Portland’s East End has changed dramatically in the past decade. Gone are the days when rents were cheap, storefronts shabby and crime perpetually on the rise. Today the neighborhood around Munjoy Hill is thriving, swanky and cool. (Just ask anyone who’s spent the weekend hunting for an affordable rental there.)
The East Ender restaurant that Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy purchased and re-opened under the same name in March reminds me a lot of the neighborhood itself. The place seems constantly busy, with tables set out along the sidewalk, dining rooms upstairs and down and two bars serving lunch and dinner customers. It’s also snazzy, thanks to the soft shade of gray on the walls and a contemporary aesthetic that incorporates a touch of whimsy. (That animal mounted above the bar is a mythological “jack-a-lope,” part jack rabbit and part antelope, that Deuben says “pokes fun at the deer antler thing.”) And whether you’re talking about a menu item like house-smoked pork belly with kimchi, pickled Asian pear and steak fries – or the laid-back waiter in his Technicolor tennis shoes and designer glasses – it’s seriously cool.
Best of all, the food is delicious: Deuben and Leavy have deep experience in Portland’s restaurant world (they worked together at Hugo’s, Miyake and Miyake Diner before launching the popular food truck, SmallAxe) and they’ve designed a menu that celebrates time-honored classics with a twist: mussels spiked with ginger and anise, roasted beets bathed in kumquat vinaigrette, cold-smoked hamburgers cloaked in Korean ketchup and English stilton. Their cooking demonstrates creativity and a willingness to experiment – and nearly everything emerging from their tiny kitchen delivers enormous flavor.
Take the lobster tostada ($15), a Latin-influenced appetizer, with chunks of chilled lobster meat, shreds of cabbage and purple onion and a shower of cilantro served on a toasted corn tortilla. The dish delivers layers of taste and texture – sweetness from the shellfish, freshness from the cilantro and a satisfying crunch from the vegetables. And the sauces are standouts: a piquant vinaigrette made with fruity, Peruvian aji amarillo peppers, drizzles of tomatoey salsa plus a spoonful of cream blended with drops of lime juice. SmallAxe Food Truck was known for inventive riffs on traditional sandwiches. This tostada is just that: a deconstructed and reinvented Maine lobster roll that packs a powerful punch.
Grilled octopus ($13) with slices of fennel was just as good, and showcased the chefs’ skill in front of the stove. The thick, charred morsels of octopus were beautifully prepared – so deeply tender that they made chewing a pleasure – and the translucent rings of fennel provided a crunchy contrast. East Ender features ingredients from many cultures (the night I visited were Thai curry, pecan pesto, Korean Gochujang ketchup and chorizo on the menu), and this octopus seemed like a paean to Spain, thanks to a peppery salsa verde and fingerling potatoes. The tangiest addition was the compulsively good dollop of yogurt that I asked the waitress about. What made it extra bright, I wondered? “It’s yogurt made in house,” she said, “blended with preserved lemons that we also make here.” I nearly asked if she would pack up a pint for breakfast.
The grilled romaine and radicchio salad ($10) with a poached egg was one of the few less-than-stellar appetizers I tried. The romaine withstood grilling well and shards of parmesan were a nice complement, but the small bundles of radicchio had turned black and tasted more burned than grilled. I’ll skip the greens if I go back and leave more room for entrees.
All of them certainly demand a healthy appetite: The portion sizes at East Ender are as generous as the flavors are complex. I started with smoke-roasted lamb shoulder, huge chunks of deeply browned meat served with sweet and sour eggplant and a handful of fried chickpeas ($20). The lamb smelled so good – like the pungent whiffs that emerge from the open door of a smokehouse – that I spent a few moments simply inhaling. But the real reward was its taste: mild, juicy and finely seasoned, with none of the gaminess that can spoil lamb. Just as good were the crispy garbanzo beans, and the mound of fregola, toasted pasta that looks like Israeli cous cous but tastes nuttier and more satisfying.
“Bill and I really like to focus on flavor,” Deuben says, “and we’ll ask ourselves, ‘How can we give this lamb a really distinct flavor – its own personality?’ ” Deuben says the restaurant serves only domestic lamb, “as often as possible from North Star Sheep Farm in Windham.”
Another simple dish with spin was grilled trout with béarnaise sauce ($22) – served when I visited with hakurei turnips, ramps and deep-fried fiddleheads. (Those battered fiddleheads were golden brown and irresistible; a friend described them as “pillowy beignets with fiddleheads inside.” The fish was moist and delicate and – thanks to the béarnaise – buttery. Deuben said he paired the fish with turnips to lend a “slight spicy-sweet flavor” to its subtle flesh, and with ramps to add a taste of the season.
I’m not sure if there’s a season for coconuts, but the sorbet we tried for dessert tasted so fresh and smelled so fragrant that I wondered if Leavy and Deuben had been climbing palm trees. The sorbet was good by itself, even better paired with scoops of house-made salted peanut ice cream and plain vanilla ($6).
Sure, I have a few quibbles with East Ender. The atmosphere is so relaxed that service can be, well, casual. You may have to scan the menu for longer than usual before someone happens by to take your order. And while the tableware and the napkins are lovely, I hope they’ll ditch the votives that appear at dusk on the tables. Once lighted, they smell strongly of lamp fluid, interfering with the tantalizing scents emerging from the kitchen.
But the restaurant is still new, and Leavy and Deuben are clearly building something special. If some fans mourn the passing of their food truck (about to be sold, “it only exists in our customers’ hearts and souls,” Deuben says) others – like me – will be glad they’ve hung up their keys and parked permanently in the East End.
James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. He retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.