Restaurant reviews – Press Herald Fri, 20 Oct 2017 21:56:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Bite: Tipo’s Margherita pizza reminds us of the power of simplicity Wed, 18 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 In my experience, pizza has always been a great equalizer. It’s a food people can gather around, eat with their hands, share with everyone. It’s easy and comforting and intimate. “Let’s just order a pizza” implies a casual ease, a laid-back dinner followed by a true heart-to-heart. There is decadence and joy in cold pizza for breakfast. There is care and love in making pizza dough at home. Even the pizza stone itself is a touching artifact – sturdy and imperfect, marked by charred crusts and marbled colors faded from repeated exposure to hot ovens.

Pizza has always been a big part of my life with my husband. We are forever tasting new slices, and returning to our old favorites in Westchester, New York, and New York City itself. We’ve tried close to every pizza shop in Portland, and have driven to Boston more than once just to eat at the classic, storied Santarpio’s. When I was pregnant with my son, and we were making frequent trips to see my doctor at Mass General Hospital, Santarpio’s pizza was all I ate. For us, pizza is not just pizza. It’s joy and birth and family and comfort and a symbolic coming in from the cold.


For these details alone, it could be said that all pizza is good pizza. But alas, it is not only emotion that goes into the making of an excellent pie. That’s why my husband and I were overjoyed when Tipo Restaurant opened in the Back Cove, and we tasted their Le Panyol wood oven-fired pizza.

One rule my husband lives by is that a good slice of pizza requires no additional toppings, the usual suspects like pepperoni, mushrooms or onions. Tipo’s Margherita ($10) is no exception. It is fresh mozzarella, tomato sauce, basil, olive oil and a thin, perfectly textured crust – a touch crisp, a touch chewy. The sauce is airy and delicate and not at all sweet, the cheese light and expertly melted. The pizza arrives on a muted silvery tray, a masterpiece of a pie you might even find in Tuscany, with uneven edges and the scattered scent of fresh vegetables. It’s the kind of pizza that has you reaching for a second slice before you’ve finished the first, the kind that, once you’ve tried it, inspires the decision, “Let’s just get two whole ones,” whenever we order. “We can always eat it for breakfast.”

Anna Stoessinger lives in Maine with her husband, Keith, her son, Henry, and their dog, Bess. She is a writer who works in advertising. She can be reached at or on Instagram @astoessinger.

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Dine Out Maine: It’s a bar, sure, but Liquid Riot serves really good food, too Sun, 15 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 For some chefs, maybe even most chefs, a call from Cooking Channel announcing an upcoming visit would be the sort of good news that would send them cartwheeling into whooping, fist-pumping celebrations.

Just picture it: a single half-hour of television that has the power to introduce hundreds of thousands of viewers to your restaurant, your food and, perhaps most importantly, to you.

Joshua Doria, formerly of Central Provisions and now executive chef at Portland’s Liquid Riot Bottling Company, had a different response to the network sending a team to showcase two of his dishes on “Late Night Eats.”

“Eh,” he said.

“It was a little stressful. Basically 12 hours of them filming, and honestly, I’m not that kind of chef. I’m in the kitchen for a reason: I like to hide out.”

Liquid Riot, which bills itself as a brewery/distillery/resto-bar offers him plenty of opportunities to do just that, starting early in the morning, when prep begins for a marathon of continuous service that runs from noon until as late as 1 a.m. No matter what time of day or night you visit, the menu is the same.

That approach fits well with Doria’s understated attitude. “We don’t do a traditional lunch or dinner seating. I wouldn’t want to,” he explained. “It’s a bar, and the bar comes first.”

In truth, Liquid Riot is much more than a bar. Its in-house distillery bottles a minty, 41-percent ABV Italian-style amaro called Fernet Michaud that is the star ingredient in the subtly sweet, wonderfully puckery Endless Summer cocktail ($10). And don’t forget the on-site brewery that produces upwards of a dozen beers, all available on tap – from an almost delicately effervescent lime-peel flavored session IPA called Herbie ($7 for 16 oz.), to a rough and ready dry lambic-style Raspy Trouble ($7.50 for 16 oz.) that tastes like sipping dark ale from a cold raspberry jam jar.

Doria’s roasted mushroom toast features North Spore mushrooms drizzled with a sauce flavored with Liquid Riot’s Beer Schnapps, topped with arugula and pickled onions and layered on a slab of Standard Baking sourdough.

Doria also doesn’t miss his chance to echo Liquid Riot’s primary identity in his cooking. His roasted mushroom toast ($12) features North Spore Mushroom’s “kitchen grade assortment,” a blend of oyster, shiitake and sometimes hen of the woods mushrooms, seared to order, then drizzled with a pan sauce made by deglazing with Liquid Riot’s Beer Schnapps. “Whatever is left at the bottom of the tanks and going to waste, we distill it into schnapps, and it tastes almost like a light whiskey,” Doria said. Served on a thick plank of Standard Baking sourdough and garnished with a few tiny, crisp-fried mushrooms, it’s an umami supernova that would be improved only by a few more pickled onions.

In his rum cake ($7), he goes to even greater lengths to link dining to the surroundings. “I take the spent grains from brewing (malt, barley and oats) and dehydrate them for two days. It’s a long process,” he explained. “Once they’re dried, I can blast them in the Vitamix to turn them into sort of a flour. They usually go to pigs at a local farm, but before we give them to the farmer, I take some. A lot of places just throw it away.” His unorthodox flour gives the dense, perhaps sludgy cake a heady, bready flavor that marries well with the crunchy, sugary topping of housemade Dow’s Demise dark rum and coconut. One slice is enough to share.

Creative dishes like these make it hard not to notice Doria’s positive influence on Liquid Riot. Stop for a second and look at the menu he redesigned when he took over the kitchen in July. What you see there isn’t just typical bar food.

Sure, there’s a phenomenally good housemade pretzel ($6), looped into the shape of a napping figure eight as an homage to Liquid Riot’s former name: Infinity. And yes, you’ll also find a 6-ounce beef burger ($15) served with sweet pickles and peppery arugula, pickled onions and Cabot cheddar cheese, all layered in a precise order that somehow keeps the brioche bun from ever getting soggy. Hamburger witchcraft, really.

But further in, something unusual: an excellent salad of local goat cheese, kale and heirloom cherry tomatoes ($9), exuberantly seasoned with tarragon and mint and fortified with soft, barely chewy farro. “I wanted something a vegetarian could come in and have and feel satisfied. Farro is good for you and it’s filling,” Doria said. It’s not just for herbivores, either. I spotted a party of 12 college students seated on comfy, black leather sofas, sharing three servings of the farro salad with their burgers. Then, underneath sparkly sail tarps on the back patio, a couple cuddled up on adjacent aluminum-and-plywood barstools and split both the salad and the Chinese Takeout chicken wings ($12) as they watched the moonlight over Union Wharf.

I followed their lead and ordered the wings myself, which is how I discovered that Doria is kind of a fryer genius.

He starts with double-fried wings that require no breading, coating or dredge, yet still develop a brittle, shatteringly crisp exterior. These are tossed in Doria’s special red sauce, a trans-national blend of Korean gochujang chili paste, Japanese mirin, soy sauce and chili oil before receiving a finishing sprinkle of black and white sesame seeds. In the end, I’m not sure how Chinese the dish is, but it’s undeniably good – sweet and sticky, with a 9-volt current of spicy heat sparking through every bite.

There’s gochujang in the aioli-based dipping sauce for Liquid Riot’s French fries ($6), as well, but that’s not the best thing about the dish. Cut from skin-on potatoes from Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg, Doria’s fries are blanched in oil, frozen and then fried again to order and dusted with salt. Two ingredients. No margin for error. But Doria doesn’t need it. His fries are crisp, with buff-toned blisters and a steamy, tender interior. They are probably the best fries I have eaten in Maine.

A little more fryer magic makes its way into the kimchi-flavored Korean bowl ($17) entrée, here in the form of two thumb-sized portions of juicy, barely fried local hake that sit atop a pyramid of cockles, seared pork belly and mussels. Underneath, a kaleidoscopically herbal broth made from lemongrass, cilantro, star anise, citrus and green onion sends puffs of brightness up like smoke signals.

And apart from a few pieces of cabbage in the kimchi, there are pretty much no carbs in the bowl. “I know it’s weird. People always ask why I don’t add starch, but I don’t think every dish needs starch. That one is all protein, and it’s super clean,” Doria told me over the phone. I laughed and told him I agreed with his decision. What I didn’t have the heart to tell him is that the episode of “Late Night Eats” that aired this Thursday might be the least of his concerns. If he persists with such a wide-ranging, strongly conceived and executed menu, he won’t be able to stay incognito much longer, no matter how hard he tries.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0, ME - OCTOBER 9: Chinese Takeout Wings with red dragon sauce, lime and sesame seeds, photographed at Liquid Riot in Portland on Monday, October 9, 2017. (Staff Photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer)Fri, 20 Oct 2017 13:23:03 +0000
Dine Out Maine: North 43 chef re-emerges with fresh, international take on American bistro Sun, 08 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 If you’re coming out of hiding, there are worse places to do it than on the waterfront.

Stephanie Brown, former chef/owner of Seagrass Bistro in Yarmouth, first disappeared from the public eye when she sold her business and went to work as the executive chef of the private Woodlands Club in Falmouth. “From that point on, for four years, members of the club were the only ones who could have my food,” she said.

Earlier this year, Laura Argitis of Old Port Sea Grill lured her back. All it took was an offer to partner on a new endeavor – a South Portland bistro called North 43, housed in a newly renovated, contemporary corrugated steel, glass and wood structure that occupies the spot where Joe’s Boathouse once sat in Spring Point Marina.

Inside, there’s an open kitchen, high-backed twill banquette seating and chunky dark wood tables. Right away, it’s clear that the interior is at odds with the exterior. From the giant gilt-lettered, Copperplate Gothic sign reading “Company” to the striped throw pillows, the vibe indoors leans stately country, while the building itself looks like a modernist fold-out centerfold from Dwell magazine.

Despite its proximity to deep water and views that pan cinematically across the Fore River, hopscotching over Little, then Great Diamond islands, the bistro is not a nautical-themed seafood restaurant. Brown and Argitis rejected the idea as too touristy, focusing on a long view of their business, one where January is as important as July.

Instead, North 43 is, as Brown describes it, an “American bistro with French, Tuscan and Asian influences that reflect my style of cooking.”

“My training is French classical, my heritage is Italian, and my childhood was very much about homemade food, gardens, big dinners. And since we’re here on the water, Asian flair goes really well with seafood,” she explained.

With that in mind, it’s hard to know what to expect from the menu. That’s doubly true when you look at the cocktail list, which is full of enjoyable, if not particularly adventurous drinks like a citrusy bourbon cocktail ($9) with lemon, maple and apple cider and bourbon. Or the Eternal Flame ($10) a tweaked Negroni made with Aperol and chili liqueur – but not enough of either to make you guess that you’re drinking anything other than a standard-issue Negroni.

And when guests have knocked back a few, the dining room can get barbarically noisy. Despite a few soundproofing tiles on the ceiling of the dining room, I could barely hear my dinner guest on a recent visit – thanks to a party of nine, high-fiving across their table and bellowing in celebration of something having to do with LinkedIn. “Looks like a Friday in here, not a Thursday,” our server commented apologetically. “But you won’t notice them once you start eating.”

She wasn’t entirely right, but there was indeed plenty to focus on once our plates arrived. I was particularly taken with the Italian-esque pan-seared scallops with saffron-tomato reduction ($14), especially the sauce, an enthusiastically tangy and floral concoction. Brown prepares it by finishing puréed tomatoes with a compound butter flavored with saffron, shallot and thyme. Poured over three well-seared, medium-sized scallops, it was fantastic – the sort of sauce I would have sopped up with bread, if I had any nearby. The dish’s single flaw was an unnecessary drizzle of balsamic reduction that tipped the balance of the plate too far toward the acidic.

Wild boar with carrots and chard.

Another Italian-inspired dish, the rack of wild boar with chard and candy-sweet molasses-roasted carrots ($27) was nearly as good. Some days, a portion consists of one large chop, some days a few smaller ones. “It’s legitimately wild, so we have no control over the size of the rack. It just depends on the animal we get,” Brown said. Brined overnight in apple cider, brown sugar and anise, the boar is finished to order in a hot oven with apple butter and cinnamon, giving the meat a deep, caramel crust. It’s astoundingly good.

The chard that accompanies the boar, on the other hand, is not. Lift the edge of the rack, and you’ll discover torn raw leaves and broken stems, all folded onto the plate – no dressing, no cooking, no seasoning. “On each plate I try to put something simple to go with something more powerful,” Brown explained. But uncooked, forearm-long leaves of ruffled, late-season chard are fibrous and tough, unpleasant to anyone who is not part rabbit.

Elsewhere on the menu, chewiness is something to be avoided. It’s the entire reason why North 43’s curly kale salad ($10) is chiffonaded into skinny ribbons: “Kale can be really rough on the palate and the digestive tract. Chopping it brings a little bit of elegance to eating it. Plus the dressing works its way through the kale to soften it, so you’re not chewing forever,” Brown said. She’s right on both counts. Her creamy-textured Asian peanut dressing, made from cider, sambal, lime zest and lime juice not only tenderizes the greens, julienned carrots and shaved radishes, it is also bewitchingly tasty. The duck breast ($28) entrée reveals intriguing, cuisine-straddling elements, as well. Brown starts by searing fennel-, red pepper flake- and cumin-rubbed duck breasts, then roasting them with hoisin, tamari and anise, a few glugs of red wine, chicken stock and a blood orange purée. It’s a little bit Asian, a little French and a little Tuscan, all on the same plate.

But it’s all about execution, and on a recent visit, the duck was overcooked and its sauce both oversalted and far too tart. The line cooks that evening also ran amok, adding fist-sized piles of radish microgreens to the plate, creating a bitter, hairy-looking mess that hid the best components of the dish: tamari-roasted Brussels sprouts and remarkably savory, golden brown spaghetti squash galette – an ingenious (and seasonally appropriate) substitute for potatoes.

You have to give credit to Brown for trying, and sometimes succeeding, in her attempts to stitch together a patchwork crazy quilt of French, Tuscan and Asian influences. That’s no easy feat, and it explains why loyal customers from both of her recent local gigs have followed her to North 43, blending into the already eclectic mix of patrons: locals who walk to the restaurant, visitors who travel by water from neighboring islands, as well as people who keep boats at the marina. “I’ve been away for a while now, so it’s nice to see when people still remember you,” she said. With such an original perspective on something as potentially dull as American bistro cooking, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could forget her.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 boar with carrots and chard.Fri, 13 Oct 2017 18:08:58 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Cheevitdee aims to burnish health food’s image, with mixed results Sun, 01 Oct 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “Health food” may well be the least appetizing phrase in the English language. It calls to mind thoughts of virtuous yet joyless dishes. Murky green juices that smell like lawn clippings and taste of pond water, or steadfastly unmeltable vegan cheese with the flavor and consistency of Silly Putty. To this day, I have nightmares about being tricked into eating a carob-coated candy bar one Halloween. So chalky!

Cheevitdee, which opened in April in an expensively renovated space in Portland’s Old Port, is determined to rehabilitate health food’s poor image, using tricks from the arsenal of Thai cuisine.

Chef/co-owner Jay Pranadsri, who until recently was a chef at Portland’s Mi Sen, Cheevitdee’s well-established sister restaurant, takes this mission seriously, embracing organic ingredients and eschewing deep-fried and otherwise oily foods completely. That means no greasy crowd pleasers like crab rangoons (which, to be fair, aren’t actually Thai) or even pad thai.

Even the phrase “Chee Vit Dee” translates as “good life” in Thai. Front-of-house staffer Nick Thonglamun explains, “We try to make food that also makes you healthy and gives you a good life.”

It all starts with riceberry, a crossbreed of jasmine and non-glutinous purple rice that is so important to Cheevitdee, it is rendered in silhouette on the restaurant’s logo. When cooked, riceberry is a deep maroon, with a soft texture and largely neutral flavor. And although full of dietary fiber, riceberry is free from the rubberiness and husk-like, papery mouthfeel that sometimes make regular brown rice intolerable.

“Riceberry has lots of nutrition,” Thonglamun told me. “It’s a superfood.” Bolstering his claim are a couple of dodgy scientific studies from Thailand that gesture imprecisely at the hybrid cereal grain’s salutary properties. While the jury may still be out on riceberry’s health benefits, there’s little doubt that it is not universally successful as a replacement for traditional white jasmine rice.

When it works, the substitution seems like a brilliant idea, as in Cheevitdee’s ping ngob ($22), banana-leaf wrapped spicy salmon from the Hua Hin district in coastal Thailand – the restaurant’s signature plate. To prepare it, Pranadsri layers red curry-marinated salmon with napa cabbage, basil leaves, kaffir lime leaves and par-cooked riceberry, then enfolds the mixture in a tight, flat parcel before grilling. It is a delightful dish with a perfectly calibrated balance of spicy heat and tang.

In the khao mun gai ($16), on the other hand, riceberry makes a disappointing stand-in for its paler cousin. Next to a simple, unadorned steamed chicken thigh sit a mound of ginger-garlic riceberry, slices of cucumber and a small bowl of thin sauce. All fine and good, as the dish’s simplicity is intentional; khao mun gai derives part of its charm from camouflaged jolts of flavor, startling the diner with the richness of its chicken-fat infused rice, the megawatt heat of its sauce and the cucumber’s ability to cool off your tongue while knitting all the flavors together.

Not here. Cheevitdee’s sauce is arch and acidic, with no spice whatsoever. The steamed riceberry substitute: downright austere. This khao mun gai is strictly what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and it looks dull, including the flavorless, unnecessary winter melon soup served alongside. It’s the sort of dish you might expect to be served when recovering from surgery, not out to eat on Fore Street.

So too, the po pia sod ($7), rice paper-wrapped fresh spring rolls filled with tofu and fine matchsticks of carrot, beet, cabbage and cucumber. Even doused in garlic-lime dipping sauce, they taste of little other than the earthy minerality of raw root vegetables.

Pla goong (spicy shrimp bites) soars with flavors of lime juice, chili, kaffir lime leaf and cilantro. Staff photos by Ben McCanna

Or the tom jub chai ($15), a turbid, lavender-hued vegetable stew bulked up with chubby glass vermicelli and seasoned with nothing other than a little salt and black pepper. According to Thonglamun, “all the flavor comes from the vegetables.” Sadly, there’s precious little of it, apart from a hint of sweetness from the carrot and a sulfuric undercurrent from the cabbage and Chinese broccoli.

Even the som tum ($10) – normally a tart, crunchy and umami-rich salad of shaved unripe papaya, green beans, tomatoes and peanuts, all roughed up with a mortar and pestle to create tiny tears in the vegetables that trap palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice – tastes dreary and underseasoned, like something out of a wartime rationing cookbook.

A few dishes do possess clearer flavor profiles. One, the ba me pu ($19), moroheiya-flavored noodles topped with bok choi, sweet black soy sauce and fresh-picked Maine crabmeat, is an inventive experiment that deserves further exploration (and a squeeze of lime). The green algal flavors of the moroheiya – another purported superfood and the same plant used to make jute fiber – match well with musky, sweet crabmeat. That is, as long as the crab is not dried out, as it was when I visited recently.

There’s also something intriguing, if incomplete, about Pranadsri’s take on the classic spicy-sour soup, tom yum nam sai ($7). For her rendition, she adds generous chunks of North Spore oyster mushrooms to a clear chicken-broth base infused with racy Thai basil. As it is now, the balance tips too far toward volatile, herbal aromatics, away from the heat and acid that make tom yum an enduring classic. Cheevitdee’s is still a tweak or two away from greatness.

By contrast, the lemongrass-scented sauce for the pla goong ($9), spicy shrimp bites, gets the harmony exactly right, exploiting the extremes of lime juice, chili, kaffir lime leaf and cilantro to spotlight the sweetness of a single steamed shrimp served in a curvy spoon. Incontrovertibly healthful, yet sparkling with lively flavors, this simple appetizer embodies everything Cheevitdee sets out to do.

Here and there, it all comes together – sometimes beautifully. But for now at least, I’ll keep believing in my own version of the “good life,” one that allows for an occasional taste of wheat noodles, jasmine rice and chicken fat.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 goong (spicy shrimp bites) soars with flavors of lime juice, chili, kaffir lime leaf and cilantro.Sat, 30 Sep 2017 21:14:14 +0000
Mami takes the spirit of its food-truck forebear indoors, to tasty effect Sun, 24 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 By the fourth or fifth stuttery interruption during our phone conversation, I stopped to ask Mami’s chef and co-owner Austin Miller: “Where exactly are you now?” I figured he was talking to me from some heavily bricked-in section of his new Fore Street 30-seater’s basement, a room shunned by shy electromagnetic waves.

I was wrong.

“I’m actually cooking pancakes in the truck,” he laughed. “Okonomiyaki.”

Suddenly the drops in service made more sense. But I was more interested in what he was preparing. At Mami a few weeks prior, I had eaten one of Miller’s pork belly okonomiyaki ($12), and it was one of the evening’s highlights. To make it, Miller grills an egg-and-shredded cabbage mixture until it is brown around the edges, criss-crosses the surface with perpendicular drizzles of Kewpie mayonnaise and sweet soy-based sauce, then tops with atom-thin bonito flakes that flutter like butterfly wings as steam wafts up from the pancake.

It’s a popular Japanese casual dish, but one not yet well-known in the United States. Still, it hasn’t been hard for Miller and his fiancée, Hana Tamaki, Mami’s general manager, to convince Portlanders to try it – first on the food truck they opened in 2015, and then this April, in their shabby/chic restaurant. “Even though it’s not really a pancake, it’s crisp and soft and a little battery. Not like anything you’ve had before, but people like pancakes,” he explained.

It remains a staple of the tiny four- or five-item food truck menu, as well as the gravitational center of the menu on Fore Street, where with a permanent kitchen and storage, Mami is able to triple its offerings. It’s one of the things Miller likes best about having a brick-and-mortar location. “The truck is great, and nothing beats making okonomikayi in the middle of a field for a wedding reception. But it’s not ideal for cooking a lot of different things, or for experimenting,” he said. “I like the restaurant a lot more. There’s so much more space, and you can have six people in the kitchen, not just me and maybe Hana cooking. It’s awesome.”

Extra room also means opportunity to do dishes that require lengthy, complicated advance preparation, like the lobster nikuman with dill flowers ($12). Mami’s twist on a Maine lobster roll is served in a yeasty, house-made steamed bun and topped with pinheads of sparkling orange tobiko caviar that coax a saline minerality from the garlic mayonnaise-dressed lobster meat.

Miller and his team also bake their own stark, black squid-ink brioche buns for the Big Mami burger ($10). On each, they layer lettuce, pickles, Kewpie mayonnaise and a beef patty flavored with peppery togarashi spice blend, curry powder and pulverized nori. On a recent visit, my dinner guests and I found the patty a little overcooked, but with a remarkable balance of sweet, sour and umami.

If it’s umami you’re after, the best places to find it are in the crusty, golden brown takoyaki ($7), balls of crepe-like batter that hold a single morsel of octopus meat inside, or the spectacular yaki onigiri ($4): chubby, triangular parcels of sticky sushi rice, glazed with soy and miso and seared dark, crunchy brown on a teppanyaki grill. Mami frequently fills its onigiri with vegetable concoctions, like an Italian-esque combination of stewed tomato – generating yet more backhanded slaps of umami – and slivered garlic.

Karaage – Japanese-style fried chicken, left – and okonomiyaki – a savory pancake with pork belly, cabbage, seasonal vegetables, katsuobushi, aonori, benishoga and okonomi sauce.

“That’s the beauty of what we can do here in Maine. We’re really able to play with things that are in season,” Miller explained. “We’re not ashamed to have things from the farmers market if they’re delicious, even if they’re not traditional. Japanese cooking easily adapts to all of it.”

Still, Mami’s menu rarely veers far from Japanese izakaya and street food. Sure, there’s a Hawaiian/Japanese salmon poke don ($14), with bright, tart pickled onions and a creamy fermented chili sauce. But nearly everything else is at least based on a Japanese casual dining classic, like delightful shiitake skewers ($3) painted with a dense, long-simmering tare sauce made from mushroom stems, brown sugar, negi (Japanese scallions) and mirin. Or outstanding karaage ($7), chicken marinated for 24 hours in sake, ginger and soy, then battered in potato starch and fried so crisp that, as you eat, all you can hear is crunching.

Remarkably, Mami hits its mark nearly every time. On a recent visit, only forgettable blistered shishito peppers ($6), soggy from too much citrus-soy dressing, and underseasoned blanched spinach gomae ($6) disappointed.

I didn’t expect much of the yakisoba ($10), frankly. I know it as the kind of louche, greasy dish best sought out after a particularly intense bender. But Miller’s version was almost delicate, with North Spore mushrooms and loads of carrot and bok choi alongside grilled buckwheat noodles and plenty of citrus-pickled ginger. Not exactly health food, but a fresher, more vibrant version of this dish than you’ll usually find elsewhere.

Pair it with the right beverage from Mami’s two dozen drink options, mostly beers and ciders – some local and some from Japan – and it feels almost virtuous. For sheer frothy lightness, it’s hard to top the Hitachino White Ale ($7), a dry, medium-bodied Witbier that tastes like fruit and rose petals.

And if that doesn’t quite suit your taste, you can always order something different, as long as you get up and return to the counter to do so. At Mami, there is no table service in the traditional sense. Instead, you place your food and drink order at the front when you arrive, then carry your drinks to a table, where your food and utensils are later brought to you by one of the staff.

It’s a strange approach, stuck somewhere in the limbo between fast food and full service, a sort of fractional service model that seems perfectly suited to a quick-in, quick-out lunch crowd, but incomplete for dinnertime.

“At a ramen-ya in Japan, you order at a machine and someone brings you your food. That’s the whole interaction,” Miller explains. “For us, it’s also about the size of the space. We’re small, so table service could get clunky and awkward.”

But with partial service, a practical question looms: How do you tip? You don’t have a server, but if you spend an hour or more in the restaurant, it seems stingy to round your bill up a few dollars. “I tell people: Just do what you want. We’re not asking for a tip. We’re just here to give you food and beer, and if you like what we do, OK, tip a little,” Miller said, reassuring me that everyone in the restaurant is both paid “a little more than minimum wage” and eligible for a share of the weekly tips pooled from both the restaurant and the truck.

A fair solution, but one that reads like a vestige of a time when there was only the food truck. In a restaurant, the neither-nor service model, and to some extent, the nondescript furnishings, create an unstable, temporary feel, as if Miller and Tamaki haven’t gotten comfortable enough to put down roots quite yet. I know I’m not alone in hoping they settle in and stick around for a while.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 Polk and Jeanette Baum, right, take a lunch break from their jobs at CIEE to eat at nearby Mami on Fore Street in Portland.Fri, 22 Sep 2017 16:35:47 +0000
Dine Out Maine: From drinks to desserts, The Burleigh consistently inconsistent Sun, 17 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Our server is bombing. She does not seem to notice.

She also doesn’t seem to notice the table next to ours, where a couple out celebrating their anniversary is sitting, trying to catch her eye. When they finally do, they’re kind. “I’m really sorry to bother you, but it’s been more than an hour, we haven’t ordered, and all we’ve had is water,” the woman says, smiling generously. “No problem,” our server says, as she walks away and returns minutes later with a tray. On it: two more glasses of water.

They laugh, exasperated. I laugh, commiserating. We’ve also been sitting, abandoned with our menus for 20 minutes. Fortunately, we ordered cocktails at The Burleigh’s outdoor bar before we were seated, so we’re not quite as desperate as our neighbors. One, the Perkins Line ($13) with vodka, pineapple and chipotle simple syrup is excellent – tropical and tart, with a slow attenuation of spicy heat. Two others are sticky sweet. The first, the KPI French 75 ($12), named after the Kennebunkport Inn, where the restaurant is housed, comes blended with gin, prosecco and far too much lemon-verbena simple syrup. The second, the Billows ($13), is made with so much sweetening mixed into the mint and cucumber shrub that crystals of sugar precipitate out of solution.

A few minutes later, the floor manager arrives with a flourish at our table. “OK, people, talk to me,” she commands. “I heard you were upset because you were waiting a long time.” We look at one another, confused. None of us has left the table to complain. “No. That’s us!” calls the well-hydrated woman at the next table.

The manager swivels to placate them with a few free appetizers: onion strings ($7) made with shaved, curry-dredged Vidalia onions, rubbery Green Goddess deviled eggs ($5) filled with an overwhelming quantity of capers and cornichons that annihilate the flavors of parsley and tarragon in the yolks, and a first-rate take on poutine ($9). Executive chef John Shaw (who holds the same title at nearby Tides Beach Club) developed his cast-iron roasted version as a way to showcase Maine ingredients, from Pineland Farms cheese curds to housemade lobster gravy to the smashed fingerlings that replace french fries.

His twist on poutine, as well as many of the menu’s other comfort-food dishes, were introduced in May as a way of making The Burleigh seem approachable. “This year, we tried to get away from being a celebration restaurant to create an atmosphere where people can come multiple times a week to get a burger and salads,” he explained. “Now we’re an upscale pub that does casual food. And drinks. Our sundeck outside is a very popular place to be at happy hour or when we have live music.”

On a second visit, I saw what he meant.

The band was halfway through an off-key rendition of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” when we arrived. Half a dozen Kennebunkporters of a certain age were swaying unsteadily on the deck, one with a tambourine. Within a few minutes, I realized that nearly everyone in the place was tipsy.

The woman waiting for the 50-seat restaurant’s only bathroom tipped me off as I watched her pilfer K-cups intended for guests of the hotel, dropping half of them on the carpet. Not long after, my hunch was confirmed by a diner from New Jersey who weepily told my dinner guest about her sparkly Sept. 11 commemorative candles, all the while holding tight to his shoulder and complimenting his salt-and-pepper hair.

Our server had seen it all. “That’s nothing,” he assured us. “Earlier, there was someone who couldn’t figure out how to walk around the folded French doors to get back onto the deck where his friends were.”

It was like a scene from an ABC After School Special about booze – except a cautionary tale meant for tony locals and tourists. I decided to go easy on the alcohol, opting for a glass of the Drumheller chardonnay ($11 glass/ $42 bottle). Full of stone fruit and citrus, it makes a great match for the lobster club sandwich ($20). Well, really a lobster BLT, but with tons of fresh tomato, thick-cut smoky bacon and very lightly mayonnaise-and-lemon dressed lobster, I didn’t miss that third piece of toasted white bread.

On the other hand, I was stumped by the french fries. The Burleigh hand-cuts potatoes from Green Thumb Farms in Fryeburg, and while they were cooked crisp and golden, all but one was under an inch long. They looked like scraps.

Another deep-fried dish, the “fried chicken wontons” ($10), was also a let-down: filled with a ground white meat-and-mirepoix paste and served with a too-acidic dipping sauce as unbalanced as the patrons on the sundeck.

Hanger steak is served with rainbow carrots and grilled summer squash.

Indeed, equilibrium and execution are problems across The Burleigh’s menu. In the roasted chicken ($29), you’ll find luscious confited thigh meat amid local Hen of the Woods and oyster mushrooms and patty pan squash. Right next to them sit pieces of desiccated roasted breast and an unbearably acidic and thyme-heavy Italian salsa verde.

Then there’s a tight, almost elastic (not to mention expensive) angel food cake baked in the wrong pan and topped with berries ($10); a gritty arugula salad with a sugary Champagne vinaigrette; and local day boat scallops served with bacon-braised greens and almonds ($32) that is drizzled with a confectionary-sweet agrodolce reduction that makes the dish taste like a seafood dessert pudding.

I got my hopes up for the hanger steak ($30) with duck fat-roasted rainbow carrots. Served with grilled summer squash and a chimichurri-style sauce of parsley, garlic and lemon zest mixed with very finely chopped tomatoes, it showed off a fantastic range of flavors and textures. Both times I ordered it, though, it was plagued with execution (and service) problems. Once, the squash was underdone, still raw in places and just barely grill-marked. On both visits, the steak was cooked past medium rare and, puzzlingly, served without a much-needed steak knife.

