Friday October 18, 2013 | 07:29 AM

For such a small city as Portland, the explosive growth of new, novel and noteworthy restaurants that have opened in the last 12 months is astounding.  That they all seem to be prospering is another miracle in this high-stakes world of dining commerce. 

The names that  that have made an impact include Hugo’s, Outlier’s, Piccolo,In’finiti, Empire Chinese, Boone’s and Salvage BBQ.

I’ve been to all of these establishments and have written about them here.  All of which has made me think, which do I now consider the very best—new or established--that have made Portland into such a Mecca of fine dining.

The newly devised Hugo's is Portland's reigning temple of gastronomy
Except for one, my picks for the three best in Portland did not—at least not yet--include any of the newcomers. They’re all terrific and can easily make the grade of top ten but need to  run the test of time before being considered top-tier.

 My standard therefore for great dining is threefold: extraordinary food, incredible service and distinctive interiors.

Since I dine out so often I wanted to have what I considered the best meal available in Portland. For me it’s impossible to limit such an outing to one restaurant so I decided to graze, with progressive courses at the three best, starting with a first course, an entrée and dessert at the respective restaurants.

My picks will not be a surprise to many of you.  They are Five Fifty-Five, Back Bay Grill andFore Street.  The uber-superb Hugo’s should have been on the list but their menu is strictly prix fixe, without a la carte offerings; that wouldn’t fit into this plan.

The dining room at Five Fifty-Five with co-proprietor Michelle Corry talking to a diner; she runs the best "front-of-the-house" post in Portland

I began to realize that there were some flaws in my dining foray.  As soon as I sat down to look at a menu, I wanted it all.  Why stop at Five Fifty-Five’s first course list, for example, and not go on to experience the rest? I wound up eating far more than I intended by the time the evening concluded.

I started at Five Fifty-Five with a first course of hot smoked salmon served in a cider broth with a julienne of salsify and apples.  The wedge of warm, intensely smoked salmon in its cool broth was purely divine.  The accompanying splashes of horseradish, apple and salsify made it even more memorable.

555's smoked salmon served hot in cider, a new dish on the menu

On the menu I noticed, however, a main course offering that sounded intriguing--a crab cake wrapped in poached sole and nestled in a beet puree.  I had to try it.  The kitchen was happy to oblige and downsized it to a first-course serving.

555's poached sole wrapped around a delicate version of crab cake in a beet puree

It was an enticing play of flavor contrasts.  The crab cake itself was very delicate and the fish that encased it was gossamer light and elegant.  The interplay of the highly seasoned beet puree paired with it was pure Chef Steve Corry at his inventive best. 

This put me in very fine fettle to amble down the street to Back Bay Grill for my main course.  I’ve been going to Back Bay for nearly15 years, even before I moved to Portland.  The restaurant has never missed a beat.

At Back Bay Grill, seats at the bar for dinner are as coveted as in the dining room

Back Bay's main dining room with its original mural

Chef/owner Larry Matthews constantly reinvents the menu, which employs French techniques in a veil of simplified American bistro fare.  His sense of flavor and texture in every dish is peerless.  Together with his major domo, Adrianne Stratton, this restaurant runs with precision and style.

When I arrived at 8 PM to dine at the bar, the place was filled to capacity.  I chose his signature dish of long running.  It's an entrée of turban of salmon, a fillet that is rolled up into a formidable dome of fish that emerges perfectly cooked with just a hint of pink in the middle.  It was served with a round of delicata squash holding herbed spaetzle, along with a fritter of fried green tomato and butternut squash puree. It was a sensational dish with a fine mingling of ingredients and flavors that were marvelously delicious.

Back Bay's salmon with delicata squash holding herbed spaetzle, and fried green tomato over squash puree

Again I was enticed by another dish on the menu that I hadn’t planned on having.  It was a first course of a glorious trio of meats that seemed just plucked from  pasture. It included veal boudin blanc, lamb sweetbreads and pork belly--all sitting on a pretty little pile of sautéed cabbage with apple and bacon.  This was my third first course of the evening.  I digested it all very easily, though, with a glass of Bandol—a lusty red wine from Provence.

Back Bay's trio of meats: veal boudin blanc, pork belly and lamb sweetbreads over little beds of braised cabbage with bacon and apples

I was ready for my sweet course and arrived at Fore Street, which was still packed at 9:30 with a lively dinner crowd. Chef Sam Hayward has epitomized the notion of farm to table cooking creating a nightly menu that is a forager's playground of sophisticated cooking done with simplicity and flair.

I chose Fore Street for my dessert course because pastry chef Brant Dadaleares'  desserts are some of the best in the city. 

I was thrilled with what I had: a steamed lemon pudding cake served with a strawberry semi-freddo.  The mousse was made with autumn strawberries and was the perfect cool shield  for the delicately tart lemon pudding.  The kicker, though, was the touch of glazed, crisped basil leaves that topped the pudding, creating a stunning contrast of color.

At Fore Street, the evening concluded with  steamed lemon pudding cake and an autumn strawberry semi-freddo

As a  postscript to this adventure  I think I could have had a great meal at any one of these restaurants.  Instead, I created my own tasting menu spread amongst Portland's finest.  In the process I went to three restaurants in one evening where I thoroughly enjoyed a parade of spectacular fare and a great night out on the town.



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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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