Friday June 21, 2013 | 05:30 AM

In the realm of world cuisine, Portland's iconic Local 188 is formidable.  It has played repeatedly to the local cognoscenti enamored by chef and proprietor Jay Villani’s clearly daring-do menu of Spanish-inspired cookery, a stash of Latin comfort fare that tastes so good.

A long-time fixture  facing Longfellow Square, Local 188 is  popular for nightly dining, weekend brunch and late-night cocktails.

The dining area that shares space with the lounge next to the bar is a big, comfy, wide-open room

At my most recent dinner there earlier this week there were some fine moments in the meal until the unfortunate drudgery of an indifferent kitchen prevailed.

It happened over one dish. 

We decided to eat at the bar rather than in the eclectic swarm of the dining room. It’s fun to watch the goings on in the open kitchen, which certainly dances to its own very chipper beat.

A long dining bar that faces the open kitchen gives a birds's-eye view of the kitchen
 
As we enjoyed our well made cocktails I saw a dish coming from the kitchen repeatedly.  It was a long plate holding glistening orbs that I couldn’t quite make out.  I asked our waitress to identify the dish and it turned out to be a tapas item described on the menu as “blackened day boat scallops with an orange glaze and apple relish.”  I ordered it as a starter.

After the first bite I had to stop.  It was so spicy hot it was rendered uneatable. A second taste was no different.   What happened, I wondered, to the bouncy prospect of sweet orange glaze and apple relish married to burnished scallops, which sounded so appetizing? 

The scallops looked so good but were way too spicy

Citing this to our waitress, she didn’t get it at first as though I was merely quibbling.  But she had the good sense to summon her higher ups to confer, and one of them went over to the line cook in charge.  And there I witnessed the reaction from this expressionless cook behind the counter.  From an initial shrug to a grimace of annoyance she responded as though the brilliance of her craft had been had been unduly interrupted.

The scallops clearly had been assaulted by a heavy dose of cayenne pepper, which overwhelmed these sweet little morsels beyond salvation. If that was the intent of the preparation then it should have been noted on the menu.  If it was a mistake, well, that’s another issue.

I love Local 188's bread, which is torn apart instead of being cut and served moistenend with a  rich olive oil 

Local 188 is generally a very reliable dining establishment that delivers a menu of inventive, well prepared fare in a very affable home-spun space.  Of course even the best kitchens have their off moments.  But, to me, it begs a bigger question. With many of Portland’s restaurateurs in expansion mode with multiple establishments under their belt, can that leave the mother ship adrift?

The busy front bar is clubby and hip at the same time with a mix of diners and those out for a good time

These mini dining empires succeed when there are capable sous chefs at the helm, making pros like Villani into roving tastemakers who oversee the cooking and menus at each place.  His sister restaurant, Sonny’s, for example, which I go to often, has never missed a beat,  and his soon to open Salvage Barbecue and Ideal Bakery look like winners. 

Other chefs in town like Harding Smith and his “Rooms” are generally consistently good. Steve and Michelle Corry’s lineup of Five-Fifty Five and Petite Jacqueline are staunch players in their double act. David Turin (of David’s and David’s 388 renown) is certainly the entrepreneur with his multiplex of dining venues scattered from Portland to Kennebunkport.  Farther afield the very creative Brian Hill of Camden runs three of Maine’s most compelling restaurants that started with Francine followed by Shepherd’s Pie and his newly opened Seabright, an opulent pizza joint on the harbor.They function because the chain of command is there. 

Fortunately the rest of our meal was very satisfying, and  for an entree I had the evening  special,  halibut scented with basil and served over wheat berries, a healthy and soulful dish that I quite enjoyed.  And my friend chose the house gnocchi, albeit an unusual preparation that placed sautéed gnocchi in a beer and sausage gravy, with red bell peppers, manchego and topped with an egg sunny side up.

Sauteed gnocchi were launched in a beer and sausage sauce that was entirely different but very good.

This was a delicious rendition of pan-seared halibut scented with basil and served on a bed of wheat berries

The best dish of the evening, though, was dessert.  Admittedly I have the proverbial sweet tooth and the peanut butter ice cream was one of the best scoops I’ve had all year; rich with creamy peanut butter, the texture was perfect.

The richly textured peanut butter ice cream and perfect chocolate chip cookie were both exceptional

Restaurants like Local 188 are unique because of the style of its cuisine.   Whereas chefs all over the country—some very brilliant and creative indeed--are nonetheless manning restaurants that follow  the ubiquity of  American bistro fusion, which relies on so much ad hoc artisanal folderol to render it nearly old hat at the gate. But for Villani and others like him they must stay unique, enpointe and be vigil keepers of the flame.
 
 

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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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