Saturday, March 8, 2014
Artemisia lives up to the meaning of its name and the name of its location—artful, aromatic food located on charming Pleasant Street—a hideaway location indeed.. The restaurant has been in Portland longer than I have and until recently lunch and brunch were its métier.
Artemisia's location on Pleasant St. is part of a charming urban mix of early 19th century houses and offices for Portland's creative crew of architects and artists
I went there years ago for lunch in the days when the city was hardly the culinary whiz bang that it is today. Creative salads and sandwiches, creaky tables and a lot of cozy ladies with neatly coiffed hair favored this outpost café. With owner/chef Celia Bruns at the helm, she made the place famous (for some) with her invention of a sweet potato sandwich, which was a lot better than it sounds (it’s still on the menu). Slices of sweets are grilled, put on whole grain bread with avocado, sprouts, red onion and tomatoes set in a lemon poppy-seed mayonnaise—a painstaking reminder of 1970s California cuisine, which perhaps should remain in the nostalgic past rather than front and center.
Artemisia's interior space is bare-bones charming
There will soon be a full bar; for now there's wine and beer
Artemisia may have been on the brink of the city’s food revolution then, but as a dining destination it never went beyond the prosaic. You wouldn’t rush over there for a fix of culinary hijinks.
But with its newly installed dinner service under the direction of Guy Frenette, a local chef with cooking experience here and in California, Artemisia might finally enter its second wave. It still serves lunch with Bruns in the kitchen during the day. After night fall it tries to let loose.
The dining space is very much the way I remembered; in fact, nothing has really changed. The room is set up in a series of booths--front, back and side, with a bar at one end serving beer and wine, and a liquor license is on its way.
On a dreary night the other evening--cold and very off-putting on the eve of Memorial Day weekend--it was a nice, quiet place to have dinner. The restaurant was not crowded, but as we settled in a friend of mine came in to have dinner and said, “Oh, you’ve discovered this place--lucky us.”
The kitchen sent out a tasty offering of brandade fritters topped with a chipotle mayonnaise. These were very well done and a nice beginning but hardly seismic.
An offering from the kitchen, the Maine halibut brandade fritters are served with a chipolte mayo
On the back side of the menu were various drink offerings, which included a blast from aperitif past: Lillet on the rocks. What a dignified-old-fashioned libation, nearly prehistoric like soda pop.
As for the menu, it’s an odd juxtaposition of cuisines, vaguely fusion Mediterranean, meaning a little bit of this and that.
We were three at table and two of us ordered the diced beet salad served in a melange of shaved fennel, olives, avocado and parsley and sat in an orange-pistachio dressing that was delicious, even if the color was oddly green. The third starter was a classically prepared dish of mussels. These were well conceived in coconut milk, serrano peppers, garlic, basil and lime.
A zesty helping of Maine mussels
A first course salad of fennel, beets and avocado
Of the next three entrees mine was the most successful. It was a ballotine of chicken that was delicately rolled around an herbed chicken mousse and served with quinoa, broccoli and olives atop sauce pevra, a Mediterranean preparation that’s basically a balsamic-based bread sauce. It's an elegant dish.
Ballotine of chicken was beautifully prepared
Gnocchi with asparagus and Parmesan
The other two entrees that my friends had were gnocchi with asparagus and mint and a dish of Mediterranean lamb meatballs. The gnocchi dressed with asparagus and herbs were properly smooth and light but ultimately uninteresting. The lamb meatballs would have been better presented as an appetizer instead of a main course. They were tangy and robust in all the right places accompanied by a rich raita and an assertively proper dipping sauce called muhammara, a kind of tangy pepper sauce. All of this was meant to be wrapped up in grilled flatbreads.
Desserts were chocolate ice cream affogato, a berry trifle and a very standard American vanilla cake that was moist and rich. We had no trouble with any of these.
Ultimately Artemisia offers a reprieve from the surge of Portland’s trendy eateries commandeered by hipster chefs out to make a splash.
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.