Saturday, March 8, 2014
Following the trail of bar food in Portland’s peripatetic offerings of fine eats, local lounge lizzards have some interesting ooptions beyond peanuts and pickles at the counter.
The newer establishments are definitely more upscale than the old Fore Street haunts, which still attract a rowdy bunch of arrivistes out for a blast. Instead, what’s more common in town are the sophisticated lounges where mixologists reign and chefs are lurking in the background creating imaginative nibbles.
My thought was can you make an evening of nibbling and drinking at various places in town without going overboard and still feel well fed?
We began at the ever snappy Hunt and Alpine Club. This has certainly received its share of press and accolades regarding proprietor and mixologist Andrew Volk’s highly successful establishment.. The lounge attracts a good-looking crowd of steady 30- 40-somethings (and older) who make up Portland’s business class.
At the Portland Hunt and Alpine Club in the heart of the Old Port's downtown business and shopping district
My cocktail horizon is woefully boring. Vodka on the rocks (preferably Russian Standard) and an occasional gimlet or negroni is the extent of my arsenal of drinks. Beyond that you’ve lost me.
Hunt and Alpine overlooks the dazzling display of night lights in Tommy's Park
My friend Susan who accompanied me is definitely partial to creative cocktails. Her choice was White Noise, which Volk himself prepared. It’s a concoction of elderflower liqueur, Cocchi Americano and grapefruit zest. I had a sip and it was good. With it we ordered what’s described as deviled smoke trout. This turned out to be deviled eggs filled with a delicious blend of smoked trout in brown butter mayo, capers and dilly beans. It was very good. Other choices on the nibble menu are no less intriguing prepared by Chef Ricky Penatzer who does an amazing job of creating these “cold cuts," since the bar does not have a stove top or oven.
Fine nibbling at Hunt and Alpine from this platter of smoked trout and capers in its version of deviled eggs
Hunt and Alpine's frosty bottle of Americano mix ready to be poured over ice
Our next stop was Gingko Blue. While the Hunt and Alpine is quietly elegant, this lounge comes off like a slightly louche jazz joint set in an lusciously stunning setting of various shades of neon-lit blue, with a jazz trio performing at the back of the room. There’s bar seating, high tops along the side and cushy high-backed club chairs set around tables.
At Gingko Blue at the base of the Portland Square office tower, it makes a stunning visual statement on Fore St.
Bar managers Guy and Patrick are at the ready to lead you to good food and drink. Susan began with Cider House Rules: Eight Bells rum, Maine apple cider, pomegranate juice, lemon juice, Fee Bros. whiskey barrel-aged bitters and flamed orange twist. I decided to invoke my fondness for a Russian Standard Vodka gimlet straight up. After sipping Susan’s drink I understood its charms, though I could only see myself having it on a beach in the tropics. My gimlet was superb.
A perfectly made vodka gimlet and a short glass filled with Cider House Rules
For food, Gingko’s new menu is under the hands of Chef Barry Morrow who has deftly arranged a compelling list of New Orleans style dishes. You could choose from a New Orleans seafood board; boudin balls (crispy pork sausage in rice ) and muffaletta puff (puff pastry with cured meats, roasted peppers and mozzarella) among the choices. We opted for gator sticks and crawdaddy rolls. The gator is an ingredient that, for once, cannot claim to be local. It’s real alligator meat, with a bayou seasoning, grilled on skewers and served with a bracing corn maque choux and cumin- lime honey. Gator is an acquired taste indeed, or at least the notion of eating it.
Crawdaddy rolls at Ginkgo Blue
Ginkgo Blue's gator sticks with corn relish
The crawdaddy puffs were a delicious blend of crawfish, chile and cheddar stuffed into flour tortillas and fried. Served with a relish of avocado, corn and bacon, this was a winning dish.
Listening to the jazz trio was great fun, and we were glad to get reacquainted with this special downtown lounge.
Gingko Blue's bar is a stunning show of lights
Our next and final stop was the Downtown Lounge, otherwise known as DTL owned by famed barkeeper and restaurateur, Norm Jabar, the original co-proprietor of Norm’s, the iconic bar-bistro that was on Congress Street for years. While I’ve been to its offshoot, The Congress St. Bar and Grill often, DTL has always intimidated me because I’m definitely not the average age of its clientele, a staunch set of 20-somethings who make hipsters look like relics.
Acclaimed local artist Thomas Connolly's 2001 depiction of the old Norm's where DTL now stands
The Downtown Lounge as it is today
But it was still early in the evening for this late-night crowd to arrive and at 8:30 the place was fairly calm. Drinks were simple. Susan had Long Trail draft ale and I went for Stoli Vodka on the rocks.
The late-night crowd hadn't arrived yet and the bar at DTL is quieter than usual at an early hour
(Be advised that that we limited ourselves to one drink each at the three places so as not to go overboard.)
The food is nothing like the creative culinary hijinks of the previous two establishments. But, rather, there’s a fine sense of simplicity and wholesomeness that defines Jabar’s style of cooking.
DTL's kitchen offers a complete line-up of great burgers and such inimitable snacks as cheezy fries, homemade fish sticks, tacos of all stripes and the like. We went for a platter of steak and cheese sliders. Here was shaved beef, with melted cheese, jalapeno and mushrooms served on puffy small hamburger rolls. Three sliders on the plate, and it was probably the most filling food of the evening. The fries that accompanied were perfection.
The sliders and fries were delicious
The DTL bar was beginning to fill up as we prepared to leave at 9 p.m. though the usual younger crowd had not started their night crawl yet to this iconic downtown lounge
Interestingly our little foray of food and drink cost about $60 for two, not bad for hitting some of Portland's hot spots in one fell swoop.
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.