Thursday, April 17, 2014
It’s as though the mother of invention had descended on Portland’s restaurant world to bestow precious moments from plate to plate from one place to the next. After an unplanned weekend of some extraordinary food it’s hard to imagine that it gets much better than it did.
It started off on Friday night when at the last minute I called up a friend to join me at Pai Men Miyake. I haven’t been there in a long time, and since we were still in the deep freeze of below zero temperatures who would have thought that we’d walk into a room that was virtually packed to the rafters.
The place to be on Friday night, Pai Men Miyake
There was a wait for tables and the hostess put our names on a list. She suggested that we go next door for a drink (their bar was full), and she’d call me on my cell phone when a space opened up. Boda follows this practice, too, and it works. We went to next door to Petite Jacqueline.
Oeuf en gelee at Petite Jacqueline
That bistro was also hopping, but we got two seats at the bar and ordered some cocktails. I suggested to my friend, Pat, that we get something to nibble on.
We wound up having oeuf en gelee and Chef Eliot’s wonderful foie gras pate. We barely had the last bites of these heavenly morsels when we were summoned by cell to come back to Pai Men.
Back at Masa Miyake’s fusion pleasure palace we scanned the packed room filled with an energetic your crowd—Portland’s growing wave of 30-something epicureans ably twiddling their chops sticks.
The bar at Pai Men Miyake
We ordered off the menu of specials and small plates and wound up having an incredible meal (variations on pork belly, guinea hen, lobster and more). We both proclaimed that this was some of the best food we’ve had there.
From Miyake farm, guinea hen
The next evening on Saturday, another extemporaneous outing took place when friends asked me to join them at Back Bay Grill, practically my neighborhood corner bistro. In its long tenure, Back Bay is still one of Portland’s best restaurants. And that evening was one of the finest meals I’ve had there in recent memory.
With its original mural, the dining room is still one of the most gracious spaces in Portland
No surprise, the place was jam-packed. A younger crowd was dining at the bar while more mature folks such as ourselves (well, not that ancient) repaired to the main dining room.
Adrian Stratton, major domo extraordinaire, tended to our cocktails and brought a quartet of perfect Manhattans and Martinis.
With my pals, David and Brenda and their worldly wise son, Charles, he proceeded to select our wines as expertly as an intuitive sommelier. Back Bay has a great wine list and we enjoyed an extraordinary California Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir to go with our varied dishes. (Since I was “off-duty” I didn’t take notes on the wines.)
Advertising honcho Brenda Garrand confers with our waiter
Back Bay's stunning starter of tete de veau in oxtail ragout
The food was first rate all the way. I ordered tete de veau (calves head or loosely termed head cheese, depending on the preparation) is not something that you come across often except at a place like Back Bay. Set in a sauce of oxtail ragout with truffles and pearl onions, it was a luxurious and intensely flavored dish. Other starters amongst our group were a crispy Manchego cheese breaded and sautéed and set in a tomato-balsamic jam with warm picholine olives, basil and capers; also Hudson valley seared foie gras with a pistachio tuille, quince gelee and arugula. Even the salad of hearts of Romaine was exemplary with its mound of perfect crisp, vibrant greens with thyme croutons, Parmesan and garlic dressing.
Main courses included butter poached lobster with king oyster mushrooms braised in butter and hand-rolled fettuccine in a mushroom and arugula broth; wild Scottish pheasant with sun choke risotto and a perfect serving of rack of lamb with the smoothest puree of whipped potatoes and celeriac in a red wine sauce.
Back Bay's butter-poached lobster over fettuccine
Rack of lamb at Back Bay
Back Bay’s dessert menu is a simple one and we all opted for various dishes of ice cream to complete our meal. With some chocolate truffles for a sweetmeat finale and the last of our wines, this was a great meal.
By Sunday noontime, with my appetite still in full gear, I headed over to Caiola’s for brunch. The Sunday menu is still one of the most inventive lists in town. It’s not an egg and home-fries sort of place but rather it features more examples of Chef Abby Harmon’s inventive cooking.
Asian meatballs at Caiola's
What caught my eye was something called Asian meatballs, certainly not your typical brunch dish. They were prepared with pork, soy sauce and plenty of ginger and served over cous cous along with a poach egg rolled in corn meal and deep fried for an instant. What a fabulous foray of flavors that certainly capped a weekend of extraordinary dining.
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.