A few dishes were unredeemable. One, the beige-on-brown skillet of fried cauliflower with garlic hummus, black sesame tahini and yogurt ($13) was flat and bland, despite the promise of Turkish Urfa pepper seasoning.

Another, the pork porterhouse ($26), was accompanied by a scarcely seasoned charred corn-and-black-bean relish of peppers, lime and green tomatoes. Worst of all was the pork. “It’s served medium,” our first server warned. A few bites in, I wondered, “Medium what?” It was like eating an old saddle.

Yet a few dishes show promise, like a grilled New Hampshire peach cobbler ($10), topped with a toasty browned layer of oats, brown sugar and butter, and a generous scoop of basil and tarragon mascarpone cream. Or straightforward, satisfying blackened cod tacos with shaved cabbage and a subtle, smoky charred tomatillo salsa ($10).

Even better were the juicy, vigorously peppery house-smoked jerk chicken wings ($11). “We don’t fry them. We rub them and marinate them and hot-smoke on a little smoker that lives out back,” Shaw said. Our server said very nearly the same thing, adding that The Burleigh’s chefs love to cook on it. “I think because it gets them outside. You know, away from the chaos,” he said, laughing and gesturing towards the kitchen, where moments before we had heard the evening’s second stack of dishes crash to the floor. I had no doubt he was right.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 steak is served with rainbow carrots and grilled summer squash.Sun, 17 Sep 2017 09:02:29 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Bowling alleys throw strikes and gutter balls in the cuisine game Sun, 10 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Nothing sounds quite like a bowling alley. It’s a sonic landscape we know well: the echo from acres of lacquered hardwood flooring, the scuff and shuffle of rented saddle shoes, and the violent detonation of a urethane ball colliding full tilt with wooden pins.

It’s also probably not a soundtrack you would associate with a meal. A plastic cup of beer (mostly head) and a flimsy paper boat filled with nachos and processed cheese, perhaps. But dinner? As unlikely as it may seem, two local businesses are determined to prove that there is such a thing as bowling alley cuisine, and it’s worth your attention.

The first, Portland’s Bayside Bowl, opened in 2010. For its first five years, the venue was primarily a bowling alley and bar that also served “decent snacks, but nothing you’d ever want to plan your night around,” according to a friend and a frequent longtime visitor.

Then came a two-year, multimillion-dollar renovation that saw the installation of a private mezzanine, eight new high-tech bowling lanes, and most importantly, an outdoor rooftop bar. Upstairs, alongside a field of black solar panels gaping hungrily at the sky, you’ll now find a cabana-style bar structure and a vintage Airstream trailer that has been converted into a taco truck.

The new taco kitchen is emblematic of Bayside’s renewed commitment to food. Kitchen manager Jason Wilkinson (formerly of Blue Spoon) describes it this way, “When they built the rooftop deck, they rethought everything. We’re still not Hugo’s. We’re not doing molecular gastronomy. But the idea is to do food really, really well.”

On a recent twilight visit to the rooftop deck, I tasted three of Bayside’s tacos (all $5). The best of the bunch was the cactus version, with a drizzle of rich avocado crema and strips of simmered cactus paddle (nopales) that tasted like a feral cross between asparagus and green beans. The pulled pork taco with tangy pickled red onions and crumbly cotija cheese was also enjoyable, but absent the smoky heat promised by the chipotle crema. Sadly, the carne asada taco, made with cilantro- and garlic-marinated flap steak was also seriously underseasoned, not to mention extremely messy to eat. I needed utensils.

“Forks?” the bartender dispensing our round of weak frozen margaritas and pina coladas ($10) repeated back. “No, we don’t have any upstairs. Only downstairs. And you can’t take your food downstairs. So …”

So … we ended up with blobs of various cremas on our pant legs, thanks to the open-mesh patio tables where we and nearly all other diners sat. Visually, they’re appealing, especially set against the tall bench seating, string lights and 1960s pastel fiberglass scoop chairs – a vignette hatched in a laboratory to be as Instagrammable as a puppy. But in practice, the chairs are painfully uncomfortable and the tables impractical.

After half an hour, we felt like fidgety children, messy from our tacos and frozen drinks (“Nope, no straws up here, either!” our bartender announced). Ironic, given that the rooftop is such an adult-oriented space that everyone is carded upon arrival.

In some ways, it’s not quite adult enough. As we descended the reverberating concrete stairwell on our way back to street level, we were followed by an overserved woman who, every 10 seconds or so, shrieked wordlessly at the top of her lungs. “What’s goin’ on, Brittany, hon?” her friend yelled back up the stairs. “I’ve just gotta make some nooooooooise!” Brittany howled in reply, and then let loose with another eardrum-rupturing scream.

Seated safely downstairs, in one of the swanky new booths overlooking the lanes, I could see the contours and outlines of a restaurant gestating inside Bayside Bowl. There’s a competent Cobb salad ($10) with bacon, grilled chicken breast and a beguilingly herby buttermilk dressing, fragrant with parsley and tarragon.

Better still: a satisfying vegan re-imagining of a Reuben sandwich, the Rachael ($13), made with smoky tempeh and Morse’s sauerkraut. For dessert, a slice of Two Fat Cats mixed berry pie ($5) with plump streusel chunks and a slightly savory crust was both seasonal and comforting.

Yet many of Bayside Bowl’s dishes seem to have resigned themselves to the mediocrity (or worse) you’d expect from a bowling alley.

Take the tot poutine ($7): Pineland Farms cheese curds and tater tots bobbing in a quickly coagulating bowl of shiitake gravy. Wilkinson himself describes it as “a bit of a gut bomb.” Or the pepperoni pizza ($9). It starts out on the right foot, with housemade dough and tomato sauce. But because each flatbread-style pizza is grilled far in advance, then finished to order in a pizza oven that the kitchen never fires beyond 600 degrees F, the crust ends up tough in places and an over-charred mess in others.

When I tried to cut a slice in half, I discovered another weird silverware restriction downstairs. No knives, unless you request one, and then what you get is a dull butter knife. Do cutlery and bowling not mix?

I could have used something sharp in order to share The Drunk on Lane 9 burger ($14): Bayside’s classic beef burger with a teetering tower of extras. On the barely toasted potato roll sit cheddar cheese, bacon, a layer of greasy french fries and a fried egg with a yolk cooked firm, not runny, as intended. It was created as a tribute to Portland restaurant Nosh’s eponymous burger, but Bayside’s version is executed carelessly: a pale imitation.

Coincidentally, in Westbrook, the kitchen staff at the recently opened 33 Elmwood are also busy experimenting with culinary homages of the hamburger kind.

In an all-indoor venue that combines bocce, candlepin and 10-pin bowling, executive chef Aaron Mallory – who trained under Bryan Voltaggio and then at Central Provisions and Hugo’s – offers two dishes that mimic the addictive flavors of fast-food burgers.

The most obvious is the 33 Burger ($9), made with two 4-ounce beef patties, pickles, lettuce, onions and a sesame seed bun. Sound familiar? “Big Mac flavors are what we were shooting for, but the flame-grilled beef might make you think about Burger King,” Mallory explained. He’s right on both counts. But his burger is housemade, from the pickles to the potato-onion roll. It’s a massive taste upgrade to the drive-thru sandwich, though one that loses none of the original’s primal appeal.

He and his team, including pizza chef Brandon Tenney, have deconstructed many of those same flavors and reassembled them into The Mac pizza ($12). It’s an inexplicably delightful dish with a Thousand Island dressing sauce; slivers of tart, pink pickled onion and irregular, Superball-sized hunks of ground beef – all baked in a 700+ degree F pizza oven.

I understood why the two little girls at a neighboring table sat bouncing happily as they devoured their own Mac pizza.

There are indeed plenty of children at 33 Elmwood, but the sizable, rectangular adults-only bar that anchors the dining room balances out their presence and keeps the place from toppling over into Chuck E. Cheese territory.

The menu also helps maintain that balance. Alongside improved kids’ favorites like penne-based macaroni and cheese ($5) and grilled cheese on thick, housemade brioche ($9), there are more sophisticated dishes.

Not all work perfectly, like too-minty zucchini fritters ($7) that, on a recent visit, were gummy inside. Or a meatball sub that was dominated by a sweet marinara. A shame, considering the kitchen’s ingenious use of leftovers (housemade sourdough crumbs soaked in fresh ricotta whey) in the panade.

Fortunately, plates like broiled local hake tacos ($9) with cilantro stems chopped like chives and a pulsatingly spicy chipotle mayonnaise demonstrate Mallory’s knack for breathing new life into bar (and bowling alley) food.

It’s also there in his lightly dressed, pepita-studded Caesar ($7) with radicchio and vinegary boquerones, as well as his take on super-trendy deviled eggs ($7). Mallory breads the whites of hard-boiled eggs in panko and deep fries, then fills them with sinus-clearingly mustardy yolks before topping them with a single dot of Sriracha.

Exactly the kind of eye-opener you need before hitting one of the lanes. My guests and I took advantage of 33 Elmwood’s policy of allowing diners to bring their meals into the bowling area. As we bowled, we shared a S’mores dessert ($8) made with dense Italian meringue in place of marshmallows, milk powder toasted to taste like graham crackers, and a fudgy chocolate pudding cake.

There were five of us that night, including two children new to candlepin bowling, so our dessert was punctuated by peals of embarrassed laughter and cries of “Gutter ball!”

But as we finished off an extra order of freshly churned vanilla bean ice cream ($4), it seemed like exactly the right kind of soundtrack to underscore a dinner adventure on a drizzly Tuesday evening.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0, ME - SEPTEMBER 6: Food review of Bayside Bowl in Portland. The Rachael sandwich, a vegan option with smoky tempeh, sauerkraut and vegan Thousand Island dressing on rye. (Photo by Derek Davis/Staff photographer)Sun, 10 Sep 2017 08:56:06 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Self-taught chef turning heads at Rockland’s Suzuki Sushi Sun, 03 Sep 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Becoming truly good at something isn’t easy. For most, it takes years of study and/or training with an already accomplished professional just to become competent. Traditional restaurant kitchens are built on this model of slow, incremental progress under ever-more-expert mentors. It can take decades to become great. A friend who studies restaurant apprenticeships used to say, “Chefs are the best teachers. They are also the slowest teachers. Learning just one new technique might take a year. Maybe more.”

It’s rare to encounter an excellent chef who has bypassed this system. Someone diligent enough to teach him- or herself thousands upon thousands of skills, as well as how to put them all together. Such a person has more in common with recent Top 10 tennis player Paradorn Srichaphan, who famously taught himself tennis by watching VHS tapes of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, then mimicking their strokes on court with his father. Or David Bowie, who – entirely on his own – learned to play piano, guitar, drums and even the harmonica before tacking on songwriting for good measure.

Keiko Suzuki Steinberger’s story isn’t very different. She came to Rockland after college in Sendai, Japan, and worked briefly in a small Japanese restaurant run by her cousin, where she learned “next to nothing about sushi.” Then came a summer gig cooking in Camden that made her impatient. She decided to throw caution to the wind and return to Rockland to open her own sushi restaurant in a Main Street building that was once a coffee shop and, before that, a bank.

But she knew enough to understand that her skills needed another boost, so she returned to Japan and enrolled in the Tokyo Sushi Academy. In just four weeks, she patched the remaining holes in her repertoire and headed back to Maine. That was 12 years ago.

“I’m basically self-taught,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I’m from Japan and have a Zen philosophy and am very focused on what I am doing in this moment. But I try to improve every day and do my best. If I do a good job at the restaurant, people will like it and want to come back. I believe in word of mouth.”

And people are indeed talking about Suzuki’s Sushi Bar. This year marks the second in a row that Suzuki Steinberger was nominated for the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Northeast award.

Locals seem conflicted about the recent attention, as one regular said to his server as he finished his meal, “This was always my secret little place, but now I have to work hard just to get a table in the summer.” “Winter,” his server replied, giving him a little wink. “Wait for the winter.”

But no, don’t wait for winter. Suzuki’s Sushi Bar scaffolds its menu on an ever-changing framework of seasonality. Visit in the summer or early autumn and you’ll find cucumber-and-wakame seaweed sunomono ($9), a crunchy, chewy salad fortified by fresh-picked Maine crabmeat and a remarkably lemony “amazu” sauce. Not to mention house-cured oshinko (Japanese pickles, $6) like nubbly, baby yellow cucumbers with dill heads, tender hakurei turnips with borage flowers, and pleasingly brusque ramp bulbs – the last remainders of this year’s supply – all pickled in salt, sake and seasoned rice vinegar.

You’ll also catch the end of the local mackerel season, which Suzuki Steinberger celebrates by making saba nigiri (part of the omakase, or chef’s choice, assortment, $34): a single slice of fish the color of faded rosé champagne, topped with a dot of grated ginger and laid gently atop a thumb-sized portion of excellent sushi rice.

Now is also the perfect time to order the scallop-cake donburi ($24), one of the restaurant’s “hot dinner entrees” showcasing a rainbow of seasonal vegetables. You’ll find soy-and-dashi-drizzled staves of barely steamed yellow squash and zucchini, green and wax beans, along with asparagus and poker chip-sized discs of purple daikon. On one recent visit, the squash and the rice were a little undercooked, but the pan-seared scallop cakes, with their sharp, oniony punch and disarming sweetness, won me over completely.

Even the omakase assortment includes tiny treats and flourishes that change with the seasons. There’s the strip of purple shiso leaf that Suzuki Steinberger dabs onto rice before overlaying it with translucent squid flesh and topping with tobiko. The grassy, mint-adjacent flavor of shiso makes the squid nigiri taste almost buttery.

Or a half-dozen slices of marbled toro (bluefin tuna belly) sashimi, each meant to be eaten in a single bite along with mandolin-shaved discs of summery yellow cucumber and sprigs of forest-green samphire (sea beans) that give every mouthful a delicate, saline crunch. It’s easy to see why Suzuki Steinberger says that toro is her second-favorite food.

Her first is natto, fermented soybeans linked together by a network of threads that get puffier and stickier as you stir them. Imagine tossing a jar of baked beans into a spider web, and you’ve got the idea. Quite a hard sell for most Americans, and not a dish normally found in a sushi restaurant, but Keiko doesn’t care; it’s her favorite, and her restaurant, so natto is on the menu ($6), captioned drolly as “an acquired taste.”

Breaking rules is part of what makes autodidacts so fascinating. They take risks, are rarely hidebound, and their experimentation can be dazzling to witness. At the same time, things don’t always work out perfectly, and that’s part of the bargain. It’s true at Suzuki’s Sushi Bar as well. Take the halibut nigiri with a thin sliver of lemon (rind and all) that overwhelms nuance and subtlety in the flavor of the fish. Or steamed ebi (shrimp) nigiri sprinkled with marigold flowers that bring to mind potpourri with each bite.

Tobiko and quail egg nigiri. Photo courtesy of David Alley

Fortunately, such wobbles are rarities. Most dishes are tiny revelations, like Suzuki Steinberger’s extraordinary lobster sashimi: sweet tail meat lightly cured in lemon and lime juices, ginger, and plated inside the shell. “It’s a ceviche,” she told me with a laugh.

Better still are her experiments with lesser-used ingredients, like raw, wrinkled little whelks – jolie laide by-catch from local fishermen – that Suzuki Steinberger steams and marinates briefly with her oshinko pickle juice before plating with dill fronds and purple daikon.

She also uses the tiny, test-run harvest of Maine sweet coldwater prawns to prepare local “ama ebi” shumai. She chops the shrimp with ginger and soy, then adds panko and green onions to create a marvelously rich dumpling filling. “For the last two years, the government allowed fishermen to fish for them only on certain days. So I bought a whole bunch and processed them and just froze the dumplings,” Suzuki Steinberger said. “But they sell quite well, so they don’t stay in the freezer. We have to keep making them when we can.”

Lobster ceviche served with fresh local dill and local pickled gherkins. Photo courtesy of David Alley

Impressively, servers seem to know the backstory of nearly every dish. Ours told us all about the unusual dumplings and whelks, only steering us wrong once, when she lied about the housemade ice cream choices. When I asked about a neighboring table spooning scoops of both nutty black sesame and bright, candied ginger ice cream, she demurred and admitted, “The black sesame is extra-hard, and I didn’t tell you about it because I don’t want to have to scoop it.” When she checked again and found it had softened, she returned with a bowl and an apology.

Suzuki Steinberger told me that her front-of-house staff doesn’t come to her with their thorough knowledge of sushi. “They learn on the job and pick it up,” she explained. In so doing, they train the old-fashioned way, by a slow accretion of knowledge under the careful guidance of an expert. Suzuki Steinberger herself may have been a self-taught phenom, but she is also clearly a very good teacher.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0$ID/NormalParagraphStyle:Lobster ceviche served with fresh local dill and local pickled gherkins.Sat, 02 Sep 2017 20:18:56 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Southwest Harbor might be the last place you’d think to look for delicious Mexican food Sun, 20 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 If you have eaten at XYZ in Manset, Southwest Harbor, chances are excellent that you were on vacation when you did. After all, the restaurant, run since 1994 by co-owners Janet Strong and Bob Hoyt, is open only a few months each year, from June until Labor Day, then on weekends until mid-October. It’s also adjacent to Acadia National Park, one of the state’s biggest seasonal attractions. Even the locals around here – on “the quiet side” of Mount Desert Island – are, more often than not, summer residents.

But whether or not you’re officially off the clock, XYZ has a sneaky way of making you feel as if you are. It starts when you turn into the driveway and make your way up a dusty gravel path, past a natural clearing in the woods. In an instant, the rest of the world feels impossibly remote. By the time you reach the restaurant’s entrance – guarded by a fiberglass donkey named Rebecca, posed amid coffee cans painted and filled with geraniums – the disconnection is complete.

Your sole obligation now is to chat with Strong, who runs the front-of-house, and choose either a simple XYZ margarita ($7.50), or a swank margarita “especial,” ($12), made with pure agave tequila and Cointreau. Either choice is a good one, and Strong, once the publisher of the Bar Harbor Times newspaper, will tell you as much in the affable, no-nonsense style she shares with Hoyt, the restaurant’s chef.

The couple started traveling to Mexico in 1983, where they “discovered what real Mexican food was,” according to Strong. Later, after her parents bought a house there, they met Juana Perez, a cook who taught them how to prepare the traditional regional dishes that eventually inspired the menu for XYZ. “It’s not nouvelle cuisine. What we do is more 1950s than 2020s,” Hoyt explained. “The biggest compliment I get in Mexico is when somebody says, ‘You cook like my grandmother.’ ”

A perfect example of this is XYZ’s take on a classic puerco verde ($26). The kitchen parboils, then bakes pork shoulders in a Oaxacan green tomatillo mole, florid with poblano chiles, allspice, garlic scapes and cloves. After four hours, the pork shoulders end up supersaturated with flavor and so tender that, as Hoyt says, “they just shred themselves.”

Even if you’re not in the mood for pork, you can taste a relative of that mole in the green tomatillo-based serrano chile salsa that is served with every meal. It and its companion, a smoky red, ancho-and-chipotle-based salsa, are intended to be spread on thin slices of baguette, rather than scooped up with tortilla chips. The absence of chips has become a bone of contention for some online reviewers expecting the sort of meal they might get from a drive-thru window, but Hoyt’s finely textured tomatillo salsas demand more than crunch and salt. They are at once so delicately herbal and so penetratingly garlicky, that only the softness – and more importantly, sweetness – of bread gives your brain enough time to parse the electric complexity of what your tongue is tasting.

XYZ’s pollo en salsa naranja ($26) also conjoins pleasure and pandemonium, this time through tart, aromatic orange and peppery heat. To achieve the effect, Hoyt simmers chicken thighs in a thick sauce made by blending orange peels, lime juice, ancho chiles and skinny, nuclear arbol chiles. The concoction works especially well to balance out the robust, fatty flavors of dark meat.

When my plate arrived, I caught sight of the garnish – a single, slender red chile tracing the meridian of the split chicken thigh – and wondered: Is this a promise or a warning? Five minutes later, as I blotted dots of perspiration on my forehead, then immediately went back for another bite, I realized the answer was both.

XYZ’s menu offers more than classic dishes. Hoyt is a confident cook who is not ashamed of mining inspiration from unorthodox sources, like a now-defunct El Paso restaurant whose recipe for “adobe pie” he pilfered and transformed into the XYZ pie ($8). On a base of crushed chocolate wafer cookies sit two layers of ice cream: one coffee and one butter crunch, separated by a layer of chocolate. A woman seated at the next table desperately swatted away the mosquitoes that had snuck in through the incompletely sealed patio screens, all the while entreating her boyfriend, “The pie! Don’t let them get on my pie. I need that!”

Hoyt also borrows occasionally from Mexican street cooking, as in the garish, puckery red cocktail sauce served with the Mazatlan shrimp cocktail ($10). “Nobody can ever figure out the fruitiness and effervescence, but it’s just equal parts ketchup and Orange Crush, blended with chile de arbol for heat,” he said. “It’s a sauce that comes from Mexican beaches, where they cook with the soda they have everywhere.”

A portrait of Janet Strong and Bob Hoyt.

He also improvises expertly with more traditional tools and ingredients, creating original dishes for the restaurant. Take the sopa de aguacate ($9), a chilled avocado soup with tequila and chile. You’ll find plenty of cold avocado soups in Mexico, but they are generally made with chicken broth and cream. XYZ’s is vegan. Hoyt exploits the lack of dairy and umami to showcase a frothy leanness of flavor from cilantro, citrus and white tequila.

Another outstanding original is the cazuelita de jaiba ($15), a five-ingredient “casserole” of Maine crabmeat, almost poetic in its spareness, yet arranged precisely into covert iambs and trochees of flavor from white onion, serrano chile and buttery Monterey Jack cheese.

Both the soup and the crab casserole appetizers appeared practically before our server finished jotting down our requests. That’s part of Hoyt’s system. From 5 a.m. until the late afternoon, he’s the only one in the kitchen, so his ability to satisfy a packed house relies heavily on advance preparation. He also knows exactly where to cut corners at negligible cost, which means that frequently, dishes are plated rustically – favoring taste over visuals.

It’s a smart trade-off, especially during the last two weeks of July and the month of August, when XYZ is filled to capacity every single night, and both Hoyt and Strong put in 15-hour days. Nothing about the summer feels much like a getaway to them. Instead, they bide their time until they can slip away southward for another off-season in their Oaxacan home. I like to picture them unwinding with a few margaritas “especiales” of their own while making notes on new flavors to introduce to Southwest Harbor next summer.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant.

Contact him at:

Twitter: AndrewRossME

]]> 0 get some last-minute love before being served.Mon, 21 Aug 2017 09:56:01 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Savor homestyle Somali cuisine at Mini Mogadishu Sun, 13 Aug 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Until I visited Portland’s Mini Mogadishu last month, I had never eaten at a restaurant with a throne. I’ve dined alongside a cross-sectioned yellow school bus, behind bars in a jail cell and on an opera balcony overlooking a life-sized model of a flying saucer – but those were all novelty interiors with no purpose other than to dazzle customers. Mini Mogadishu’s baroque wooden throne is a functional piece of décor, not just a wacky conversation starter.

“It’s from a wedding we had recently. The bride gets to sit up there,” said our server, dressed in track pants and loose-fitting sandals that plipped and plopped each time he shuffled in sleepily from the kitchen. “We do so many parties and weddings. I don’t know if it’s going to stay, but maybe.” He shrugged, then deposited our drinks on the table: cool, freshly pressed watermelon juice ($3); mango juice ($4) so thick with puréed fruit that it could have qualified as a smoothie; and a clear glass of hot, cavity-inducingly sweet Somali tea ($1), spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves.

As my friends and I sipped our drinks and decided what to order, it was hard to stay focused on the menu. Our gaze kept moving up from the plastic-covered white tablecloth, past the matching ruched chair covers, to the dozens of colorful tapestries pinned overhead to divide the space and soften the glare from fluorescent lights. Suspended next to garish paper lanterns and fans, they transformed the ceiling into an upside-down, Technicolor stage set straight out of an Annette Funicello movie. Very festive.

According to Abdisalam Yousuf, one of the cooks and son of chef/co-owner Nimo Saeed, the restaurant’s evolution into a site for celebration happened naturally. “It really wasn’t planned that way. When we got the space, we realized that it was really large, bigger than we thought. My mom and her friend (chef/co-owner Halimo Mohamud) have been part of the Somali community here for 16 or 17 years, and people just started asking them if they could hold events here. We’ve done weddings, gatherings, even a city council event,” he said. “But the food is home-style cooking. It’s the kind of lunch or dinner you would get at a Somali person’s house.”

If you have never eaten Somali food before, it is, like many cuisines today, a bit of a melting pot. There are components like tender brown lentils and flat, crepe-like bread (aanjeera) that will remind you of foodways from Eritrea and Ethiopia, neighboring Horn of Africa countries. Others, like blistery, charred japaati and basmati rice will bring to mind Indian and Pakistani cooking. And for an extra twist, Somali cuisine has found a way to embrace its less-than-sanguine colonial past through tomato sauces and pasta.

At the same time, Somali cooking possesses its own unmistakable identity, building flavors through slow simmering and flamboyant use of spice blends called xawaash that derive most of their punch from cardamom, turmeric, coriander and cinnamon.

Order any of the meals that include beef suqaar ($13 a la carte, or $25/$45 as part of the shared plate for two or four people), and you’ll get a perfect encapsulation of Saeed and Mohamud’s take on Somali home cooking. Here, steak is cubed, then stewed with onions and umami-intensifying Maggi, before being fried off in vegetable oil, finished in the oven and served with thin spaghetti and/or basmati rice done in an onion-and-clove scented, pilaf-style. The result is beef with a bright, floral complexity of aromas and tastes. I couldn’t stop eating it, even though the meat was a bit overdone.

Chicken thighs prepared the same way ($12 a la carte) were even better (if similarly overcooked). I have this dish to thank for one of my new favorite bites: strands of thin spaghetti, slick with chicken fat and vibrating like guitar strings from ripples of green cardamom, cumin and sautéed onion.

Both dishes, as well as the shared plates, come with a tiny steel bowl of green chili sauce, a puree of jalapeño, garlic, salt, cucumber and lime. It wields sharp, glass-like points of fire, but these are brighter and cool down quicker than the dark red intensity of Eritrean and Ethiopian berbere.

On the slow-roasted, cilantro-marinated lamb shank ($15 a la carte), a dab or two of the jalapeño sauce adds a sparkling layer of acid and spice to the tender meat. As an ingredient in the Somali chili ($15 as part of the Somali aanjeera platter), it underlines and italicizes the sweetness of stewed tomatoes.

A shared plate for two with rice, pasta, hilib (lamb), chicken and beef suqaar. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Both the Somali chili and its companion dishes – a garlicky, mineral sauteed spinach and brown lentils simmered all day in a housemade vegetable stock – are best when scooped up by hand in a torn strip of aanjeera, a golden brown-surfaced soft pancake that is the third cousin to Ethiopian injera. By creating structure with fermented oat flour in place of teff, Somali aanjeera gives up some of its relative’s sponginess in exchange for a darker color and sweeter, nuttier flavor.

“We eat it as a snack. Or for breakfast,” our server said, gesturing to the basket of aanjeera, then pointing at my glass, “With tea sometimes.” I could see why immediately. It had the toasty, indulgently carb-y appeal of simple comfort food.

At the same time, each round of aanjeera on our table displayed a subtle flash of elegance: a perfect, pale spiral puff where the batter was ladled, then expertly coaxed from the center to the perimeter of a hot griddle. Modest, yet special – the kind of dish equally suited to nibbling during an ordinary morning at the kitchen table, or at a fancy banquet, seated on an ornate throne.

Correction: This story was updated at 5:15 p.m. on August 17, 2017 to correct the restaurant’s hours of service.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 photos by Brianna Soukup Annie Baron pours a cup of tea as she and Stephen Piwowarski get ready to eat their aanjeera, a golden, soft pancake served with chili, spinach and brown lentils.Thu, 17 Aug 2017 17:16:50 +0000
Dine Out Maine: After careful planning at O’Reilly’s Cure, simple is safest bet Sun, 23 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 At a hotel bar in Berlin one sunny June afternoon, I asked some new American acquaintances about their plans for the day. Both worked for a large accounting firm. “E-mails,” one replied. “Editing a PowerPoint,” said the other. I gestured outside and reminded them that they were visiting a historic city on a cloudless day.

“Listen,” the first one said, a little self-mockingly, as she showed me the overflowing to-do list on her phone, “accountants might not be the kind of people you’d want to bring along on a trip around the world – but they are exactly the ones you want to make your packing list.”

So when Patrick O’Reilly, co-owner of O’Reilly’s Cure in Scarborough, told me that he and his wife, Sue, took two years to write up their business plan and request feedback from their friends and colleagues, it came as no surprise that his next sentence was, “I’m an accountant.”

Based on an analysis of traffic metrics and town amenities, the couple had even worked out, down to a few thousand feet along Route 1, precisely where they wanted their restaurant to be. When they found a site that aligned with their parking spot calculus, they hired architects and designers to help them create exactly the right space, using rough-sawn wood, metal, lots of glass and high ceilings to create a clean, but never clinical vibe that Sue O’Reilly describes as “rustic modern.”

Despite meticulous planning and a $1.3 million investment, there were early hiccups in the back-of-house. “You can do homework and research, but it only counts when you have the first customer come in the door and order something,” Patrick O’Reilly said.

Enter Scott Giallongo, a 30-year veteran of the restaurant industry, who came on board a few months after O’Reilly’s Cure opened in October, first as a consultant, and eventually, as the executive chef. His menu – created in collaboration with both owners – references Patrick O’Reilly’s Irish ancestry as well as Sue O’Reilly’s Korean heritage, but by and large leans American, with a clear emphasis on pub classics and comfort food.

Giallongo’s best dishes are generally his simplest, like a chunky New England-style haddock chowder ($6 cup, $10 bowl). Tender pieces of celery and a piney, floral whisper of thyme let you know this isn’t a traditional Maine chowder, but that hardly matters. It was hearty without being heavy, with just enough cream to give it the heft to stand up to a pint of tangy, unfiltered Downeast Cider ($6) from East Boston, Massachusetts.

Both the “OC” burger ($13) and its poultry-based sister, the grilled “OC” chicken sandwich ($13), were solid sandwiches with a hint of sweetness from caramelized onions, crunch from strips of applewood bacon, and a savory finish: a melted slice of Welsh Red Dragon cheese flavored with ale and whole grain mustard. The combination worked well for both meats, if perhaps a bit better on the patty than on the slightly overdone breast.

A straightforward Irish classic, corned beef and cabbage ($15) was also generally enjoyable, especially the slow-simmered, briny meat, which, when eaten with a forkful of tender new potato, made me think fondly of wonderful pub lunches I used to eat in the UK. The bland cabbage and peculiarly barnyardy carrot slices, not so much.

Deep-fried Brussels sprouts ($8), intensely browned and mixed with smoky bacon, were also mostly a pleasure. A grating of more Red Dragon cheese on top, however, was salty overkill. And we discovered quickly that the dipping sauce – a mustardy, slow-simmered concoction made with serrano peppers, kimchi paste and Frank’s Red Hot sauce – was to be avoided. Mounted with an obscene amount of butter and flavored with sugar, it tasted like it was made from a thickened reduction of Sour Patch Kids.

“What’s in the sauce?” I asked a server, the only person working the busy stone patio section on my first visit. “Pfft. No idea. I’ll ask,” she replied. She never did. I tried to follow up later, when she made a microsecond-long visit to our table, but I missed my chance. We didn’t see her again for nearly half an hour, when swarmed by mosquitoes, we needed to relocate indoors.

Really, we ought to have made the move earlier, as did members of a local Little League team with their coaches, and a loutish party of New Jersey bros bellowing about recent escapades involving Sharpie art on the canvas of their sleeping friend’s buttocks. Good times.

