Thursday, December 5, 2013
Today’s hits are sometimes tomorrow’s misfires. Consider a recent dinner I had recently at a highly touted Portland hot spot.
The main course (duck with lentils) was so tough that I had to ask for a steak knife to cut away the thick layer of fat while attempting to saw the meat into chewable pieces. Even with the sharper implement I had a tough time. I pushed it aside, ate some more bread, had a glass of wine and called it a night.
Other meals this week were good, though it was hit and miss. Take the trendy Boyton-McKay in Camden. Traveling through the village I stopped there for coffee on Saturday morning.
At Boyton-McKay I should have sat at a booth to have their famous blueberry buttermilk panckes
The problem was they were out of coffee. The five self-serve vacuum canisters gurgled with dribbles and bits from the bottom. It took a while for the server at the coffee station/register to realize that these pots were empty. The line of coffee-parched patrons should have been a clue
I waited a bit and decided I’d grab one of their house-made donuts. That’s when I was gazumped again—this time by an elegantly clad dowager type in front of me who bought the entire tray load of donuts! I offered (jokingly) to buy one from her stash. Mortified, she glared at me steely-eyed. Ten minutes later one coffee canister came back to life filled with weak French roast. I left, bought a newspaper from the outside rack and handed over exact change to the flummoxed nincompoop at the counter.
Later that day we stopped at Long Grain (31 Elm St.,, Camden, 207-236-9001), considered by Midcoast locals the absolute cat’s meow for Thai cooking. I’ve been there before and was never that impressed. But a year ago it made the pages of the New York Times—immortalized forever after.
With 16 seats, Long Grain is cozy and sweet against the beautiful backdrop of Camden village outside
Long Grain's dish of mussels was very good even if there was one clunker in the bowl
Long Grain's version of Thai steak salad is packed with flavor
Long Grain's custard with a black bean compote was incredibly good.
With three other friends in tow we ordered, however, a very nice lunch. We started off with steamed pork dumplings, which were my least favorite of the dishes we had. The next course of mussels in coconut milk and lemon grass were superb, even though I hit an “off” one out of the dozen.
Another winner was the Thai beef salad, which had tons of complex but typical Thai flavors hiding under a frilly dome of greens..
The Pad Ke Mao, a spicy stir fry with chicken, wide rice noodles and plenty of garlic, was excellent; and for the lone vegetarian in our group the organic greens with locally made tofu was pronounced perfect.
This was a very respectable spicy chicken stir-fry with wide rice noodles
The star of lunch was dessert-- rich egg custard. Here with a burnished sugared top like creme brulee, the rich custard was served over a compote of black beans that was brilliant.
Long Grain is a joyful little place of authentic native cooking that reaches some distinction.. With Portland’s Boda as a benchmark--or the ravishing sister-- it’s a comely second best.
A relatively new restaurant a few doors away is La Comida. I looked at the menu posted on the door, and it showed an impressive list of authentic sounding regional Mexican and Latin fusion fare prepared by CIA trained chef, Tom Sigler. This is definitely a place to try next time.
Mid-week I had to have a hamburger. And what better place for one than at Portland’s rough and tumble, Ruski’s Tavern (212 Danforth St., Portland, 207-774-7604). They make the best, most forthright, honest no- frills burger in town. Deep, crusty char, excellent meat (a half pound) on a pretty good bun, this is burger simplicity bar none. The French fries are decent and the onion rings are good, too. And for less than ten dollars this is the best meal in town at this peerless down and dirty dive.
The Ruski's blue-cheese burger in all its glory
With ringside seats, we joined the crowd at Ruski's
Finally, on my way back from New York last Tuesday, I pulled into the Maine Diner in Wells for a late lunch. This is still the war-horse of the American diner genre, serving huge portions and wholseome well-made food to an imperious pot-belly-polyester crowd.
The Maine Diner's indomitable chicken a la king
Next time (maybe) I'll try the chocolate cake
I sat next to a guy at the counter having one of the day’s specials, Chicken A la King. He said, “Ya gotta have it, all home…” and he trailed off. Yessiree, home-made it is.
Out came this enormous glop of creamed chicken with red peppers over humongous biscuits swathed in a thick, shiny white sauce that was big-girth-making good.
I also couldn’t keep my eyes off the massive slice of chocolate cake in the dessert carousel, but I showed terrific self-restraint and polished off my lunch without it.
I left full, heavier and happy.
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.