Saturday, December 7, 2013
At this time of year, dining critics often proclaim their picks for best restaurants of the year. Instead I’m offering my picks for the best dishes I’ve had at area restaurants. From the archetypal hamburger to more exalted choices, herewith are the dishes that made the grade..
If I had to choose my all-time favorite dish it would be from Five Fifty-Five. Chef and proprietor, Steve Corry, devised a remarkable first-course: a lemony goat cheese panna cotta—vividly smooth--interplayed with a puree of beets, smoked salmon, a sparkle of caviar, and chilled heritage beets. Dizzyingly delicious, this was nursery fare for the gods.
Five Fifty-Five's goat cheese panna cotta
As soon as Carmen at the Danforth opened I immediately put their reservation number on speed-dial. While every dish is a winner I particularly loved her quartet of appetizers--a masterpiece of creation comprised of manchego fritters, plantains topped with smoked salmon, Berkshire pork bites and monkfish croquettes—each one superbly invigorating.
Carmen at the Danforth, quartet of appetizers
Something as simple and elemental as potato pancakes is elevated to the sublime at Schulte and Herr, that little hideaway on Cumberland Avenue that has become the darling of local food mavens craving robust German fare. My favorite dish there are those light-as-air potato pancakes--a gentle rendition that can easily be a heavy dish in other hands. Instead these are prudently sautéed to produce a delectable crust encasing gossamer light potato mixture. Served with house-cured salmon, a touch of sour cream and capers for balance these are transcendent.
Potato pancakes at Scbulte and Herr
By most standards, Fore Street is integral to Portland’s dining heritage making it hard to pin point any one dish that’s a standout above others. I love, for example, Chef Sam Hayward’s tomato tart served in the summer. But at another time this year I enjoyed an exciting raw seafood starter, which made a lasting impression. It was served as a trio if tartares that included roughly chopped raw flounder cured in citrus, salt and rich olive oil; sliced yellow-fin tuna with pickled cardoons, and a grapefruit cured arctic char with mustard and leeks. The mix of flavors was superb, and chilled just right, this often clichéd dish became an exalted interpretation.
Fore Street's tartare trio
From the sublime to the tried and true, after many chomping mouthfuls I’ve decided that the best burger in Portland is definitely at Ruski’s, that rough and tumble neighborhood bar and grill where darts, beer and burgers get equal billing. The beef is from nearby Fresh Approach Market, and the way it’s seasoned and charred on the grill results in the perfect crusty burger. I had it slathered with blue cheese—all in all a mouth-watering mass of hamburger heaven.
OK. Eventide is the cause celebre of Portland's new restaurants. I don’t disagree. But one dish that ranks really high is the most elemental. Namely, it’s one of the few restaurants that offer Maine’s wild Casco Bay oysters otherwise known as Beloins. They’re not always available, but when they are you must try them if you love, as I do, the briniest and most fiercely flavorful oysters around.
Oysters at Eventide
No Portland best-dish list is complete without mentioning the esteemed Back Bay Grill, where Chef Larry Matthews creates superb food nightly. One recent standout for me was a first course of pork rillettes. It was accompanied by house-cured pepperoni with a bracing fruit mostarda, strips of pancetta and rosemary toasts. Just to gild the lily my main course was a roast breast of pheasant set in a divine classic red wine reduction balanced by a confit of prunes. This was truly haute fare of the old school rarely found elsewhere in town.
Back Bay's pork rillettes
If Asian fusion enjoys an exalted rung in Portland’s culinary hierarchy it is certainly displayed at the two restaurants owned by Masa Miyake. At his Longfellow Square noodle house, Pai Men Miyake, my favorite dish there is the squash dumplings. They are as delicate as the best gnocchi. They’re dressed with rinkosan vinegar, brown butter, and cauliflower, imparting an ethereal infusion of deliciousness.
Pai Men squash dumplings
Not to be outdone by its neighbor across Longfellow Square, Boda is perhaps the most creative of our many good Thai restaurants. But one dish that I covet every time I go is an eye-popping first course--quail eggs cooked in a round cast-iron baking pan. Each egg emerges with a crispy edge seared in a very hot oven to preserve perfect yolks. They arrive glistening and resplendent—accompanied by chopped scallions and soy sauce.
Boda quail eggs
Abby Harmon, chef extraordinaire and co-propietor of Caiola's, is one of the most creative chefs in Portland. Her fans loved her food when she was head chef at Street and Company. But once on her own since 2003 she has held court to a nightly adoration of locals and newcomers alike as she dreams up some mighty fine food at her West End establishment. The most recent dish that I enjoyed there was a first course so aptly and freshly devised of perfecty cooked green beans marinated in Marcona almonds, Bermuda onions, garlic and sweet peppers.
Caiola's green beans and marcona almonds
I go for the hail and hearty choices of Spread in a big way. But one standout dish among many was a crudo done as slivers of scallop gently set in a silky coating of celery, lime and pickled jalapeno. This was a precious, haute interpretation that stole the show for me.
Spread's scallop crudo
Lastly, as a nod to next summer, I have to mention the seasonal operation of the Slipway in Thomaston. Besides being perched on a beautiful site at the town landing, owner/ Chef Scott Yakovenko has created one of the most fun waterfront dining portals in the state, with basic seafood choices done beautifully with care. I still think his fried clams are about the best anywhere. Locally harvested and fresh that day, how good is that?
The Slipway's fried clams
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.