I was charged with transporting the largest dish, the full rack of BBQ baby back ribs ($24). As I walked through the door, I had to turn to the side to accommodate the flimsy plastic “silver” tray, the kind you might spot at a church bake sale, lined with a doily and piled high with dry, beige cookies. “We didn’t have a plate big enough, and we have those trays from parties. It gives a ‘wow’ factor,” Giallongo said.

The grilled “OC” chicken sandwich features North Country applewood bacon, Red Dragon cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce and tomato.

In truth, little on the platter was wow-worthy. Rubbed with a housemade Cajun spice mix, then grill-marked and slow-roasted in an oven, the Sysco-sourced ribs were well-cooked, but were so free of meat, they could almost count as vegetarian.

The chipotle-spiced cornbread was sweet (in the Northern tradition), and purred with smoky heat, but looked sunken and unevenly baked – hard on the outside and squishy underneath. The best part of the dish may have been the lifeboat-sized serving of smoky “baked” (actually slow-simmered) beans that accompanied it.

I also encountered some unexpected chipotle in the Korean-inspired lettuce wrap appetizer ($12), a do-it-yourself plate of coconut jasmine rice and seasoned, stir-fried beef strips (“Sirloin? Ribeye? Maybe it’s pork?” our server guessed) meant to be eaten together in a bundle (ssam).

Part of the joy of eating ssam is loading up cool, fresh lettuce leaves with fillings and adding something electric and fiery to it, like kimchi or a gingery, scallion sauce.

Here, the only spice on offer came from a mild blob of chipotle aioli soaking into a ring-molded clot of rice.

Unfortunately, there were even bigger disasters. The Irish bangers & mash ($15) was one. On a mound of respectable mashed potatoes sat two rosemary-scented pork sausages from North Country Smokehouse in Claremont, New Hampshire – grilled to the consistency of a pool noodle and drowned in a Guinness-based gravy that tasted like thickened brown salt water.

A flavorless vegetable medley of sliver-cut zucchini, carrot, onion and summer squash did not help liven up the dish. “Such a shame,” said my dejected friend who had ordered it. I pushed the baked beans in his direction and handed him an extra spoon.

The Buffalo chicken flatbread special ($11) was no better: a bad idea on a plate. Because the kitchen grilled the dough before service, then baked it in the oven to order, the edges of the flatbread were tough and stale, the bottom wet and mushy. The sauce, “a house Buffalo sauce that we give a Korean kick with a kimchi base,” according to Giallongo, was acrid, amplified by the tang from a bleu cheese crumble.

When it comes to actual chicken wings ($12), the kitchen fares better, especially if you avoid the Korean Buffalo and stick to the Remedy sauce: “That first one is mostly ketchup with Korean sauce (presumably gochujang), and the second one? It’s really just regular wing sauce. That’s the one you want,” a knowledgeable and friendly server told me on my second recent visit.

In the end, her candid advice may hold the key to eating well at O’Reilly’s Cure: Stick to the simplest options and you stand a chance.

After all, an enthusiastically eclectic menu that ranges from poutine ($8) to a Mediterranean plate ($14), to a Greek salad ($10) to Korean steak tips ($20), demands a phenomenal amount of skill, time and advance preparation.

Sometimes even having an accountant in your corner isn’t enough to make it all work out in the end.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 sleek space at O'Reilly's Cure was two years in the planning phase,Sat, 22 Jul 2017 19:16:57 +0000
Dine Out Maine: It’s not hard to eat your vegetables at Baharat Sun, 09 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 My nose had barely crossed the threshold into Baharat when I caught one of my favorite odors, tinkling like a wind chime beneath scents of grilling meat. Pickles. I’d know that smell anywhere. Instantly, I was flashing back to summer weekend expeditions to Guss’s Pickles on New York’s Lower East Side, where popping open red plastic barrels let loose tidal waves of vinegar and coriander into the July air.

I also must have spoken the word aloud to my dinner guest, because co-owner and general manager Jenna Friedman overheard. She laughed and replied, “Yep. That makes sense. We make all the pickles here ourselves, and we do a lot of them.” A measure of how seriously her husband, chef/co-owner Clay Norris takes his brining is that pickles ($3 per portion, or three for $7) at the East Bayside restaurant are given their own section on the menu. There are crunchy cauliflower florets, taxicab yellow from turmeric; minty cubes of tart, softened eggplant; and firm, almost sweet broccoli stems – an off-the-menu surprise that I tasted as part of a sharable, large-format meal, The All In ($45 for two people, $80 for four).

Norris’s inspiration to pickle something many people would consider compost came from working in the kitchen of a frugal Egyptian chef. “I was picking cilantro leaves off the stems, and he came in and yelled at me, then walked away. When he came back, he asked me, ‘Why are you throwing away the stems? That’s a vegetable, too.’ So if I can treat broccoli stems like a food, that’s another thing that doesn’t get thrown away,” he said.

Norris and Friedman are just as careful about making the most of their space. It’s a legacy of their two years operating Portland’s CN Shawarma food truck, where every square centimeter mattered. Today, in their small, but comparatively luxurious corner restaurant – across the street from the spot where their truck sat parked – they have turned space saving into a design practice by plating many dishes on aluminum baking trays that stack compactly. In the dining room, their shiny surfaces atop wood tables echo Baharat’s zinc bar, sparkling on a heavy hickory base.

Some of the restaurant’s best seats are there, mostly because it allows easy access to genial bar manager Arvid Brown and his sensational specialty cocktails. Some, like the Manhattan Bazaar ($14), take classics and subvert them just a bit – in this case, by substituting nuanced, complex Cardamaro for the strict fruitiness of Maraschino.

Or the Charred Lemon Collins ($10), which uses caramelized grilled lemon and preserved, dried citrus to lend a Tom Collins some Middle Eastern elegance. Others are original creations that show off Brown’s inventiveness, like the Curcuma Sour ($10), that builds a rye and Strega foundation to support what he calls “an experiment with turmeric,” all tempered by cucumber, citrus and aquafaba froth.

Brown is even willing to flout the theme of the restaurant in the interest of an excellent original drink, as he does with the red chili-garnished Tom Kha-Tail ($10): a sweet (and boozy) version of a Thai soup made with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and ginger. “In the end, I decided ‘does it taste good?’ is a better bottom-line than ‘does it fit the theme?'” he said.

It’s a smart attitude in a restaurant that, while technically Eastern Mediterranean, isn’t afraid of a little heterodoxy here and there. As part of the All In, you’ll find a delightfully smoky corn salad with sherry vinegar and smoked paprika – more Bilbao than Beirut. Elsewhere, Norris fluffs up the interior of his house fries ($5) with a French hole-poking technique before frying and dressing them with tangy sumac and toum (a pyrotechnically garlicky emulsion). Then there’s the Baharat Ding Dong ($8), a wonderful Levantine re-imagining of an all-American Hostess snack cake, with pieces of moist chocolate cake beached on a jetty of thick black tahini mousse and sprinkled with fine crumbles of halvah.

One place where Baharat suffers a bit is, ironically, its grilled meats. On a recent visit, I ate a chicken kebab ($5) that was undersalted and a little bland, even marinated in fresh citrus, ginger and turmeric and served with a squirt of toum. It tasted of little apart from char. The lamb kofta kebab ($7) was similarly undersalted, and while the flavor of the restaurant’s namesake baharat spice blend did come through (especially cumin and allspice), the meat was just past done. Both kebabs were still decent, but neither seemed like a dish prepared by a team that until recently, was esteemed for its shawarma spit.

On the other hand, having a permanent home seems to have given Norris the elbow room to explore dairy, vegetables and grains, something he has done passionately. Take his extraordinary housemade labneh (salted, thickened yogurt served as part of the All In), topped with a blanched tomato that has been marinated in olive oil and dried spearmint – liltingly sweet and herbal, it’s even better pressed into a torn shred of blistered Iraqi naan from Ameera Bread.

The shiny tabletops at Baharat echo the zinc bar. Staff photos by Derek Davis

Two cauliflower specials showcase intensely caramelized, mahogany-dark fried cauliflower in very different preparations (both $9). One highlights the savory, with capers, walnuts, crumbled feta and an Aleppo pepper aioli, while the other uses a dollop of fresh yogurt and halved black grapes to accent sweetness. Both are superb.

The same can be said of most of Baharat’s traditional vegetarian dishes. Smooth and practically weightless hummus ($5 small/ $7 large) is made with cumin-kissed chickpeas. Lebanese-style falafel balls ($5) resemble the eggs of a mythological bird: their interiors moist and bright green with parsley and cilantro, and their shells crisp and craggy. Even the tabbouleh ($5) dazzles with grand flourishes of mint, sumac and coriander.

Norris and Friedman may have made a name for themselves with kebabs and shawarma, but their future reputation will hang from new tent poles: imaginative cocktails and a stellar vegetable-forward menu. With those strengths, it’s easy to picture Baharat maturing into a restaurant with a national following. If you don’t quite believe me, stop in for a falafel sandwich ($10), drizzled with runny, allspice-infused tzatziki. Better yet: Try the pickles.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 All In, a large-format sharing plate with kabobs, mezze, spreads, pickles, sauces and Iraqi flatbread.Sun, 09 Jul 2017 07:52:23 +0000
Dine Out Maine: When it comes to ribs, Elsmere’s smoking Mama knows best Sun, 02 Jul 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “Mama can get real hot,” Adam Powers, chef and co-owner of South Portland’s Elsmere BBQ and Wood Grill, told me in the middle of our telephone conversation about ribs. “But that’s what you want.”

“Mama?” I asked, quickly scrambling to scan my notes, looking to see if I somehow missed that his mother was in the kitchen alongside him and fellow chef/co-owner Jeremy Rush.

“Yeah, she has three shelves. They all vary in temperature by 50 degrees, so we start the ribs at night on the middle shelf, then move them to the bottom shelf the next day,” he said. Suddenly, it clicked: Mama is the 4,400-pound wood-fired smoker Rush and Powers had custom-built and shipped from Texas for Elsmere’s 2013 opening.

“I was videotaping when she came in on a flatbed truck, and when I saw it, I just said ‘Welcome home, Mama’ without thinking, and it stuck. But her full name is Big Mama,” Powers said.

Today, she sits just inside the kitchen, next to an open dining room outfitted with steel chairs and wood booths. Steps away, a billboard-sized neon auto-body sign from the 1930s presides over the space, linking the building thematically to its roots as a former garage. The buzzy remnant of light-up Americana also gives the space a dramatic infusion of color: Light blues and electric reds wash over the bar and bounce off every shiny surface in the place. Even Mama gets in on the act, throwing off yellow gleams and flickers that vibrate the air.

But those visuals are just a pleasing side-effect; Mama’s real purpose is to cook. And when it comes to pork ribs, she certainly does her job right. Elsmere’s half-rack ($18) of St. Louis-cut spare ribs arrives with a thin, tawny exterior – “bark” in barbecue lingo – built up from a dry rub of salt, pepper, garlic and turbinado sugar. Inside, the ribs are a garish pink and tender enough to pull away from the bone with just a whispered suggestion.

Saucing is up to the diner, a deliberate choice Powers describes as “putting the focus on the flavor of the meat, not what goes on it.” On every table, you’ll find three squeeze bottles: Texas Red BBQ, a runny, classic ketchup-and-vinegar based sauce; 1866 Fire, a not-too-spicy crimson condiment named after the fire that destroyed much of Portland; and Golden Mustard, a tangy, sinus-clearing sauce. Each of the three is significantly different from the others, but all fall victim to a problem that plagues several of Elsmere’s dishes: They are far too sweet.

It’s also true of the grilled watermelon Caprese salad ($9), made with grill-marked triangles of melon, fresh mozzarella and a syrupy balsamic that amplifies the fruit’s caramelized sugars without creating enough acidic contrast. So too, the Northern-style cornbread accompanying the ribs (also available as a side dish for $3), a palm-sized, oven-browned square, freckled with whole kernels. “Come on, honey. It tastes just like a corn muffin!” a mother at the next table said, pleading with her toddler to take a bite.

As spot-on as her appeal was, she and her party left most of their plates unfinished. I know, because their dishes sat uncleared on the table for 20 minutes in the sparsely occupied dining room. Attentiveness was not the evening’s only service issue. When I asked for guidance on what to order from the sizable menu, I got what turned out to be iffy advice. Standing right in front of a sign that reads, “Our BBQ is something to scream about,” overlaid on an image of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” our server said, “People usually want meat, but seafood is our secret super power. Trust me.”

So I did, and ordered the BBQ salmon sandwich ($14), made with farm-raised, Canadian salmon and served with greens and tart pickled onions. Eighteen minutes on the top shelf of the smoker was enough to cook the filet solid, as well as to give it what Powers called “a kiss” of smoke – really just a disingenuous air kiss that left the salmon practically flavor-free. I doused it in 1866 Fire sauce.

Adam Gilman works the wood-fired grill, which was custom-made in Texas for Elsmere’s 2013 opening.

At our server’s suggestion, I also ordered the grilled oysters with garlic butter ($17 for six), cooked on the grill until they start to crack, then popped open and dressed with a bourbon-garlic butter. I found the texture of the oyster meat confusing – stuck in a semi-firm limbo between raw and cooked – and the flavors out of balance, in desperate need of more lemon to cut the garlic butter’s richness.

In other places on the menu, seasoning seems more creative and compelling. The sides, all of which are unexpectedly vegetarian (and many vegan), include a rice and beans dish ($3), frisky with cumin, coriander and a wallop of ancho chili, as well as a bowl of savory, vinegary collards ($3) that taste good enough to make you forget about fatback forever.

But if well-seasoned, well-executed meats are what you’re after, the proprietary half-beef, half-pork sausage ($8) does the trick. First, you notice the casing’s taut, kielbasa-like snap. Then, a deeply smoky, anise flavor profile that recollects the German heritage of Elsmere’s spiritual home, Central Texas. A dish of Golden Mustard sauce comes with each order, but ignore it. The sausage needs nothing extra – a fact I confirmed on a recent visit, when I witnessed children at a neighboring table grabbing bias-cut slices in their chubby fingers and shoving them, sauceless, into their mouths.

If it sounds as if kids are everywhere are Elsmere, that’s not far from the truth. While they are not the target audience – this is still a restaurant that serves cocktails, not a Chuck E. Cheese – children are actively welcomed. “I wanted a place where families come, and when kids are growing up, they love it,” Powers told me. “When they leave home for the first time to go to college or wherever, and come back home to visit, Elsmere is the first place they want to go because it reminds them of home.” It certainly doesn’t hurt that the behemoth stove chugging through cord after cord of wood nearby is fondly referred to as “Mama.”

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 PORTLAND, ME - JUNE 28: Dine Out review of Elsmere BBQ in South Portland. Half-rack of ribs with collards, cornbread, and rice and beans. (Staff photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)Sat, 01 Jul 2017 19:17:46 +0000
Dine Out Maine: If you don’t yet know of Northern Union chef Romann Dumorne, you should Sun, 18 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 In the beginning, there was ramp soup. Two years ago, chef Romann Dumorne, then head sous chef at 50 Local in Kennebunk, came up with the idea for a layered, potato foam-topped concoction as he prepared for a one-night guest gig at a nearby restaurant. He played around with strategies to add complexity: grinding charred ramp leaves to lend smokiness; pickling ramp bulbs for acid and texture; and rapidly chilling blanched spinach so he could color his purée a riotous shade of golf-course green. And it was good.

So good that guests went out of their way to rave about it, even pulling him aside to let him know how much they enjoyed it. “It was by far the thing I got the best reviews for. I thought, ‘If I can do this – pull off a menu that’s all mine, start to finish – and get such great comments, I need to move on to show what I can do in the kitchen,'” he said. Almost immediately, Dumorne found Lauren and Matt Wickert, who were gearing up to open a wine-focused, small-plates restaurant called Northern Union on Ogunquit’s woodsy Shore Road. He cooked a meal for them, including the ramp soup, naturally, and began his next chapter.

Three seasons later, his menu has evolved considerably, incorporating new ideas and flavors into an eclectic repertoire bracketed by rock-solid, mostly French techniques. But that extraordinarily lush ramp soup still appears on the menu ($6) whenever the foraged wild leeks are in season. “I’ve put it on there every season since we opened. I think it represents my cooking style and how far I’ve come and the reasons I am where I am,” he said.

Another of Dumorne’s signatures is preparing everything in-house, from crème fraîche, to pickles, to a thin tagliatelle that he sautées with meaty planks of king oyster mushrooms, cured egg yolk and fiddleheads ($22), all tossed in a piquant spring garlic cream sauce.

The portion may not be huge, but it is satisfying, not to mention versatile enough to pair with several of Northern Union’s intelligently selected, wide-ranging wine offerings, like the citrusy Purato white ($8), a blend of pinot grigio and Sicilian Catarratto grapes. It works equally well with the medium-light Baileyana Pinot Noir Firepeak 2014 – not sold by the glass, but thanks to a Coravin system that allows the restaurant to pour any wine on its large menu without ruining the bottle, available by the half-bottle ($24 for approximately two large glasses).

Even though the restaurant makes a virtue of its attention to wine, its cocktails are also imaginative and clever. There’s a seasonal strawberry-rhubarb mule ($11), made with vodka, vinegary homemade fruit shrub, ginger beer, and a sumac-and-ginger gummy candy garnish that bar manager Tim Yee makes himself. Even better is the Joggling Board ($11), a completely unorthodox blend of Cocchi Americano, vodka, Persian dried limes and matcha, poured into in a coupe glass frothed not with egg whites but aquafaba (flavorless whipped chickpea liquid). Take a gimlet and strand it on an island for a few centuries like one of Darwin’s finches, and this is how it might evolve.

A little of that same eccentricity runs through the interior of the restaurant, which is broken into several rooms, each with its own theme. There’s a blue-walled, cottage-style dining room; a mid-century modern lounge with starburst light fixtures and tree-stump stools; a vast glass wine wall next to a subway-tiled bar; and a cozy, eight-person room featuring an old typewriter and a wall of antique books. Not every space articulates well with every other, but the disconnects create a sense of age, making the space feel like a home that was decorated slowly, over a span of decades.

That semi-disjointed aesthetic also runs perfectly parallel to Dumorne’s menu, where you’ll find beef and pork meatballs, smoked for three hours and then simmered for another in a turmeric-infused ancho chili barbecue sauce ($5), eliding into David Chang-inspired Taiwanese-style pork buns ($12). Dumorne prepares the delightfully doughy buns letting them rise four times before steaming, then fills them with a housemade pickle of red cabbage and carrots, a cast iron-seared slice of sous-vide pork belly, and a little drizzle of that same barbecue sauce. On the meatballs, it’s just a tiny bit too sweet, but on the crisp, chewy bun, it is superb.

Another pork dish, a roasted tenderloin with pea and mint puree ($27), brings together unexpected elements like roasted Hakurei turnips, toasted wheatberries and a mostarda-marinated grilled apricot. Absurdly, they all make a wacky kind of sense on the same plate. I only wish that the tenderloin had been as salted with as much caution as it was roasted.

Fortunately, mistakes at Northern Union are rare, even in risky, high-wire dishes like the earthy beet sponge cake ($9), torn into craggy, coral-like forms surrounding a stark white quenelle of housemade yogurt sorbet. To make the cake, Dumorne salt-bakes beets, sweetens and reduces their juice, then uses both components to make a batter that he aerates in a siphon gun before preposterously microwaving it for 30 seconds in a pin-pricked paper cup. It feels crazy just to write those words, but the dessert is phenomenal, especially with a sprinkle of toasted macadamia nut crumble and a few droplets of wobbly rhubarb gelée.

Karen Mathis and Rob Love enjoy a glass of wine by a picture window at the restaurant and wine bar Northern Union in Ogunquit. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

All through my meal, I got the impression that I was witnessing something special: a young chef who, after three seasons running his own kitchen at Northern Union, has grown confident and skilled enough to assemble a polished menu of seemingly unrelated dishes – ones that, implausibly, snuggle up companionably next to one another. Whether it is late spring and ramp soup is on the menu or not, get to Ogunquit to taste Romann Dumorne’s cooking soon, before his undeniable talent carries him into the next chapter of his career. He’s ready.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 Murphy family from Scarborough digs into a meat and cheese plate.Tue, 18 Jul 2017 11:33:37 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Top of the East has promise, but its views outshine dining Sun, 11 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 When it opened 90 years ago this week, it’s a safe bet that nobody expected Portland’s Eastland Hotel to become famous for two things: a red-lettered sign punching its cocky closed caption through the city’s skyline, and an ironically tenuous sense of its own identity.

The historic Arts District hotel, now the Westin Portland Harborview, has had some ups and a generous share of downs. But through several tough decades, it found a way to survive by aligning with a Zsa Zsa-esque string of partners. Once it was a Sheraton, later a Sonesta, a Radisson, and today it is part of the Starwood group. Change is as much a part of the hotel’s DNA as its iconic sign.

It also never seems to stop. As recently as four years ago, the rooftop lounge, Top of the East, was gutted and remodeled, losing elderly furnishings while adding two times the square footage and new floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the town. With chill-out music playing overhead, a gargantuan wall-mounted television and filament-style LED Edison bulbs mounted naked in a grid pattern across the ceiling, the room feels nothing like it must have when it opened in 1963.

But even with some welcome updates, it’s still not clear exactly what the space wants to be. Among the satin pillows and blocky, modern sofas are round, tempered glass tables and inexpensive-looking rectangular four-tops that resemble a style of bland, indestructible conference center decor that was popular 20 years ago. A chrome-rimmed communal table looks as if it was stolen from the set of an ’80s sitcom. The view may be even more panoramic than before, but the room does not seem to understand its own era.

The cocktail list doesn’t help. With a focus on what Brian Anderson, executive chef and director of food and beverage for the hotel, describes as “classic cocktails in a modern lounge with a 1960s, 1970s feel,” the drinks seem as mismatched as the interior design. The High Street Sidecar ($13) – made with rum in place of cognac, along with Grand Marnier and lime juice – is a sweet-tart pleasure to drink, even though the substitution actually makes it a daiquiri. Then there’s the Cynar margarita ($15), a drink that tweaks tradition with bitter, artichoke-based Italian amaro. It’s a classy, layered cocktail perfect for slow-sipping: totally on-trend for 2017, yet at odds with the classic theme of the list.

The menu, while generally focused on small, shareable plates with just a few larger-format options, further confuses any sense of cohesion. There are contemporary appetizers like weirdly sweet-tasting chipotle-spiced deviled eggs ($11), enriched with crème fraîche and served in an indented, egg carton-like plate that makes retrieving them a slippery chore. Or dry, oversized and oversalted bacon meatloaf sliders ($14) on panini-pressed brioche buns. If you weren’t thirsty enough to order one of the lounge’s pricey cocktails when you walked in, a few bites of either of these dishes will solve that problem.

These issues echo many of those identified in 2011, in a three-star review in this paper. Our then-reviewer praised some of the cocktails, but flagged the lack of balance and technique in many of what she described as “underwhelming choices” among the overpriced, lackluster small plates.

Shift to the larger dishes on offer today, though, and you start to see Top of the East’s promise. The seared yellowfin tuna entrée ($23) turns out to be a chilled, artfully deconstructed salade niçoise, with bitter frisée, blanched asparagus tips and sushi-grade tuna sourced from Harbor Fish Market. It’s all brought together by a lively tomato vinaigrette striped onto the plate with heavy impasto. The dish looks and tastes like the kind of plate you’d expect to be served on the rooftop of a swank historic hotel.

The 16-hour short rib ($19) is even better. Anderson and his team sear the beef and cook it slowly at 220 degrees F for just shy of a full day, then reduce the juices into a thick glaze and serve the rib over roasted root vegetables. “It’s the same concept as a pot roast,” Anderson said. But sprinkled with a crunchy, savory rosemary breadcrumb topping and plated with a bittersweet tangle of microgreens, this tender roast brings together high and low elements with deftness and finesse.

The classy Cynar margarita. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Nevertheless, Top of the East struggles to maintain an aura of sophistication in more than just fits and starts. I visited twice over the past month. On the first visit, during a clear night when you could sit and watch what seemed like every wharf and jetty in the harbor, the lounge was jumping and service was brusque. “If you really have to sit by a window, you can just push the dirty glasses to the side, and someone will probably come get them,” a server told me. On another visit, a foggy evening when I had to squint to make out the contours of Robert Indiana’s “Seven” sculpture across the street, things were a lot quieter. Yet an unoccupied neighboring table sat with dirty glasses and dishes uncleared for more than half an hour.

Those new LED bulbs, while trendy and warm, cause a few problems of their own. The color value of the light washes out food, making greens look muted and reds look brown; even with intelligent, creative plating, dishes never look as good as they should. The lights also produce a distracting high-frequency flicker. It’s not bad enough to cause a Pokémon cartoon seizure, but it does create a strobing effect you can see when you move your hands. And when booze is in the picture, fewer unsettling visuals are always best.

It’s almost as if there’s a conspiracy afoot to encourage patrons to look out the windows and ignore what’s inside Top of the East: décor, service and much of the menu. That stratagem works when it’s nice outside, but what happens when the weather does not cooperate? The solid cocktails are a good place to start, but it’s clear that stronger cooking is where the restaurant’s next evolution needs to be. Brian Anderson said it himself when describing the how he would like to see things progress: “We don’t want to overwhelm Top of the East with food, and we don’t want to make food the focus, but we do want it to be able to stand up next to the drinks.” Right now, that mission remains only half-accomplished, but it’s a change worth making.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 artful seared yellowfin tuna entrée.Mon, 12 Jun 2017 05:32:53 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Latin American flavors shine at Woodhull in Yarmouth Sun, 04 Jun 2017 08:00:00 +0000 The summer after I graduated from high school, I started having recurring dreams. Not exactly nightmares, they were florid, gaudily colored and full of pointless action. But what was most memorable about them is where they took place. Each one began in a school library that, impossibly, was also part of a floating amusement park. I awoke every morning feeling disoriented and more than a little unmoored.

When I told a friend what was happening, she confessed something similar was going on with her. “I bet it’s because we’re leaving home soon. I think the dreams will stop when we figure out where we’re going,” she said. And she was right. That autumn, I had my last imaginary adventure shelving books underneath the roller coaster. I have hardly thought of them since. That is, until last week, when I stepped inside Woodhull Public House.

Located in a low-slung Yarmouth office park, in a building whose graying cedar shakes and brick walkway are right out of Maine central casting, Woodhull feels like the last place you’d expect to find surfboards, a ukulele and a floor-to-ceiling, 1960s photographic mural of people splashing around in Oahu’s Waimea Bay. But wait. Unfocus your eyes and look again – the way you might at one of those maddening Magic Eye prints – and you’ll see something else entirely: rough, reclaimed wood cladding one wall; a set of vintage wooden skis in the vestibule; and a chalet-style wall of chunky beer mugs behind the bar. “The vibe goes back to my love of the ocean with all the surf things, and (co-owner Katie Abbot’s) love of the mountains with lots of Sugarloaf stuff,” explained co-owner and general manager Seth Balliett. “When you step in, you step out of Maine, like you’re on vacation somewhere reminiscing about adventures you went on.”

This dislocation isn’t at all unpleasant, even if it does not prepare you for your next surprise: the menu. In choosing “global street food” as its theme, Woodhull rejects the entire concept of a culinary perspective, replacing it with a focus on dishes that are linked only by how and where they are eaten. Liberated from culture and geography, the kitchen is free to offer items from Jamaica, Japan, India, Mexico, Korea, even the United States, among others. If it’s available from a cart or a street vendor somewhere on the planet, it’s fair game.

The table settings reinforce the theme. Instead of plates, diners eat off of square, utilitarian, deli paper-lined aluminum trays. Balliett explains that “even though we use cotton napkins, we try to find a balance between nice and comfortable, so we give it a little down-home feel with the trays. We’re not a white plate kind of place.” It’s clever, but the trays create problems. The paper gets soggy quickly, and after a few dishes, disintegrates and rips into pieces that hitchhike, unwelcome, onto your food.

That goes double for wetter dishes, like slaws or the Thai papaya salad ($8) with crisp green beans, housemade shrimp oil, “gourmet tomatoes,” (really just heirloom tomatoes), shaved papaya and peanuts. Overall, a fresh, light salad, but with a dilute, too-mild “som tam” dressing that was undersalted and tasted as if it had been prepared by someone terrified of fish sauce.

Similarly, the hanger steak skewers ($10) were grilled to just the right temperature and consistency – not too rare, not too chewy. Missing was any hint of flavor from their day-long marinade in lemongrass, ginger, soy and garlic. Had I not read the menu description, I would have guessed they were plain, unobjectionably prepared strips of grilled beef.

Both dishes fit a broad pattern: Asian flavors are not Woodhull’s strong suit. It’s true of the Indian kulfi ice cream sandwiches with homemade brown-sugar cookies ($6), too, that tasted tinny and of excess saffron. Or the shishito pepper skewers ($6), featuring small, mild green peppers grilled over very high heat. The trouble here was with the Japanese “tar sauce” that chefs Matt and Rachel Chaisson make by slow-simmering gallons of tamari, sake and mirin with ginger and vegetables, until it leaves just two quarts of sticky basting sauce. Unfortunately, the cloying tar sauce caramelizes too quickly on the grill, leaving the peppers underdone and not very blistered.

Another long-bubbling sauce, this one made of Korean gochujang chili paste, tamari and ketchup, is used to baste bite-sized pieces of chicken thigh for the ginger chicken skewer ($6). On my recent visit it, like the heavily reduced sauce for the shishitos, was too sweet, overwhelming the flavor of the skillfully grilled chicken.

One exceptional Asian fusion plate was the Korean BBQ beef taco ($9) with thin slices of hanger steak, gochujang mayonnaise and shreds of pickled carrot and daikon. Here, a robust, mango-infused bulgogi-style marinade excavated something primal and hematic from the beef – a flavor balanced out by grainy sweetness from the housemade soft corn tortilla.

Don’t underestimate the importance of those rough-looking tortillas. Twice every day, the Chaissons and their team grill and stack fresh batches for the next service. Woodhull’s menu even features a step-by-step description of the preparation method. “For us, they are as much of a main attraction as the (taco) fillings. Not every one is perfectly round. You’ll get little creases and bumps, but they have a flavor that store-bought ones don’t,” Matt Chaisson said.

The decor themes at Woodhull Public House range from Hawaiian surf to Sugarloaf chalet. Staff photos by Jill Brady

As much as the kitchen struggles with Asian dishes, it pulls off strong, confident versions of nearly every item inspired by Latin America. Case in point: a splendidly simple-looking taco filled with brawny black beans ($4) slow-simmered with cumin, onions and garlic. Even better is the one loaded up with tender roasted cauliflower; a tart, pepita-thickened romesco sauce; basil; and cotija cheese ($5).

Even without the boost from a soft corn tortilla, Woodhull’s Mexican flavors shine. The Baja rice bowl ($8), with steamed jasmine rice, roasted-corn salsa, red cabbage slaw and house-pickled jalapeños, achieves an impressive, multidirectional balance of tastes and textures.

It’s also here that the menu takes a few well-calculated risks, such as in the aspirationally named “fritter mountain” ($6). “Really, it’s more of a fritter bump,” one of my dinner guests said under her breath so our attentive server wouldn’t hear. But when it comes to quick-fried corn patties mounded with beans, red cabbage and garlic mayo, size really doesn’t matter. What counts is the smoky, earthy tang from the pre-roasted corn, amplified in every bite by corn salsa and a sprinkle of chipotle salt. A fantastic dish.

