Thursday January 17, 2013 | 05:30 PM

The original Norm’s that I first encountered on Congress Street was one of those illustrious examples of the iconic downtown bar and grill-- certainly sultry if not an iniquitous nod to the dark side.  Maybe it was the low lighting, shiny crimson walls and scruffy vibe along with great, simple food that made it so appealing.

For those not in the know, fast forward some ten years, that establishment is now ( Norm’s)  The Downtown Lounge—a guileless pleasure cave for neo-hipster 20-somethings who smoke and drink with alacrity inside and out of its hallowed halls.  I hear the tapas are good and lots of eponymous Norm touches.   

By comparison the  new Norm’s that relocated in 2003 to its present location is very well established as the extant Congress Bar and Grill.

The infamouos Congress Bar and Grill

While I haven’t been a frequent visitor at this incarnation, I walked in the other day as though looking through a haze of nostalgia to see the old Norm’s all over again.

Dining at Congress Street Bar and Grill

Owned by Norm’s former partner, Deb Glanville, it delivers in mood and food flawlessly.  Even the chef from the original establishment, Bryan Kowtko, is back cranking out a menu that personifies the best of bar-and-grill grub cuisine.  All those flatbreads, kebabs and juicy burgers still get pushed into the kitchen pass-through, then  transported by an efficient if irreverent wait staff who either talk too much or too little.

I stopped in for lunch the other day and had one of the best fish-cakes with housemade tartar sauce.  Crusty, fishy, gutsy and greasy all at once, they were delicious.  Served with a fresh green salad as bright as a summer patch it was a perfect lunch.  My frequent lunch chum, a vegetarian, lusted after his Greek style spinach salad, loaded with the proverbial falafel balls and feta over greens, a special that day.

A perfect pair of fish cakes

Greek salad with spicy falafel and greens

While there’s a printed menu at both lunch and dinner, the blackboard specials are the first place to look.  Back for dinner a few days ago, the specials featured  bourbon and brown sugar glazed hangar steak with frites and sautéed broccoli; 3 meat chili with beef, sausage and chicken and Thai jumbo shrimp with coconut. 

The regular menu sports all the right choices, too: from a pan seared Statler chicken breast; fried haddock; fish and chips and plenty of big sandwiches from burgers to BBQ'd pulled pork. 

It’s the sides that were always the most interesting at the original joint and they still are today.  Grilled buttermilk biscuits, grilled flat bread, hand-cut sweet potato fries and such are all vigorously rich essentials. 

Sitting at the bar for dinner with a friend earlier this week, we started off by sharing the eggplant and garlic dip surrounded by perfectly grilled wedges of flat bread.  This was a soulful starter well washed down by expertly crafted cocktails.

Eggplant dip was a first-rate starter

For main a course, my buddy chose a burger with all the fixings, and I opted for the hangar steak special.  The burger was thick and well charred--easily one of the best hamburgers in Portland.  It was a relief not to meet up with  skinny multiple stacks of meat patties that trendy chefs call hamburgers.

The essential burger and fries

My hangar steak couldn’t have been better.  Well seasoned, nicely char-grilled and sitting alongside a perfect pile of frites, this was a fine play on classic steak frites.  Even the accompanying sautéed broccoli was well prepared--not overcooked and tasting as though it were just picked from  the garden. 

Bourbon glazed hangar steak and crispy frites

We didn’t order dessert, which I tend to shy away from nowadays, but noticed a few of the eatery’s homemade cakes and pies coming out of the kitchen that looked very tempting.

The food is still well priced at Congress Street, with barely an entrée more than $17.  And this is good because what Portland lacks in spades is casual joints like this where the ambiance, the food and the mood all contrive to make it an exciting reason to dine out without breaking the bank.

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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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