To adapt the opening line from a Pete Wells review of Jean-Georges in The New York Times: Fore Street is still a five-star restaurant. That is all. Thank you for your time.
However, it’s with trepidation that I enter the double wooden doors of the 1920s brick parallelogram sited with confidence on its eponymous street, and find an armchair in the bar area. When I’d mentioned to my guest, Josh Viertel, former head of Slow Food USA and the Yale Sustainable Food Project, that a friend recently had a meh dinner at the bar, he said it begged investigating. Maybe the restaurant that put Portland on the fresh-and-local-haute-cuisine food map with its exquisite ingredients and buttery aromas is slacking. “It’s your job,” he said, “to find out.”
In my anxiety over this edict, I notice the bar’s armchairs and couches seem wearier than I remember, but before I can go further down this rabbit hole, Josh arrives and we’re ushered past the greenhouse-esque vegetable cooler and wide-open kitchen, with its all-important brick oven/grill/turnspit, to our table and a view of lights shimmering on the wharf. Just like that, the warm brick and wood space that never seems too crowded or too empty eases us into its assured embrace.
“Why don’t we start with salads and wine,” Josh says. “That’s the best way to find out quickly if they’re upholding their standards. If not,” he adds, finally showing some mercy, “we can always go elsewhere.” Josh, who earned his chops working with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, is just the person to distinguish five-star from passé. (He also grows a large garden at his home in New York state, where his neighbors include an ex-Jean-Georges pastry chef; when he pranked her with an enormous zucchini in her mailbox, she put four-star zucchini bread in his the next day.)
Our waiter, Neil Anderson (also co-owner of A1 Diner in Gardiner), could have dismissed us as cheap salad and rosé-by-the-glass diners, but treats us instead with the unpretentious consideration of those ordering a magnum and steaks. The salads arrive immediately and the 2013 Chateau de Triquevedel ($11) is cool and dry. We hover our forks over our plates in that moment before the path of our evening is decided, take a breath, and dive in.
My first bite of the mixed organic Maine salad ($8) takes me completely by surprise. The dressing is almost, but not quite too heavy on the barrel-aged cider vinegar, which smacks a punch in my mouth around the tender brightness of freshly harvested greens (thanks to the impeccable sourcing of kitchen manager Ken Thomas).
“Mmmm,” Josh is saying of his roasted exotic mushroom salad ($14), which is a great complement to mine, with a creamy olive vinaigrette, burstingly sweet corn and chewy nobs of cultivated maitake, shiitake and wild chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms from forager Rick Tibbetts, all mixed with crisp kale and the zing of grilled chicory.
“Okay, we’ll stay,” I concede. Josh jumps into action, taking charge of the menu and wine list, and consults with Neil, who already feels like family, about the particulars. We’re quickly gratified by the Pemaquid mussels ($13), a long-standing mainstay, sourced – like all the seafood – by George Parr, and roasted to perfection in the wood oven. Josh shows me a trick, how to scoop the meat of one mussel by using the shells of another like tongs – “avec l’autre,” it’s called – that makes the smoky buttery morsels in a garlicy broth with almonds even more satisfying.
The wood-grilled quail ($15.50) from Vermont is brown and crispy, the tender juicy meat melts into the mouth. We look up to find we’re both sucking the juice from the bones like two starving people lost in the woods who’ve just caught and cooked a wild bird over a fire. Though the accompanying sweet corn and husk tomato relish is well paired with the woodiness of the quail, the quinoa cakes beneath are in need of more salt and air. “Hippie cakes,” we dub them, the only thing we don’t finish, as we are not, in fact, starving, and there is much more to come.
From our table, as from most, we have an easy view to the open kitchen, where chef Nate Nadeau, in his trucker cap and ample beard, holds court with confidence. Mentored for 13 years by Maine’s godfather of farm-to-table dining, Sam Hayward, he is now chef de cuisine, while James Beard award-winning Hayward oversees the big picture. It may be a finely olive-oiled machine, but even after nearly 20 years, it still feels like opening night, with flavors conjured from whatever is freshest from the farm or sea that day.
The pappardelle ($24), for example, is rich and earthy with rocket greens (aka arugula), basil oil and loamy, freshly foraged lobster mushrooms on house-made ribbons of pasta. “This tastes like after it rains and everything smells of soil,” Josh says.
The Cape Cod black bass ($32) is an example of how well Fore Street carries through from presentation to last bite. The whole fish arrives on a sizzling cast iron platter, is gracefully filleted by Neil, and the red wine reduction pan butter sauce is a tour de force of flavor. “I’m surprised because it’s something you might find with lamb shank or veal cheek, but it’s perfect with this delicate white fish,” Josh comments. The olives and sourdough croutons that soak up the duck fat and meaty sauce are a side dish in themselves. Even the stray bones are forgiven.
We finish over a light 2007 Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise ($9) and a rich, dry Broadbent Madeira ($9.50) with chilled Maine blueberry crisp ($10), which is “like summer in a jar,” Josh says of the layers of salted vanilla bean panna cotta, blueberry compote, almond crisp topping and sweet corn ice cream in a hip Mason jar, created by pastry chef Brant Dadaleares.
Eaten in one bite, the dark chocolate cake rum balls ($5) take the whole mouth to manage, forcing you to focus on the fine rum flavor and nutty texture. “I feel like a dog eating peanut butter,” Josh says. “It may look silly to others, but I’m thoroughly enjoying myself.”
I, too, have enjoyed myself thoroughly, from the minute we sat down to now, well past closing. We’re the only diners left, but Neil acts as if we’re his first table of the night. “Can we sleep on the banquettes?” we ask, only half joking, and he laughs and tells us another story rather than hurry us out.
This being my last review for this column, I think back nostalgically on the restaurants of the summer and find that Fore Street captures my favorite elements of each – from the view to the space, service, local and fresh ingredients and, of course, menu and wine list. And amazingly, our dinner bill is less than it might have been elsewhere.
In other words, Fore Street has always been, and still is, Maine’s signature five-star restaurant. The asymmetrical wabi-sabi character of the building matches ideally with the genuine service and always changing but always extraordinary menu.
When I return to eat in the bar a week later, I find the armchairs have been magically refreshed, and I make sense of my friend’s meh comment. Dinner at the bar, while still a cozy treat, cannot compete with the full experience of a table within. So make a reservation, or put your name on the walk-in list, and prepare for great delight.
Melissa Coleman is interim restaurant reviewer for the Maine Sunday Telegram. She takes a writer or food expert to dinner with her to provide additional perspective. She is the author of a memoir, “This Life Is in Your Hands: One Dream, Sixty Acres, and a Family’s Heartbreak,” and can be contacted at melissacoleman.com.
Editor’s Note: This is Melissa Coleman’s last review for her term as interim restaurant critic. Dine Out Maine will go on a short hiatus and return with a new critic soon.