If the fritter mountain’s grandiose name doesn’t match its modest size, that seems perfectly in line with Woodhull’s efforts to befuddle the diner’s sense of space, place and expectation. There’s a puckish playfulness here that can honestly be a lot of fun. But the overly eclectic menu seems to have pulled the restaurant a bit off course, especially with chefs who possesses dominant strengths in one cuisine. I don’t know if the way forward requires skis or a surfboard, but I do know that there’s a lot of promise at Woodhull, as long as it can figure out where it’s going.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 bowl with avacado, salsa verde chicken and fried egg.Sat, 03 Jun 2017 20:18:08 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Trattoria Fanny’s chef keeps it intentionally, intelligently simple Sun, 28 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 David Levi doesn’t care how you pronounce the name of his new Portland trattoria, as long as you’re talking about it. For the record, he chose the name to honor his grandmother, a flamboyant character who, along with her husband, fled Milan to escape Mussolini’s fascist regime in 1938. Her name was Fanny (rhymes with “La KNEE”). “She was a brilliant woman, charming and elegant – and also a competitive runner who just happened to hang out with opera singers. I didn’t get to spend many years with her, but I grew up with the recipes she passed on to my parents,” he said.

Levi is also the chef/owner of nearby Vinland, a strictly conceived, philosophy-driven fine dining restaurant that sources 100 percent of its ingredients, from sirloin to salt, from the local area. Trattoria Fanny, on the other hand is all about traditional, casual Italian cooking: “It’s not food as art, or food as idea. It’s food as food, and food as culture,” as Levi describes it. “A trattoria is supposed to be a place with no pretension, no frills, like an Italian version of a diner.”

That folksy perspective informs the uncomplicated interior, sketched out in off-white walls and dark wood that Levi salvaged from his family’s 18th century farmhouse in upstate New York. His is an intelligent species of simplicity, though, one achieved through a little well-deployed sleight of hand. Take the induction cooktop-powered open kitchen – with no whoosh and rumble from gas burners, it is so quiet that it almost fades into the rough-hewn woodwork. Or the long, 16-seat, lacquered communal table, fitted with chairs on one side and bar stools on the other. You might never notice it, but that asymmetry cunningly erases the awkward step-down that runs along the equator of the room.

Similarly, Roman Executive Chef Siddharta “Sid” Rumma sneaks a few of his own quiet flourishes onto the menu, transforming a humdrum Northern Italian rice salad ($8) into a quintessential warm-weather dish, full of golden raisins, red peppers, capers and torn shreds of mint. It’s also visually arresting – a perfect circle of pignoli-topped Black Venus rice (Riso Nero Venere) on a stark white dish – something you might be served if Robert Longo were working the pass.

There is also a subtle artistry in Rumma’s contorno (side dish) of garlicky, wine-sautéed oyster mushrooms ($6), plated diagonally into an organic, curving form that resembles clustered flower buds on a wilting stem. It is, at once, somehow both modest and gorgeous.

Not all of the menu’s embellishments are visual, though. Take the addition of toasty brown butter to the roasted cauliflower with capers, anchovies and thyme ($7). It lends a magnificent, saturated savory intensity to a plate that is, technically, just a side dish. If I were a pescetarian, I would order two (OK, maybe three) servings of this and a glass of wine, like the fruity, delicately fizzy Santa Giustina Bonarda red ($8), and consider myself very lucky.

Actually, eating that way isn’t too far off the mark from what Rumma and Levi have in mind for visitors to Trattoria Fanny. Rather than follow the typical American template of creating composite main dishes made up of some kind of protein and a few small accompaniments, entrées are generally served plain. If you want side dishes, you order a few contorni. Staff do sometimes forget to alert guests to this rather important detail, as happened to a woman at the next table to me. When her lonely-looking monkfish with beurre blanc ($19) arrived, she glanced down at her plate, then back up to her grandson and asked, “Did I do something to make them angry?”

That said, there are one or two entrées that include their own extras, like octopus ($18), served with rough, slightly undercooked potatoes. The kitchen braises the Spanish octopus in a regionally appropriate “kind of ‘sangria liquid’ we make with water, red wine, carrot, cinnamon and pear,” Rumma said. Unfortunately, after it is seared to order, some parts of the octopus end up dried out, some mushy and yet others rubbery.

On a recent visit, I also encountered occasional seasoning problems. An appetizer of brown-skinned polenta wedges ($7) and baccala mantecato (a whipped mousse of salt-cured cod) was, by some miracle of overzealous soaking, bland and undersalted. On the other hand, guanciale-striped spaghetti alla carbonara ($13), despite the clever tweak of using a single, perfectly proportioned local duck egg in place of two chicken egg yolks, was salty in the extreme.

Riso nero salad. Staff photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

It’s hard to imagine that those dishes came out of the same kitchen that prepares a world-class rigatoni ($13) with a slow-braised oxtail tomato sauce underscored by the racy astringency of cocoa powder. “You get it especially in central and southern Italy. It gives something bitter to go against the freshness and sweetness of tomatoes in the sauce,” Rumma explained.

And while there’s nothing quite so complex about the dessert menu, it does feature an excellent torta della nonna ($6), a short, sweetcrust pastry shell filled with a lemon-infused pastry cream, punctuated across its surface with apostrophes of toasted pine nuts. Fittingly for a restaurant that so actively explores Levi’s relationship to his family’s Italian roots, the dessert’s name means “grandmother cake,” and as Rumma says, “It’s the most typical sort of dessert you get for a Sunday lunch with grandma. Everyone does it differently, but it is always simple.” Fanny – no matter how you pronounce her name – would very likely approve.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 with potatoes.Sun, 28 May 2017 14:19:29 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Tiny and boisterous, Izakaya Minato seems to have floated in from Tokyo Sun, 21 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 On a stroll through Tokyo’s Yanaka neighborhood a few years ago, my guide, Yasuko-san, gestured toward the subway stop at the top of the hill and told me disdainfully, “In Japan, you can always tell when you’re close to a train station because every broom closet and backyard shed gets converted into an izakaya.” No space, she insisted, was too small for yet another beer-and-sake focused gastropub.

It’s no surprise then that a little jostling and bumping make up part of the izakaya dining experience. Portland’s Izakaya Minato, a recent addition to the profusion of new restaurants along Washington Avenue, is no exception. With 37 seats and narrow paths meandering through two dining rooms, space – personal and otherwise – is at a premium.

But chef/owner Thomas Takashi Cooke and his wife, general manager Elaine Alden, wanted it that way. “We really liked that it was small. It gives it a Japanese feel, and it would actually be pretty spacious in Japan. But we also really loved that it has two separate parts because of the walled stairway. We could create a lively space and then a more intimate space,” Cooke said.

Anchored by the bar and the fully exposed, three-person kitchen, Minato’s front room is indeed a rollickingly animated space, especially when the restaurant is full (which is most of the time). On the other hand, the back room manages to feel more serene, with small tables and banquette seating that, like something out of a cramped model apartment in an IKEA showroom, double as storage for wine. It’s obvious that Cooke and Alden have thought through every spatial detail of the restaurant – including what Cooke jokingly calls “the Tetris blocks that fit together in our refrigerator.”

That same sensibility comes through in Alden’s bar program, a thoughtful, precisely composed menu of cocktails, a few wines, beers by the bottle, and of course, sakes that represent all the major styles of the fermented rice beverage, including rustic Junmai, alcohol-fortified Honjozo and complex Ginzo and Daiginjo. Among the most versatile of the single pours is the Sawanoi ($11 for 6 ounces/$20 for 12), a refined, Ginjo-style that makes an excellent match for most of the dishes on the menu.

You’ll even find an unfiltered Nigori sake ($8/$14) here – the key ingredient in Minato’s tropical-adjacent Nigori Colada ($10), made with shiso-infused rum, yuzu and the cloudy sake that lends the cocktail a pleasantly yogurty, probiotic flavor. It’s just the thing to have nearby if you’re working your way through a bowl of garlic-heavy, slightly greasy edamame ($5), or the super savory squid with ramps ($9) a seasonal special that purrs along the back of your throat with rich brothiness while simultaneously convulsing your sinuses with wasabi.

For the choice-averse, Minato offers what might be the best restaurant value in town: an omakase tasting menu at $30 per person. Over four or five courses, Cooke and his team send out full meal’s worth of dishes that vary from evening to evening. On a recent visit, my dinner guest and I opted for the omakase, as did a woman at a neighboring table, who explained her choice to her friends: “I’m not like people who are totally happy ordering something like lasagna where every bite is the same for the whole meal. But I don’t have any sort of culinary intelligence to guide me. When a waiter comes to the table, I’m like a dog, and all I hear is ‘Blah blah blah noodle blah blah ginger,’ and I get lost. So (the omakase) is exactly what I need.”

Letting the kitchen choose your meal also guarantees that you’ll receive at least one dish that does not appear on the à la carte menu. Mine included an amuse bouche of buttery Kona kampachi (Hawaiian farmed yellowtail), served raw and bracing with a shaving of jalapeño, a miniature cube of avocado and a tart yuzu dressing. It was the perfect dish to tee up a sashimi selection (market price) of firm-fleshed, delicate Tai snapper, tuna and barely seared albacore. Taken together, the plate emphasizes Cooke’s tacit understanding of how to showcase even subtle flavors and textures of unseasoned fish.

His unusual shiromi ankake ($9) – flaky pieces of deep-fried cod served in thickened dashi stock with mushrooms and grated daikon – echoes the same deliberate approach to seafood. “It’s a classic, but in Japan, they’d probably use something with more fat, like mackerel. I wanted to use white fish to give it a more New England feel,” Cooke said.

Not all dishes feel quite so well-considered. Take the Minato age dofu ($5), tightly compressed tofu rectangles fried crisp and craggy, topped with jalapeño, soy, green onions and ginger, a dish Cooke was inspired to make after reading an article on a punk rocker who opened his own izakaya. The problematic element here is the too-generous pile of finely shaven bonito flakes that – like sawdust used to soak up spilled oil on a garage floor – thirstily absorb nearly all the sauce and dry out the dish.

Minato age dofu is composed of fried tofu rectangles topped with jalapeño, soy, green onions and ginger. Staff photo by Derek Davis

There is a lot to love about the JFC, Japanese-style fried chicken ($7), prepared by marinating boneless thigh meat in soy, sake and mirin, followed by a potato starch dredge and a quick deep fry. What results is crunchy, weepingly juicy finger food. Unfortunately, it tastes flat – until you pick up the lemon wedge and squeeze out every drop. Only then do the flavors come into focus: a malty sweetness from the meat and a spicy heat from shichi-mi togarashi in the coating. Dip a piece into the spicy Kewpie mayonnaise and it gets even better. But don’t forget the lemon; it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) optional.

Dessert strikes another minor off-note. Little Bee Honey Ice Cream in the Deering Center neighborhood makes all of Minato’s frozen treats, like an appealingly tart strawberry-shiso sorbet ($4). The shiso flavor is faint, but that’s not the issue. Each scoop comes to the table in a plastic-lidded, white cardboard take-out cup with a small wooden paddle for a spoon. You may recall being served ice cream in just this fashion at your elementary school cafeteria. My dinner guest called it “almost embarrassing in contrast with how every single other dish was served on such beautiful plates and bowls – even the owner’s handmade sake cups.”

The presentation makes dessert feel like an afterthought. But perhaps it is, and that’s how it should be. After all, at approximately 20 items, Minato’s menu is about as long as three cooks can handle. Another plated dish might be a bridge too far.

And more to the point, izakayas have no tradition of eating dessert after a meal. Instead, if you’re still hungry after nibbling on lots of little plates, you order either noodles or rice. This is why the penultimate (pre-sorbet) omakase course we were served was fried rice, a fatty delight that overloaded all my lizard brain’s pleasure circuitry with shaggy chunks of egg and strips of caramelized pork belly – leftover scraps from the slow-braised Buta no Kakuni ($8). Cooke explained, “If we don’t sell all of (it), I’ll take all the bits out and use it in the fried rice. Nothing goes to waste here.” Not sweet, chewy scraps of pork, not space on the menu, and certainly not a single square inch of precious real estate.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 age dofu is composed of fried tofu rectangles topped with jalapeño, soy, green onions and ginger.Mon, 22 May 2017 11:29:26 +0000
Dine Out Maine: There’s magic – and sublime comfort food – at Camden’s Francine Bistro Sun, 14 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 With our last snowfall a month behind us and spring furiously squeezing green through every one of the Earth’s pores, it’s no surprise that people seem to have magic on their minds.

Appalachian Trail hikers beginning their 2,200 mile journey are just now starting to pop up on social media, hashtagging gratefully about “trail magic,” unexpected generosity that causes dry socks, cans of cold soda and cupcakes to appear out of nowhere. It’s heartening to read about, even if you’re not blistered from trekking through the woods.

During my recent meal at Francine Bistro in Camden, one of the two retired couples at the next table was equally bewitched, but in this case, by the idea of uprooting to create a new life near their grandchildren. “Our time with them is so magical, and if we move closer, we won’t miss out on it,” the grandmother said. Sadly, their dining companions weren’t quite so enchanted. “Are you kidding?” the man sitting across from her barked back. “Just read AARP [magazine] and you’ll see stories about people who moved to be with their kids, and they get screwed! They’re screwed!” Voices carry at the otherwise peaceful, 44-seat restaurant, so when neighboring tables turned towards the fuss, the man’s friend glanced around sheepishly and hurried him outside for a cigarette.

Even before the fracas, as I nursed an herbal, citrusy St. GerMaine cocktail ($10), Francine also had me thinking about magic: in particular, dining room magic. It starts the instant you cross the threshold and step through the door, side-by-side with the antique, marble-topped sideboard that holds menus, cut flowers and an ever-expanding collection of James Beard Foundation memorabilia. Chef and owner Brian Hill has been a semifinalist for the Best Chef: Northeast award a jaw-dropping eight times. “The nomination process starts in March, so when we’re broke, shoveling snow and wondering why we’re doing this out in the middle of nowhere, it’s a nice reward,” he said. “Last year, I got to share a suckling pig with (acclaimed New York chef) Daniel Boulud at two o’clock in the morning, and I thought, ‘OK, I’ll shovel snow for another year.'”

Part of Hill’s success comes down to his dedication to a primarily French menu that is constantly in flux, sometimes varying daily, based on what he calls the “extreme seasonality” of his ingredients. Repeat trips to Francine are a little like wading into Heraclitus’s river: You might be in the same physical space, but what you eat is never exactly the same from visit to visit. One exception, and the only dish that links today’s menu with the one our former critic tasted for her five-star review in 2009, is the steak frites ($29). “At the beginning, I’d rip up the entire menu and start from scratch every day. Now, I just keep tweaking things until I figure out I shouldn’t be tweaking; I should just change it. After 14 years of running the place, it can be a battle, but keeping the place exciting is my job,” Hill said.

Constant innovation sounds exhausting, but it seems to energize the kitchen at Francine. Here, even a bowl of spinach soup ($12) becomes something magical: a brilliant green supernova of chlorophyll, interrupted only by a tiny island of black chili-seared Gulf shrimp and cream. Every spoonful made me feel as if I suddenly understood spinach in a new, more essential way. That clarity of expression owes quite a bit to Hill’s omission of half-and-half from his vegetable soups, turning instead to a turnip, parsnip and rutabaga purée that he uses as a backdrop for spicy shrimp and vivid, mineral greens.

When flavors demand, Hill is not afraid to deviate significantly from Francine’s loose, “free-spirited country French” theme, sometimes abandoning it completely, as with his ridiculously sticky pork ribs ($19). Smoked over maple and apple wood, the ribs are bathed in mustard and apricot jam, rubbed with spices and spritzed with apple juice, all over the course of the seven hours leading up to service. And that’s just the prep. Perhaps the most extraordinary elements of this dish come last: smoked peanuts, fried garlic and a salted caramel sauce made from bubbling hot sugar, fish sauce and pork broth – an umami powder keg that Hill cribbed from a Cambodian market in Boston during his years as a struggling rock star. “There was a woman who cooked little dishes. When I saw her make the sauce, I knew that one day, I’d completely steal that idea,” he said.

Thankfully for diners, Hill’s culinary borrowing doesn’t stop there. After a trip to Italy where he tasted gelato flavored with Strega liqueur, he decided to bring the idea to his menu, adding a scoop of saffron-scented Strega ice cream to his dense dark chocolate torte ($10). It’s an absolute delight with a tiny glass of the potent housemade amaro ($9) that Hill concocted from grain alcohol, caramelized sugar, and his own fennel fronds and bay leaves – a time capsule left behind by last year’s growing season.

The cozy interior of Francine Bistro in Camden. Staff photos by Gregory Rec

Not every aspect of my visit to Francine received an equal sprinkling of magic dust. An appetizer of julienned tender lettuces dressed with a lemony, fines herbes vinaigrette ($8) was extremely salty and tasted mostly of mustard. Just as off-kilter were the seared scallops ($29), gorgeously blanketed by a layer of thin, translucent slices of charred cauliflower florets stamping pale asterisks across the plate. But because the dish was seasoned with spiced honey poached with preserved Persian citrus fruit, every bite was overwhelmingly sweet – even with the rich, funky contrast from porcini purée.

Service was also slow, sometimes painfully so. After placing drink orders a full 20 minutes after we were seated, my guest and I sat for nearly 45 minutes more before appetizers arrived. Later, when our glasses were empty, our frantic server did not notice, and we eventually had to ask about refreshing the drinks we had finished half an hour earlier. As much as I genuinely enjoy a leisurely meal, I don’t want to be forced into one.

Fortunately, we had a basket of Francine’s superb homemade bread on the table to tide us over. Every day, Hill and his team bake two varieties: one golden, springy focaccia – on our visit stuffed with Gruyère cheese and caramelized pears – and a malty rye that Hill models after the legendary French sourdough bread from the Poilâne bakery: “The outside is almost burnt and smells like good coffee, and the inside has so much fermented flavor,” he said.

It’s simple, but exceedingly good. Very much like his local, skillet-roasted chicken ($25), braised with in-season artichokes, leeks and Fiana wine, then basted with butter and thyme. Served with a crunchy slice of lemon ricotta-brushed toast, it’s classic French comfort food executed perfectly – the kind of plate that highlights Hill’s talents and reminds you how even a modest dish can manage to conjure a little springtime magic.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 soup with rock crab, black chili and scallion.Fri, 12 May 2017 16:59:30 +0000
Dine Out Maine: At Sichuan Kitchen, don’t let appearances fool you Sun, 07 May 2017 08:00:00 +0000 If you are a design snob, you may have walked past Sichuan Kitchen on Congress Street without giving it a second thought. Maybe their penchant for Comic Sans made you turn up your nose. Perhaps it’s the restaurant’s spartan interior design, making the dining room feel like a minimalist stage set for a slow-moving Norwegian sitcom about people living in a duplex apartment.

Possibly it’s not aesthetics but fear of spice that has kept you away. If you, like many people, believe that Sichuan (formerly written as “Szechuan”) cuisine is all about atomic levels of peppery heat, you might have allowed your misconceptions to convince you not to visit owner Qi Shen’s new restaurant.

Either way, you’re missing out on something special.

Shen and her kitchen team – both of her parents (who together once operated a large banquet restaurant in Chengdu), an aunt and a local line cook – have assembled a menu of traditional regional dishes from across China’s rainy, hot and mountainous Sichuan province. They take the restaurant’s theme seriously, as well. You will not find egg rolls or American inventions like crab rangoons here. And while you can find gung pao (kung pao) chicken ($15) and mapo tofu ($13) on the menu, that is because both dishes hail from the region.

“There is so much to authentic Sichuan food,” Shen explains. “There are hundreds of dishes and hundreds of styles and flavors: fresh, sweet and yes, even some spicy, but not all! Every single dish has its own shape and flavor.”

Some take on forms that echo the familiar, like Zhong dumplings ($7), crescent-shaped parcels filled with lean ground pork loin and ginger. Served in a small bowl and double-drizzled with sweet, smoky chili oil and a housemade infusion of soy sauce, garlic, sugar and aromatic spices like star anise, the dumplings must be sloshed around to mix the duo of sauces before they are eaten. The slick little dough packages resist being grabbed by chopsticks once they’re coated, but the effort is well worth it.

You’ll also spot something recognizable in the Sichuan noodles with pork ($12), which apart from the slice of steamed bok choi added as garnish, might as well be a bowl of spaghetti bolognese with a fake ID. But look closer and you’ll see that the noodles are square-cut egg-and-wheat pasta, tacky with a sesame paste dressing that grabs hold of toppings like green onion and the quick-fried pork crumble, arcing with lightning bolts of ginger and garlic.

Yet to get to the restaurant’s best dishes, you have to be willing to give up preconceptions about what Chinese food is (and, more importantly, is not). There’s an appetizer of smoky firm tofu, slow-braised with cloves, Sichuan peppercorns, cinnamon and fried peanuts ($8) – a plateful of seductive fragrance and wacky Cubist geometrics.

Or a generous if slightly too-fatty entrée-sized portion of thinly sliced pork belly ($16), marinated in funky doubanjiang, a sauce made from red peppers and fermented beans. Despite the presence of chili, the dish is primarily savory and a little sweet. “Doubanjiang gives it just an entry level of spice. You can’t taste much heat because it has a very rounded flavor from the fermented soybeans. It’s not what people expect,” Shen explained.

Equally surprising was what arrived at the table when I ordered the modest-sounding Sichuan poached fish ($22): a tureen of broth-simmered Swai fillets, skinny stalks of Chinese celery and organic leeks, all sprinkled with dried chilies and a constellation of crispy, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns. While the dish was very salty (probably too salty) on its own, when ladled over a scoop of steamed rice, its parade of flavor contrasts found a much better balance and rhythm.

At the opposite end of the flashiness spectrum is a bare-bones platter of wok-sautéed cabbage ($8). Served with no garnish whatsoever, its austerity makes it look like something taken from a Russian babushka’s wartime recipe book. But a slice or two, coated with a caramel-brown sauce of soy, sugar and tart black vinegar made me set down my chopsticks and urge my dinner guest to get stuck in before I ate the entire plateful. I never envisioned that something could actually make me crave cabbage, and I certainly never imagined it would be a dish that looks as humble as this.

Restaurant workers prepare for evening service at Sichuan Kitchen. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Nor would I have pictured a torrid cabbage love affair beginning in such a largely unadorned dining room. According to Shen, that’s a temporary situation: “It took us a year and a half to renovate, and this is a historical building, so the standards are different. We just didn’t have the finances to do a lot (of decorating),” she said. At the same time, her vision for the space is driven by her awareness that Sichuan Kitchen is not a typical Chinese-American joint. “I didn’t just want to put a red lantern or a dragon up to express, ‘Hey, I’m a Chinese restaurant,’ ” she said.

Proceeding deliberately with design choices seems like a wise choice for a restaurant as unique as hers. What Qi Shen is doing – has already done – at Sichuan Kitchen is impressive, and if the space never gets its fairytale, cygnet-to-swan makeover, that’s OK. It won’t take long before rumors of slippery dumplings and simple yet irresistible cabbage lead diners to her quietly understated doorstep.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 poached fish.Sat, 06 May 2017 17:02:45 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Chris Gould’s latest, the Italian off-peninsula Tipo, earns a tip of the hat Sun, 30 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 Ten years ago, I met someone at a party whose hobby was sneaking into classes at local universities. “I take notes and do the same stuff the students do. It’s pretty much auditing. It’s my free college education,” he said. At that point, he had already been caught twice, but he couldn’t stop himself from returning for more lecture hall trespasses. “It’s a risk worth taking, because when the instructor starts talking, it’s like going on a trip with a hundred other people, but it’s all in your mind. I just wear a baseball cap and keep my head down,” he told me.

Every time I visit Tipo, on the edge of Portland’s Back Cove neighborhood, I think about that guy. Not because I’m not supposed to be there, but because someone on the Tipo staff knows what I look like – we met through a mutual friend. It had to happen sometime; in a state as small as Maine, it is probably impossible to remain anonymous 100 percent of the time. So when I visit Tipo, it’s all about covert ops: I usually sit facing away from their open pizza kitchen, never at the license-plate tiled bar, and studiously avoid making eye contact with anyone in a Tipo-branded green T-shirt who isn’t my server.

Staying incognito is a chore, especially when chef/owner Chris Gould – who also helms Central Provisions – and his team produce dishes that make you want to high-five the people who made them. Take the housemade square-cut spaghetti chitarra with chopped clams, crunchy focaccia breadcrumbs and bottarga ($14/$28). It’s impossible to be anywhere near this plate without flaring your nostrils to steal a steamy, saline inhale of the ocean’s own breath.

Or the housemade garganelli with lamb ragu ($18), a plate that, one-by-one, upends all your expectations as you consume it. First goes the traditional ratio of noodles to meat; this is a dish that is primarily about tender strands of slow-braised North Star Sheep Farm lamb, with striated tubes of rolled garganelli singing backup. “The pasta has such a ‘tooth’ to it, you don’t want too much of it,” Gould explained. Then comes the sauce, unexpectedly tart and fruity from orange zest and bits of dried apricot plumped in dry Falanghina wine. Even the finishing touches, fine, anise-scented wisps of tarragon and barely melting grains of wonderfully salty Pecorino Sardo cheese, seem like they belong on a different, more summery dish. It’s unorthodox, but it all simply works.

Pizzas are more conventional, but every bit as good. In part, that’s the result of a research trip to Naples, Italy, where Gould, his chef de cuisine Mike Smith, and their families sampled 17 pizzas in 24 hours. Upon their return to Maine, they methodically tested out dough recipes to allow them to take advantage of the Vulcan temperatures in the Le Panyol wood-burning oven left behind by Borealis Bakery, the space’s former tenant. “We spent a week trying three different flours, 2-percent increments of hydration from 50 to 75 percent and three different mixing methods. It ended up being 90 different doughs, and we ate all of them,” Gould said.

Their obsessive, carb-fueled experimentation paid off, as evidenced by Tipo’s excellent Margherita pie, featuring a crisp, stippled bottom crust topped with fresh mozzarella, basil and tomato ($10). Or the perfectly charred cauliflower pizza ($12), layered with musky shiitakes, maitakes and shaved button mushrooms, then daubed with smudges of ricotta and brightened by a drizzling of tangy, balsamic-esque saba (vin cotto). Better still, add a farm egg to the center for an extra dollar and give the pizzaioli a chance to demonstrate how to slide a raw pizza into a 950 degree F oven and pull out a gorgeously blistered pie with a creamy, barely-set yolk just a minute or two later. It’s a remarkable feat, and it happens dozens of times every night.

That same wood-fired oven is used to get plenty of color on local radishes, carrots, beets and salsify ($9) – all roasted whole, then cooked with olive oil and anchovy in a regular oven and finished with fresh flat-leaf parsley and mint right before service. On the cusp of spring, with a glass of gently astringent Puglian Salice Salentino ($9) from the all-Italian wine list, it’s the sort of dish that (almost) makes me wish we had a few more weeks of winter left.

Desserts are solid, if perhaps not yet up to the high standard set by the rest of the menu. One visit’s whipped ricotta-filled zeppole ($7) were crunchy on the outside, subtly spicy from a dusting of long pepper sugar, and still warm, but felt dense and heavy – my dinner guest and I could not finish more than one apiece. The chocolate hazelnut tart ($9) I ate on another visit was better, with an egg yolk-and-gelatin-thickened ganache, candied hazelnuts and stewed blood orange to balance out the filling’s richness. However, the shortbread crust – made with a 50:50 blend of all-purpose and hazelnut flours – was too thick and crumbly, too rustic for an otherwise elegant dessert. I spotted a couple at another table excavating the filling and leaving most of the pastry behind.

Tatiana Ciccone mixes a drink behind the bar at Tipo. Staff photo by Derek Davis

Maybe it’s smarter to go for one of Tipo’s cocktails in lieu of dessert. The foamy, layered Il Maglione ($11), whose name translates as “the sweater,” is a good option. Lemony, full of herbal aromas like fennel and saffron from Strega, and served cold in a coupe glass, it’s a bit like a liquid version of a meringue pie. Or my favorite, the Il Moto ($10), slightly sweetened by Amaro Montegro and Cocchi di Torino (a type of vermouth), and layered with gauzy, boozy fruit from plum bitters and calvados.

As much as I enjoy an Il Moto, it’s a cocktail I hesitate to order, because Tipo’s front-of-house staff is an observant bunch, and the server who has waited on my table during three of my four visits has started to remember my drink preferences. For someone trying to blend into the crowd, that could spell disaster. But despite the danger of being spotted, I just can’t resist coming back. So I keep my head down and my back to the kitchen – it’s a risk worth taking.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Tipo, a new Italian restaurant in Portland’s Back Cove neighborhood, has a lot going for it. Staff photo by Derek Davis

]]> 0 cauliflower and mushroom pizza with ricotta, thyme, saba and crispy garlic. Tipo's pies are exceptional, thanks in part to a research trip to Naples, Italy, and exhaustive testing of dough recipes.Sat, 29 Apr 2017 17:55:51 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Big Fin Poké keeps quality high as it rides Hawaiian food trend Sun, 09 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 At 48 million, we stopped counting. On that brilliantly sunny Wednesday afternoon, my niece and I finally decided to relinquish our seats at Big Fin Poké’s long window counter, where we had spent the previous half-hour eating poké (rhymes with OK) and watching passersby on Westbrook’s Main Street, all the while jotting notes on a business card.

We must have looked ridiculous: two chopsticks in one hand and a pen in the other. But what we needed was a calculator.

Our goal was to figure out the total number of unique poké dishes someone could order from the fast-casual Hawaiian restaurant.

Thanks to a menu that features seven proteins, dozens of mix-ins, vegetables and crunch-enhancing toppings, it turns out that number is 3.2 billion, give or take a few. If you ate three meals a day at Big Fin Poké, it would take you more than 2 million years before you were forced to repeat a dish, and by that point, I suspect you’d have a serious case of poké burnout.

If you’re not familiar with one of the hottest international food trends of the past five years, poké is pretty easy to understand.

It is raw chunked or cubed fish (the Hawaiian word “poké” actually means “to cut crosswise into pieces”) that’s marinated and served with chopped vegetables and (often) rice. It’s the laugh-alike, walk-alike, Patty Duke cousin of Japanese chirashi sushi or Peruvian ceviche – just with better marketing.

Big Fin Poké’s owner Jimmy Liang first tasted the dish only a few years ago, but knew immediately that he wanted to introduce it to Maine. “We have a friend in California who made it for us and it blew my mind, opened my eyes to all the different flavors you could do with fish. Not like with sushi, where you’re just dipping it in soy and wasabi,” he said.

Liang, a Mainer whose family has operated Chinese restaurants like Scarborough’s Chia Sen for nearly 30 years, took his time before opening Big Fin Poké, waiting until he had first developed and workshopped a diverse catalog of sauce and marinade recipes, from yuzu citrus to Korean spicy gochu. “Every time I would go out to eat for the past couple of years, it was about taste testing. If I ate something I liked, I would go home and experiment to work out that flavor. Now all the sauces we use are my recipes,” he said.

If you’re overwhelmed by choice, Liang has also put together seven Big Fin Poké Favorite meals ($10.95 regular/$13.95 large) that can be ordered with rice, as a salad, or for extreme adventurers, coiled into a nori sheet and transformed into what he calls a “pokiritto,” in theory a cross between a gigantic maki sushi roll and a burrito.

In practice, it’s even less practical than it sounds. Big Fin Poké’s protein and mix-in portions are substantial: too large to fit comfortably inside a rice-and-seaweed package, even with the assistance of a plastic sushi rolling mat. Pokirittos wind up looking like untidy, unstable green Swiss roll cakes that must be swaddled in parchment paper just to hold their shape. They are also calamitously messy.

While poké may not yet work in a hand-held format, it is right at home in a bowl, whether sitting atop a paddle-flattened mound of slightly sticky sushi rice, or a heap of chopped romaine. Choose the former for a hearty meal, and the latter for a lighter option, which if the crowds are anything to go by, are quite popular with the yoga mat-toting set. But fair warning: Both can be more filling than they look.

Among the best of Big Fin’s pre-selected bowls are its spicy tuna with cucumbers, sweet onion and a punchy, peppery aioli that stands out best when incorporated into a poké salad. The yellowtail yuzu, made with chunks of rich, almost buttery fish, sweet pineapple, green onion and a floral, citrusy dressing, is the reverse, working best over short, fat grains of sushi rice.

By and large, Big Fin’s fish is high-quality and almost odor-free, just as any sushi-grade seafood ought to be. However, it is generally not local.

