Wednesday, March 12, 2014
The revival of the historic Boone’s by restaurateur Harding Lee Smith with his newly devised Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room signifies much more than it being just another new restaurant to hit Portland’s dining scene.
A resplendent Boone's Fish House and Oyster Room on the Portland waterfront
First floor outside dining deck on the harbor
Instead, it represents a fresh era for the city’s beleaguered working waterfront--heretofore a confluence of a moribund network of deteriorating piers and wharves that the narrowing local fishing industry can no longer support.
That the old Boone’s in its glory days was a symbol of the city’s seafaring heritage, this iteration recaptures that bygone spirit of Portland’s iconic waterfront and the businesses that used to flourish there.
What I want to present here is not a review per se but rather my initial impressions after visiting the restaurant four times so far where I happily enjoyed lunch, several dinners and late-night nibbling.
At lunch, an excellent grilled swordfish sandwich served with aioli and guacamole; the dish of very creamy Cole slaw alongside was classic
The interior-exterior juxtaposition of décor conspires to capture both its waterfront orientation and the dramatic space within. The outdoor dining deck is a shimmering scene of flower boxes and views of the harbor, especially prime in a city that has so few options for waterfront dining. But once cooler weather arrives, there’s plenty of comfort and style to enjoy inside the impressively renovated two-story space.
The upstairs bar and oyster room
The main dining room on the first floor, which has a massive stone fireplace around which tables and banquettes are set, is also flanked by two bars. One is clearly set up for patrons to enjoy cocktails and selections from the raw bar. The second one faces the open kitchen, which is like sitting at a chef’s table where you can witness the intensity of the bevy of chefs at their stations. Standing guard, of course, is Smith himself, commandeering his ship like an invincible captain.
Chef Harding Lee Smith at the helm
Beaming like the proud papa (and soon to be, in fact) Smith seems pleased with his new venture
The upstairs dining deck at dusk
Upstairs is another dining room, drinks station and raw bar. This room has its own kitchen and another outdoor dining deck where the water views become seriously dramatic.
The menu, which Smith had plenty of time to perfect, is a monumental presentation of beautifully prepared seafood, many of the dishes ranging from old-fashioned, classic and haute all at once.
The main dining area with its stone fireplace
The dining bar at the open kitchen
While fish is the focus, there are other temptations like the rib eye served with a towering popover, fried chicken with grits and dilly beans, fish and chips among other dishes. There’s an Asian component, too, prepared by one of Harding’s sous chefs. Don’t miss the Kung Pao Dragon and Phoenix (crispy chicken, shrimp, sweet soy, garlic and ginger). I had it earlier this week for a late-night meal and loved it.
Kung Pao Dragon and Phoenix (crispy chicken, shrimp, soy, gariic and ginger) on the small-plate menu
Of course all the classics are on the menu: Shore dinners of lobster in varying sizes. Pots of steamers’ mussels; fried whole-belly clams served in either a brown paper bag or in a roll. The excellent French fries and Cole slaw are first rate too. Even the bread service is worth mentioning as one has the choice of either a rich blueberry muffin or buttermilk biscuit.
At dinner last night I started off with a great dish from the appetizer menu. It was described as “Quick Snack Sardines—just like we eat on the boat—tinned Portuguese sardines smashed with hot sauce, pickled celery and mayo served with grilled bread.” It’s a dish worth having with its delicious old-fashioned homey flavors.
The "quick snack" sardine spread
The rest of my meal included baked whole branzino, which I had filleted, done in lemon and herbs and served with beurre blanc. With one of those incredible popovers from the warming shelf, a giant baked potato and a glass of California Chardonnay from the excellent wine list this was a great meal. My friend who joined me had a clam roll and excellent potato salad, which he thought was perfect.
Branzino fillets with lemon, herbs and beurre blanc; baked potato and not shown, the giant popover, which I gobbled up before I could photograph it
The proverbial clam roll with potato salad
A shore dinner coming out of the kitchen with steamed lobster, a bucket of clams and platter of Cole slaw
There’s also a menu of small plates that's featured in the Oyster Room upstairs. It’s available, however, in both dining rooms; be sure to ask your waiter to see it because there’s lots of interesting dishes on it. There you’ll find some of the Asian dishes like the excellent salt and pepper lobster (Maine sea salt and Szechuan peppercorns) and the Kung Pao previously mentioned. But there’s also finnan haddie, wood oven roasted marrow bones, plenty of oyster shooters and even a foie gras lobster terrine. Other cold plates include lobster hand rolls, beef tataki and eggplant salad.
The salt and pepper lobster
The restaurant is causing a lot of attention amongst tourists and locals alike. For now it’s a little tourist heavy but that too shall pass, leaving Portlanders a fabulous new venue. Besides Street and Company, we have little else that resembles a rough and ready seafood restaurant.
The prices at Harding’s fourth “room” are reasonable, the ambiance enticingly cool and the kitchen is making a compelling statement already. While the restaurant may still be going through a modest spurt of growing pains, it should emerge like the other rooms in Smith’s dining empire: reliably excellent fare that’s served in a stylish setting to a discerning 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.