Friday February 22, 2013 | 05:54 AM

It would be unfair to peg Caiola’s as just a neighborhood restaurant aloft in Portland’s West End without considering some simple facts.

Caiola's, a welcoming port of call

That it’s also one of the most popular Sunday brunch hangouts in the city is a given.  That it offers a stylish setting for outdoor dining in the summer garden is a repast to look forward to. And in the prolongation of our cold, snowy winter I can think of no cozier hangout I’d rather be to enjoy some of the finest cooking in town. 

For an opener, the best cocktail

Commandeering the kitchen is co-proprietor and Chef Abby Harmon who makes this all happen.  Her kitchen is like a laboratory of invention—the whole kit and caboodle of culinary cause and effect that isn’t so easily classified. But attempting to I’d have to resort to words like Mediterranean-influenced with a dash of Downeast home cooking and a serious dose of comfort food savoir faire. 

For many dinner patrons the bar offers choice seating

Many regulars request the two end bar seats

Harmon made a name for herself as the long-time chef at the fabled Street and Company before opening Caiola’s in 2005.   Certain signature dishes like her savory bread puddings (lobster, shrimp or other seafood based) came with her. 

Regulars fill  the bar before the main dining room  gets crowded

But ruling the roost in her own kitchen has given Harmon the chance to shine as a chef on her own turf.  Together with co-owner and partner Lisa Vaccaro, they run a tight ship indeed.  Many members of the wait staff have been there for years.  Devoted patrons are known on a first-name basis and the bar bunch that gathers there for dinner nightly is generally a who’s who of creative Portland.

I’ve been a loyal patron of Caiola’s from Day One.  It’s my go-to place when I want to dine out for no other reason than to have a good meal in a place that feels like home.

The food is certainly intense, but in a good way, with each ingredient on the plate standing out distinctly.   A new dish, for example, on the menu that I haven’t seen before is a starter called Warm Reuben Dip. I ordered it the other night and loved it.  It’s basically a Reuben sandwich deconstructed servedin a crock. It’s molded into a pate-like spread with minced corned beef, sauerkraut and mustard spread onto the crispiest sesame-dusted toast points.  

The warm Reuben dip

An easy favorite, stuffed dates

There’s also always some version of finnan haddie on the starter or entrée menu.  The other night Harmon offered finnan haddie potato cakes, deeply flavored with the cured fish offset by sweet peppadew aioli and-- utterly whimsical--a pair of deviled eggs.

I’ve been to Caiola’s twice this week. The menu is tweaked daily so there’s always something different.

On my first outing a friend joined me, and he ordered two big appetizers and I had my usual three courses.  He chose the aforementioned finnan haddie cakes followed by crisply coated goat cheesed stuffed eggplant involtini with tapenade, pesto and picked red onions.  Here was a series of flavors that were exceptional. 

Eggplant involtini

I started with one of my favorite starters: warm Gorgonzola stuffed dates.  It’s served with a rasher of crisped prosciutto, softened by a light apple salad.  It’s a wholesome but outstanding staple on the menu. 

Finnan haddie potato cakes

For a main course I chose pork that was braised in maple and mustard, an edifying combo that I lapped right up. The rest of the plate was just as good and included duck-fat roasted sweet potatoes gloriously paired with a fresh pear salad and flakes of pistachios.

A soulful dish of maple and mustard braised pork

Incomparable, chicken Marsala

My meal was fairly substantial, but it didn’t stop me from trying  pastry chef Hannah Matheson’s take on Greek style donuts, called Loukoumades.  Served with a delicious chocolate sauce and set in custard these certainly finished my evening meal perfectly.

Yummy perfectly describes these Greek style donuts

On my second night there I kept to the bare minimum, if something so Spartan is possible there.  Starting off with their little gem salad, I found myself afterwards plowing in to a pasta dish that’s been a long-time favorite on the menu. The chicken Marsala with roasted shallots, mushrooms and rigatoni in a bracing red sauce was a thorough romp through nunaces of sweetness, savory and salty that were just plain scrumptious.

If any dish could outdo the foregoing then try the butterscotch pudding.  Mine came minus its touted topping of crushed almond brittle.  The waitress was terribly upset about it and forthwith retrieved a crock of brittle that I liberally scattered over this unctuously rich dessert.  With a smile on my face, the meal was complete.


Butterscotch pudding before the almond brittle topping

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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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