While a limited amount of fish comes from Maine suppliers like Harbor Fish Market, the majority of the restaurant’s supply comes from large corporate outfits out of New York and Massachusetts.

In almost any other circumstance, that would count as a cardinal sin, especially in a state with beautiful, world-class seafood. But Liang and his team serve raw and barely cooked fish. They do it in such volume that performing their own FDA-required food safety protocols (especially long-term freezing at ultra-low temperatures) would require space, equipment and human power that they do not have. Yet.

But that day may arrive soon, as Liang has plans to turn Big Fin Poké into a chain (another Greater Portland shop is in the works), and if that happens, it will be interesting to see if the restaurant gets in step with the local, seasonal ideology that has come to define contemporary Maine cuisine.

In the meantime, Big Fin already offers options beyond raw fish. There is gyudon (Japanese for “beef and rice bowl”), made with sliced, soy-and-sake-marinated brisket, cooked with onions and simmered until the meat pulls apart in fine, fluffy threads.

The beef bowls tend to be a little fatty – not necessarily a flaw – and as a result, work especially well when topped with extra helpings of chopped scallion and scarlet shreds of pickled ginger.

Perhaps the least appealing of the non-seafood proteins is the chicken, first marinated in garlic, onion powder and turmeric, then deep fried. While the flavor of the meat itself was decent, and the chicken cooked well, the heaviness of the chunks reminded my dinner guests of something from a mall food court. Only a thin membrane separates fast-casual from fast food, and it is important to avoid piercing it.

Which is not to say that Big Fin can’t manage a fryer. Its vegetarian poké is one of the best dishes on the Favorites menu and includes cubes of delicately fried tofu seasoned with miso, honey and mirin. Tossed with sliced cucumber, it feels light, yet substantial, and – owing to tiny black strands of mineral-rich hijiki seaweed – somehow still connected to the ocean.

As Liang makes plans for expansion, he and his wife and daughter, both of whom also work at the restaurant, continue with tweaks to make the Westbrook restaurant more inviting.

Already, they have given the space a vibrant makeover, hanging colorful, framed cut-paper collages and painting walls a vivid pink and shocking aqua that make the restaurant feel tropical, even in the middle of a Maine winter.

Notably, they are also debating adding a few more toppings, like mango, or perhaps renkon (fried lotus) chips. Personally, I’d find it hard to resist shards of toasty, crisp renkon in my bowl. On the other hand, even one extra topping would double the number of possible combinations of meals at Big Fin Poké – but really, what’s another 3.2 billion choices among friends?

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 Liang prepares a poké bowl at Big Fin Poke in Westbrook.Mon, 10 Apr 2017 09:54:46 +0000
Dine Out Maine: It’s all big at Frontier – the space, the eclectic menu, the world of flavors Sun, 02 Apr 2017 08:00:00 +0000 “Daddy, are you scared?” the little girl asks, one table over.

Seated cross-legged on a bar stool, as if meditating to gin up his courage, the man next to her replies, “I am – but just a little bit. I know it’s worth it.” The server has just told him that Frontier’s kitchen is willing to accommodate his special request to serve his hamburger with the spiciest hot sauce they can brew up.

“You’re lucky, because we have a chef working today who loves hot stuff. He promised not to go easy on you,” she says, first setting down his burger and then very slowly, a small bowl. Everyone looks at the bowl. I’m several feet away, and it’s all I can look at, too.

With a knife, the man spreads a little of the weapons-grade sauce onto his patty. Meanwhile, his daughter gingerly dips into the sauce with the very tip of her pinky finger, touches her tongue, and quickly grabs her glass, swiveling the straw in a panic to get it into her mouth, STAT.

They don’t realize it, but I’m not the only one watching. Several of the staff observe the scene through a steel-framed window that Noly Lopez, Frontier’s food and beverage manager, calls “the porthole,” offering a clear line of sight from the dining room into the kitchen. Eventually, the chef comes out to the table to chat about peppers with the man and to say hello to his daughter. She smiles, a little teary, and mumbles something gurgly, the straw never leaving her mouth. “That’s my kid: not afraid of flavor!” he boasts.

Lopez later tells me that, in a restaurant with a more traditional, top-down kitchen hierarchy, none of this could have happened. Under the aegis of founder Michael “Gil” Gilroy, all the chefs in the kitchen are independent and relatively equal in status, which gives them autonomy to accept an unusual request and tackle it as a personal project. “It really encourages people to take a lot more ownership of their work. It also builds more creative collaboration,” Lopez said.

Likewise, that spirit of co-creation is the keystone that holds together the Brunswick restaurant’s perilously wide-ranging, eclectic menu. On it, you’ll find warming, Thai-inspired curried mussels ($9.50 half order/$16 full order), practically levitating off the plate on steamy clouds of fragrance: kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, ginger and Madras curry powder – the whole dish tethered by long scallion stems that have been cooked down like French leeks.

Just a few lines down on the menu, there’s a superlative fish taco ($6), made with rice-flour battered, buttermilk-soaked pollock chunks. Every bite is like a syncopated 1930s drum battle between Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, with dueling, yet harmonious crunchy components vying for supremacy. Just when you think the golden, gluten-free fried fish has the edge, the slow-marinated golden raisin and red cabbage slaw snaps into focus. All you can do is keep chewing and wait for the tangy kimchi remoulade to set things back on the right pace, just in time for the next mouthful.

Then there’s a cilantro cream-topped Buffalo chicken sandwich ($14) with a difference: a generous slathering of sauce that leaves out the Texas Pete and Tabasco in favor of a unique blend of floral, aromatic harissa and Sriracha. It’s assertively spicy and very messy, but worth every drop that ends up on your trousers.

Despite the restaurant’s dizzyingly global scope, every dish begins with a careful team assessment of what is available locally – an easy conversation to have at a place where several staff members are farmers themselves. “We ask our people, then start with what we can get our hands on locally. Then we ask what we can do with it that is out of the box,” Lopez said.

However, amid the sushi bowls ($10) and falafel burgers ($13), you’ll find a scaffolding of simple dishes that stay well within the walls of that box – not always to good effect. The salt-roasted, skin-on onion ($7) with a thick apple cider vinaigrette is one example. After being nestled into a bed of salt, roasted slow and blasted in a convection oven right before serving, the onion is served split into delicately charred quarters and sprinkled with pepitas. Ours was sweet and tender at its center, but nearly raw toward the exterior. And, as if in impudent disdain of the several hours it spent in a very hot oven, our onion cooled to room temperature within a minute or two after it arrived at the table.

A chocolate cake with mocha frosting ($9), made by a local baker “keen not to receive recognition,” according to Lopez, was not much better: dense, dry and crumbly, with no hint of the Chambord flavor the menu advertised. Or a humdrum rigatoni bolognese ($23), made with agreeably al dente pasta, but sauced with a glug too much cream and not enough acid. Frontier’s better dishes, it seems, are the ones that reflect the staff’s zeal for border-busting experimentation.

That seems about right for a business that does not even conceive of itself as a place to dine. “Actually, it is more of a gathering space, not a restaurant, per se. It’s a place where some people come for food, some for drinks, some for film, some for art, and some for all at the same time,” Lopez said.

Frontier fills a sprawling, towering space in Brunswick’s historic Fort Andross Mill. Staff photos by Brianna Soukup

Frontier, which opened in the renovated, centuries-old Fort Andross in 2006, is certainly spacious enough to accommodate every one of its multiple personalities (and a few more to boot), with ceilings that tower dozens of feet overhead, restrooms larger than some studio apartments, an 85-seat cinema and enough wall space to host an enormous exhibition of local children’s art, including the eerie, entertaining marker-on-canvas portrait work of young artist John Hall.

Between courses, my dinner guest and I wandered, nursing glasses of snappy, tart bRosé ($7) from Burlington, Vermont, the evening’s draft cider selection. As we walked, we saw the site of Frontier’s upcoming expansion into the rear of the converted mill building, and heard one of the hosts telling a guest about designs to make an adjacent space into a new coffee bar.

Every once in a while, I thought I could also hear the thrum and rush of the Androscoggin River that flows right outside the windows. Yet now that I think about it, it could easily have been the sound of Frontier’s enthusiastic team and their bold communitarian ambitions, animating the space as it evolves rapidly into even more of a “third space” for locals. Are they scared? Probably – but just a little bit.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 local pollock fish tacos with cabbage and golden raisin slaw and kimchi remoulade.Sat, 01 Apr 2017 17:05:29 +0000
Dine Out Maine: The Proper Pig ranges from Mexico to China to Hawaii and more Sun, 26 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 If patrons of the erstwhile SoPo Bar & Grill are still wondering where the restaurant’s signature Victorian-style mahogany wood bar went when the business shuttered in October, I have the answer. It’s in Waterville, and it’s the reason why The Proper Pig exists.

The heavy wood colossus – fortified by stocky square columns and a molded crown – seduced The Proper Pig’s chef and co-owner Fred Ouellette the instant he saw it for sale in South Portland. “It was so beautiful, I just fell in love with it. I bought that bar before (co-owner Bill Mitchell) and I even agreed what kind of restaurant to put it in. We had to cut it down by six or seven feet because it was just so huge, but I had to have it. That’s how we decided we were going to open a bar,” he said.

With a forgivable loan from the city of Waterville granted as part of the municipality’s downtown revitalization efforts, the pair gutted a building that Mitchell had recently purchased. Down came thin walls that chopped the space into tiny offices, and up went that bar, along with cushioned booth seating, exposed-bulb lighting, 7-foot cartoon prints of sandwiches and charcuterie and several black-and-white line drawings of a slightly menacing, monacle-sporting hog. “A friend came up with that character. The pig had a top hat, so we decided then that he had to be proper,” Ouellette said.

If the restaurant’s origin story seems like a fable whose moral is “always embrace the haphazard,” The Proper Pig’s menu reads like a tale from the same book. In the appetizer section alone, the menu features Mexican, Chinese, French-Canadian, Southern and even classic New England dishes side-by-side. Add in a few culinary references to New York, Hawaii and France across the rest of the menu, and you’ve got a pub-food game of “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”

It’s all a bit confusing, but for Ouellette, who learned his craft by working at Waterville’s ultra-eclectic The Last Unicorn – a restaurant he and his wife eventually purchased and now run together – randomness is part of his style. “I study cookbooks like they’re bibles. I dive into any kind of food magazine I can get my hands on, just grabbing ideas and piecing them together. I get to be a mad scientist,” he said.

When it works, his dishes are playful and competently prepared, like the Piggly Wiggly ($10.95), a sandwich that revels in its own overspill. Hickory-smoked pulled pork butt, a crisp onion ring and dollop of aptly named “sloppy slaw” all barely stay within the confines of the plate, let alone the egg-washed brioche bun. And that’s OK. The pork is tangy, a Northerner’s take on vinegary North Carolina barbecue, and good enough to make you grab a fork when the bun’s structural integrity gives out.

Then there’s The Proper Popper ($11.95), a hamburger engineered to appeal to thrillseekers. Onto an unusually lean (10-percent fat) but remarkably juicy patty, Ouellete melts cheese made with nuclear-grade Bhut jolokia peppers (also known as ghost peppers) that clock in at more than a million Scoville units. They are orders of magnitude hotter than Tabasco sauce or Sriracha. He tempers the heat with a slice of grilled pineapple, a little bacon and a generous squirt of cilantro-lime aioli, and winds up with a sandwich that is complex and only just mouth-ticklingly spicy – a real pleasure to eat.

If you’re particularly sensitive to spice, you might want to have a drink at hand, like one of The Proper Pig’s dozen tap selections of Maine craft beers. I especially enjoyed the dry-bitter, citrusy G-String Pale Ale ($6.50) from the Funky Bow Brewery & Beer Company in Lyman, a straightforward brew that never drew too much of my attention and made an excellent pairing for most of the dishes I ate – the sort of beer you drink when you want to focus on something else.

I needed the mental space to focus on balance, or more to the point, its absence, as I began to see a persistent wobbly disharmony in the other dishes I sampled. In some, small faults threw things off-kilter just a bit, as in the Strawberry Garcia ($5.95), a chocolate “Swedish crème,” which was a thick, stodgy, too-cold chocolate mousse – almost the texture of a pudding – made with sour cream, whipped cream and sugar. “It’s like the chocolate silk pie filling, but without the pie,” Ouellette said. Served in a bowl, topped with whipped cream and a single strawberry fanned out across the top, the dessert was too tart, almost cheesy, and so rich that two of us could not finish a single small serving.

MaryMay Goodrich prepares a meal in the kitchen. Staff photo by John Ewing

Elsewhere, salt was a problem. The cheese dip ($9.95), made with sharp cheddar, “beer cheese,” strong Dijon mustard and more beer for good measure, was agreeable enough on its own. But when eaten with the accompanying soft, kosher-salt-sprinkled pretzel, the combination was far too salty. “I’m imagining my future cardiologist telling me, ‘This is where it all went wrong,'” my 19-year-old dinner guest said, dunking a piece of doughy pretzel into the slightly split dip.

The Proper Pig’s version of Taiwanese gua bao, steamed white dough buns with a slice of crispy pork belly folded inside ($10.95) also fell short of its potential. Ouellette got both the crisp edges and yielding interior of the sliced cubes of pork belly, as well as all the garnishes (shredded carrots, cucumbers, scallions and cilantro), exactly right. But steam can be a cruel master: The pale buns – purchased from a supplier – were cooked so long that they became leathery and tough on the outside, crumbly on the inside. The sticky hoisin-ginger sauce on the pork was also excessively sweet, squelching the dish’s other, more nuanced flavors.

Things played out the same way with the smoked baby back ribs ($14.95), painted with a thick layer of brown-sugar BBQ sauce and served with a slab of honey-drizzled cornbread so sweet it tasted like a slice of semolina cake. The amplitude of the flavors might be an execution error, but the idea behind them is no accident: “I just love sweet with meat,” Ouellette explained.

Agree with him or not, chances are good that he’ll figure out how to rectify the menu’s problems in short order. Ouellette already operates in a “fail fast, fail often” environment thanks to his work at The Last Unicorn, where he changes his menu every day (and desserts three times a week). In a month, he cycles through more dishes than most chefs do in years.

The Proper Pig gives him a chance to take this vast experience and explore what it means to commit to a dish, improving it over time. That excites him. “At The Pig, we’ve done a lot of changing just within the first six months, and we’ll continue to. I can’t stop. I’ll just keep messing with it until I get it right,” he said. After tasting how his tinkering turned a ghost pepper hamburger into something I’d happily order for my 73-year-old mother, I’m willing to wager that Ouellette’s old mahogany bar sticks around in Waterville for quite some time to come.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 belly mini buns.Sun, 26 Mar 2017 04:52:23 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Huong’s fits in deliciously with Portland’s culinary cultural revolution Sun, 19 Mar 2017 08:00:00 +0000 People love to tell stories about the therapeutic powers of soup. Whether it’s invigorating, supposedly immune-boosting Chinese bird’s nest soup; thin cabbage soup that mysteriously helps dieters melt away pounds; or even the soothing cure-all, “Jewish penicillin” (really just chicken soup, preferably with matzoh balls), we see our broths as more than the sum of their ingredients.

I had no idea there was anything curative about rich, beef-based pho until my third visit to Huong’s Vietnamese Restaurant, when our server stopped to talk with a sniffly couple at the next table. “Pho is the best thing for you when you have a cold and you can’t breathe. Just put all the jalapeño, basil and lime in there,” she said, while sliding the condiment caddy into the center of the table. “And add lots of this hot chili sauce. Your sinuses will clear up right away. Pho is magic.”

That’s goes double if you’re talking about a bowl of chef/owner Huong Le’s aromatic noodle soup. According to her daughter, manager and fellow cook Trinh Le, Huong arrives at her St. John Street restaurant by 6:30 every morning to start preparations for three separate slow-simmering broths: chicken, beef and vegetarian. The meat-based broths begin with parboiled, marrow-filled bones, yellow rock sugar, cloves and star anise. But the most important element in all three is charred aromatics – onions and ginger whose carbonized exterior punctuates the clear broth with a thousand invisible exclamation points of bitterness and smoke.

Stir some long, sawtooth culantro, bean sprouts and a squeeze of lime into the white meat chicken pho ($7.95) and you’ve got a bowl of soft rice noodles and broth that lights up every corner of your mouth with bright flavors. If you’re in the mood for something a little more mellow, the pho with credit-card thin slices of eye round and pleasantly chewy meatballs ($7.95) adds an extra dimension of heartiness. Huong’s even manages to pull off wonderful, if unorthodox reworkings of the classic Vietnamese soup, like a completely vegetarian pho ($7.95), or a seafood version ($7.95), heaving with squid, fish balls and slices of abalone.

As good as Huong’s pho is, her round rice noodle soup ($9.95) is every bit its equal. A romaine lettuce-topped concoction of chicken broth and chubby, translucent rice noodles tracing long squiggles alongside shrimp, slices of pork and crispy fried onions, this is a chunky dish that stubbornly resists sipping, demanding instead that you shove a napkin into your collar and slurp.

“Don’t worry about the mess,” one of Huong Le’s daughters (her family runs the front-of-house) laughed on one recent visit. “I can see how much you enjoyed it.”

In truth, she had much the same reaction after the six of us finished passing around several shared appetizers, like golden, brittle-skinned vegetable egg rolls ($4.95), filled with savory mushrooms; and crunchy, deep-fried tofu triangles ($5.95), the texture of a stucco ceiling.

We were much tidier with the plump, slightly tacky fresh vegetarian and shrimp spring rolls ($3.95/$5.95) that we dipped into two sauces: one made from soy and peanuts, the other a sweet, vinegary dip, laced with umami-rich fish sauce and a little red chili. Be forewarned: These fat little parcels of rice noodles and herbs are more filling than they appear.

The same rice vermicelli used in the fresh spring rolls forms the foundation of bun (which rhymes with “moon”), a classic Vietnamese noodle salad that miraculously tastes healthy and comforting at the same time. On a base of finely chopped lettuce, mint and mung bean sprouts, Huong Le layers springy white noodles, then meat or seafood that has been marinated in oyster sauce, garlic and sugar and finishes with a drizzle of scallion oil and a generous handful of crushed peanuts. You can order a totally debauched bun topped with chopped egg rolls and shredded pork ($8.95), but the simple grilled beef ($9.95) and shrimp ($10.95) versions are better (and undoubtedly better for you).

Even Huong’s less successful dishes are perfectly decent. Like undersauced South Asian lo mein with vegetables ($8.95), made with carrots, broccoli and egg noodles similar to rough, twisty linguini – overall, a little dull. So too, an inoffensive, but too-loose Vietnamese vegetable fried rice ($8.95) that left me full but wishing I had ordered bun.

The craft-store chic dining room isn’t much to look at, either, with long lace curtains, several bouquets of fake flowers and a utilitarian tiled floor. Décor and atmosphere are not a priority at Huong’s, and perhaps that is as it should be. Instead, during the past two and a half years in the restaurant’s current location, and more than a dozen on Cumberland Avenue, Huong Le has opted to spend her time refining and revising her menu. Her approach to preparing Vietnamese for a rapidly evolving city has never stopped adapting.

“When my mom first started, it was really not so easy. But now people here are interested in tasting new things, lots of Vietnamese foods, not just pho. They’re excited to do it,” Trinh Le said.

Server Thuy Troung delivers a meal to a Huong’s table. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

To accommodate Portland’s ever-more-adventurous palate, the restaurant now offers weekly specials, as well as a few surprises on the regular menu, like a spicy, bracingly tart and minty green mango salad ($15.95), funky from fish sauce and dried shrimp and large enough to share among three people.

Then there’s Huong’s take on dessert: an array of fruit smoothies (all $3.50) including soursop, green tea, avocado and my favorite, durian, a spiky fruit that tastes like the love child of a gym shoe and a banana. As weird as it sounds – and it does – a cold durian shake, with its oniony overtones and creamy fruitiness, is a phenomenal way to end a meal full of spicy heat and punchy herbal flavors. If you’re not feeling quite so daring, the strawberry smoothie is also a lovely option.

On a recent visit, I skipped dessert altogether, preferring to savor the cactusy prickles of peppery heat on my lips as I drove home. They had long since faded into memory by the time I sat down at my desk, and I wondered when I might make it back to Huong’s. But that same evening, right before bed, I felt the start of a winter cold coming on – and rather than reach for the vitamin C, I called a friend and made lunch plans.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 with rare beef and meatballs.Wed, 12 Apr 2017 11:21:42 +0000
When the kitchen’s on, Petite Jacqueline’s classic French fare is pure bliss Sun, 05 Mar 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Next to me is a party of four women, all in their late 50s or early 60s, sharing a carafe of Nicolas rosé ($22) and painting the back corner of Petite Jacqueline’s new glass-walled dining room with sporadic whoops and outbursts of raucous laughter. They are having a blast, and their appetizers haven’t even arrived.

I quickly realize why: It is French story time. One woman, dressed all in white, picks up where she left off, “He insisted I couldn’t wear it anywhere on the Île du Levant, so I took it off and put it in by bag. So there I was, topless and bottomless on the beach, with a croissant in my hand. And all I could think about was how I was supposed to FaceTime with my grandson in 15 minutes!”

Nibbling at slices of housemade baguette pulled from a rolled piece of parchment paper and smeared with herbed compound butter, another nearby table gets in on the act (although in a more G-rated fashion). “His first month of his study abroad, he ate so many crepes that we had to send him money to buy new pants,” one man says to the table, mortifying the red-faced young man seated next to him. I sympathize. After a summer in Paris, I piled on my own “Frenchman 15,” thanks to a rehab-worthy addiction to celeriac remoulade, and only managed to whittle myself back down to size by forcing myself to travel everywhere on foot. As I tell my dinner guest this story over a garlicky, parsley-rich – but calamitously undersalted – bowl of puff pastry-topped escargots ($10.95), it dawns on me that I have inadvertently swum into the same net my fellow diners have. As if by design, conversation at Petite Jacqueline seems to be all about food and travel.

A fitting theme, considering that the restaurant itself completed a journey of its own this June – moving from Longfellow Square to slightly smaller, but grander, digs in the Old Port. It’s a convergence of sorts, uniting the bistro with Portland Patisserie, a fellow member (along with Five Fifty-Five), of the Corry Restaurant Group.

“We loved that corner real estate, and when it was time to move the restaurant, we couldn’t find any place that suited our needs better. It just made sense to merge the two,” co-owner Steve Corry explained. “Here, it’s a full-on city bistro, and we see a much broader clientele: young, old and everything in between. Locals, tourists, everybody.”

Another consolidation is going on in the kitchen, where Kyle Robinson, formerly the chef de cuisine at Five Fifty-Five, has been promoted to executive chef, overseeing both restaurants’ kitchens. “It gives me a chance to step up and gives Steve a chance to step back,” Robinson said. “We tightened up the menu a little, but we’re still offering a lot of the same classic dishes. It’s still a classic French bistro, and I don’t think that will change.”

Indeed, more than three years after a five-star review published in this paper, Petite Jacqueline’s menu offers many of the very same dishes it did then, from a torchon of foie gras ($20.95) that a former critic called “an auspicious start to the meal,” right down to the Saturday-only special, which to this day remains seared duck breast ($28).

Given Petite Jacqueline’s early success – it was a semifinalist for a James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant in 2012 – it is easy to understand the logic in retaining a menu of well-loved, faithful perennials. At the same time, giving up variety shifts attention necessarily in the direction of execution and detail.

That’s not always a trade-off that works in Petite Jacqueline’s favor. The warning signs first appear in print, with a menu shot through with misspellings, such as fish “en papoitte,” beef tartare served with “cornishon,” and even (forgive us all, Saint Julia Child) “buerre.”

Perhaps in keeping with stereotypes of snooty French waiters, service can also occasionally be a bit less than friendly. On one recent visit (a birthday dinner), our server returned to the kitchen five separate times to ask the kitchen how classics like the perfectly seared steak frites ($26.95) and (greasy, overdressed) Lyonnaise salad ($12.95) were prepared. “Oh, are you new?” one of my guests asked, figuring he was still completing his training. “No,” our server replied. “I’m just tired, and I’m not French.”

There are occasional back-of-house slip-ups, as well. Some minor, like Espelette pepper-topped deviled eggs ($4.95) – a riff on oeufs mayonnaise – that incorporate too much Dijon mustard. Or crunchy, practically raw roasted Brussels sprouts with rendered lardons ($8). And some major, like a tender, slow-braised beef Bourguignon ($26.95), made with boneless beef short ribs and caramelized pearl onions, that tastes one-dimensional and dilute, lacking any concentrated depth of flavor from the Burgundy wine that gives it its name.

But when Petite Jacqueline does live up to its promise, the results are blissfully good. Pastry chef Michelle Bass’s flourless chocolate cake ($8), with dense striations of fudgy, cherry-and-almond ganache, is at once exactly the right size to share, and just small enough to spark a war of forks over the last bite.

Even better are the moments when everything falls into place, as with the arctic char amandine ($24.95), a faultlessly pan-seared char fillet, cantilevered like the roof of a forest lean-to, across a wild thicket of glossy green beans. Every one of the components – from a loose dollop of cream-simmered sunchoke puree, to the tiny capers and toasted almond slices, sauteed together in brown butter and spooned over the fish – acts as a counterweight to the others.

Ultimately, this is the subtle magic of French bistro cooking: a straightforward-seeming dish (“approachable dining” as Steve Corry smartly puts it), but one that relies on a quietly extraordinary, multidirectional balance. It’s the sort of food you relish as you eat, without thinking too much about what makes it so pleasurable. If you’re lucky, it might become an important part of some of your best stories, and for better or worse, it should never be the focus.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 arctic char amandine was subtly magical.Fri, 03 Mar 2017 17:17:48 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Salt Pine Social in Bath offers eclectic, playful approach to casual dining Sun, 26 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Everybody loves to play, but Eloise Humphrey does it for a living. At Salt Pine Social, the recently opened Bath restaurant that she co-owns with Daphne and Paul Comaskey (her twin sister and brother-in-law, respectively), she specializes in carefree, sometimes irreverent ways of expressing herself.

It starts with the space: a vigorously renovated former sheet metal workshop that features long, inviting custom banquettes that Humphrey has dressed Siberian dogsled-style with sheepskins from Wiscasset and furry, overstuffed pillows. There’s also a bar lighted by a mix-and-match array of colorful Moorish lanterns that bring to mind much warmer climes, especially when their light is reflected off the high-gloss crimson floor. Yet despite the eclectic design choices, both of the restaurant’s dining rooms still feel lean and a little Scandinavian – the way you might picture Pippi Longstocking’s first grown-up apartment.

Humphrey’s menu echoes the same restrained whimsy. Here, it spools out as an intricate game of make-believe she shares with her guests, where she recreates dishes that evoke memories of people and places dear to her. Take the bright and punchy British-style rollmops ($9), herring fillets pickled simply and served with toasted triangles of dense Danish rye, sweet butter, and pickled onions and carrots. “I was going to make grilled sardines, like I had when I was in Morocco, but the closest I could get was herring, and they were a little too big to grill, so I pickled them and made rollmops. I loved to eat them when I was in England,” she said, eliding one food memory into another.

There’s also a vanilla-freckled Meyer lemon panna cotta in passion fruit “soup” ($8), a tribute to Krista Kern Desjarlais (The Purple House), whose acclaimed former Portland restaurant Bresca once served a similar dish. “I never forgot it. I don’t know her recipe or anything, but it’s my ode to Krista Kern,” she said. As cover versions go, it is remarkable, with hits of fresh mint and a bracingly tangy tropical dice of papaya, pineapple, kiwi and mango that immediately erases any thoughts of snow falling outside.

Humphrey keeps her links to the past alive through her staff, as well. Recently, she brought in Jeff Kent – an old friend with whom she worked in New York 30 years ago – to act as a consulting chef, helping her stitch together a permanent menu that will take Salt Pine Social into the tourist season and beyond. He also seems to embrace her light-hearted tilt toward using memory as inspiration. Case in point: clam chowder ($6 cup/$10 bowl) from a recipe he learned as a young teenager, reproduced faithfully here, ground quahogs and all, save for one well-conceived upgrade, a house-made Tabasco-infused crouton.

There’s also the hacked chicken ($16), a whopping portion of intensely smoked thighs and drumsticks, all cleavered into three-bite pieces and served with a light, cornbread-like (and gluten-free) cheddar stick – a dish the two chefs used to prepare long ago, as they cooked side-by-side at Manhattan’s Arizona 206. Apart from the accompanying cowboy beans, which were confusingly undersalted and over-herbed with oregano, this was the sort of hearty plate I could imagine appearing in my own culinary reminiscences.

Only a few bistro classics on the menu possess no particular link to Humphrey’s past, like the sharp cheddar-topped organic hamburger ($16), made from ground short ribs and chuck from Caldwell Farms in Turner. Here though, she makes the most of an opportunity to create something special on a blank canvas. It’s a chance, as she puts it, “to play around a little with locally sourced food,” by smoking the superlative shallots from her friend’s off-the-grid farm in Brunswick and turning them into an aioli with a phenomenal depth of flavor.

It’s a trick she repeats – this time in the oven – by plating sweet, yielding slices of roasted Bosc pear along with grilled bread and a timbale of ultra-clean tasting, basket-aged local ricotta ($11). But even here, flashbacks creep in, this time germinating the idea for a syrup infused with rosemary and black pepper that is based on something she ate in a restaurant in Inverness, California 25 years ago. Its tiny needle pricks of heat and gentle piney sweetness animate every mouthful.

But the dish that best spotlights Humphrey’s singular talent at combining the ludic and the nostalgic is her Lebanese tomato salad ($10) with celery and fresh sheep’s milk feta. Inspired by a salad made by her friend, celebrated Dallas chef Sharon Hage, Humphrey builds complex, feathery layers of mint, basil, celery leaves and parsley, and pinions them to a framework of spice: cinnamon, coriander and sumac. “I loved her salad because the flavors were so alive, and they just really reminded me of my childhood,” Humphrey said.

There is perhaps no bolder, nose-thumbingly audacious move for a serious chef than to serve a raw tomato salad in February. But thanks to nearby hydroponic gardens in Massachusetts and Maine, she pulls it off. No, scratch that. The salad is so good right now – in the most inhospitable season of the year – that it compels you to look forward to the warm months, just to imagine what she will be able accomplish then. It’s the ultimate trickster gambit: Humphrey dazzles and distracts as she looks backwards for inspiration, while she forces you (lovingly) to do exactly the opposite.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 ricotta with grilled bosc pears, grilled bread and rosemary black pepper syrup.Fri, 24 Feb 2017 17:07:38 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Schulte & Herr’s homey German food is a home run Sun, 12 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 In an unguarded moment a few years ago, a well-known television chef told me something he probably shouldn’t have.

I was covering a food event where he was promoting his new, over-the-top New York restaurant, serving guests microscopic spoonfuls of shrimp and grits on tiny plastic plates. Chef had also brought along an assistant. She apparently had one job: Keeping him “hydrated” with plenty of samples from the vodka sponsor in the next booth. So by the end of the evening, when I asked about his new menu, he was rather well-lubricated. “I make two kinds of food: the stuff you want to eat when you’ve been drinking, and stuff that makes you want to drink more. I’m in the restaurant business. It’s all about booze,” he said, punctuating his confession by popping a piece of shrimp into his mouth and flashing his veneers.

It’s no secret that many restaurants rely on alcohol sales to boost their profit margins, or even to keep them afloat. But there is a downside: When you can charge diners two, three or even five times the wholesale cost for a bottle of wine, food can become a lure for the thirsty, not an end in itself.

BYOB restaurants have no such cushion. They live and die by the strength of their menus, and there’s a purity of purpose in that. It’s also risky, which is why it is so rare to see a place like Portland’s Schulte & Herr, still thriving without a liquor license nearly seven years after it opened.

In the 24-seat West Bayside dining room, you will not find an oompah band, beer steins or rosy-cheeked, bedirndled bar maids. Here, the soundtrack is a little moody: The Beatles and downtempo classic rock, shading into The Black Keys and CocoRosie – but all in perfect alignment with co-owner Steffi Davin’s description of the place as “more mellow, quaint and not rowdy.”

