Sunday, March 9, 2014
Portland’s first Dishcrawl tour took place Tuesday night, with about 25 people following tour leader Mary Soule around the Old Port, sampling food from two restaurants, a food truck and a gelato shop.
Dishcrawl is a national walking tour business designed to get locals into restaurants that they may not have tried before so they can sample some bites and get inspired to return later for a full meal. It also gives Portlanders a chance to meet their local chefs and ask them questions. The tours are held on Tuesdays (typically a slow night at restaurants) and start at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45 per person.
I signed up for the first crawl, and received an email from Soule 48 hours before our adventure. She told me to meet her and the other guests at the Porthole on Custom House Wharf at 6:45-7 p.m. Parking was surprisingly difficult for a Tuesday night in May, but once I found a spot I had no worries about the “parking police” because you don’t have to feed the meters after 6 p.m.
I arrived at 7 on the dot and most people had already signed in and were enjoying a drink from the bar. It had been a long day, so I ordered a gin and tonic, slapped on my name tag and tried to relax.
The Porthole is normally closed at this time on a Tuesday, so we had the place all to ourselves. We settled in at tables and introduced ourselves to each other while we waited for the first bites to arrive. Soule (center, below) gave a quick introduction to the Dishcrawl.
Then, as the food was delivered to our tables, chef Jesse Poirier came out to chat.
He explained (for those who have been living under a rock the past few months) that the Porthole is under new ownership and has been completely remodeled. The menu is 100 percent local, he said.
“We really put a lot of our heart and soul into it.”
When our “bites” arrived, the folks at my table were clearly pleased. Their only concern was whether they would still have room for the food from the remaining restaurants.
Poirier served (clockwise, left to right) a small version of the Porthole’s signature lobster roll on brioche with lemon butter emulsion; a taste of the restaurant's fish taco made with seared haddock, salsa, sriracha aioli and lime served on blue corn chips; and a homemade veggie burger topped with slices of avocado.
Everyone dug into the food and chatted while we ate. Soule gave us a 5-minute warning before it was time to move on so people who needed bathroom breaks could take advantage of the opportunity before heading off to the next stop.
The rest of the stops were kept secret until we were near our destination. For the second stop, we walked down Custom House Wharf and turned right onto Commercial Street, past the Casco Bay Ferry lines toward India Street. Our second stop was the Gusto’s Italian Food Truck, which I thought was a clever addition considering Portland’s trucks are really becoming more active now. Truck owner Jim Chamoff and his son Ryan served up small versions of their spicy roast beef cones and the group stood around and ate them while Ryan talked about the food truck business.
Next was our longest walk of the evening (just 10 minutes), from the Gusto’s truck down to Dana Street – Soule guarding our crossing of Commercial Street like the police officer in “Make Way for Ducklings” – up to Wharf Street, and down Wharf’s cobblestone path to The Merry Table, the fun little French creperie. Most of us made our way to the tables in the back room, and those who wanted a drink sidled up to the bar.
Once everyone had settled in, chef/owner Jean Claude Vassalle came out and talked about his restaurant, noting that the menu is 60 percent crepes and that they serve lunch, dinner and brunch. He proudly noted that May 8 will be the 5th anniversary of the restaurant. (Bonne anniversaire, Jean Claude!)
Here he is talking to the group:
Out came the food, a trio of bites designed to give the Dishcrawlers an idea of what’s on the regular menu. There was (from lower left, clockwise) a wild mushroom, goat cheese and truffle oil tartine on crostini; a lamb crepe with curry, cilantro, red wine sauce and vegetables; and a “crepe cake” made with layers of crepes, crab meat, egg, tomato, smoked salmon and shrimp.
My favorite bite was the lamb crepe.
Next we went out into the refreshing spring evening air and went in search of dessert. I had my suspicions about where we were going, and sure enough, we ended up at Gelato Fiasco.
Max Mogensen explained the differences between gelato and regular ice cream, then offered tastes. Once a guest decided which flavor they wanted, they were given a small cup of that gelato.
It was a beautiful evening outside, so I sat at one of the gelato shop's tables outside and chatted with a new acquaintance. Soon a few others came outside, and folks started heading home on their own. A couple of people I talked to said they would do the tour again.
I was back at my car by 9:50 p.m., and that was after lingering for a while outside Gelato Fiasco just talking. So three hours is plenty of time to set aside for this tour.
I think this is a nice little addition to Portland’s food scene. Everyone seemed to have a good time. My only criticism would be that for $45, I think there ought to be at least three restaurants on the tour.
Sure, include a food truck or a dessert shop for one stop on a tour, but not both. Maybe there’s some restaurant out there that would like to showcase their desserts instead of main dishes?
If you’re interested in trying out the next Dishcrawl, it will be held June 11. But hurry - there’s apparently only three tickets left!
Meredith Goad has harvested oysters on the Chesapeake Bay, eaten reindeer in Finland and sipped hot chai in the Himalayas. She writes the weekly Soup to Nuts column and enjoys a good cocktail.