Thursday, December 5, 2013
It’s time to put the hype on hold. From every self-serving food savant to mainstream critics at large, the incessant coverage about restaurants set to open, in the works or a glimmer in one’s far-sighted eye is like listening to a jabberwocky's stream-of-conscious.
The big deal places like Boone’s, Outliers, Eventide and Hugo’s were at least newsworthy. But a few timely mentions are enough. Cases in point, for months there was endless food-truck chatter, or the rattling on about Portland Hunt & Alpine Club (which finally opened to critical acclaim), Portland and Rochester (a culinary niche builder) and Little Tap House (which became the darling of the neighborhood).
What caught my attention very recently was the overwhelming blather on Omi’s coffee shop. I mean, it’s a coffee shop — not a ground-breaking culinary cause célèbre.
I’m not holding myself above the fray of prattle by any means, but I tend to cover what exists rather than glamorize the when’s and wherefores of something yet to be.
What rattles me is when the dreaded event finally happens, the news stream goes dark — a classic anti-climax. The places open, expecting their rants or rave reviews and they either make it or don’t. I thought about this the other day, and on Sunday morning I drove around town to investigate all of the up and coming establishments nearly ready for business.
I came up with seven that have received considerable pre-opening buzz. Most are still papered over or boarded up, but looking through doors and windows I was able to investigate their various states of readiness.
Omi’s (28 Brackett St.) is actually the only one of the seven that has opened, and I stopped in Sunday morning to visit. It’s definitely a charming neighborhood hideaway that serves food like homemade pastries, sandwiches and very good coffee, either drip or French press. I had a slice of house-made spinach and tomato quiche that was delicious. I’m not sure how successful their business model will be, but it’s a very appealing place and will fit into a neighborhood newly anchored by Outliers Eatery across the street.
Lucky for this quiet neighborhood in the far eastern end of the West End to have such a charming coffee shop; while the pre-opening buzz seemed absurd for such a normal place, it's actually worth all the fuss.
Omi's serves excellent coffee and very good homemade pastries and sandwiches.
Vinland is probably the longest running culprit of coverage from the blogosphere and food sites like Eater and Portland Food Map (this is my first time mentioning it). It’s been in the works (with news chatter to match) for months. Its notoriety is because proprietor and chef, David Levi, will be limiting his menu to ingredients exclusively grown, raised or produced locally. So that leaves out cooking essentials like lemons and olive oil. You won’t encounter local fluke, for instance, poached in olive oil or lemon butter. But Levi banks on his self-styled reputation, one which I hope the restaurant can match. An opening date is planned for mid-winter.
Vinland, adjacent to the embattled Congress Square Plaza, is finally moving ahead with renovations after months of being in the wings in this controversial part of Congress Street — where some locals are fighting the city's plans to sell the beleaguered park to the Westin Hotel next door.
The park goers at Congress Square Park, next door to the future Vinland.
Piccolo, from daring-do chef Damian Sansonetti ( Blue Rooster and formerly Bar Boulud, NYC) at 111 Middle Street, has received its share of press flattery. I thought, however, Sansonetti would have been blown away by the food-gossip pages, but he’s kept a low, civilized profile. His restaurant will offer rustic Italian cooking in the divine cubby of the former Bresca space. It should be a vital addition to Portland’s dining scene. It’s set to open very soon.
Piccolo may not look like much now but Sansonetti and his crew are busily getting it ready to open this month. Also, rumor has it that the space next door will house another restaurant from one of Portland's "other" star chefs.
Empire Chinese (575 Congress St.) got a flurry of press early on but not a peep since. I peeked inside and it looks quite swell. In fact, according to the Press Herald’s Meredith Goad in her Maine a la Carte blog, she reported that it’s set to open September 12. The menu will feature dim sum prepared by a Chinese chef of 40 years and a whole host of authentic Chinese and fusion cooking. Could it be that Portland will finally have a Chinese restaurant worth its salt and soy?
The interior of Empire Chinese is extremely attractive and we all hope that the food will be as good as its decor.
King’s Head, which is located in the Pierce Atwood building on Merrill’s Wharf, came into our dining consciousness this past spring. The location is at the far end of the building, with a dramatic looking 2200 square foot cavernous space. Upon inspection yesterday, it’s still an empty shell. Perhaps not for lack of trying, but getting a permit from the city is an arduous affair and slows down new openings significantly. That might be why it’s still a dead zone inside. Not much else is known about this future establishment.
Don't call to make reservations at King's Head because it's still a work that's very much not in progress; look for a 2014 opening
Also highly anticipated is the Miyake Diner. This promises to be another big deal from restaurateur Masa Miyake, who has elevated Japanese food in Portland into the world of Japanese fusion heaven. The city’s dining savants are virtually panting at the door to get in. Housed in the first space he opened way back when at 129 Spring St., it will offer izakaya style cooking, which in Japan is something like an after-work place for drinks and nibbles. We call it a gastropub.
There's been a lot of chatter and predictions that Miyake Diner will be open very soon; after looking inside yesterday, it appears only half ready to open
Boston pundit Chris Gould is soon set to open Central Provisions at 414 Fore Street across from the Hyatt Hotel that’s under construction. It’s self described as seasonably inspired small plates with international flavors. The menu was posted online boasting what looks like an intriguing lineup of dishes. There are such tidbits as raw fluke with Thai basil; chicken salad roll on brioche with bacon and smoked paprika, and a dish I’m eager to try — sweetbreads with chili aioli and gooseberries. Yum!
In the heart of the Old Port, Central Provisions will be a welcome addition along this quickly changing strip of Fore Street, which used be a bawdy night club row.Tweet
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.