She and her husband, chef Brian Davin, who are often the only two staff members in the restaurant, work hard to build a sense of coziness on a nondescript block that needs it badly. “We want to make a gathering place that feels like you’re at a family member’s house – a place where you feel like you’re with friends, an intimate place,” Steffi Davin said.

Look around at Charles Alden’s oil paintings of German street scenes hanging on the whitewashed, paneled walls; the plainly tiled floor (no rugs); the indirect lamp lighting and even the dishware, like a 1970s coffee mug that recalls the muted colors and big geometrics of DDR design. It really is homey here.

The menu, featuring hearty (but not necessarily heavy) dishes from across Germany, amplifies the gemütlich vibe with several dishes that represent Steffi Davin’s childhood food memories. Her fondest two are here: extraordinarily good palm-sized pancakes made from potato and onion, grated together and bound with egg and flour, then shallow-fried until just crisp ($5 served with naturally sweet applesauce and sour cream, or $11 served with house-smoked salmon and capers). In her four-star review from 2012, this paper’s reviewer raved about them. It’s easy to see why.

The other, Rheinischer Sauerbraten ($21), beef served with cinnamon-scented red cabbage that her mother served every Christmas, is the Platonic ideal of tender, boneless pot roasts. Marinated for three entire days in red wine, vinegar and mirepoix, then braised for several hours and finished with brown sugar and raisins, the marbled shoulder cut tenderizes languidly as it makes its own sweet-sour gravy.

That gravy is not to be wasted, so Brian Davin serves the sauerbraten with something to sop with – buttery pan-fried Servietten (napkin) dumplings that he prepares by fashioning a log from moistened bread. He poaches it, lets it cool and slices it into discs that he pan-fries to lend color and a nutty flavor. “They’re like fried bread pudding, but savory,” he said.

I was unprepared for their lightness, just as I was by the same quality in the Schweine schnitzel ($18), pork loin pounded as thin as a poker chip, then dredged in egg, coated in breadcrumbs and flash-fried. It wasn’t just the texture that took me by surprise, but the skillful use of just a few seasonings: only salt, pepper and lemon juice in a balance calculated out to the 10th decimal place. On one plate, an object lesson on simplicity and execution for every chef in town.

Seasonings were equally superb in the roasted local bratwurst ($15), a mace-and-ginger flavored sausage served with a mild sauerkraut sauteed with bacon and aromatic juniper berries. Or the Zwiebelkuchen ($7) a quiche-like, Gruyere-topped onion custard made with sultry Spanish onions that have been softened at a glacial pace (over an hour, but never browned) and baked in a flaky, savory pâte brisée crust. Or even the tangy potato salad ($4) with roughed-up red potatoes, cornichons, red onion and bacon – a classic for good reason.

The evening’s only missteps were minor ones. Like a vegan chocolate cake ($6) with dark chocolate icing, a patchy middle layer of raspberry jam, and an optional (not-so-vegan) dollop of whipped cream. The dessert tasted lovely, but should have come out of the oven a minute or two earlier to keep the outside edge as moist as its center.

Or the Schwäbische spätzle ($14) – short, rustic-looking egg noodles pan-fried with Emmenthaler cheese until just a little crusty, like the browned top and sides of homemade macaroni and cheese. Here, there was not enough of the irregular, dumpling-like noodles and perhaps a bit too much cheese. In fairness, on a freezing day in February, a little cheese overload might be a feature, not a flaw. Either way, a bite of mandolin-sliced cucumber in dill vinaigrette offset the spätzle’s extra richness.

It’s the kind of dish that would have gone wonderfully with a zesty white wine, like the Berger 2015 Grüner Veltliner we brought with us. I have seen the same bottle on local wine lists for upwards of $45, but thanks to the awkward placement of Schulte & Herr’s original bathroom – a quirk that, until it was relocated recently, prevented the restaurant from seeking a liquor license – it cost us $16.

There is no way around it: BYOB allows diners more affordable access to better wine. It also opens up a much greater range of pairings than any single restaurant could provide, even with a massive wine and beer program. I’ll go a step further: I’d wager that not having a liquor license has made Schulte & Herr a better restaurant. Without the extra profits from alcohol, the Davins are, by necessity, more attuned to the quality of every bite of food. And it shows.

They are also free to take chances. Nothing radical – this is still traditional German cooking – but you can see a little of that abandon in dishes like a complex, acid-forward smoked trout salad with sweet pickled beets, matchsticks of radish, vinaigrette-dressed potatoes and arugula ($9). “I’ve never had a salad exactly like that, just all the tastes of Germany on one plate,” Brian Davin said. It’s also an outstanding plate of food with an eclectic combination of flavors that would probably stump even the best sommelier. But hey, the Davins are in the restaurant business. It’s not all about booze.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 with potato salad.Sat, 11 Feb 2017 16:57:39 +0000
Dine Out Maine: At Portland Meatball Co., the balls often strike out Sun, 05 Feb 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Halfway through my first visit to Portland Meatball Co., I finally got my timing right. By ducking my head precisely every 2 1/2 minutes, I could dodge the rotating green lasers beaming a planetarium-worthy representation of the galaxy across the ceiling – and more to the point, directly into my eyeballs. It gave the meal a certain tidal rhythm though, one that repeated for nearly an hour: Eat a little. Chat. Duck.

On my second visit, I chose a better seat in a different lemon-yellow booth in the kitschy, completely empty dining room. As we finished our retro cocktails – a lemon pear cooler ($9) that tasted like spiked canned fruit cocktail syrup, and a bracing, bitter Negroni ($8.50) – one of my guests touched my jacket and said, “Look, you’ve got dots of green light crawling up your blazer towards your …” Out of habit, I ducked.

Although you might never guess it, judging by the laser light show and the eclectic, country antique store decor, Portland Meatball Company is a new sibling of the chic and polished Timber Steakhouse next door. Both are owned and managed by Noah and Dan Talmatch, and both share an executive chef, Christian Bassett, who has split his time between the two businesses since the newer restaurant opened in October.

“Noah used to say there was no good meatball restaurant around, so we took the idea and ran with it. Our theme is American traditional cuisine with some ethnic background to it, and at a budget price.” Bassett said. In practice, that translates to a menu whose regional influences are largely Italian-American, with a rotating selection of dishes inspired by a broad range of cultures.

For better or worse, the kitchen is at its best when it sticks to classic Italian-American flavors. Case in point: the 3-ounce House Balls, made from house-ground beef, pork and veal, and seasoned with parsley and garlic. Each of the four times I tasted them, they were juicy and tender, whether served on their own as part of the 5-Ball Sampler ($12), or as part of another dish, like the classic meatball sub ($10.95), a hefty sandwich finished with melted mozzarella. Here, the meatballs were infused with tomato and garlic from a long simmer in Bassett’s sweet, homemade marinara.

In the Pasta & Balls ($16), the house meatballs were the best item on the plate – soft enough to yield with gentle pressure from a fork, but firm enough to provide some contrast in texture to the sticky, heavily oversauced spaghetti.

Unfortunately, the more adventurous meatballs seemed to get progressively worse as they drifted farther out of the orbit of the Italian-inspired house ball. A pure-beef, sun-dried tomato ball was perfectly pleasant, with a nutty richness from a pine nut pistou. And a Tex-Mex taco ball, another all-beef affair, was fragrant with lime zest and cumin, if perhaps a little tough.

Then, the chicken meatball, made from dark and white meat chicken, with an offensive, giblet-like odor and livery flavor that made it inedible, even if drowned in marinara or that evening’s gruel-like queso sauce. Or the duck meatball: a bland, dense, coral-colored sphere with what Bassett described as a “Korean flavor profile” of tamari, orange marmalade and cilantro. It wouldn’t have been out of place on a billiard table.

For the title of the worst ball of all, we had a draw. First was the Veggie Chick Pea. “Poor vegetarians,” said my dinner guest, as we broke through the ball’s sooty, black crust into a wet interior that brought to mind hummus-flavored baby food. Versus a surprise contender, brownie balls ($7.25) – an idea from the restaurant’s dishwasher – a greasy, structurally unstable chocolate dessert that was still frozen inside (despite an obvious attempt at a flash defrosting in the microwave), served bobbing in a harsh, acidic raspberry reduction.

“Did you enjoy it?” our server asked, with an apologetic shrug and a heartbreaking glance down at our practically untouched dessert bowl. It wasn’t her fault, so we lied and said we were full from the pizza we had eaten earlier.

While it’s true that we did order an outsized slice (a quarter of a 16-inch pizza) of duck prosciutto pizza ($9), I think she probably noticed that we left most of that, too. Flavors that might have balanced one another beautifully in a salad – soft goat cheese, thinly sliced cured duck, pine nuts and sweet-tart dried cranberries – were out of alignment and far too sweet on a pizza.

The crust didn’t help matters. On both this slice, as well as a meat sauce and meatball-based Lots of Balls pizza ($10) I sampled on another visit, the crust was doughy, with a floppy, rubbery texture reminiscent of refrigerated leftovers. With a deck oven cranked to 625 degrees Fahrenheit and a ceramic pizza stone, Portland Meatball Company has everything it needs to do better than pale, underbaked pies.

On the other hand, the kitchen managed to achieve great char on the zucchini and yellow squash in the couscous salad ($9.25), a bright, fresh-tasting layering of grape tomatoes, Kalamata olives, goat cheese and sliced white onion. A Mediterranean hodge-podge, it was a well-conceived dish full of plump (if sticky) balls of Israeli couscous that fit right in with the restaurant’s theme.

It was also the best of the three salads we tasted – certainly superior to the stingy rotisserie chicken salad ($9.75), with discs of canned black olives and insipid thousand island (not the bleu cheese dressing listed on the menu). Or the similarly skimpy dried blueberry salad ($9), missing any trace of the mozzarella advertised and doused in an industrial-strength balsamic vinaigrette.

The salads, like nearly everything I ate at Portland Meatball Company, seemed to have been rushed out of the kitchen, unexamined and, more importantly, untasted. Yet rather than focus on badly needed quality control for the restaurant’s few remaining customers, the kitchen staff wandered distractedly in and out of the desolate dining room throughout both of my visits, until inevitably declaring the restaurant closed more than an hour early.

Through it all, our first server remained hopeful and upbeat, despite signs of an unsatisfactory meal that even she could not ignore. “Next time, maybe try coming in a little earlier?” she proposed. Then, gesturing at our unfinished plates, she said, “I think it might be all about timing.” With that, she dislodged something in my memory. I looked up at the orbiting green constellations on the ceiling, and suddenly remembered: It was time to duck.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 5-Ball Sampler.Sat, 04 Feb 2017 19:47:54 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Finding standout seafood at Portsmouth’s Row 34 should be easier Sun, 29 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 ‘Show, don’t tell” is one of the cardinal rules of fiction writing. A good story, whether long or short, should immerse you in an imagined world, sharing it in a way that lets you comprehend it intuitively, like the story’s characters do.

The same guideline could apply to restaurants, where eating a meal is its own kind of experiential immersion of tastes, sounds and smells – and where the success of a dinner is not determined by what you hear or read, but by the flavors on your tongue.

I started thinking about telling and showing just a few minutes after being seated at a table in the industrial-modern, glass-walled dining room at Row 34 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire – the sister to a nearly identical Row 34 in Boston. Against the backdrop of 1980s synth-pop hits playing overhead, our server asked if we had visited before (we hadn’t), then gave us a well-rehearsed synopsis of the restaurant’s seafood-forward philosophy, emphasizing that it was, at heart, an oyster bar with ties to lobstermen in York, Maine, as well as to Island Creek Oysters in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Just the right amount of detail and scene-setting, I thought to myself.

And then the paper started appearing.

First came the list of beers: nearly 30 by the bottle and 20 on draft (half of which come from New England), listed in skinny columns on two sides of a square piece of thick, white-and-gray card stock. Then, a sheet with cocktails. Then, the menu (with a full wine list, verso). “Oh no! I’ll be right back,” our server said, as she ran off to retrieve yet another document for us. This time, the raw bar and smoked seafood menu. “I can give you the dessert menu now, too, if you want it,” she offered. I looked at my dinner guest, then down at the small, two-top table, covered by a mortgage’s worth of paperwork, and politely declined.

When she set down our tart and gently bitter, cranberry gin-based Isle of Shoals ($10) and bourbon-smoky Buzz ($11) cocktails, I noticed that even the coasters, printed with slogans like “Professionals only” and “No nozzles,” were trying to tell us something – although I could not decipher what. “A nozzle is a guy who wears a suit and comes to our oyster farm, acting like he knows everything. And nobody really knows what the other one means. It’s on a sign at the floating garage at the farm,” our server explained, laughing. “They’re just private in-jokes that nobody but the staff gets.”

Apparently everything at Row 34, down to the shibboleths inscribed on the table settings, involves some kind of explanation. It’s a lot of “telling, not showing,” and it makes the restaurant feel overcomplicated and distancing – a graduate seminar on postmodernism come to life as an oyster bar.

But let’s say you ignore the setting and just pay attention to the food. Does that help? Only a bit, as it turns out. Row 34’s very traditional-seeming clam chowder ($9) was admittedly excellent: thickened to exactly the right consistency and loaded with skin-on potato chunks and clam meat.

“When you’re in New England, everyone has a point of reference for clam chowder, so you have to stick with the core of what it is,” chef/partner Jeremy Sewall said. Yet he and his team manage to put their own stamp on a classic by tamping down some flavors while amplifying others. They start their broth with mild leeks in place of onions, then add clam juice from freshly steamed clams. At the same time, they introduce an extra dimension of concentrated pork flavor by simmering the chowder with both their own house-smoked bacon and something Sewall calls “bacon skin.” Tucking into a bowl was a little like discovering another room in a house where you have lived for years.

Row 34’s menu also features several generally solid dishes, like soft fish tacos ($13), with crisp nuggets of slightly undersalted, flaky, deep-fried pollock, drizzled with a lush and evocative toasted cumin crema. Or a citrus angel food cake ($6) – teetering on the edge of dryness – served with an orange-and-grapefruit reduction, supremed Cara Cara orange slices and a generous mound of unsweetened, vanilla whipped cream.

Similarly, the smoked & cured board ($21 per person, but easily large enough to share) was mostly enjoyable, with vibrant, oniony smoked mussels escabeche, served on toast triangles; a slow-cured and smoked salmon pastrami flavored with coriander, cumin and thyme; and a delightfully simple smoked lobster tail, sprinkled with sea salt. Only the spicy shrimp, seasoned hesitantly with a homeopathic quantity of pequin pepper, lacked the flavor promised in their name.

Then, a few unalloyed disasters, like a salt lick of a pickled beet salad with bleu cheese dressing, arugula and pickled pearl onions ($12). Or lettuce cups containing extraordinarily crisp, buttermilk fried oysters ($12), where each Bibb-wrapped parcel had to be dismantled carefully – like a live bomb – rather than eaten together, in order to avoid total palate annihilation from a caustic, vinegary cabbage-and-onion hot pickle.

The most expensive item on the menu, hand-rolled egg pappardelle with lobster, oyster mushrooms and Osetra caviar ($32) could have been a decadent home-run, with its surprisingly light, almost brothy sauce and thin shavings of savory parmesan. But spinach sauteed into the mix gave it some off-key, mineral notes, and worst of all, ours had no caviar – not even a single pin-head of sturgeon roe anywhere on the plate.

I might have complained, but at that point in the meal, I was a little sore from sitting for more than an hour in what looked and felt like a cold, black patio chair. A man at a neighboring table had folded his coat into quarters and sat for his entire meal, perched atop his makeshift cushion. We nodded to each other in solidarity as I walked toward the exit.

“Oh, don’t forget this!” I heard our server call from behind me. Figuring I had left my gloves behind, I turned and watched in slow motion as an advertisement for Row 34’s brunch service was handed to me on one final piece of paper – the sixth of the night – this one with a box containing the phrase “technical specifications” printed at the bottom. Your guess is as good as mine.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: AndrewRossME

]]> 0 34 in Portsmouth, N.H., bills itself as a simple oyster bar, but often overly complicated.Sun, 29 Jan 2017 10:13:03 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Thousands of lobster rolls later, Eventide Oyster Co. still going strong Sun, 22 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 If you have ever witnessed a friend become famous, you know what a bittersweet experience it can be. As the world learns about how wonderful your friend is – as you start to see a familiar face appear in unexpected places online and in magazines – it makes you happy, and maybe even a little proud. Meanwhile, more and more people clamor for slivers of your friend’s time, and it becomes difficult to find ways for you to get together, until you eventually discover a new equilibrium between absence and affection.

It’s a lot like Portlanders’ relationship with Eventide Oyster Co., the bright, tightly conceived raw bar and small-plates restaurant that opened in mid-2012 and quickly became the well-deserved focus of both local and national attention. In addition to a 41/2-star review in this paper that “found little to fault” that autumn, chef/owners Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, along with co-owner and general manager Arlin Smith, were celebrated in Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Restaurants of 2012. Then came the brightest spotlight of all: Taylor and Wiley were finalists for the James Beard Award for the best chef in the Northeast in both 2015 and 2016.

“We opened Eventide to be a small oyster bar for Portland, and that was our expectation. We thought it was going to be a little local spot. Our ambitions were pretty modest. Then it blew up on us, and it has been crazy,” Taylor said.

With national recognition come crowds, especially in summertime, when Portland bloats with visitors, nearly all of whom seem to wind up camped out on Middle Street, waiting for a chance to order one of Eventide’s legendary lobster rolls ($14). You can hardly blame them. Freshly picked local lobster, slick with sharp, nutty brown butter and lemon dressing, cascading over the edges of a housemade, split-top steamed bun is as good a justification for waiting 90 minutes in a line as any I can imagine.

The kitchen uses that same moist, airy bun – a kissing cousin of Chinese mantou – on its other rolls, as well. “In the summer, we have to make 400 of those every day just to keep up. It’s a painstaking process,” Taylor said. The pale steamed buns lend a soft chew to sandwiches, like one stuffed with crisp, deep fried oysters and topped with pickled onions, jalapeños and a smoked paprika tartar sauce ($7). Or a Southern-style buttermilk fried chicken bun ($7) filled with cole slaw, ranch dressing, and garnished with delicate, translucent strips of sweet-tart pickled watermelon rind that takes days to prepare.

All the same, extra effort differentiates Eventide from its competitors. It’s there in dishes like the simple-seeming, yet singular greens ($7), an ample bowl of Laughing Stock Farm mesclun, served with homemade pickled vegetables: onion, cucumber and Rapunzel-esque turnings of carrot and daikon. And if four types of fresh pickles isn’t enough, the salad is dressed with a vinaigrette made from toasted, pulverized nori sheets, soy, mirin and shallot oil. Each bite tastes at once of the earth and the sea, in perfect symmetry.

Even the half-shell selection reflects remarkable attention and care. Eventide is, as Taylor admits, “quite choosy” about the farmers they use and the oysters they purchase. Just as impressive, they are equally particular when it comes to training staff to describe them. During a recent visit, our server not only told us about the differences in flavor between winter and summer oysters, she was able to explain the differences among the seven Maine varieties and three “from away” (but still from the North Atlantic) available that evening. “She’s like a really good sommelier,” my dinner guest remarked. Then, pointing to the display of unopened oysters on ice in the poured concrete bar, said, “If there were a pearl in one of those, I bet she’d know exactly where to find it.”

She certainly guided our selection well that night, steering us toward a half-dozen ($16), including massive and meaty Browne Points; mineral, flinty Johns Rivers (both from Damariscotta); and a pair of Pine Points from Scarborough with a saline complexity that tasted the way a wet gravel road smells.

I generally like very little extra (or nothing at all) on my oysters, but I was won over by a punchy horseradish ice, as well as a more traditional red wine mignonette, with an ideal ratio of shallot to liquid that never masked the flavors of the oysters or their brine.

Likewise, when it comes to cooked seafood, Eventide manages to find a way to preserve essential flavors. The stuffed mahogany clams ($7) offer a good example, with chopped, deepwater Gulf of Maine quahog meat that shines through against a backdrop of bacon, butter, parsley and paprika, and a breadcrumb-crunchy texture that reminded me of Thanksgiving stuffing. It’s true in the Maine lobster stew ($14), where even through a gauzy screen of aromatic ginger, green chilies and lemongrass, fresh lobster always remains the focus of the hearty, chive oil-dotted bowl, rich with coconut milk and substantial chunks of maitake mushroom.

Then there’s the tender smoked mackerel ($11), balanced out, but never toppled by a cold salad of onion and bitter grapefruit. Or the restaurant’s gorgeous Tokyo-meets-Tennessee BBQ sablefish ($15), marinated in miso and served with braised collard greens and a dense, pan-fried sweet potato cake.

Asian influences appear throughout the menu, yet thanks to the kitchen’s steadfast obsession with putting seafood first, never feel overstated or forced. Taylor and Wiley’s comfort with those flavors has also undoubtedly only grown since sister restaurant The Honey Paw, an Asian noodle bar, opened next door in 2015, bookending Eventide with its fine-dining predecessor, Hugo’s. The three restaurants share owners, chefs and one huge, communal kitchen with a single walk-in refrigerator.

They also share pastry chef Kim Rodgers, whose tart and sparklingly spiced cranberry-ginger pie with soft, salted vanilla meringue ($7) was – despite a slightly overworked crust – refreshing and fittingly seasonal. It’s just this sort of dish that our bartender described to a local couple, out celebrating their anniversary with a few Eventide Manhattans ($10): “If you come in after the crowds disappear in November, we do things that will go away in March. The tourists, they never see them,” he said. “It’s our way of saying thank you for putting up with the lines, and to show you that we always still love Portland best.”

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0, ME - JANUARY 18: A selection of oysters chill in the ice-filled well of large block of granite at Eventide restaurant in Portland. DINE OUT. (Photo by Derek Davis/Staff Photographer)Sat, 21 Jan 2017 18:09:30 +0000
Dine Out Maine: If Toroso’s food pleases, ’tis the seasoning; if it doesn’t, ditto Sun, 15 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 A few hours after returning home from dinner at Toroso, in Kennebunk, I had a vivid, Technicolor dream about it. Maybe it was the tart and tropical, margarita-like Smoke on the Water cocktail ($12), or maybe it was the drama of inching home on the highway in the season’s first white-out snow conditions that set my brain racing full tilt right before sleep. Regardless of the cause, when I woke in the morning, I couldn’t stop laughing at one lingering dream image: being greeted and seated by a chatty octopus with the head of a bull.

My overactive imagination was not completely responsible, either. Toroso’s logo features this same fantasy hybrid, which executive chef and owner Shannon Bard calls “The Octobull,” designed to reference both the seafood served in restaurants across Spain, as well as the brawny, iconic bovine that has become shorthand for the country’s very identity.

The name of the restaurant, too, means something along the lines of “strong, like a bull,” and captures the boldness that Bard aspires to in the restaurant’s menu of mostly Iberian-inspired small plates.

Toroso has been in the works for quite a while. It started in 2011, when Bard, who also runs Portland’s Zapoteca, completed a five-week stage (short for stagiere, a brief kitchen internship) at Arzak – a modern, three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Basque country. But it wasn’t until this past spring, after traveling to Seville, that she put her ideas into a coherent perspective, just in time for Toroso’s opening in late July.

Bard’s adventurous approach is built on the primacy of flavor above all else and rejects geographic restrictions in its interpretation of tapas. “Spanish food is not something that’s really defined by borders, so it gives me room to be creative,” she said.

One example is her golden, charred cauliflower with garbanzos and green beans ($8), served in a nutty, garlicky romesco aioli – very traditionally Spanish. But the cauliflower itself is dusted with an aromatic Moroccan ras el hanout, a bewitching blend of cumin, cinnamon, ginger and coriander that reflects the North African influence on cooking in southern Spain.

That same Moorish spice blend also appears, perhaps excessively, in the otherwise excellent cod loin with clams ($25), one of Toroso’s three entrée-sized plates. Here, it infuses a stew of chickpeas, tomatoes and baby kale, made loose by the liquor that weeps out as the clams open on the stove.

As agnostic as Bard is to the culinary boundaries of place, she is equally so with her approach to flavors.

In some dishes, she interjects unexpected components, like savory cured egg yolk that she grates like hard cheese over a conical stack of slick, plancha-seared asparagus ($9). As I dipped tender, grill-marked green asparagus spears (the menu lists both white and green as part of the dish, but we were served only green) into hazelnut romesco and dabbed shavings of cured egg yolk off the plate, I could not focus on my conversation. All I could do was eat.

Toroso’s flavor risks do not always pay off this well. A dish of crispy, milk-soaked fried eggplant slices, drizzled Andalusian-style with honey ($9), was far too sweet and heavy-handedly sprinkled with finely chopped rosemary. Plated on slate with a single marigold and a lost-looking amaranth flower loitering beneath three overlapping discs of eggplant, the dish resembled a strange, Henry Darger-esque reimagining of the Olympic rings.

Bard’s version of pan con tomate ($6), probably the quintessential tapa – toasted crusty bread rubbed with garlic, fresh tomato, and topped with olive oil and salt – fell similarly short. This time, because of omissions.

Paella de Mariscos made with calasparra rice, Spanish sofrito, chorizo, lobster, mussels, manilla clams, shrimp, arugula, garlic parsley oil and lemon wedges at Toroso in Kennebunk.

Paella de Mariscos made with calasparra rice, Spanish sofrito, chorizo, lobster, mussels, manilla clams, shrimp, arugula, garlic parsley oil and lemon wedges at Toroso. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


Toroso’s skimpy version ditches the garlic and literally whittles the foundation of the dish, the bread, down to a cracker-like thinness. The Backyard Farms tomatoes puddled on top in a sweet, chunky gel were excellent, even in the middle of winter, but they bled into the meager slices of toast, making them soggy seconds after they were set down on the table.

Seasoning issues also crop up in a few places across the menu at Toroso. Some dishes, such as the previously mentioned cauliflower and the honeyed eggplant, were heavily oversalted. Others, like the blistered shishitos/Padróns, referred to on the menu as “Moorish style peppers” ($5), were undersalted to the point of oily blandness. At a tapas restaurant, that’s a missed opportunity, because savory, occasionally fiery Padróns are meant to trigger a thirst for another glass of wine, something Toroso offers in abundance.

Thanks to a temperature-controlled, vacuum wine dispensing system set up in its classically Spanish tiled bar, Toroso is able to pour more than two dozen wines by the glass.

Most are, as you might expect, Spanish, like a ripe and citrusy Marques de Caceres rose ($15). The few exceptions include a gooseberry-tart Whitehaven Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($13), and an award-winning Stags Leap Artemis Cabernet Sauvignon from California ($10 for 2 oz., $16 for 4 oz.), which is nearly impossible to find by the glass elsewhere.

And if the prices for these glasses seems high, don’t be put off: Toroso’s pours are lavish.

Albondigas de cordero, a hot tapas plate of seared lamb meatballs served in oxtail jus and sherry cream at Toroso.

Albondigas de cordero, a hot tapas plate of seared lamb meatballs served in oxtail jus and sherry cream. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

There are also two sangrias ($10 for a glass/$20 for a pitcher) on the menu, including a white version made with pear and cucumber, and a red, flavored with orange and thyme – a profile well suited to partner with rich dishes like the staggeringly pleasurable lamb albondigas ($11). Plated uncomplicatedly, with three tender meatballs in a shallow ladling of sauce made from sweet sherry and foie gras, this plate perhaps best showcases Toroso’s ability to present audacious, sophisticated flavors in an elegantly simple format.

“The sherry and the foie add a little bit of maturity to the dish. It’s an adult version of the meatball,” Bard explained.

Similarly, the citrus-infused Crema Catalana ($9) – a largely faithful rendition of Spanish crème brûlée – looked unassuming when it arrived. That is, until I took my first bite, and brazen curlicues of anise and clove twined their way down my tongue, spreading like ivy across my entire mouth. This, I thought, was a dessert with flavors to remember.

I wonder now if it wasn’t those lingering hints of spice that made me fall asleep, only to dream of dinner with a garrulous Octobull.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at or on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

]]> 0, ME - JANUARY 12: Jessica O'Rourke, left, and Tony Smith dine at Toroso in Kennebunk on Thursday, January 12, 2017. (Photo by Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer)Mon, 16 Jan 2017 13:19:56 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Owl & Elm in Yarmouth gives pub grub a good name, mostly Sun, 08 Jan 2017 09:00:00 +0000 Pub food often gets a bad rap. I blame language for at least part of the problem. First, there’s the lamentable harmony of the rhyme between “pub” and “grub,” one of the least appetizing culinary adjectives. Then, there’s vocabulary: The words we use to talk about pub food (hamburger, nachos, French fries) come from a lexicon shared by its louche yet seductively popular third-cousin, fast food. It’s an unfortunate association, because when prepared well, pub dishes are actually closer to classic home cooking – more family dining room than freeway drive-thru.

At Owl & Elm Village Pub in Yarmouth, chef Rocco Marzilli’s goal is to connect diners to the homier aspects of this style of cuisine: “I serve comfort food, food that people recognize, but with just a little twist. We want to make you feel like you can come in and relax and feel like you’re at your house, like you’re sitting at your own kitchen counter,” he said.

With long, cushion-covered pew benches, a custom bar illuminated by boxy, steel-framed pendant lighting and a wall-mounted LED television, it might not look (or sound) much like a traditional home kitchen, but that doesn’t seem to matter to the crowds of regulars who fill the boisterous restaurant nearly every night.

On one recent visit, I found a remarkably age-diverse group of customers, who ranged from a young family with children nibbling on complimentary (and overworked) rosemary biscuits, to a geriatric couple seated next to me, sipping sweet and smoky Upper Village Manhattans ($11), deep in an unexpected conversation about Lady Gaga’s new album. It felt like the entire town of Yarmouth was out for dinner.

According to Marzilli (who previously cooked at Nosh and Hot Suppa! in Portland), that’s not far from the mark. “We are a family-friendly pub, but we get everyone from the community,” he said. “There is even a core group of regulars who walk here a few times a week.” Undoubtedly, they are motivated by avoiding the hunt for a parking space – a tricky prospect here – as much as by not driving home tipsy in a section of town known for its avid attention from police.

Still, it’s hard to decline a drink at Owl & Elm, with six New England beers on draft, like slightly sharp and citrusy Pepperell Pilsner ($6) from Banded Horn Brewing in Biddeford, or Black Hog Brewing’s caramel, porter-adjacent Granola Brown Ale ($7) from Oxford, Connecticut. Just as tempting are the beers by the bottle: a more geographically eclectic list that even includes a few options from Europe. On the other hand, the list of wines by the glass seems absent-mindedly conceived, and includes a few letdowns, like a thin Leese-Fitch pinot noir ($8) and an almost sugary Tavo pinot grigio ($8).

Keith Johnson, co-owner of Owl + Elm, pours a Banded Horn pilsner during a busy weeknight shift.

Keith Johnson, co-owner of Owl & Elm, pours a Banded Horn pilsner during a busy weeknight shift. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

That’s a shame, because a few dishes on the menu, like the Maine stew ($25), an almost deconstructed bouillabaisse of mussels, haddock and half a lobster, would work as well with a glass of wine as with a pint of beer. Piled high into a too-small bowl, the stew was really more of a modern art installation of seafood and garlic toasts wading in an inch of flat, unbalanced lobster stock. More than anything else, this dish – and especially the simple broth – lacked acidity, which could have come from pureeing the chunky smoked tomatoes into the stock, or even simply adding lemon juice before serving, rather than relying on diners to season the dish themselves with a shouldn’t-be-optional lemon wedge.

Seasoning was also a problem in the fire-roasted jalapeño poppers ($8), stuffed with a cream cheese mixture and drizzled with honey. Lacking anything even resembling peppery heat, these were crunchy and a little bit smoky, but mostly just forgettably bland. Curiously, the best thing on the plate was its garnish, a finely-sliced red cabbage and carrot slaw, tossed with a sparklingly lemony vinaigrette – easily good enough to hold its own as a stand-alone menu item.

