Friday October 04, 2013 | 07:20 AM

I arrived at the Front Room  for dinner Tuesday night just before eight expecting to encounter the usual clamorous crush of diners abuzz in high-decibel mode. Instead, the dining room was a dead zone. 

“Thank heavens someone is here!” the hostess roared when I came in.

The Front Room is the proverbial corner restaurant and bar

This was a rare night for the Front Room.  According to the staff it has never been so quiet.  A quick check afterwards at other spots around the city revealed that it was dreary everywhere.  Was everyone in mourning over the government shutdown?

Dinnertime at the Front Room was unusually quiet that evening when most every restaurant in town was also hush-hush

Otherwise, the Front Room is one of the most deservedly popular dining establishments in Portland. 

In many ways it’s also the most perfect.  The cooking is comfort-food incarnate.  With three meals a day, service starts with a combination breakfast-lunch menu available at eight in the morning until two-thirty followed by dinner starting at five.

Recently the food-chatter mill has suggested that both the Front Room and the newly opened Boone’s are two of Harding Lee Smith’s best restaurants out of his four-strong empire (the Grill Room and the Corner Room are in my opinion equal players).

Smith has the knack for setting the right mood in all of his "rooms."  The Front Room personifies the neighborhood pub, with its dark wood and brick walls, oak tables, open kitchen and raftered ceiling— hence the high noise level.

The other side of the dining room

When I stopped in for lunch later in the week I encountered a lively midday scene of diners enjoying the eclectic menu, which has great breakfast egg dishes as well as tempting lunch choices like creatively devised sandwiches, a very good burger and interesting entrees.

Duriing the day the room is sunny and bright; patrons favor these corner tables by the windows

I started with an excellent tomato soup followed by a taco loaded with big tasty chunks of chicken; my friend who joined me was very satisfied with his vegetable quesadilla.

The tomato soup was classic: pureed tomatoes, touch of cream, croutons and cheese

The vegetable (local, of course) quesadilla was beautifully prepared and loaded with mixed vegetables

The chicken taco held very big pieces of meat that were very well seasoned and slightly spicy

At dinner, the menu offers lots of hearty dishes that are well thought out, highly flavorful and satisfying.

I would have been happy choosing any of the entrees on the menu, including the shepherd’s pie, the meat loaf, the cedar-planked salmon, pork chop with cheese grits or the roast herbed chicken, which is one of the best renditions in town.  I was going to select the chicken until I looked at the specials of the day. The list was enticing and included pan-roasted duck breast, flat-iron steak with baked beans, cod with goat cheese and chive risotto and arctic char with a mélange of red potatoes, onions, peas and mushrooms.

I settled on the pan-roasted duck breast for two reasons.  I rarely cook it myself—better left to a restaurant kitchen.  And I just had to have the accompanying bacon-maple grits cake and oven roasted Brussels sprouts.

Pan-roasted duck breast can be tough and fatty; at the Front Room it was tender, moist and very flavorful--the grits cake is underneath the fanned slices of duch breast

The duck was cooked pink — moist and very tender.  And the bacon-maple grits cake—a delicious candy-sweet savory — was so good it should definitely become a regular side dish. The roasted Brussels sprouts were, however, too charred; a few minutes less in the oven would have corrected this.

Starters were just as compelling with a choice of soup, bacon-bleu cheese hush puppies to the house-cured smoked salmon “pastrami.”  What I fancied was the baked smoked cheddar and broccoli dip served with crostini.  When it was presented it looked like a dead ringer for a Stouffers prep from the freezer case.

Instead it turned out to be a wonderful dish.  The cheese-rich cream sauce was lightly smoked, not overwhelming, and the florets of broccoli were still firm and fresh tasting.  Served with house-made crostini, this was a substantial starter that could have  easily been shared by a table of four hungry diners.

At first glance this cheddar-broccoli dip seems ordinary but in fact it's a great  starter

A continuing qualm that I have with Portland’s dining scene is that there aren’t enough casual restaurants serving moderately priced fare that’s well made and presented in an attractive setting.  But that’s just what the Front Room is all about — a neighborhood haunt (even if you’re from away) where a good time and good food are generally assured.

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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.

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