Friday April 19, 2013 | 01:00 AM

Consider the vitals of a restaurant flanked by upstarts and established competitors who’ve surged ahead leaving an otherwise fine eating establishment to fend for its underrated self. 

That is, as I see it,  the conundrum at the East Ender, a really likeable gastro-pub, putting out terrific food while the trendy interlopers along the Middle Street restaurant row steal its thunder. 

The East Ender on food-centric Middle Street

Duckfat is next door

Does it suffer from an identity crisis?  Essentially a neighborhood eatery, the East Ender beyond its casual façade is also a fine-dining establishment.  That in itself throws a dichotomous wrench into its culinary wheel. 

The other day I went to the East Ender for lunch.  There was no problem getting a table.  But outside, the block was full of diners waiting their turn to get into Duckfat next door.  Down the street, the effulgent Eventide struts with SRO at lunchtime and dinner, too. 

The East Ender's bright and colorful bar and downstairs dining space

Truth be told, I went to Eventide first, a place I really enjoy, and ordered a lobster roll ($13) for lunch.  I could have paired it with clam chowder for $20 but didn’t.  Their lobster roll is delicious, different in that it’s served warm, but it is, shall we say, a very small portion for a great big price?

Eventide's inimitable lobster roll served warm inside a Chinese-style dim-sum bun

The East Ender's more traditional lobster salad on a brioche bun; wonderful homemade pickles and fries

Still hungry, I went across the street and sat down at the bar at East Ender and guess what?  I ordered another lobster roll—this one bulging with luscious lobster meat ($16). It’s prepared as a cold salad served on a house-made brioche bun that’s beautifully toasted.  It came with a pile of French fries and  homemade pickles.  In fact, everything is made on the premises.

“Except the ketchup,” the waitress said when I asked her.  “We used to make it,” she confided, “but everyone wanted plain old Heinz.”

Everything is made in-house and sourced locally by Chef Mitchell Gerow who has an impressive resume of past chef postings.  It’s co-owned by Meg Schroeter, who took over the beloved Norm’s East End Barbecue space in 2011 where the East Ender now resides. 

Intrigued by lunch I returned several nights later for dinner.  I headed to the upstairs dining room, which in Norm’s day was the preferred dining area.  But now the first floor space and bar also appeal to the dinner crowd ( upstairs is closed at lunchtime).

Upstairs dining and bar at the East Ender, big tables and booths along the side set the mood where you can rightly don fringe and cowboy boots 

The menu is a creative mix of dishes.  Items like hominy grits with Scotch eggs or shrimp, Montreal smoked brisket, trout fritters, nachos with lobster and sultry sides like cheesy cauliflower, sweet and spicy Cole slaw—lots of southern and American influences add up to urbane farm-style cooking.

Of course I had to have the Scotch eggs.  They are such an old-fashioned, homey
dish of cooked eggs swaddled in sausage meat, breaded and deep fried.  But alas the kitchen was sold out.
“A big run on them tonight,” our waitress said.  (We were there before 7PM.) 

 I learned the crowd comes early and a second shift arrives late.  It’s like the Boda of the East End where area chefs congregate after their stints at the stove. 

With cocktails we started off with a trio of deviled eggs. The three toppings were deep-fried cheese, sausage and roast beef with horseradish—a thoroughly enjoyable beginning.

East Ender's signature dish, a trio of deviled eggs

We sampled two more starters of broccoli fritters and calamari.  The fritters were lushly filled with cheddar and lots of broccoli puree, green onion and spicy mayo wrapped up in a wondrously rich batter and deep fried.  Delicious.

Along with the East Ender's trout fritters, the brocoli fritters are also a must-have

The calamaris are flash fried and served with daikon and a sweet chili mayo. These were very good as well. 

Sweet and tender fried calamari with daikon

For a  main  course my friend had to have the Swedish meatballs served over American-style house-made wide noodles. What a sixties dish, perhaps  better served as a first course in a smaller portion.  Even so, they were beautifully presented and the flavor was intensely rich, the noodles  al dente and the spinach leaves a nice touch.

No chafing dish required, Swedish meatballs make a comeback at the East Ender

At another time I would have gone for some of the hearty meat entrees like smoked hen served over braised spinach, prosciutto, hush puppies and maple sour cream mustard barbecue sauce.  

Instead I ordered a sensible dish of local hake.  It was arranged over grilled asparagus and a tarragon soubise, a classic haute cuisine French preparation of onions sautéed in butter, folded into a béchamel, pureed through a sieve and enriched with egg yolks.   It’s generally a luxurious topping for noisettes of lamb or veal.  This  version was  flavored with tarragon, silken and good;  I thought the hake, however,  was a tad overcooked.

A new guise for local hake served over asparagus and tarragon sauce soubise

For dessert we tried the house-made ice cream sandwich: two chocolate wafer-like cookies sandwiching homemade vanilla ice cream and salted caramel with whipped cream.

The essential ice cream sandwich, a killer dessert at the East Ender

At this moment, it's one of the best desserts in Portland and one more reason to go to the East Ender for its eclectic, creatively prepared fare .  Don't miss it.

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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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