Fortunately, the crispy browned, broiled buffalo cauliflower ($7) was better, packing a decent amount of the heat promised in its name, offset well by a creamy, but not overwhelming, gorgonzola sauce. It was especially good eaten between bites of the restaurant’s house-made, Northern cornbread: sweet and a little springy, with the tight crumb of a wheat-and-cornmeal quick bread, and served as part of the bread service.

When our server told us that the cornbread was one of her two favorite items at the restaurant, I understood why. The other – a generous trifle ($8) made with crushed Oreo cookies, a cream made from peanut butter and whipped cream cheese, and messy lashings of chocolate syrup – she assembled herself, then delivered to our table. It was, as she had described, satisfying and a little salty: “just what you expect but a little different.”

That same description could easily apply to the Corner Burger ($13), as well. With a ground chuck patty and a brioche bun, it resembles a typical pub hamburger, but Marzilli deploys his slaw skills here again, replacing traditional vegetable toppings with a marinated lettuce-tomato-pickle slaw, an addition that gives the burger a tangy complexity – not to mention a super sloppy footprint on your plate, table and lap.

Steak fries at Owl & Elm.

Steak fries at Owl & Elm. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The kitchen uses the same cut of beef in its steak fries ($12), a rectangular plate of crisp, golden, well-seasoned French fries, bisected by a chunky line of luxuriously tender, slightly sweet slow-braised chuck. “We cook it low and slow with honey, ketchup and Coke. Put it in the oven and let it go until it just pulls apart with tongs. It takes all day,” Marzilli said. No matter what those familiar ingredients might suggest, this is the opposite of fast food – the sort of dish ideal for savoring alongside a pint of local lager, and just maybe a first step toward rehabilitating the reputation of pub grub.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant.

Contact him at or on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

]]> 0 Owl + Elm, 365 Main St., Yarmouth, is a family-friendly pub that's popular with locals.Sun, 08 Jan 2017 17:04:22 +0000
Eight Maine restaurants earned 4 stars from food critic Andrew Ross in 2016 Wed, 28 Dec 2016 09:00:21 +0000 0 poached lobster tail.Tue, 03 Jan 2017 09:14:59 +0000 Maine’s 16 most memorable places to eat in 2016, from burgers to octopus Wed, 28 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 One of the things that gives me the holiday blues is when I pick up a magazine to read its “Best Restaurants of the Year” edition, only to discover that what they really mean to say is “the best restaurants that opened this year.” I don’t believe that new automatically means good. So this is not that kind of list.

What follows are my top picks in several categories that reflect what I saw, smelled and tasted over the past calendar year in Maine. Some come from fine dining, and some from little takeaway spots across the state. But all of them represent food memories that have stuck with me – some of which I hope will linger far beyond the closing hours of 2016.

The marinated bluefish at the Drifter's Wife, 63 Washington Ave., Portland.

The marinated bluefish at the Drifter’s Wife, 63 Washington Ave., Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Best restaurant

Drifter’s Wife, Portland. Inspired by their passion for natural wines, Peter and Orenda Hale have created something unique in a bright, yet cozy storefront in the former Nissen Bakery building. It started with their wine shop, Maine & Loire, at the back of the space. Then, this year, they launched the second phase of their project: Drifters Wife, a wine bar with a broad, but discerningly composed list of many of those same natural wines, available by the bottle or glass.

What makes Drifters Wife unusual is that it possess two equally admirable strengths: its wine and its food. The fulcrum of this balance is chef Ben Jackson’s extraordinary skills with a few induction burners and a small oven, from which he produces some of the most captivating dishes I have eaten in Maine. Like glistening and flaky hake with hardy, housemade sauerkraut, parsnip puree and salted hake, all based on a flavor profile inspired by Hungarian hangover remedies. Or beef tongue that has been marinated in a spice bath for 24 hours, cooked low and slow until it just barely holds together, then sliced thinly, on the bias, and served in its own concentrated broth with bitter puntarelle greens and farro.

It is also impossible to get tired of dining at Drifters Wife. It re-introduces itself anew with each visit, thanks to an evolving wine list and a menu that changes every week, and sometimes even every day. If you haven’t been yet, go.

"The food we serve here at The Lost Kitchen reflects me and reflects this part of Maine," chef-owner Erin French says.

“The food we serve here at The Lost Kitchen reflects me and reflects this part of Maine,” chef-owner Erin French says. Courtesy photo

Best single meal I ate

The Lost Kitchen, Freedom. In a converted mill, off the beaten path in Freedom, Maine, chef Erin French makes magic for 40 people a night. After you have bought a bottle of wine downstairs, at the shop run by her mother, a team of servers and French, herself (there is little distinction here between front-of-house and back-of-house) deliver simple, seasonal appetizers like delicately salted late autumn baby carrots and glossy grilled sourdough bread slices to each table.

Everyone in the dining room eats at the same time, after French stands at the threshold of the dining room, clinks a wine glass and, like a kitchen griot, shares the story of the evening’s menu – a menu that changes by the day. The atmosphere and communal, personal service makes you feel like a guest at a dinner party, but one with superlative food, like a delicate carrot soup poured at the table around three loose, steaming mussels, an insanely decadent fried, confited duck leg that practically volunteered itself off the bone, and seared scallops with thick, savory, almost polenta-like parsnip puree. At $95 per person before wine, tax, and tip, it is not cheap to eat at The Lost Kitchen, but it is worth every dollar and every minute on the road to get there.

HONORABLE MENTION: A carbohydrate-fest of a breakfast at Palace Diner in Biddeford that included their nearly weightless, lemony flapjacks and a slice of salted brown butter banana bread.

Best single dish I ate

Octopus a la plancha with “Purgatory” beans, kale stew and sage oil at Primo in Rockland. It probably helps that I ate this as part of a reunion meal with a good friend, in a toasty warm dining room, on one of the coldest nights of the year. But there is no denying that chef/co-owner Melissa Kelly knows how to grill seafood as well as any Iberian, and knows how to pair it with exactly the right accompaniment – even if it is Italian. In this case, a thick, Laziale stew of tiny white beans and kale, simmered with bay leaves and sage.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Hardwood-smoked, spice-rubbed barbecue spare ribs at Hot Suppa! in Portland, and deceptively plain-looking, but floridly complex and spicy khao mun gai at Thai Esaan in Portland.

Trays full of freshly made pastries at Ten Ten Pié on Cumberland Avenue in Portland.

Trays full of freshly made pastries at Ten Ten Pié on Cumberland Avenue in Portland. Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Best baked good

Korvapuusti from Ten Ten Pié in Portland. Atsuko Fujimoto is an ultra-competent baker who creates superlative versions of just about everything she attempts, from sesame-sprinkled hamburger buns, to macarons, to hand pies. But my favorite of all the wonderful things she has baked this year is her version of korvapuusti, Finnish cinnamon rolls, with golden, cardamom-scented dough scrolled around a sweet, buttery cinnamon filling, and sprinkled on top with crunchy white pearl sugar.

HONORABLE MENTION: Yarmouth-based Night Moves Bread + Pie’s malty and moist country sourdough, made from local wheat and fresh-milled rye (available at The Farm Stand in South Portland).

Best cocktail

Owner and head bartender Nathaniel (Nan’l) Meiklejohn’s noir-themed L.A. Story at The Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box in Portland. It’s a dark cocktail with rye, cardamaro, walnut liqueur, sherry and intensely bitter Elisir Novasalus that gives the drink a bite alongside some herbal sweetness.

HONORABLE MENTION: Portland Hunt & Alpine Club’s Roman Stinger, made with dry vermouth, Campari, lime and agave syrup.

Biggest shock closing

The Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick. We’ve heard of going out on top, but this is ridiculous. Just shy of a month after garnering praise from Food & Wine magazine, as well as a well-deserved four-star review in this paper, Ben Goldman and his team shuttered the farmhouse restaurant for good.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Rossobianco in Portland. Almost exactly three months after opening, Vinland’s David Levi seemed to have all the kinks ironed out in his modern Italian restaurant on Bramhall Square, when he suddenly pulled the plug to reboot the business. Levi plans to open a newly named restaurant in the same space this February. Waterman’s Beach Lobster in South Thomaston. After 30 years and a James Beard award, we’re very sad to see the Manahan sisters retire.

Biggest disappointment

When it opened this summer inside a historic brick-and-granite building known as the castle in Deering Oaks park, Tiqa Café & Bakery was perfectly positioned to become part of the Saturday experience of visiting the Portland Farmers’ Market: Spend an hour shopping for flowers and tomatoes, and when your feet start to hurt (or when you’re loaded down like a burro with berries and basil), walk to the end of the market for a sandwich or dessert. But Tiqa rapidly became a victim of its own success. Crisis-level understaffing led to interminable wait times for food – I stood for nearly 40 minutes one Saturday, waiting for a cashier to remove a slice of baklava from a case and put it on a plate.

Bosque Negro, a triple chocolate brownie dessert with charred vanilla ice cream and pickled cherries at Local 188 restaurant.

Bosque Negro, a triple chocolate brownie dessert with charred vanilla ice cream and pickled cherries at Local 188 restaurant. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Best dessert

The Bosque Negro at Local 188 in Portland, with its sweet-savory combo of a triple chocolate brownie, charred vanilla ice cream and puckery pickled cherries. Pat Tubbs’s festive, painterly presentation makes this dish look like something right from Señor Guillermo Wonka’s factory.

HONORABLE MENTION: The Caprese gelato at Solo Italiano in Portland – an after-dinner take on a sweet, tre colore salad, with one scoop of aromatic basil gelato and one scoop of berry-sweet tomato sorbetto, all tied together with fresh whipped cream in place of mozzarella.

Best side dish

(TIE) Brussels sprouts with tangy fish sauce vinaigrette from Pai Men Miyake in Portland. Tunisian carrot puree with cumin and lemon from Lolita in Portland.

Best lunch

(TIE) A warming bowl of Hakata-style ramen from Suzukiya in Portland, the charred escarole with almond vinaigrette (technically an appetizer, but large enough to eat on its own) from East Ender in Portland.

HONORABLE MENTION: A bento box from Ten Ten Pié in Portland, especially if it comes with the extraordinary shiso-flavored potato salad.


Best pizza

The thick, puffy take on Sicilian pizza at Slab in Portland.

HONORABLE MENTION: Rose’s Italian Restaurant in Windham.

Best burger

The rapturously messy Dirigo Burger, served on a housemade potato roll from Dirigo Public House in Yarmouth.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Standard Gastropub in Bridgton, Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland and the Palace Diner in Biddeford.

Best spot for a romantic dinner

(TIE) Piccolo in Portland, Salt in Vinalhaven.

Best lobster roll (high season)

Bite Into Maine in Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth.

Best lobster roll (year-round)

Eventide in Portland.

Best place to wander if you’re not sure what you want to eat

It’s still not much to look at, but you’re bound to find something tempting on Washington Avenue in Portland, where in quick succession, you’ll encounter a diverse array of excellent dining options from traditional Eritrean and Ethiopian stews at Red Sea, vegetarian-friendly comfort food at Silly’s with a Twist, small-batch barbecue at Terlingua, updated and upgraded red sauce classics at Roustabout, refined bistro food and natural wine at Drifters Wife, and, if you’d rather sip your meal, a smoothie from Flying Fox Juice Bar.

Andrew Ross writes the Dine Out Maine column that runs each week in the Audience section of the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at and on Twitter @AndrewRossME. Find this story online to see which restaurants Ross gave four stars in 2016.


]]> 0 Negro, a triple chocolate brownie dessert with charred vanilla ice cream and pickled cherries at Local 188 restaurant.Thu, 10 Aug 2017 06:19:15 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Big J’s gets Mainers fired up about fried chicken Sun, 25 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Hot chicken is having a moment – and not an entirely uncomplicated one. Without much advance notice, the spicy, cayenne-blasted take on fried chicken went from regional Tennessee specialty to national phenomenon, all in the span of a year or two.

But you cannot talk about a dish that got its start almost a century ago in Nashville’s segregated, African-American neighborhoods without acknowledging that many of us are arriving very late to the hot chicken party, and that decades of institutionalized racism is part of the reason.

It may be an uncomfortable thing to confront, but it’s important, because sometimes, foods commonly viewed as discoveries have actually been hiding in plain sight for years. (I’m looking at you, pho, hummus and quinoa, just to name a few.) Don’t forget, too, that 2016 kicked off with Beyonce’s proud announcement that she’s got hot sauce in her bag (swag), so it feels as if there is something inescapable about Nashville-style hot chicken finally getting its long-overdue turn in the spotlight.

In Portland, we have Jason Loring, chef and owner of Big J’s Chicken Shack, to thank for giving the dish a star turn on the menu of his new Thompson’s Point restaurant. Bookended by Stroudwater Distillery and Bissell Brothers Brewing, the space features just a few long, communal, wood-and-chrome tables abutting a feature wall made up of wood planks and corrugated metal. Between those details and the subway-tiled wall by the register where you order your meal, it’s an acoustically bouncy room that gets noisy when it is crowded.

But really, you’re not supposed to treat that space like a traditional dining room. Loring’s plan (and that of his neighbors) has always been to encourage diners to use the distillery and brewery as their home base, with Big J’s as a conveniently located source of snacks. “We’re not really a full-service restaurant. People get confused, but that’s just supposed to be a waiting area,” he explained.

At both other businesses, as well as at Cellardoor Winery, servers will take orders for food from Big J’s and deliver it to your table along with your beverage. This works well both in theory and practice, with one notable exception: I consider myself a pretty lenient grownup, but even I would think twice before taking a child for a meal in a distillery.

If I did have a little one in tow, I would very likely head directly for Big J’s version of the modern child’s perfect food: chicken tenders. Like all the chicken at the restaurant, except for the panko-crusted cutlet on the delightful Mugsy’s Friend Cat-su sandwich ($7), the chicken tenders can be ordered in three styles: traditional, Portland Hot and Nashville Hot. The traditional-style tenders were coated in a lively, peppery breading that delivered great crunch, with an irregular surface that seemed precision-engineered to absorb the funky, tangy coconut sweet and sour dipping sauce. Disappointingly, the breast meat inside was dry, cooked just a bit too long.

Tenders or a grilled chicken breast also come with Big J’s salads, such as the Asian Cobb ($11), a colorful, mostly Japanese remix of the classic chopped salad, featuring avocado, bacon, wasabi peas and a soy-tinted hard-boiled egg. The salad comes with a creamy garlic dressing slicked reddish orange with crispy chili sauce, making this Cobb substantial and satisfying, not the passive-aggressive effort at a salad you might expect from a fried chicken shack.

Other sides range in quality from overcooked and chewy thick-cut sweet potato fries ($4), to one of the single best items on the menu: a creamy, curry-flavored slaw made from shaved Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, raisins and apples ($4 small/$7 large) – good enough on its own to make a vegetarian happy to join you for dinner.

All the same, Big J’s is really all about hot chicken. Perhaps the best way to try it is by ordering a Single Wide assortment ($16), with four pieces of chicken (two dark and two white meat).

My dinner guests opted for two pieces prepared Portland Hot-style, and two prepared Nashville Hot-style. While the menu describes the Portland Hot as “a toned down version of the Nashville Hot,” which is purportedly so hot that it is served with a rubber glove, the two are distinct in flavor, texture and appearance – more like third cousins than siblings.

Both versions are fried with a sweet, formidably crunchy crust that comes off the meat in large pieces, like a suit of plate armor. No matter how different this may sound from your idea of what fried chicken should be, a heavy-duty crust is not a bad thing. First, it protects the chicken inside, which regardless of style, we found to be moist, steaming hot and fully cooked. Second, it creates a crisp shell that can withstand sitting out for quite a long time without going soggy. Loring calls it “indestructible.”

He and his senior staff, Rebecca Ambrosi-Riker and Frank Anderson, designed their recipe to blend flavors from Southern fried chicken with the muscular structure of Korean fried chicken. They certainly got the texture right, because three hours and a cool-down in the refrigerator after my visit, the Portland Hot thigh I took home paradoxically tasted even crunchier than it did in the restaurant.

Still, the sweet, sticky, almost candy-like coating – much more Pusan than Portland – is unexpected. “The first time I ate here,” a fellow diner collecting a take-out order said, “I didn’t know what I was eating. But I keep coming back.”

Just as surprising, but for completely different reasons, is the scarlet-and-brown Nashville Hot. The spice blend – heavy on the cayenne, chili powder and garlic, and basted onto the chicken with lard and brown sugar – finds its way onto every soft surface of your mouth in a microsecond. Taking your first bite is like getting stung in the mouth by a scorpion.

The accompanying rubber glove (which I did not receive with my order) should provide a hint as to the intensity of the fiery assault, but a quick look around at other patrons reveals that there are still people who feel ambushed by the level of spice. They are the ones patting their brows with napkins and coughing as the Scoville units ratchet up in the backs of their throats.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that Nashville-style chicken is all about daredevil dining; after your mouth acclimates to the peppery heat, other layers emerge – salt, umami and rich golden amino flavors. Each subsequent bite is a little less about fire, and a little more about giving in to a seductive complexity that keeps you eating long after your lips are numb and your fingers stained orange.

If you need something to cut the heat, starch helps. The chicken boxes are served with either Robinhood Meetinghouse cheddar chive biscuits or sliced white bread, and it’s hard to recommend one over the other, because the square-cut biscuits (also available in a box of two for $4) tasted fine, but were too dense and undercooked in the center.

Another option is to order your hot chicken as part of the chicken and waffles ($11). Here, an aromatic and lemony whipped citrus herb butter and Maine maple syrup are served with weird and wonderful Hong Kong-style waffles, with thin, lacy edges and a honeycomb pattern of puffy, half-walnut sized “bubbles.”

While these waffles don’t hold syrup well (there’s nowhere for it to nestle), they taste fantastic, with almost no sugar at all, which allows them to cut the sweetness of the Portland Hot. They also give your tongue a little respite from the fire of the Nashville Hot chicken – a dish that will keep enticing you back to Thompson’s Point with its tractor beam of pleasure and pain, even if you, like much of the world, never knew it existed until now.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0, 24 Dec 2016 19:10:16 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Ramen is the wet noodle in Pai Men Miyake’s line-up Sun, 18 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Let’s get the bad news out of the way at the beginning: Odds are good that you will wait for a table at Portland’s Pai Men Miyake, especially on a weekend evening. Yes, even now, in the middle of the off-season – when the only tourists you’ll see are lost ones.

If you visit the Japanese noodle bar during the earliest hours of the dinner service, you might luck out and score one of the few flexible four-tops in the open-plan dining room. Otherwise, the first available seat will probably be at the bar overlooking the kitchen, underneath a sharp steel sculpture that recalls the interior of a wind turbine.

It’s a testament to Pai Men’s consistency that it still pulls in crowds six years after it opened on the edge of the West End neighborhood. The space has also not lost a single volt of its electric (and hectic) atmosphere, which on a busy night means that it can be noisy. Indeed, between a room full of diners and a highly amplified soundtrack (usually old-school hip-hop or ’70s R&B), the room can feel like equal parts restaurant and bar, where nearly everyone seems to be enjoying a glass of sake, beer or wine.

On a recent visit, my dinner guests and I were no exception, and took advantage of Pai Men’s selection of local beers on tap. The night’s standout was Allagash Brewing Company’s James Bean ($7.50), a Belgian-style strong ale infused with cold press coffee, full of caramel, oak and toast aromas. This was a remarkable pour, and one that stood up well to strong flavors, like char on the deeply savory and minty Brussels sprouts ($8), seasoned with fish sauce and vinegar and served blastingly hot, straight from the fryer.

It was also a great match for the pork buns ($9). These folded, palm-sized rounds of house-made dough were steamed, then squirted with spicy gochujang mayonnaise and filled with a seared, horseshoe-shaped slice of pork belly. So far, so fatty and delightful. But the buns were topped with a green pepper relish that was jarringly cold – the temperature of a granita – as if it had just come from the freezer. And really, nobody likes icy buns.

Fortunately, the off-temperature relish was the only significant misstep among all the small plates we sampled, including tortelloni-like sui gyoza ($7), chicken dumplings served in a light shoyu (soy sauce) broth that, like a fortifying bouillon, thrummed with chicken flavor. Or the Maine crabmeat sushi roll ($16), stuffed with local, fresh-picked crabmeat (no surimi here), swabbed liberally with an almost nutty-tasting broiled mayonnaise glaze and wrapped in soy paper with black sesame polka dots. On top, little pyramids of tobiko caviar gave each bite a delicate crunch, like biting down on microscopic bubble wrap. It, like nearly all the other small plates at Pai Men Miyake, was top-notch.

In truth, the small plates are so good that it’s tempting to skip the restaurant’s signature noodles and make a meal of starters. Full disclosure: On previous visits, I have done exactly that, rounding out my meal not with ramen, but with a serving of the creamy hamayaki ($11), a scallop shell filled with sweet Kewpie mayonnaise-dressed crab and chopped scallops that had been broiled until it brown and bubbling. Slick with truffle oil and eel sauce, it is funky and rich, not to mention deceptively filling.

But sometimes, a hankering for noodles is impossible to ignore. It’s what got chef and owner Masa Miyake into the ramen business in Portland in the first place. “When I first opened, I wanted there to be ramen in Portland because it didn’t exist here then, and because I wanted to eat ramen!” he said, speaking with me and Miyake assistant manager Stephanie Goodrich. “If you go to Japan and there’s no pizza, and you want pizza, what do you do? You open a pizza place.”

Apart from satisfying his own cravings, there is also an evangelical aspect to Masa Miyake’s work at Pai Men. He wants to make Mainers love ramen as much as he does. That work starts with broth.

The restaurant offers several varieties, ranging from “assari,” the same light soy-based broth used for the sui gyoza, to ultra-rich, almost opaque “kotteri” bone broths like the one that forms the foundation of the Paitan ramen ($12) – a concoction that simmers slowly for nearly 24 hours before it can be used. Far and away the best of the ramen broths, it is a hypnotic distillation of pure chicken flavor; a single drop on your tongue is enough to trigger flashbacks of rotisserie birds pirouetting through your memory banks.

In each bowl of Paitan ramen, the kitchen serves half a mirin, sake and soy-marinated egg; shreds of sharp, pickled ginger the color of a candy apple; finely sliced scallions, and springy wheat noodles that the restaurant special-orders from a noodle maker.

In this and the seafood-based miso ramen ($11.50), there are also thick, horseshoe-shaped slices of hard-seared pork belly, not the more common, pale and melting chashu pork with just a little color around the edges. Extra crispness makes the pork belly feel like more of a focal point in the dish, which jibes with an observation made almost six years ago to the day by our then reviewer, when she scored Pai Men Miyake four stars and described its menu as both “meat-happy” and particularly suited to wintertime dining.

The same could be said of the Kimchi beef ramen ($14), served with well-cooked, curly ramen, and a tender, yielding braised short rib. The mellow beef broth, on the other hand, was dilute and unresolved. Worse, very few slices of kimchi graced this dish, which translated to a largely bland bowl of ramen – not what you might expect from its description.

Paitan ramen.

Paitan ramen.

There was plenty of flavor in the Tokyo Abura ($12), a carbonara-like, broth-free ramen served with charred cabbage and carrots, along with a single raw egg yolk that you pierce with your chopsticks and mix in to the noodles, allowing all the toppings – like chewy wakame seaweed and “menma,” fermented bamboo shoots – to adhere as you eat. The dish had a magnificent spicy heat, but eating it quickly turned into a chore, thanks to undercooked noodles, some of which had been boiled so little that they retained their chalky core. It’s hard to know what to make of a ramen restaurant whose best dishes have nothing to do with noodles.

What’s more, Pai Men is no longer the only game in town. These days, excellent ramen – made with fresh, house-made noodles – is served at Suzukiya on the very same street. But that doesn’t seem to worry Masa Miyake at all: “Competition means that ramen gets more popular. Competition brings us more customers. You always need competition or there’s no way to grow,” he said.

Perhaps he is right, and Pai Men’s rivals will drive the restaurant to make the small changes necessary to bring the quality of its ramen up to match the high bar set by the small plates and sushi. Or it may be that, sometime in the not-so-distant future, you’ll be able to score a table on a Saturday night with no problem at all.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 Woods, left, and Sam Malone, both of Portland, chat as they wait for their meal.Mon, 19 Dec 2016 10:51:41 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Hot Suppa! serves 4-star ‘pan-Southern’ food in Maine (of all places) Sun, 11 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 As a child, I lived in the South for several years. Uprooted from New England, I ultimately never felt at home below the Mason-Dixon line, never fully embraced the stifling summer humidity, the snakes or the red clay. When the time came, I could not wait to leave. But to this day, I love returning to visit, especially because there is one thing I did fall hard for: the food.

Every once in a while, I’ll get lucky and run across grits or Lane Cake on a menu in the Northeast, but up here, it’s generally pretty difficult to find a non-barbecue restaurant that specializes in cooking from the South. Moses Sabina – himself a Yankee with college ties to Tennessee – spotted the same situation when he and his brother decided to open a restaurant in Maine a little over a decade ago.

“In Portland, Southern food is a little bit of a niche,” he said. “But it’s something I knew and I liked. There’s a feeling like being at a backyard party in the South where everybody has brought something to eat, and they end up talking about their recipes for hours. I wanted to share that with people up here the way that people shared it with me.”

During its first several years, Hot Suppa! rolled out its version of Southern hospitality only during the daytime – in the process building a reputation as one of the area’s top breakfast and brunch destinations. Purely by accident, that focus turned out to be what helped them weather the storm of the financial downturn, when diners across the country shifted their dollars to earlier, less expensive meals.

But dinner was always the objective. “People used to hound us to be open for dinner. Then, when we did it in 2010, we felt a little bamboozled, because it was really slow for the first couple of years. But since then, it has come into its own,” Sabina said.

Chalk that up, in part, to a smart, Southern-inspired cocktail list that isn’t doctrinaire about traditional recipes. A little license is taken in an excellent Sazerac ($8.50) that uses a liquoricey Pernod wash instead of absinthe, and a little more in the Firefly Half-and-Half ($8), an alcoholic take on the Arnold Palmer, made with sweet tea-infused vodka and freshly pressed lemonade.

Then there are complete reinventions, like the New Fashioned ($9), a gloss on the simple sugar-and-bourbon Old Fashioned, with muddled oranges and lemons for tartness and sweetness and served with liqueur-infused cherries that, six years ago, our then reviewer raved about in her 31/2 star review of Hot Suppa! Apart from the lemon seeds I got in my first mouthful of the drink, it was a pleasure to sip, with just enough acid to make it work as a complement to the meal – something that too-sweet or too-boozy cocktails just don’t do well.

In particular, it was exactly the sort of refreshing pairing necessary for a Flintstones-sized appetizer plate of barbecue pork spare ribs ($13), served with pickled watermelon rind and two sauces: a decent honey-chipotle sauce, and a glorious South Carolina BBQ sauce that was arch and complex, backgrounded by bacon fat and molasses.

Apologies to the saucier, but the spare ribs needed neither condiment. Because they were first coated in brown sugar to make the spices stick, then rubbed with cayenne, cumin, coriander and ground fennel before being smoked on hardwood, they retained more than enough flavor on their own. Best of all, the ribs were cooked to the point where the interior was tender, with rose pink meat that could be coaxed off the bone with nothing more than a nasty look.

So too, the moist, buttermilk-battered, sweet tea-brined chicken served as part of a plate of chicken and waffles ($17), a dish that our server – after putting both hands on the table to emphasize the importance of what she was about to say – opined was “so good that you’ll be sorry later if you don’t order it.” It was easy to see what she meant. Not only was the chicken peppery and crisp, but its perfect partner, the waffle, was light, faintly sweet and (this is a sincere compliment) a nearly identical copy of one you might taste at a famous Southern diner chain.

Appetizer plate of barbecue pork spare ribs.

Appetizer plate of barbecue pork spare ribs. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer) Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer


She also suggested we try one of the evening’s specials, a superb cup of gumbo ($8). Brimming with smoky andouille sausage, oysters, shrimp and teensy crawfish tails, it packed a punchy but pleasant heat. Despite its coffee-like color, this was also a light, brothy gumbo, not over-thickened with flour and earthy, herbal filé – a combo that can make gumbo gloppy. “I like a thinner gumbo. Cajuns in west Louisiana like their broth dark and thin, so I did it that style by leaving out the filé and going darker with the roux,” Sabina said.

Still, we ran into a few minor miscues with side dishes: The collards ($3) were earthy, mineral and full of smokiness from ham hocks, but a little too watery. Similarly, the yellow-eye baked beans ($3.50) were infused with meaty flavor from salt pork and cooked to give them just the slightest bite, yet a little too sweet. But then, a piece of exceedingly good cornbread ($3) turned things around.

Hot Suppa!’s cornbread is baked in a cast iron pan and served in wedges – with both of the cut sides grilled in butter – yielding a slice that is caramel brown everywhere you look. That is, until you open it up with a knife (or your teeth) and it reveals its steamy, lush pale yellow interior. This is an itinerant, military brat cornbread that seems to steal its defining characteristics from travels around the country: a very slight sweetness that evokes distant memories of Northern foodways, and the close but still crumbly texture of Southern cornbread made with absolutely no flour.

No wheat flour also means that the cornbread is gluten-free, just like the buttermilk pie ($6) with apple-cinnamon glaze. By far the best part of this dessert was the filling: a slightly cakey thick custard, almost the consistency of a baked cheesecake, with a rich sweetness and just a tad too much nutmeg. But the crust (which gave away no hint that it was gluten-free as I was eating it) was light, buttery and flaky.

The Hot Cat is a cornmeal-crusted fillet of fried catfish.

The Hot Cat is a cornmeal-crusted fillet of fried catfish. (Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

If you’re so inclined, it turns out to be remarkably easy to avoid wheat at Hot Suppa! That’s even true of the best dish of the meal, the Hot Cat ($17), a cornmeal-crusted fillet of fried catfish, served in a pool of very loose, creamy grits (in a style reminiscent of a savory Chinese congee) and topped with a few thin slices of practically every pepper you can imagine. Jalapeño, banana, cubanelle, Anaheim, Fresno, serrano, poblano – they’re all part of this Noah’s Ark of a dish, delivering “lots of different pops of heat as you eat, so that you get a different bite every time,” Sabina said. None is really fiery enough to justify the dish’s name, but that doesn’t matter; the dish is still a delight. I might have eaten it while sitting in a booth in an exposed-brick room with a gilt inlay ceiling – not in a lawn chair at a backyard shindig a thousand miles down the coast – but the first few bites of Hot Cat made me think back fondly to my favorite Southern dishes and then do exactly what Moses Sabina wanted me to do all along: I asked about the recipe.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at and on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

]]> 0 Hot Cat is a cornmeal-crusted fillet of fried catfish.Tue, 27 Dec 2016 11:15:49 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Find classic red-sauce cuisine at Rose’s Italian in Windham Sun, 04 Dec 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Weaknesses come in all shapes and sizes. One of my biggest is an inability to turn down a meal at a red sauce joint. My fondness for Italian-American food probably has roots that Freud would love to explore – especially since neither side of my family is Italian. If I had to guess, I’d venture that some of my attraction comes from the cuisine’s unusual status as a true hybrid, and a fairly equal one.

Think about it: Without tomatoes and peppers (not to mention winter-hardy wheat) from the Americas, combined with medieval Italian olive oil and cheesemaking traditions, even a simple bowl of spaghetti in marinara sauce would be impossible. Red sauce Italian gets a lot of criticism for being a culinary mongrel that neither country wants to own, but when it’s done well, it shows how special a flavor-driven, mix-and-match approach can be.

With my proclivities in mind, you might imagine that Rose’s Italian in Windham, a place sometimes referred to as Rose’s Old World Italian Restaurant, would be irresistible to me – and you’d be right. I walked in looking for a hunched Italian nonna in a shapeless black dress and head scarf. But Rose doesn’t live here anymore. Fourteen years ago, after running the restaurant for the better part of a decade, she sold the establishment to one of her chefs, Redi Dede. While he changed up the menu in response to customer suggestions and tweaked its interior, Dede retained the restaurant’s name in honor of his former boss.

