Thursday, December 12, 2013
In 2003 the venerable Five Fifty-Five opened its doors on Congress Street in the days when the future masters of the Portland dining universe were not yet a reality.
With Five Fifty-Five’s debut and a handful of others, they would all contribute to send the city on a gastronomic tear to become the dining Mecca that it is today.
Five Fifty-Five as it stands today
The rest, of course, is history and last Friday the restaurant celebrated its 10 year anniversary with a special 10-course dinner to commemorate the event. I’d like to chronicle the dinner here rather than offer a typical critique and to look back at some of our old stars and current tastemakers.
One of the most memorable dishes that I had at Five Fifty-Five several years ago was this goat cheese panna cotta with beet puree and smoked salmon
In the context of a decade ago, Portland had its small share of restaurant luminaries. Back Bay Grill, Fore Street , Street & Co. and even the then upstart Hugo’s made up the hierarchy of fine dining in the city.
Alas there were other notable spots that are now distant memories. The dearly departed Bandol was too outré for Portland’s then nascent world of culinaires. The old Uffa, for instance, now operates as the Frog and Turtle in Westbrook; the erstwhile—and fabulous--Commissary that had a brief fling in the former Portland Public Market, had an unfortunate demise as did the building that housed it, a gift to the city from Elizabeth Noyes and the Libra Foundation, all of which got lost in a real estate shuffle to become a call center.
Other old dames of dining included the wonderful Michaela’s, a space now occupied by Shay's, the burger joint, but in its day in the early 2000s it was a charming French inspired bistro with its luminous red-satin banquettes.
Such is how the world turns, but Portland continues to play host to an ever-evolving roster of creative chefs who are bringing the city world-class dining. Very few surpass Masa Miyake and his trio of Japanese/Asian fusion dining halls, which add incredible panache and presence. Jay Villani thrives on the West End with his long-running Local 188 as does his Old Port Latin flavor, Sonny’s.
Bar Lola and Blue Spoon are integral on the hill. And Harding Smith’s “rooms” are key to the fabric of the city— regardless of the recent smear job heaved into print, rife with vitriolic jabs of innuendo. (Some people in Maine just don’t like it when others are successful.)
But I have no doubt that Smith’s forthcoming dockside extravaganza, Boone's Fish House and Oyster Room, promises to be not just a scene stealer but a daring dining destination as well.
Other recent newcomers have made bigger and bolder statements like In’finiti and Outliers who have constructed highly designed rooms around forward thinking dining concepts. On that score I had a sneak peak at the revamped Hugo’s. It's a total turnaound, an impressive job of dismantling one of the dowdiest dining rooms in Portland into a stylishly modern haunt for connoisseurs of serious food.
Now that I’ve had my say about the past, present and future of the city’s dining world, it’s all preamble to the incredible dinner served at Five Fifty Five’s commemorative event last week.
Though I’ve said in the past that I’m not a fan of tasting menus, Chef Steve Corry’s roster of multiple courses was superbly devised. From the perfect oyster over grilled Caesar and served with a cunning Sancerre; shaved scallops in vanilla carrot essence and a roulade of Poussin, foie gras and chanterelle, the progression of courses presented moments of culinary magic. With it I enjoyed an excellent Meursault to accompany most of my meal right through dessert.
The room was shoulder to shoulder with appreciative, long-standing patrons of the restaurant who came dressed to the nines, some with furs and diamonds plucked from the vault to add sparkle and style to the room. Even though Portland isn’t a dressy city per se, it’s a nice change to glam it up when the occasion is worthwhile.
Herewith is how the evening and dinner unfolded.
With nearly 100 strong, the waiters managed to pass around hors d' oeuvres and Champagne
The kitchen didn't miss a beat serving these hors d' oeuvres
Others opted to stick to cocktails
For this guest the little black cocktail dress set off her diamond necklace well
Serious talk of food and wine at this couple's table
Oysters over grilled Caesar started off the dinner
Shaved scallops in vanilla essence, carrot and black pepper
A bracing bisque of mussels with cherry peppers, garlic and crostini
A refreshing salad of blueberries, rye berries, thyme and elderflower
Knuckle of lobster, avocado, green tomoato and chili oil followed by halibut (not shown) with prosciutto, sea cress brandade
A stunning dish of poussin, foie gras and chanterelle
A sumptuous serving of beef loin, escargot and curry mustard
Preceded by a cheese course of gouda with honey and figs, dessert was a trio of ice creams: hot pepper, chocolate moxie and strawberry balsamic
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.