Friday January 04, 2013 | 01:00 AM

The Corner Room is a very easy place to like given Portland’s hierarchy of restaurants that comprise the good, the bad and the beautiful.

Transport yourself there on a Friday night and you’ll be in one of the most energetic dining rooms in the city—a scene packed to its very high rafters with a crowd as agile and attractive as performers on stage.   Go midweek, however, and it’s a cozy Italian-style bistro where the food can be awfully good--though some preparations waver.

The Friday night crush at the Corner Room 

Weeknights are calmer at the Corner Room

Case in point was my main course of chicken Parmigiana that I had recently at dinner. A breaded  cutlet is prepared with a fundamentally good red sauce and topped with a sheath of melted provolone.  But the breast itself was as thick as a steak instead of being thinly cut like veal scaloppini.

Chicken parmigiana

Chicken with gorgonzola cream, polenta and bright green beans

Perfect spaghetti and meatballs

At another time my dinner started with a salmon tartare.  I prefer this dish to be simple—less is more.  Here it was served drenched in an aioli cream that was overwhelming.  For an entrée I chose another chicken dish (hey, I like chicken)--a cutlet bathed in a luxurious gorgonzola cream--assertively flavorful if still a bit too thickly cut and less tender.  Maybe it’s the kitchen’s style, but not mine.

Salmon tartare
Proprietor and Chef Harding Smith is still the consummate cook, having successfully brought to Portland three fine restaurants –aka his “rooms”:  the Corner Room, the Grill Room and the Front Room.  A fourth room in the works, this time on the water—will be a seafood house on Custom House Wharf set to open in the late spring 

If I’ve cited a few stumblings, so much else is good at the Corner Room that past misgivings are easily forgiven. For one, the kitchen shows consistent skill in most preparations, using high quality ingredients that are locally sourced. One time, for instance, the  green beans served with my recent tasting of the gorgonzola chicken were so bright and fresh they seemed to have been picked from a summer crop.

I also like the homemade quality of the food, which is so fresh.  All the pastas, for instance, are house made so that when you order a fundamental dish of meatballs and spaghetti, they are good enough to make an Italian-American Granny grin proudly:  quintessential red sauce, flavorful, tender meat balls and carefully crafted and cooked pasta. 

The kitchen also cures its own meats.  One time we were served a special that was rich rounds of salt cured foie gras atop house made panettone sweetened with quince jelly. This was a serious dish that I’d gladly have again.

Luxuriously prepared foie gras

All breads are baked in the kitchen’s ovens, and the house focaccia is the best in the city.  Pizzas are also expertly prepared with requisite thin, flakey crusts.  The basic Margherita Pizza, for instance, is composed of the simplest ingredients that include a zesty tomato sauce, fresh basil and mozzarella. A different take is the Dopo Pizza, a pie baked with spiced tomato sauce, pancetta, pecorino and eggs from the restaurant’s own farm.

Another of my favorite preparations is something two of us shared a few nights ago.  It’s the Corner Room Antipasti Platter: house cured lamb pancetta, sopresata, prosciutto, caponata, roasted peppers, sundry cured and fresh cheeses and perfect crostini. Each component was dazzling and showed that the kitchen can really put on the Ritz when it aims to.

Grand antipasti platter

In the past, the dining room has had some service problems butt now runs very smoothly both at lunch and dinner.  The evening hostess at the front podium is gracious and manages what is usually a hectic scene.  The wait staff is also very attentive and knowledgeable. 

For dessert most recently we chose to share a cannoli.  Happily the serving was two perfectly wrought pastries, lush with ricotta cream and studded with bittersweet chocolate chips.  The pastry was crisp when it’s often soggy, and it was the best cannoli I’ve had since my last foray to Ferrara’s in New York’s Little Italy.

While the Corner Room is not exactly like  being on  Little Italy’s  Mulberry Street I’m glad to have rediscovered this stylish Old Port dining venue, where the food, drink and  good times are almost always on the menu.

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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.

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