Editor’s note: This is John Golden’s last review for the Maine Sunday Telegram. But you can still find him online, blogging at the Golden Dish on mainetoday.com. There will be no restaurant review next week; the feature will return on June 22.
At Portland’s esteemed Back Bay Grill, Table Number 7 is the most requested seat in the house. It’s a corner banquette, nestled in the main dining room, and it offers glimpses of the open kitchen and bar. It’s an ideal cozy corner for couples. But really, no matter where you sit – at the popular bar, in the front or the main dining room – the experience is nonpareil.
Back Bay, now in its 26th year, remains one of Portland’s premiere restaurants, a place where locals go for special occasions, assured their meal will be superb in every way. Food, service and ambiance all reflect the restaurant’s exacting standards. The fare is more haute than hipster, or, as long-time chef and owner Larry Matthews puts it, “We serve good food done well. We’re not trendy, but we keep up with current tastes.”
Matthews combines classic French technique and dishes with ingredients and ideas from elsewhere in Europe and the United States.
You see his style in such dishes as Back Bay’s soup puree, a starter that is always on the menu, and always starts with classic stock, meticulously made according to French methods. Recently, the restaurant served English pea puree – a classic potage St.-Germain – that was elegant, subtle and smooth as silk with a felicitously delicious garnish of Serrano ham, garlic oil and pea tendrils. On another day, I was hoping for a puree of spring-dug parsnips. Happily, its replacement, a potato and leek soup ($10), was silken, velvety smooth and just as satisfying. It was topped – rather splendiferously – with a lemon mousse of crème fraîche, a sprinkling of summer savory and curls of crispy pancetta. On one of several recent visits, I was presented with a dish that was not listed on the menu. Matthews’ talented young chef de cuisine, Graham Botto, prepared it: A plain white platter held house-made lardo cunningly paired with pickled red onions and parsley oil; the accompanying potato gaufrettes added crunch. It was an incredibly flavorful dish – at Back Bay, that’s just a given.
In all the years I’ve been dining there – at least 15 – it has never once disappointed, even after a change in ownership. I first ate there during a winter stopover in Portland. We were staying in the West End. A heavy snow had left the unfamiliar streets very icy, so I decided to take a taxi. As an old wreck of a cab pulled up, I said to myself, “This was a mistake.” We practically slid down the hill to Bayside, and I dreaded to think we’d have to endure another taxi ride to get back to our hotel. By some miracle, though, we arrived safely, and we were greeted at the door by the restaurant’s then-owner, Joel Freund, who welcomed us like long-lost friends. I still remember my meal: a superb cream of carrot soup, pheasant and one of the restaurant’s (justly) famed ice cream dishes with caramel sauce and spun sugar (still served today). It was a superb meal. No wonder I’ve been going back ever since.
Meals usually start off with the excellent cocktails, which come in either heavy, square-cut glasses or tall stemware. Generally, Adrian Stratton, the restaurant’s manager, takes the cocktail orders. He bears the distinction of being the only true maître d’ in Portland. He knows his regulars – their favorite drinks, favorite dishes and favorite tables. On a recent visit, we followed our cocktails with soft-shell crabs ($16) and a crepe filled with Maine lobster ($18). The perfectly pan-fried crabs were paired with spicy house-made Spanish chorizo, and drizzled with an ethereal avocado and lemon vinaigrette, lending a Latin touch. The crepe held big chunks of lobster meat, earthy, roasted portobello mushrooms, and bright green, fresh-tasting sautéed fiddleheads. A lovely lobster cream unified the components. Altogether, it was a dish of unadulterated luxury.
An entrée of lamb two ways ($34) included braised shoulder and roast loin. It’s become a classic preparation in many restaurants, and Back Bay’s rendition is beyond reproach. The lamb, from North Star Farm in Windham, came with a surprising side: beer-battered onion rings. It was also paired with more classic sautéed fava beans and warm potato salad – the creative mingling of elements, both expected and unexpected, was ridiculously good.
One of my favorite dishes at Back Bay is duck. That evening’s lavender-marinated duck breast ($30) came with rich duck leg confit and was served over lentils du Puy, with walnuts, honey, sous vide rhubarb and duck jus. The sweet glaze offset the duck’s gamy flavor.
To finish, we couldn’t resist a Back Bay favorite: ultra-rich white chocolate ice cream with chocolate sauce and little chocolate curls that the restaurant calls “chocolate spaghetti” ($9). A ginger Bavarian mousse ($9) came with strawberries, pistachio cookie crumble and a gorgeous rhubarb sorbet. Although the individual components were simple, the combined flavors and texture were complex. The elegant dessert was more than the sum of its parts.
Recollections of dinners past and present at Back Bay bring me full circle, which is fitting because this is my last review for Dine Out Maine. An exciting opportunity awaits me in New York, where I’ll often have to be. Between that and my longtime blog, the Golden Dish, at Maine Today (mainetoday.com), I’ll have my hands full. Find me online on Mondays, where I report on various food and dining events; on Wednesdays, where I write about cooking and recipes; and Fridays, when I blog on restaurant reviews in typical Golden Dish fashion.
Thank you all for your support and comments and for the pleasure of contributing to Dine Out Maine. It’s been like a spell of perfect Maine weather.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: