization and a serendipitous garnish of root vegetables. The flavor is intense and a perfect ending to an extraordinary meal.
Desserts are superb, and we chose the three on the menu that evening. The first was a classic lime tart ($6). Lime juice is folded into sweetened condensed milk with egg yolks and baked in a buttery short crust. A salted caramel mousse with cocoa and coffee held a crunchy center. It was altogether so light and frothy. Finally, a peanut butter cream puff was pure indulgence. Here house-made peanut butter is folded into whipped cream as the filling for the choux pastry, which was splashed with pastry cream and chocolate sauce.
Central Provisions reflects the kinds of restaurants that are redefining Portland dining. Whether they be American regional, French, Italian or Asian one trait is common to all: The food is remarkably creative and artfully presented. At Central Provisions you’ll have locally sourced world-class dining.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: [email protected]