Friday February 15, 2013 | 01:00 AM

What surprised me most about my recent dinner at the Armory Lounge, located off the lower lobby of the Portland Regency Hotel, is that the food is far better than the usual pub grub.

 I don’t think of the Armory as a serious place to dine, but rather it’s the ideal spot for a cocktail after office hours.  But on that night I wasn’t in the mood for a major meal.  Since the city was under icy wraps from our historic blizzard, with a parking ban still in effect, the choice of where to go for a casual meal that also offered parking was limited.  At least at the Regency--like the Portland Harbor Hotel--there’s valet parking, a great convenience when the streets are glacial.

Bar dining  in its spacious room

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Armory.  But here’s what I now  know: it’s one of Portland’s best kept restaurant secrets.  The food is so good because the same chef, Allan Cook, who carefully commandeers their lobby restaurant, 20 Milk St,  also directs the Armory’s menu. 

Armory bartenders keep their stations well stocked

The décor, however, is another issue.  I’m not sure if its dark cavernous space is the best it could be.  Is it a hopeless caricature of itself? How dark should a dark bar be?  I mean what a cliché of interior décor sporting painted books on wallpaper, wood paneling and discounted wall sconces so much like a cheap version of city sophistication?  To me it felt like Methuselah’s world of darkness.

A book-lined nook for beer, booze and good food

Maybe regulars would hate to see it change.  If you’re just going there to drink and nibble on nuts who cares what the space looks like? 

At 8 pm  the lounge was not full except for stragglers left over from the after-five crowd.  We chose to sit at the bar for dinner. 

Mikey, the bartender,  prepared two excellent cocktails: a perfect dry martini for my friend and my usual vodka gimlet.

The menu offers the usual suspects from shrimp cocktail, BBQ wings, sandwiches and salads at both lunch and dinner.  But the short entrée list has some interesting choices such as sautéed chicken and shrimp over creamy polenta and braised kale.  There’s also a respectable charbroiled club steak, fish and chips and butternut squash risotto. 

Scallops Veronique--delish!

We kept it simple and shared a first course of scallops Veronique, a peculiar sounding dish—grapes and scallops?    What arrived were two beautifully honey-glazed scallops in a thoroughly bracing red-grape Chablis butter sauce. It was hardly a chef’s flight of fantasy but rather a divine concoction.

A monumental burger and fries


What surfaced next was the tallest hamburger in Portland, which my friend ordered.  I chose bourbon brined Berkshire pork for an entrée. 

The burger is made from the restaurant’s own farm-raised Piedmontese beef, which is high in protein and low in fat.  What perfection!  It arrived under a mountain of fried onions, shredded lettuce and what the menu describes as a secret sauce, a kitschy epithet indeed.  But it was certainly one of the best burgers in town, accompanied by a perfect pile of French fries. 

The brined pork should have been  tender but it was still delicious as was the bread pudding

Scallopped potatoes and glazed carrots accompanied the pork

My two pork steaks were served over Tasso (ham) bread stuffing that was richly delicious.  The pork was  surprisingly tough considering that it was brined, but I enjoyed it anyway.  The true star of the entrée was the sides: a perfect square of scalloped potatoes--rich, cheesy and creamy--and glazed carrots that were as lip-smacking good as candy.

We weren’t going to have dessert but after looking at the list I had to try one of the offerings from their pastry chef, Amy Acheson, who does the desserts for both restaurants at the hotel. 

Called "dark and stormy" this sweet course was just right

The list has such names as Queen’s Cake, Goodnight Kiss, Kona Kicker and Turkish Delight, all of which sounded like the sweeties at a Valentine’s Day  brothel.

The one that I chose, Dark and Stormy, was a  delicious rum ganache cake with ginger rum sauce, lime confit and ginger ice cream.  Fabulous. 

As a postscript I went to the Armory for lunch the next day and had what the menu says is “Our Famous Lobster Croissant.”  Lobster on a buttery, house-made croissant is truly as good as just about everything else at the Armory.

 Lobster roll lunch

 


 

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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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