Wednesday, March 12, 2014
New restaurants straddle a fine line after their initial fifteen minutes of fame. Specifically I was thinking of In’Finiti, which debuted mightily out of the gate in early spring only to fast fade since then.
In'Finiti enjoys a key location along the Commercial St. strip, making a very bold statement with its unusual nautical flourishes of design
I went there the first day it opened in late March, stopping in for lunch to marvel at its décor uniquely devised with its looming presence of stunning distillation tanks in the entryway, the great bar room destined to become a scene stealer for night crawlers, the raised booths offering some respite from a busy scene below and the outdoor deck a likely SRO space come warm weather.
The bar and the upstairs dining room don't evoke the feel of light summery dining but come the darker months diners could snuggle up nicely in these comfy booths and bar stools
The first thing you see when entering the restaurant is the distilling room and its gorgeous containers
At the time I wrote a March 22 post that began:
It’s been nearly a year since a new restaurant has joined the substantial ranks of Portland’s dining hierarchy. That it should be named In’Finiti is neither a stroke of infinite wisdom nor affectation but, perhaps, a rather high-born notion of itself
But what sold me on the place was the quality of the food. Here was a kitchen doing things a little differently. Dishes like the chorizo topped with quail eggs or the use of pretzel dough as the crust for pizzas or fried chicken were all intriguing. And it was all neatly wrapped up in requisite farm-to-table packaging well prepared by Chef Noly Lopez.
There was a flurry of reviews and then the hoopla subsided. I was very complimentary while others tried to hit below the belt, some comments misconstruing the restaurant’s mission altogether.
After my critique was posted I went back another time (three times altogether) and my initial impressions hadn’t changed. I liked the food; the place was fun, even if the parking situation posed a problem, which should have been ameliorated before opening shop.
Now, four months later it was time to go back.
The restaurant still doesn’t have the green light to sell its own brand of liquor distilled on the premises because of Maine’s arcane liquor laws and the Byzantine workings of the state’s decision makers who could make this happen. One wonders, however, why management didn’t address the issue initially?
Still the bar menu is flush with creative house cocktails. For me, however, I like my drinks
plain--on the rocks, without the flourish of flighty mix formulations devised by drinkmeisters who skim the culinary surf like Gods.
When we arrived at midweek for dinner recently just before seven (no reservations for parties under 8) the place was not busy. A few people were at the bar and the deck was quietly half full. The booths were empty.
The parking drill is better with the back lot open after 6 PM to whoever pulls in. If there’s an attendant on duty, it will cost five dollars; if not parking is free and legal.
We chose to dine at the bar, and this time I took a longer look at the overall space. It’s certainly impressive. But the lighting is fairly unflattering from big hanging globes that cast an unattractive light, especially as daylight turns to dusk outside.
We ordered two vodka drinks (limited brand selection for now). I had the Catalina—vodka with white vermouth, ginger, house lemongrass, bitters and bubbles. It was a delicious drink, but one that I’d rather have poolside at a swell resort in the Caribbean. We switched to plain vodka for the second round.
Meanwhile we were hungry enough to order something to nibble on before dinner. From the pub menu we chose the house-made pretzel topped with Cyprus sea salt and a dipping sauce of “dirty IPA” mustard. It was a perfect beginning. Those pretzels are brilliantly good.
In'Finiti's pretzel--the best!
As a starter on the main menu my dinner mate ordered the steak tartare. Out came a stately round of raw meat--chopped hanger steak gently sous vide with a smoked yolk, tomato jam and crostini. As a steak tartar fan, he claimed it was one of the best.
In'Finiti's steak tartare
I chose a dish I’d had before —the house made smoky chorizo with potato crisps topped with fried quail eggs. It’s a great dish, variations of which I’ve sampled elsewhere but In’Finiti’s is inspiring.
Housemade chorizo sausage rounds with potato crisps and quail eggs
For a main course, my friend settled on the goat cheese gnocchi served with local mushrooms, fennel, onion and fava beans in a yellow tomato broth. I sampled the gnocchi and loved their billowy softness and texture, a delicious version of this commendable dish.
Different from the usual potato gnocchi, these are made with goat cheese, making them extremely light and pillowy
I was less enthused with the seared black sea bass that I ordered because the fillet was cut too thin and was unappealing in presentation. What saved the dish was its underpinning of roasted kohlrabi and Swiss chard laced with beurre meuniere.
The black sea bass was not my favorite dish, though with its vegetable components it worked well enough
The dessert menu is well conceived with such selections as a chevre cheese cake, chocolate torte, beer infused gingerbread with candied bacon and a trio of sorbets –all done by pastry chef Pat Tubbs whose handiwork has made the rounds in some of Portland’s best restaurant.
This was a delightful rendition of cheesecake made with chevre and topped with a seasonal fruit salsa, pink peppercorn honey and marcona almonds
The vivid flavors of these housemade sorbets included watermelon, whites peaches and ginger and white Rainier cherries with bourbon
By 8:30 the placed started filling up. It was unclear if people were coming in for drinks or dinner. Either way, In’Finiti is hitting all the right notes ringing in excellent food served in a dramatic space that should be eagerly filled with an adventurous dining public.
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.