Monday, April 21, 2014
What Portland restaurants lack on their lunch menus is the serious fare that one would otherwise find at big city restaurants in Boston, New York and LA. Whether Portland's dining world could support serious dining at midday as it does for dinner could be a vital notion for restaurateurs to consider.
Otherwise for the high key notes of urbanity in downtown Portland, Walter’s remains a swank repose for lunchtime dining. You see men in suits, well-coiffed women and lots of talkative twosomes and office groupings there for the ambiance as much as the food. Chef and owner Jeff Buerhaus’s menu globe trots hither and yon; but sometimes I wish he’d figure out where his culinary roots belong. Between stabs at the Middle East, Mediterranean, Asian or Latin cooking it’s sometimes a hodgepodge of convoluted cooking. Most recently I found my panko crusted chicken slathered with pesto, tomato sauce and perched on a pile of Asian dressed greens too fussy—an amalgam of flavors vividly distracting. One of my lunch mates ordered the chicken pot pie--the filling under a glorious dome of puff pastry was very good. But my other lunch mate didn’t enjoy his cockamamie dish of smoked blue fish burger piled high with an indistinct slaw. Some of the dishes like his signature Voodoo Stew or Chicken Pita Tzatziki (a tongue twister to order) are magical or hit in miss in my book but remain favorites of his patrons.
For the ultimate in hip, cool and casual, Portlanders, tourists and all manner of homo sapiens seem to wind up at Duckfat--celebrity Chef Rob Evan’s tour de force of Panini land and duck-fat-fried fries. When I was there last week during an enthralling nor’easter tearing through the city, this oddly shaped room was still SRO with a 15 minute wait. I left to go next door to the excellent East Ender, which was empty; after being greeted by a waitress who seemed out of it completely I left. I returned to Duckfat, got a seat at the side bar and enjoyed a delicious Panini of bacon mixed with an outrageously rich bacon relish (caramelized onions, tomato and bacon) and mozzarella. This heart stopper was killer good, aided and abetted by an order of those ducky-good fries. At about $20 for lunch including a tip and nothing but water to drink, Duckfat is expensive.
I often go to Olive Café, that amiable Mediterranean hideaway along Commercial Street. Owned by chef and wife team Rayan and Charlotte Elkhatib, the menu is a delight. My two favorite dishes are the Mediterranean Plate (humus, falafel, tahini sauce, seasoned and sautéed cauliflower served with a house salad and pita breads) and any of the tacos--fillings of chicken, fish or beef, all very well seasoned and wrapped up their flakey soft tacos. Most dishes are accompanied by excellent thin-cut fries. Here at least it’s authentic Mediterranean cooking--all very well prepared and served in its small, no-frills dining chamber.
John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.
In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.