Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Frederic Eliot is a Frenchman in Portland—and a chef who has been percolating under the radar in various restaurants here and who has been the head chef at the decorous caverns of Spread on Commercial Street.
Spread, a beacon in the night crawl along tourist-heavy Commercial Street
I discovered his whereabouts on Facebook from a post he did for a dish of sweetbreads with clams and potatoes. What an extraordinary combination of ingredients, I thought, especially the sweetbreads, which are as common in Maine kitchens as alligators in the belfry.
Chef Frederic Eliot holding court at Spread
The bar at Spread
Beyond the bar, the dining room is a stunner and an apt setting for the fine food being served
I commented on his post and others that followed and learned that he was the head chef at Spread and has been quietly making changes to that eatery’s lineup of dishes—now definitely in the French manner, leaving the prosaic to flounder elsewhere.
“I grew up in Paris, and my family was from Normandy,” he told me in a recent telephone interview. “There it’s all butter and cream,” he added. And as soon as I heard that I knew I had to return to Spread to experience first hand those otherwise elusive nuances of Gallic cooking.
A serving of toasts--the best in Portland--(with grilled carrots) accompany many dishes on the Spread menu
Eliot and his wife, Katherine, who is the pastry chef at Standard Baking, both herald from New York, where they trained at the French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center). His resume includes working at the famed Le Cirque and was part of the team to resurrect the Oak Room. Then for many years he cooked with Gabrielle Hamilton at her renowned restaurant, Prune, a multi-award winner in its own right.
He and his wife ultimately came to Portland because, he said, “It’s an extraordinary culinary environment, and the pace of being a chef so much more palatable here than in larger cities.”
Classic French cooking is making a comeback in cities like New York with the revival of brasserie style restaurants—grand cafes that are so de rigeur now. That’s especially evidenced by the success ofLafayette in Manhattan under the direction of Andrew Carmellini, the current darling of both food mavens and the A-list crowd.
After a dinner at Spread this week I left feeling that a brasserie is in our midst in Portland, a fine difference from the farm to table tsunami that has been with us relentlessly.
But Eliot is very impressed by Maine’s affinity for farm fresh food that’s so available here.
“The markets are wonderful, much better than in New York where food has to travel so far to appear at farmers’ markets in the city.”
So I sat down at the bar for dinner earlier this week to sample Eliot’s cooking and ultimately marveled at each dish that came out of his kitchen.
The restaurant still specializes in small-plate offerings in the manner of spreads, small plates and a refined selection of entrees. (Witness lamb burger with recellete and frites; sea bass in a lobster tomato broth or ricotta tortellini, house-made, with English peas, lemon and butter.)
My first bite was into a richly textured duck mousse served classically in a crock with excellent toasts on which to spread this magical potion of duck livers laced with bourbon under a dome of gelee. My arteries may have been constricting ever so slightly from the richness of livers, but quite honestly I couldn’t get enough of it as I spread it onto perfect toasts with a dollop of apricot chutney to enhance the pleasure.
The duck liver mousse with apricot chutney
The mousse spread on crostini with apricot chutney
Next came a platter of “spreads” for which the restaurant is known: pulled pork was bathed in an intriguing barbecue sauce; house-made ricotta with grilled balsamic peaches; a little vat of smoked trout and finally duck in an earthy mole--ethereal and dauntless in the intricate flavors of that compound sauce.
A sampler of spreads: pulled pork, ricotta with grilled peaches, trout mousse, duck in mole with green tomatoes
After that came an astounding platter of bone marrow moistened under a tomato sofrito and parsley. The marrows were incredibly rich and delicious, and I daresay you won’t find this dish elsewhere in the city.
An impressive platter of bone marrow
Presented next were the sweetbreads, clams and potatoes, the serving of offal inside of a perfect coating of bread crumbs encasing the sweet, creamy organ meat, complemented by the clams and potatoes with all the goodness of the sea and land in perfect harmony.
Chef Eliot's signature dish of sweetbreads with clams and potatoes, a special on the menu
If that wasn’t enough the crowning glory was the calamari, which was stuffed with ground lamb and house-made pork sausage that was the tour de force of the evening.
A great dish, calamari stuffed with ground lamb and pork sausage
With Frederic Eliot at the helm Spread deserves recognition once again for its fine cuisine. The restaurant is busy at times but it should be packed with lines of diners waiting outside to experience its novel menu. We have a Frenchman in our midst, the only one here, and the next time I must try Eliot’s torchon of foie gras because who else but a French chef can do it justice?
Photography by John Golden
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.