Wednesday, December 11, 2013
It’s been nearly a year since a new restaurant has joined the substantial ranks of Portland’s dining hierarchy. That it should be named In’finiti is neither a stroke of infinite wisdom nor affectation but, perhaps, a rather high-born notion of itself?
The bar at noontime
Upper level dining area
Normally I wouldn’t assess a new restaurant in its first few days of operation. But, quite frankly, I couldn’t wait to go someplace different. Smack dab in the cortex of the city’s most vibrant commercial and tourist corridor, its location is a brilliant choice of real estate ascendancy.
Its full name is In’finiti Fermentation and Distillery. It’s where their extraordinary copper vats are in full view as you enter this opulently decorous world. As a distillery, it will be serving its own rum, whiskey and gin for starters, and, of course, beer.
The copper vats behind a glass wall
To my great surprise In’finiti is not just about booze and beer or its stance as the hipster’s place to play. It’s also all about some serious food.
I went there for lunch on Wednesday joined by a friend who hadn't any knowledge about the restaurant. I, at least, had been following the food babble right up to opening day.
Created by Yarmouth residents Eric and Judy Michaud, they are the folks who gave us the wildly popular Novare Res, the inimitable craft bier emporium tucked behind Exchange Street.
Kitchen staff hard at work
The room is huge, but it works without feeling overwhelming. Above the very substantial and beautifully crafted bar are the dining booths and tables that overlook the scene below. Beyond that there will be a lounge with comfy sofas, which will lead out to a harbor-front deck that’s sure to be a scene on summer days and nights.
Leading out to the waterfront deck
If I mentioned that the food is serious, don’t look for blue-plate bargain priced dishes. Yes, there’s a $15 hamburger and a tapas menu pegged on the high side at $5 to $13. Entrees start at $9 for an 8-inch pizza made with the restaurant’s signature pretzel crust to dishes like malt-crusted arctic char ($22) and something called francesinha ($22)—a grilled pork chop, linguica sausage, pork belly, white bean and beer sauce served on brioche. Wow!
The chef is Noly Lopez who has worked at Novare Res but more significantly at the former Havana South. If his talents didn’t shine at his former post, he’s surely making up for it now.
Chef Noly Lopez
At lunch my friend and I shared an eggplant caponata that was served under a halo of arugula and moistened with green-olive vinaigrette. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill mash of aubergine brought back to life but instead an ingenious infusion of onion, fennel and eggplant compote faintly touched with garlic and wands of other spices. With it was an enchanting wedge of seared chevre served with crisp shavings of taro root, all of which made this little starter brilliantly good.
Under the arugula is a delicious caponata, with taro root shavings and seared chevre
For lunch entrees, we ordered the two individually sized pizzas. What’s unique about these is that the crust is made from pretzel dough, a culinary theme that graces many dishes on the menu (like pretzel fried chicken).
Pizza topped with lemon paste, prosciutto, figs, arugula and Parmesan
Another pizza choice with olives, artichokes and fresh ricotta
The pretzel dough was a little unusual at first but with each bite we liked its firm, yet crisp, doughy texture a lot. It’s certainly a great relief from the thin-crust crowd’s drooling passion for cracker-thin crusts.
At dinner we chose to sit at the bar to watch the goings on first hand. This time we tried two tapas selections: the chorizo and quail eggs and the mixed mushroom and green bean tempura with hop salt and ponzu.
Chorizo topped with quail eggs and shoestring potatoes
Mushroom and green bean tempura
Perfectly cooked quail eggs are served over a chorizo sausage that’s made in house and topped with shoestring potatoes and chorizo oil. I could see this dish as the star hors d’oeuvre being passed at a swell cocktail party. The tempura was lightly coated with batter and prepared as a delicious, perfect savory.
One of the many custom cocktails, Chartreuse Swizzle with green chartreuse, 8 bells rum, house falernum, pineapple, lime and mint
For an entree my friend had to have the $15 hamburger. OK, folks, herewith the essential char-grilled burger—and quite easily the best burger in Portland. It’s served on a grilled Kaiser roll, with slow-roasted tomato, sweet chipotle aioli and topped with Cambozola, a beautiful brie-like blue- veined cheese. . The fries were very good, though not remarkable.
The fabulous In'finiti burger
My entrée was a luxurious, utterly sensual take on brown butter gnocchi with butter-poached lobster, asiago cheese and cherry tomatoes in vermouth. At $24 it’s a very modest portion, and I could have had double the serving.
A great dish, butter-poached lobster with brown-butter gnocchi
Next to swoon over were the desserts. Pastry chef Patrick Tubbs, who’s been with some of Portland’s best restaurants, has a beautifully conceived dessert menu. My friend ordered the coconut panna cotta, richly textured and accompanied by sweet potato mousse, candied orange peel and ginger syrup.
Coconut panna cotta
My choice of gingerbread with bacon was another winner. The cake is beer infused and accompanied by the most outrageously sweet slab of candy-coated bacon, with cinnamon tuile, black-pepper ice cream and salted bourbon caramel sauce.
The best candy-coated bacon with gingerbread and black-pepper ice cream
In the months ahead, the city’s dining scene will welcome many new establishments, and if they’re half as good as In’finiti our reputation as a food city is secure.
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.