Saturday, March 8, 2014
Grazing is the new norm amongst some voracious diners prowling for the next great dish. As though looking for gustatory cause and effect, it’s akin to foraging for culinary excitement—tautly wrought nibbling meant to enthrall our food sense.
I personally like my three squares in one place where first, main and dessert courses follow in sensible progression. But the other night I thought I’d try something different—an expansion of the evening meal to take place at a highly prized newcomer followed by one of Portland’s most revered dining establishments.
The evening began at Eventide. (Hasn't this place gotten enough press already?)
Eventide's oyster man at work
But for naught it’s grazer’s heaven because you can peregrinate through its highly stylized menu, throwing darts where they may land on such disparate nibbles as a halibut crudo salad to their East-West version of the inimitable lobster roll.
For me, all I wanted was a half-dozen oysters and a shot of vodka on the rocks. The oysters I chose were no ordinary bivalves. These were Maine’s own wild variety otherwise known as Beloins, generally found in Casco Bay.
Wild Beloin oysters, plain, without accoutrements
As listed on the chalkboard menu it stated they were from Damariscotta. I asked the waitress what waterway in Damariscotta (the river I presumed?) but she couldn’t tell me nor did she try.
Nonetheless, these are exceedingly briny and an acquired taste. To me they’re the ultimate oyster.
I thought of pairing them with a glass of Muscadet or Chablis, but the vodka worked just fine.
A short walk away I stopped into Bresca on the chance that there might be a seat at the bar. There wasn’t otherwise I would have had a quickie like tartine or roasted olives with preserved lemon, celery and nuts—all to massage my tastes buds for the next event.
This was my last stop: at Fore Street at the bar, tended by Portland’s two most affable bartenders, Bill and Greg. I arrived between shifts of the usual dining throng and had a seat and place setting waiting for me.
Fore Street: the perfect Negroni (vodka, sweet vermouth and Compari)
Greg was in charge that evening and served me a perfect Negroni. Coincidentally, a couple—fellow grazers—sat down next to me having just come from Eventide. As we chatted I learned that they were from Hartford, CT, and travel to Portland for our fabulous restaurants. Such a foodie town we are!
The Fore Street bar
Fore Street’s menu is always an intriguing compilation of dishes that are the essence of simplicity but still highly nuanced with Chef Sam Hayward’s nimble interpretations of evocatively focused fare.
I started with the warm mushroom salad, a dish that is pure Fore Street. Comprised of a mellifluous merger of wild mushrooms, panzanella-style grilled cubes of sour dough bread, sautéed kale and frisee, pearls of glazed turnips, bacon and almond—it’s an exuberant first course for sure.
Wild mushroom salad
Negroni nearly gone, a glass of Malbec took its place upon the arrival of my main course. Here was a beautifully burnished pekin duck (not to be confused with Peking duck), which is a Long Island breed of duckling. The preparation married a tender, succulent grilled breast and confit leg with a spicy pepper and bacon studded cornbread sitting atop a saucy bed of chicory, quince and cranberry compote.
Grilled duck breast and confit leg
The juxtaposition of flavors was intense and extremely satisfying, a complex dish that had polish and style.
Desserts have always been a strong suit at Fore Street, with some very able pastry chefs at the helm at various times. A long-time member of their pastry kitchen is Brant Dadaleares, who has manned his whip and spoon for many years in Portland. He’s utterly creative, daring and completely capable, the kind who throws together bacon infused ice cream as nonchalantly as one might opt for hot fudge sauce.
Sweets featured that evening included a chocolate pudding trifle, roasted pineapple with brown sugar crumble and vanilla bean ice cream among others. What caught my attention was a butter toasted carrot cake nudged with candied walnuts, rosemary-scented caramel sauce and cream cheese ice cream.
Butter-toasted carrot cake and cream-cheese ice cream
What a cornucopia of flavors as was my entire evening dining at two of our city’s most reverential dining establishments fit for intrepid travelers or local patrons alike.
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.