Thursday, December 12, 2013
There's a veritable wealth of great eats in Portland at all the new dining halls that have opened this month. Two stunning examples include Empire Chinese and Piccolo, especially the latter where I enjoyed a very refined meal on opening night (see the review this coming Friday). But not all feasts are fair game. And in between the favorite haunts, newcomers and, alas, a couple of clunkers, it was an interesting week of dining and dishing.
There’s a lot more to just high-minded, well-shaken drinks at the Hunt and Alpine Club on Market Street. Their small-dish menu of prepared foods has some intriguing choices like the “pickle plate" — a grouping of pickled vegetables. From left to right: cabbage with juniper and allspice; cantaloupe with long pepper; bread and butter zucchini pickles; and cauliflower in garam masala.
At Caiola’s, local tomatoes were put to very good use in this soup preparation — a cold tomato broth with fresh tomato slices and a lemon sorbet; there was a spike of heat from a few grinds of hot pepper (probably cayenne) that gave this soup real zing.
One of my favorite food trucks is Small Axe, and I often stop there for lunch to order one of their rice bowls. The best version for me is the one with panelle, which is a chick pea mixture that’s deep fried and served over sticky rice and freshly sautéed local vegetables bathed in a red or green curry sauce. It’s delicious, nutritious and the perfect lunch on the go.
I don’t often associate Thai food with great desserts. But at Boda, the menu is always a delightful adventure in fascinating flavor combinations. Their Thai sundae is a sweet refresher after a round of their zesty savory fare. Here’s it’s coconut ice cream with jack fruit, rolled cookies and drizzles of rich chocolate sauce.
At Piccolo, the newest darling of Portland’s culinary tribe, this starter dish listed as “snacks” on the menu shows Chef Damian Sansonetti at his best. It’s house-made ricotta, olive oil and an interesting bread made there called “pane carasu,” a cracker like bread that goes perfectly with the cheese and a glass of Sicilian white.
Something as simple as wonton soup gets very high marks at the newly opened Empire Chinese. I enjoyed a bowl of it for lunch on Saturday, and its rich duck broth with coriander and tender dumplings were perfectly rendered.
For some Brussels sprouts is an acquired taste. But at Blue Rooster they’re brought to the next level. The whole sprouts are deep fried quickly and spiked with balsamic and queso fresco. It’s a filling lunch dish, with lots of flavor — and healthy too!
Looking for perfect hash and eggs? The inimitable hash house otherwise known as the Brunswick Diner(101 Pleasant St.) makes a great corned beef hash. Served with two perfectly rendered sunny-side up eggs, buttered and grilled Texas toast and crispy home fries, this is a breakfast indulgence worth the calories.
There’s always a clinker in the bunch and I’m afraid my stop for lunch at Cole Farms was it. The first catastrophe was the dinner rolls. Places like this (Moody’s, Maine Diner, et al) pride themselves on their homemade biscuits and rolls. These, however, were straight from the plastic bag filled by Country Kitchen, the commercial bakers in Lewiston who still practice the art of Wonder Bread style bakery bread — gummy, chewy, tasteless, additive-filled baked goods that should be 86’d. Shame on this otherwise wholesome dining institution for serving scraps like this.
The Dolphin Marina and Restaurant is getting a lot of press lately, so we went to Harpswell for an early dinner to enjoy the restaurant's stunninng spot on Casco Bay. The original charm-filled place closed down several years ago, and the new one is a bit antiseptic looking but has killer views of the water. They're still rightly famous for their lobster stew, even at a whopping price of $18.95 for a bowl; but we were very disappointed in the basket of fried clams--tasteless and dull, with lackluster French fries and dry coleslaw.
For a delectable down-home treat, the Johnny cakes with house-smoked trout, sturgeon caviar and lime crema is a soulful dish at the new Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Bar. With a glass of local ale and a view of the harbor, this is great local dining on the waterfront.
Eventide has a well-stocked arsenal of culinary largesse; nearly every dish there is a triumph. At lunch last week I had their albacore ‘tare — a rendition of tuna tartare that’s set over a uniquely prepared sauce of egg yolk cooked sous vide, which renders the yolk into a delicate, silken sauce of pure eggy richness. Wow, what a dish!
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.