Wednesday, March 12, 2014
This has been a difficult week to visit Portland restaurants because of holiday interruptions, weather and other factors. In fact, my plan was to go to the newly opened Vinland for a sneak peak write up for today. But it didn’t happen. As it turned out this long-awaited controversial dining establishment was closed for the remainder of the week because the kitchen needed some last-minute refinements before becoming fully operational.
So I therefore take this opportunity to look at the broader view of this city’s forward dining universe and the general health of all of Maine’s chefs and restaurants who are striving for recognition.
While Portland remains the state’s stronghold for fine dining, other areas like the Mid-Coast and parts of southern Maine are creating an impressive core of dining options, too.
But is our engine of culinary creativity, on a relative basis, on a par with the greater world? Or to refer to an old saying, the world is a small place, but is Portland a big one? One way to look at it is to determine if Maine is grazing new trails as the other notable restaurant cities are doing.
I was inspired by a feature in this week’s New York Magazine by its restaurant critic Adam Platt who compiled the publication’s yearly feature of where to eat in the Big Apple for 2014. In its usual adroit tone, it set the standard of what’s hot and what’s not. But what I also liked about the feature was the way it categorized the new trends as they unfold in that city. And I used that format to see how it relates to our metropolis and overall culinary landscape where big things are happening in our smaller local world.
Bar Food is billed as the new entrée. How clever to note that drinks establishments are setting the standard for creative cooking by piling on those small plates to replace traditional dinner options.
We can, in some respects, come up to snuff with our own contenders creating a trend right here in Portland. Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, Gingko Blue, Top of the East, The North Point and LFK do an amazing job of offering diverse menus of food — even in a few instances (LKF, Hunt and Alpine and North Point) from kitchens that don’t have ovens, much less proper cook tops.
Steak is trumping pasta as a former muse of culinarians who previously clamored for Bolognese and all else sauced in the Italian style. Now it’s big cuts of meat, including offal, surging in stylish restaurants, referring to dishes of humongous portions of veal Parmesan done in the old American Italian red-sauce tradition or Tomahawk ribs at break the bank prices.
We’re not trendsetting in that way unless you consider the few remaining Mama Mia style eateries that still exist in Maine, like Rose’s Old-World Italian in Windham, Casa Novello, Espo’s and Anjon’s where red sauce reigns in all its glorious guises. Perhaps with the forthcoming steak house coming from the Northpoint folks, we might be stepping up to such a trend. And we could certainly use a charcuterie establishment an empty niche so far.
Sushi. Ah, here we have some formidable choices. But the apparent trend is that the big-money glories of tuna belly are usurping the likes of foie gras and truffles as the true luxury dish favored by the Wall Street gold bugs set.
In that regard we have our very own Miyake and Masa's empire of extraordinary Asian fusion haunts that he does so superbly. New Yorkers will have to come to Maine and Miyake if they want more of the real thing.
Brooklyn. That burgeoning borough of New York City has no equal to be sure. Though it’s long been a third-class citizen in the culinary wars, all the gastro-hipsters are flocking there for new- wave eats. Our own misspelled Brooklin along the Blue Hill coast isn’t the same species. But perhaps places like Belfast (the Gothic) and South Portland (Enio’s and Elsmere BBQ) could be the beginning of another restaurant Mecca in the works. And then there are the Mid-Coast haunts from Camden to Rockland making sizable waves in our vast ocean of fine dining. Primo, Francine Bistro, Shepherd’s Pie, Natalie’s, et al are as good as it gets anywhere in Maine.
Tacos. Forget burgers and barbecue. The high-style world wants tacos every which way. But they have to be authentic or at the very least exotic takes on this otherwise simple dish. I’m afraid we have nothing to add there beyond our small universe of taquerias But time will tell and this could be a niche for inventive chefs to fill.
Southeast Asian replaces typical Thai food, with every stripe of Asian concoction wokking its way through foodie byways. We have our very own Boda and Long Grain for regional Thai diversity and the endless list of mom and pop family Thai restaurants as well as Korean and Vietnamese. I’d say we rate OK but there’s room for creativity here.
Seafood is the new mantra for locavores. Aw, shucks! New Yorkers crave real Maine lobster or Atlantic haddock and Pollock caught off our shores. We’ve had that for centuries so we’re ahead of the curve.
French. Outside of France, New York has been drenched with French restaurants — from the glorious to the awful — for decades. French fare, though, has taken a back seat lately to more rarefied machinations of fusion styles and new American bistro fare. But the divine devises of fine French food are on the rise.
We’re just at the cusp of this revival and our very own Petite Jacqueline is carrying the torch for fine French cooking.
Desserts. Forget the cronuts. It’s the bread bakers and pastry chefs who are making news in New York. But we are hardly second class when it comes to the sweet and savory world of baking. From hand pies to bake shops to artisanal bread bakers (we even mill our own flour) were in good shape. It’s hard to beat the croissants from Standard Baking or the old-fashioned cakes, cookies, bars and pies from Scratch Baking or the countless small-batch pies and breads coming from homespun kitchens across Maine who make their way to our farmers’ markets.
Yes indeed we’re in good shape in the baking world and charting new culinary territories slowly but surely. And when Vinland opens for real, we'll have the only all-local restaurant in the country.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.