Rose’s menu covers conventional red sauce territory from veal Marsala ($18) to mozzarella-topped garlic bread ($4.50), and thanks to the restaurant’s brick oven – a 900-degrees-Fahrenheit, wood-fired colossus that devours two cords of wood every month – a list of pies longer than what you’ll find at some pizzerias.

Justin Lakin works a pizza dough.

Justin Lakin works a pizza dough. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

“Making pizza in that thing…it is really an art unto itself. Things burn really quick, so you have to think a lot and pay close attention,” Dede said. “But the skill comes with age.” He and his team use that hard-won expertise with the white-hot oven to great effect, producing pizzas – like a garlic pie ($9.95 small, $12.95 large) we ate as an appetizer – that are crisp, covered in blistering bubbles of sauce and browned cheese, and with just enough char to add smoky flavor without tasting burned. The high temperature also creates an Einstein’s paradox where your pizzas seem to arrive at your table practically before you have finished ordering them.

Alongside the pizza, as well as any entrée you order, Rose’s serves a house salad with loads of thick-cut chunks of cucumber, unseasonably good tomatoes, sliced black olives and shaved red onion, all dressed in an inoffensive, neutral vinaigrette. I’ll admit that I expected a sloppy, all-iceberg salad when I saw our server set down chintzy woven wood bowls, the sort that you might remember from your youth, or from watching 1980s movies featuring teens playing Pac Man. But I was happily surprised by a salad that was worth eating – if perhaps not worth ordering off the menu.

The salad, and especially those bowls, also suit the retro atmosphere of the restaurant perfectly, with its naugahyde booths and low-pile, wall-to-wall dining room carpet. All the red sauce, family restaurant signs and signifiers are here, down to a doily-lined dessert tray of outsourced, Saran-wrapped pies and cakes (all $6), as well as shakers of Parmesan cheese on the table. So even if you have never been to Rose’s before, it feels immediately familiar.

Much of the menu produces the same impression, especially the classics, like meat lasagna ($15), made up of layers of uncased sweet sausage, ground beef, bechamel, ricotta and plenty of mozzarella and marinara to top it all off. Be warned: only those with Olympic appetites (and a very high tolerance for salt) will be able to get through the outsized portion. Even then, it might be hard to get past the rustic plating that made the dish resemble a melted print of Leighton’s Flaming June.

The Ziti al Ferro was colorful and appealing.

The Ziti al Ferro was colorful and appealing. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

On the other hand, Ziti al Ferro ($20), with moist pieces of chicken, sausage, broccoli, tomatoes and shrimp, all sautéed with white wine and served over ziti, was colorful and appealing, if a little undersalted. And while the dish did include, as Dede described it, “a big, manly amount of meat,” its vegetables and clear, garlicky sauce made it seem unintentionally lighter than many of Rose’s tomato-and-cheese-based dishes.

Not that lightness should be the goal. After all, who goes to an Italian-American restaurant looking for anything other than comfort food, and maybe even leftovers to cover the following day’s lunch? Had I wanted to, I could have made two or three more meals from my Pollo San Lorenzo ($19) – an Italian-American culinary supergroup on the order of the Foo Fighters or The Three Tenors – consisting of marinara-and-mozzarella topped chicken Parmesan, jumbo four-cheese ravioli, and either a meatball or Italian sausage.

“I was making lunch one day and decided I didn’t want a big helping of pasta. I wanted ravioli, but I wanted some meat with it. So I put them all on a plate, and when one of my customers walked by and said, ‘I really want one of those!’ we put it on the menu to see if it sold. It did,” Dede explained.

Apart from the perfectly average ravioli, the dish’s two other components were marvelous on their own: the pounded, breaded, deep-fried chicken cutlet that remained crisp outside and miraculously juicy inside, and the chubby Italian beef sausage, full of fennel, sage and basil. Joined together in three-part harmony with a generous slathering of super-chunky marinara, the dish became much greater than that sum of its parts.

Perhaps it was invented by happy accident, but Pollo San Lorenzo stays true to the central concept of Italian-American cuisine: juxtaposing elements purely in the interest of flavor. “I named it after a small celebration in Italy, because it’s a little of everything: chicken Parm, ravioli, meat. It’s like a little Italian festival on a plate,” Dede said. I never would have guessed by looking at the menu, but Dede is onto something: his triptych of a dish is really a red sauce party. Consider this your invitation.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at and on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

]]> 0 and owner Redi Dede garnishes plates for serving.Sun, 04 Dec 2016 14:44:51 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Yarmouth’s Dirigo Public House embraces the local, the distant Sun, 27 Nov 2016 09:00:00 +0000 More and more, Maine restaurants seem to be narrowing their focus, so that anything that isn’t local is pushed off into the periphery of their field of view. In general, that is a wonderful thing. It’s part of a movement that has reduced food miles and built important, intimate links among growers, producers, craftspeople and the places where people eat, and it isn’t likely to change soon. But defiant little Dirigo Public House in Yarmouth has consciously dedicated itself to something that seems pretty radical in this environment: a wider perspective.

With a beer, mead and cider list that covers ground ranging from Belfast, Maine to Weihenstephan, Germany, the box-like restaurant just off Route 1 flaunts its promiscuous affections for beverages from nearby as well as those “from away.”

“Everybody’s got really good craft beer in so many places these days, and I want to expose people to it,” said Ben Grant, Dirigo’s co-owner. “There are something like 300 new breweries opening every year in North America alone. It’s a constant wave of exciting beer, and you have to ride the break, because if you fall behind, you might miss the fun stuff.”

To keep current, Grant spends time every day researching what’s new in craft beer, and changes up the beverage menu frequently. By the bottle, you’ll find a piney Smuttynose Shoals Pale Ale ($4) from New Hampshire, full of punchy hops and malty aromas. On a recent visit, one of the featured beers on tap was a terrific Boom Sauce IPA ($5) from Lord Hobo Brewing in Massachusetts, with a gentle bitterness, juicy citrus and tropical fruit – a dangerous flavor profile that masks a 7.8% alcohol content a bit too well. Drink more than a pint, and you’ll need a ride home. Drink three, and you won’t be riding with me.

Their broad view of craft brewing does not imply that Grant and his wife and co-owner, Katie, don’t care about Maine. The couple grew up in the area, and have found ways to honor their home state, both in the name of their restaurant – the state motto – as well as in the ingredients they use across their menu. One example is the Aroostook potatoes in the sensationally good, house-made sandwich rolls. The scaffolding for every sandwich on the menu, these enriched-dough buns have a brioche-like flavor, a gorgeous golden color and, thanks to the moisture-retaining properties of potato starch, are always tender.

You’ll also find potatoes – Ben Grant calls them “Maine’s most important agricultural product” – in the county nachos ($8), where in place of tortilla triangles, chef Chris McCollom and his team serve mandolin-cut wavy potato chips, mounded high with pickled jalapeños, onions, diced tomatoes and scallions. The pile is topped with a gooey, loose cheese sauce made from a béchamel base and Dirigo’s Cajun spice blend.

Unfortunately, substituting potatoes for tortillas creates problems. It’s difficult to keep a potato chip dry enough to withstand wet toppings, so the solution is to fry them to a coffee brown. Granted, some of that color comes from the high-sugar breed of potatoes Dirigo uses, but there’s no denying that the county nachos are fried substantially past golden. With the darker color and extra crunch comes an intense, nearly carbonized flavor that only half of our table enjoyed. And despite the trade-offs, after a few minutes on the table, all the chips had gone soggy and floppy anyway.

The restaurant’s twice-fried French fries were similarly a few shades too dark, not to mention undersalted. Much better were the red bliss potatoes served with the unpretentious steak tips ($15), a plain plate of cubed sirloin (cooked a step rarer than my guest requested), and broccoli florets. These weren’t steamed new potatoes, but roughed-up chunks resembling home fries that were seasoned well with the kitchen’s fry spice – far and away the best thing about the dish.

More ambitious dishes were hit-or-miss, like a panko-breaded fried chicken sandwich ($12), layered with shaved ham, Swiss cheese and two sauces: spicy buffalo and blue cheese dressing. This overcomplicated sandwich couldn’t decide if it wanted to riff playfully on chicken cordon bleu or buffalo wings, and was weaker for trying to do both at once.

Vegetarian food, according to Ben Grant, isn’t in Dirigo’s wheelhouse, so it’s hard to fault it for attempting to accommodate herbivorous patrons. But the falafel burger ($10) we tasted was hard and crusty around its perimeter and wet in the center. That’s a shame, because the falafel patty sang with parsley, garlic and cumin, and got even better when combined in a bite with the rich olive tapenade spread on the underside of the bun.

A Dirigo burger on one of the restaurant's highly regarded house-made sandwich rolls.

A Dirigo burger on one of the restaurant’s highly regarded house-made sandwich rolls.

Diners looking for lighter dishes should take heart, though. Dirigo offers a satisfying Caesar salad ($8) with exceptionally seasoned croutons that McCollom and his team make from loaves of their housemade potato bread, as well as a deceptively complex house salad ($9) that surprises with dried apricots and rough clusters of a super savory spiced almond brittle. If you’ve never thought about ordering something healthy in a pub, this salad is reason enough to reconsider, even if you plan to eat it along with an order of the restaurant’s fantastic (and fantastically sticky) cider-brined wings ($9 for 6 pieces, $14 for 10 pieces).

Soaked for hours in a cider brine infused with cinnamon sticks, orange and peppercorns, the chicken wings are first baked, then chilled and fried to order so that they’re moist inside and crispy outside – the ideal texture to soak up the sweet whiskey glaze, a concentrated reduction that uses three gallons of cider and a fifth of bourbon.

When our server (actually co-owner Katie Grant, who works the front-of-house three days every week) brought us an extra pile of napkins, we figured they were for those wings, but they proved just as useful for the sloppy and preposterously tasty Dirigo burger ($12). Made from house-ground sirloin and bottom round and slathered with Dirigo sauce – a puree of smoked onions and tomatoes that has been folded into a bacon-fat mayonnaise – this indulgent sandwich alone was worth the drive to Yarmouth.

It also made a pretty flawless match for a pint of the crisp Founders Brewing PC Pils ($5), a pale lager from Michigan with floral hops and a hint of green tea. In plenty of other craft-beer pubs in the area, that’s an interstate pairing that would be impossible.

“Just look at Allegash (Brewing Company). Maine is not their biggest market,” Ben Grant said. “That means people from other places get to love what they are doing. Why can’t we do the same? People should be able to appreciate good craft beers from everywhere. Why limit yourself?” After a few sips of Midwestern beer and a few bites of a burger served on a stellar Maine potato roll, I found it harder and harder to deny Dirigo’s central premise: that we can love both the local and “from away” at the same time – and if we’re lucky, maybe even in the same mouthful.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 1, 27 Dec 2016 14:47:55 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Hot pot at Portland’s Ginza Town makes for a cozy, communal winter meal Sun, 20 Nov 2016 09:00:00 +0000 If we take Tennyson at his word and buy his claim that the spring is when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, then what happens in winter? Forget love – in the colder months of the year, it’s all about hot pot.

Go pretty much anywhere in East and Southeast Asia at this time of year, and you’ll find people sitting around tables, orbiting portable gas burners that prop up bubbling pots of broth. Call it “shabu shabu” or “nabemono,” as the Japanese do; “suki” (Thai); “huo guo” (Chinese); or simply “hot pot,” it’s remarkably similar across the continent. Dinner (or lunch, or a snack) is all about dipping bite-sized pieces of vegetables, noodles, fish and meat in simmering soup to cook, then ladling them out into individual bowls along with a helping of the steaming broth.

Eating hot pot is not only a great way to stave off the season’s chill, it’s also an intensely social, communal way of eating. At the same time, it accommodates preferences and dietary needs seamlessly: You select the ingredients that go in, and you control how much they cook. Enjoy rare steak? Great. Pinch a delicatessen-thin slice of raw beef between your chopsticks, swish it around in the pot for a second or two, and you’re ready to eat.

So why, in a town like Portland – where winters are not especially gentle, and where people love to gather for a restaurant meal – is almost nobody serving hot pot? Downtown, you’ll find a few places that serve lazy, ludicrously expensive versions of the dish, but to get a well-conceived and entertaining nabemono experience, you have to head far off the peninsula to outer Forest Avenue’s Ginza Town.

Chef and co-owner Duc Bui, formerly of Sapporo, opened his casual, mostly Japanese restaurant in 2004, and has kept himself in business by offering indulgently generous happy hours that run from 3:30-7 p.m., as well as inexpensive snacks ($1 sushi, $3 rolls, a few $3 appetizers) during those times. “We’re not downtown, and we don’t have any tourists up here. No hotels, nothing. So we try to bring people in with things we know they like,” he said.

That means booze, but it applies equally to the restaurant’s huge menu of dishes, a list that reads like Japanese-food Mad Libs: sushi, tempura, teriyaki, bento boxes, udon. There are also a few Vietnamese dishes, like a decent Pho Tai Gau ($9.95) with raw steak and brisket. Truly great pho broth is a pleasure to sip on its own, even before the herbs are added in, but this version missed the mark, offering barely any flavor from charred onions and garlic, and only the vaguest background hint of star anise. It really needed every culantro and basil leaf, and a good squeeze of lime to bring it to life.

The sushi here is also unexceptional. Our sushi sampler ($14.95) included salmon, shrimp, yellowtail, surf clam and tuna nigiri, along with two rolls: spicy tuna and California (avocado, crab stick, cucumber). As you ought to expect in an ocean port city, the fish was all fresh and good-quality, especially the lush yellowtail and the soft and saline surf clam. The rice, which the kitchen prepares in small batches throughout the night, was unfortunately a little loose and not sticky enough to maintain its shape, and left us with loose white grains dotting our table like snow.

Similarly, some Japanese classics were disappointingly average, like chewy agedashi tofu ($4.50), or just plain disappointing, like sanma shioyaki ($6.00), a brutally over-broiled fillet of mackerel pike glazed in soy, vinegar and mirin.

Others were simply strange, like an enormous spiky dessert of ginger ice cream and pound cake, hard-frozen together, fried tempura-style ($5.00, and large enough to feed four people). Apart from a slight grainy texture to the ice cream, it was, to my total surprise, enjoyable.

In no small part, that’s due to the kitchen’s proficiency with tempura. Our order of shrimp and vegetable tempura ($7.95, or $13.95 for a large portion) revealed an airy, super-crispy batter that accented, rather than masked the flavor of the food inside, like green beans with a lovely faint grassiness, or still-juicy shrimp. Only the sweet potato, cut just a few millimeters too thick to remain tender during frying, was a small let-down.

Also very good was the hotate hokkaiyaki ($8.00), scallops baked in a spicy-hot, Japanese mayonnaise sauce along with soft shiitake mushrooms and scallions. When the dish arrived at the table in a small bowl rather than the scallop shell the menu advertised, I asked the server if she was certain this was our order. “Yes,” she said, grinning. “You get more this way.” I nodded, took a bite, and immediately recognized what a gift that few extra spoonfuls of this tobiko-sprinkled appetizer was.

It also wasn’t the first time that I appreciated our server’s candor. While she struggled to get us napkins and chopsticks at the start of the meal, she more than made up for it when we told her we planned to order the Ginza Hot Pot ($30 for up to three people, $35 for up to four). Some servers, when asked for recommendations, unhelpfully offer a list of whatever is popular. Ours didn’t hesitate to tell us what she liked best in her hot pot: “Definitely get the salmon jaw. I know it sounds weird, but it’s amazing,” she said.

So we obeyed, rounding out our six add-ins with rice noodles, raw steak, shiitake mushrooms, fish cakes and Chinese cabbage (which included both napa and bok choi). We also chose the house special broth, which was supposed to be spicy, but was actually very mild. Tasting like garlic, onion and ginger, with a little sweetness and plenty of umami, it was ideal for a style of eating where most of the flavor derives not from the soup base, but from the ingredients you add in at the table.

With our server’s help, we portioned out the pre-cooked rice noodles into our individual bowls, loaded up our pot with mushrooms and cabbage (both of which can cook for a long time without their texture suffering) and submerged our other items over the course of the next hour, as we sat talking and laughing – not to mention keeping a watchful eye on the gas burner, which has a tendency to send the broth into a messy rolling boil.

As promised, the salmon jaw (also known as “collar”) was outstanding: a little fatty, full of hidden pockets of delicate meat, and easily the very best thing we ordered. Nearly as good, though, were the flash-cooked, thin slices of raw, marbled ribeye steak. When I transferred one from the pot to my personal noodle-bowl and ate it with a steaming half-shiitake cap, I could only smile, glance for a second out the window at the busy street outside and silently celebrate the coming winter, when every day is a perfect day for hot pot.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at or on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

]]> 0, ME - NOVEMBER 13: Patrons enjoy the food and atmosphere at Ginza Town. (Photo by Jill Brady/Staff Photographer)Sat, 19 Nov 2016 13:59:23 +0000
Dine Out Maine: When the pieces fall into place, Portland’s chic Tempo Dulu is worth the price Sun, 13 Nov 2016 09:00:00 +0000 Getting what you pay for is such an important principle of American culture that we probably should find some way to include it in our national anthem. Better yet, emblazon it on our currency. Our adherence to this idea is a large part of the reason why we struggle with our relationship with wine – a product that doesn’t follow linear rules very well. Why, we collectively ask, shouldn’t a bottle that costs $80 be four times as good as one that costs $20? The answer, as Mark Zuckerberg might say: “It’s complicated.”

So when I hear about an American restaurant that prices itself well within the “special occasion” range, it makes me a little nervous. Charge more, and people expect more. Charge upwards of $200 for the least expensive set menu and a drink apiece for two people, as Portland’s Tempo Dulu does, and you bravely set expectations of perfection.

Co-owners Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest, whose midcoast Camden Harbour Inn and restaurant Natalie’s both are part of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux network, are no strangers to high standards. The duo runs Tempo Dulu from within the swank Danforth Inn, and have made great efforts to create a sense of luxury across every aspect of the dining experience.

It begins with the restaurant’s space: a blend of styles, with architecture and rich, simple window dressings representing the traditional, and furniture – from a glossy gray coffee table in the shape of a smooth river stone to clear, smoked Lucite chairs representing the contemporary. Mostly, it all works to great effect, giving the space a unique sense of historically anchored modernism.

Sonically, the experience of dining at the mostly Indonesian Tempo Dulu can be a little less high-end. The soundtrack that chugs along over the sound system is pure downtempo electronic dance music – occasionally a little intrusive and out of place. Every time I have visited Tempo Dulu, I have been distracted from my conversation by the same chillout remix of Spandau Ballet’s 1983 hit, “True” mugging for attention in the background. It’s disorienting to be somewhere that makes you feel like you’re eating sambal in a sumptuous 1823 New England mansion that has somehow washed up on the shores of Ibiza.

All of these qualities have remained largely the same since the restaurant opened last year. What has changed recently is the chef. This summer, Michael MacDonnell (formerly of Natalie’s) took over the kitchen. I was interested to see how, under his aegis, things had changed since this paper’s four-star notice from 2015. In that review, critic James Schwartz described the experience of visiting Tempo Dulu as “intensely sensual,” lauding the restaurant’s unbending focus on intense flavors.

I was fortunate to have two recent data points for comparison, spaced apart by only a few weeks. One from a dinner early this autumn, while MacDonnell was still preparing dishes that were not of his own design, and the other just after the launch of his signature menu in mid-October.

Both meals started with the same tiny bites, served several minutes apart: a beet tartare with halibut and macadamia nuts, and a wonderful sample of swordfish salad with fermented soy, floral micro-cilantro and thin shavings of vinegary pickled butternut squash.

Served in larger quantity, the second amuse-bouche would have made a much better chef’s-choice “middle course” for the $69 menu, rather than a slightly tough and vanishingly small square of cured salmon, topped with a single cured mussel and two excellent vinegared components: a slice of dilly bean and a pink iris of pickled onion.

Like an alchemist, MacDonnell uses simple white vinegar (along with a little salt and sugar) to create some of his most magical flavors. With it, he pickles raisins to give a welcome tang to a sticky caramelized banana dessert. He also uses it to transform Fresno chilies into an acidic paste that he sweetens further with reduced orange juice to create an atomic orange sambal.

That sambal brings fiery life to perhaps the kitchen’s best dish: A crisp-tender tapioca-and-rice flour chive cake that has been steamed, then deep fried and served with smoked scallop and pork belly. The sambal makes it nominally Indonesian, but the flavors evoke Thai chive cakes (kanom gui chai) and their Chinese ancestor, the scallion pancake (cong you bing).

“Everywhere you go in Southeast Asia, you use basically the same ingredients – it’s just different techniques. And no matter where you go, China has a hold,” MacDonnell said. “It’s the first ‘serious’ cuisine people were taught to cook, so there’s a heavy influence.”

This is only one example of cultural cross-pollination you’ll find throughout the menu. MacDonnell, who has been cooking Thai and Laotian food for nearly two decades, has brought that expertise to bear across his menu, such as in an elegant tom yum-style appetizer showcasing mushrooms prepared three ways, all wading knee-deep in a lemongrassy coconut broth, poured by the server from a teapot. Or a rare massaman curry-flavored hangar steak served with a stunning kale-wrapped block of brisket confit, fried potatoes and crunchy lotus seeds.

So too, the seared, tamarind-glazed foie gras with pickled turnip and rice cracker – inspired by flavors from classic pad Thai – that offers a lovely balance of acid, toasty smokiness and funk from fish sauce, along with a brash textural contrast.

Or a spectacular sweet sticky rice that isn’t at all what it claims to be. Rather, this inventive dessert is made up of crunchy, toasted rice clusters with a creamy lime drizzle, a precise one-inch cube of barely caramelized pineapple and a mango sorbet that detonates with kaffir lime leaf flavor the instant it hits your mouth.

There’s also a Penang poached lobster tail that explores an imagined culinary intersection between Maine and Malaysia. Served with a warm coconut-and-turmeric rice and grilled lychees, there is an almost playfully understated quality to the way this dish pairs lush components with light, simple ones. “The challenge is not to leave people feeling heavy,” MacDonnell said. “I want people to leave and be able to go dancing and not feel like they need to lie down immediately.”

When the kitchen delivers clearly Indonesian-inspired dishes, the results are generally strong. MacDonnell and his team make a mean (and lip-numbing) sambal egg, buried in a loose mound of jasmine rice as part of the rijsttafel ($85) – a chef’s tasting menu highlighting a spectrum of flavors and techniques. The gingery beef rendang and gorgeously aromatic coconut curry chicken – served as part of the rijsttafel I sampled on my earlier visit – were both exquisitely, impossibly tender, as if they had been simmered and slow cooked for weeks, not prepared that day.

Unfortunately, a few of the rijsttafel dishes were underseasoned, including watery wok-cooked squid, and curried, banana-leaf steamed arctic char that tasted less like the curry and more like the steam.

Then there’s spekkoek, a many-layered traditional Indonesian cake. One version I sampled at Tempo Dulu was phenomenal, with star anise, apple, and an almost buttery coconut ice cream. The second, with maple ice cream and supremed, glazed orange was less so. The ice cream was both seasonal and a satisfying counterbalance to the citrus. But the unnecessarily potent cinnamon crumble overwhelmed everything on the plate, tasting like crunchy nuggets of potpourri.

Despite a few hiccups here and there: some related to food, and some to service (including one visit where I stood, wet umbrella in hand, without being greeted or even acknowledged by staff for ten full minutes), Tempo Dulu possesses an undeniable allure of sophistication. The parts of this machine that work, really work, and the parts that don’t feel like they could be fixed with a damp cloth and a few shots of WD-40.

Our neighbors at a nearby table on one visit were visiting bankers and their spouses – people who said things like, “20 basis points won’t get me out of bed,” and, “Everything changed when I bought the island…”. They couldn’t stop marveling that they had found a place quite so high-end in our small city. “It’s almost as good as that place we went for our anniversary in Boston,” one remarked. She meant well, but that qualified praise would probably have made Tempo Dulu’s owners blanch, because a restaurant with such lofty aspirations and prices simply can’t afford the costliest luxury good of them all: an “almost.”

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 3 Hutchins pours a Jakarta, made with Knob Creek Rye, Averna, Cynar, Carpano and Coastal Root bitters, and the glass is smoked with Chinese Five Spice.Tue, 27 Dec 2016 14:44:18 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Pick your pie, order a salad and chill out at Bonobo Sun, 06 Nov 2016 08:00:00 +0000 As I paid for a to-go dessert – a dense and indulgent pot-de-crème-style cioccolata ($5) – at Bonobo’s bar, I witnessed a blurring of the lines between customers and staff. It wasn’t the first time, and it wasn’t a bad thing.

I watched two different groups of diners walk inside and receive not just a warm greeting, but hugs from servers and host. Earlier, at the rear of the open dining room, I overheard a tipsy customer get a gentle scolding from a staff member: “Sorry, but I’m cutting you off, Tim. I don’t want to have to walk you back home yet again.” And by the time the bartender started spinning a gossipy yarn to two regulars about her biggest customer pet peeve (people who order another drink immediately after she sets one down), I started wondering if I had accidentally shown up for a staff meal or a friends-and-family night. It turns out, this was just an ordinary Thursday at Portland’s Bonobo.

John Nauyokas, one of two chefs at the West End pizzeria, later explained, “We’re in a cush spot in the heart of the West End. Because we’re not downtown, we get lots and lots of regulars. There are customers I see almost every single day. It’s really a small, intimate, neighborhood spot and after a while, I guess we turn into their kitchen.”

If you’re not one of the in-crowd, this particular species of intimacy can sometimes feel a little intimidating. But Bonobo’s front-of-house team is a gregarious bunch, friendly to everyone, not just the people they recognize. It is as true now as it was nine years ago, when our then critic’s four-star review praised the “unpretentious” pizzeria’s excellent service. That’s important, because with a wood-fired brick pizza oven that can fit no more than eight pies at a time (nine in desperation), Bonobo relies on its service staff to keep diners happy as they wait – sometimes 20 to 30 minutes – for their pizzas.

One way to prevent the delay from feeling quite so long is to order a salad. The menu offers two good ones. There’s an unfussy, traditional Caesar salad ($6.75), dressed well and optionally topped with uncured white anchovies that (shhh – don’t tell) are also blitzed into the dressing to create terrific depth of flavor. But the house salad ($6.75) is the more inventive, with chunky, ridge-cut sweet pickles (prepared in-house) and curved strips of shaved endive atop a bed of arugula, romaine and spinach. Perhaps the best thing about the salad is the mustardy, sweet lemon vinaigrette – exactly what the salad needs to counteract bitterness from the arugula and endive.

You’ll find only two salads on the permanent menu, but that’s to make room for some unique pizzas. At any given time, the restaurant has an unchanging roster of 15 pizzas, plus a few seasonal pizzas that change every month or two. While you can indeed find a cheese ($9.75), pepperoni ($12.75) and margherita ($14.25) pie here, those pizzas are merely trail markers to orient you as you navigate a creative menu that includes Bonobo’s eponymous pizza ($17.50), made with leeks, mushrooms and a fontina- based white sauce, as well as a delightfully stinky Taleggio pizza ($17.25) with arugula and smoked tomato sauce.

As you might expect from a restaurant that offers so many varieties, the pies range in quality. Some are decent, like the Goat ($16.75), with sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, spinach, local goat cheese from Warren, Maine, and two unorthodox pizza ingredients: rosemary and roasted garlic butter. That garlic butter brings out a rich tanginess in the cheese, making it taste like ricotta’s feral ancestor. Sadly, our crust had a few issues around the rim – pushed into and folded up over on itself like tectonic plates at a fault line, it was tough and too dense.

The same was true of the crust on the otherwise fantastic Ocean ($13.50), made with white clam sauce, cream, Parmesan and scallions. Tasting its saline richness, I immediately thought of a clam alfredo. Nauyokas, on the other hand, thinks of it as “a bare-bones clam chowder.” Either way, it’s an enjoyable, if imperfect pie that is let down a bit by its crust.

Better still was the Middle-East-inspired Morocco ($17.50), topped with roasted red peppers, scallions, a blend of feta and goat cheese, and the restaurant’s homemade, honey-sweet spiced lamb sausage. Or the Caspian ($17.50), which with roasted chicken, smoked tomatoes and basil, offered plenty of smoke and clear, fresh basil flavors in every bite. The chicken, which was dried out in spots, was the pizza’s only real flaw.

If there’s a lesson to be learned about putting chicken on a pizza, it should come from the Marley ($17.50), a superb Caribbean-style pie featuring hot and roasted red peppers, scallions, cheddar and a jerk chicken “sausage.” As Nauyokas told me, the kitchen roasts chickens in its brick pizza oven until their skin crisps up, then picks the still-hot birds clean, coats these shredded chicken pieces in a house-made, thick jerk seasoning base and lets them marinate. What results is not so much a traditional sausage as highly seasoned, pulled meat. But when it is used as a topping for pizza, the wet seasoning acts as a protective layer, keeping the chicken as soft and tender as a confit, while giving the crust a chance to turn brown and shatteringly crisp.

Consistency of crust is likely to continue to be a minor problem for Bonobo, because they use a wet dough that is so finicky, it prevents them from using cornmeal to lubricate a pizza’s voyage from peel to oven and back again. Instead, they use baking parchment, which can trap moisture under the bottom crust.

For the sake of consistency, they also compromise on the temperature of their hardwood-fueled stove, keeping it far from its maximum temperature of 700 degrees Fahrenheit, instead maintaining a moderate heat of 500 to 550 – about the same as what you can achieve in most home ranges. It’s an unusual choice for a pizzeria with a supercharged brick oven at hand, and frankly, one that contributes to the length of the wait for pizzas.

At the same time, in a space that’s so homey and comfortable, with staff who go to enormous effort to make diners feel like they belong, it does not seem much of a burden to take a little extra time for dinner. Sit back, order a salad and listen to the kinds of restaurant conversations that normally happen after the front door has been locked for the night. Soon enough, this might become your kitchen, too.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at or on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

]]> 0 Cogswell, a chef at Bonobo in Portland, takes a pizza out of the brick oven on Nov. 2, 2016.Mon, 07 Nov 2016 15:40:51 +0000
Dine Out Maine: At Foulmouthed Brewing in South Portland, well-crafted sandwiches go with craft beer Sun, 23 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 New restaurants inhabit their spaces in many different ways. Some occupy structures that have been custom-built just for them, where every inch of the place feels like it is part of a unified vision of the establishment’s brand. Others body-snatch a former tenant’s digs (and sometimes even their furniture) and do nothing more than slap a different shade of paint on the walls, leaving the ghosts of restaurants past to haunt the dining room.

Then there are businesses like Foulmouthed Brewing in South Portland, a double-barreled brewery and restaurant that took nine years to move from conception to reality. One of the biggest obstacles co-owners Craig and Julia Dilger faced was where to set up shop. “It’s a working brewery, so we needed the right size, the right zoning, a pretty residential area so we could become a neighborhood spot where locals could walk. Then we found this spot along the greenbelt with everything we needed, but it was just the bones of an auto garage,” said brewer Craig Dilger.

Rather than fight against the building’s history, they embraced it – especially the huge overhead doors now used for loading and unloading – converting two-thirds of the building into an industrial, yet spotlessly clean, multi-tank brewing facility.

In the front, they built a bar and dining room in a modern, Scandiavian-inspired style, with white subway tiles and a pale pine-slatted ceiling. Even the exterior has been spruced up with a canopied steel corner entrance and black-and-white paint job, but still sits within the same squat footprint as the auto repair shop that came before. Yes, it was once a garage, but Foulmouthed Brewing feels perfectly at home.

That comfort is expressed best in the brewpub’s signature beverage. The 4×6 flight ($10 for six, four-ounce glasses) of all of the brewery’s current beers revealed a remarkable deftness and confidence with several styles of brewing. Among the best pours were the Brat ($5 for 16 oz.), a clean, German-style session ale; Wharf Rat ($5 for 16 oz.), a toasty, malty Porter with a great cocoa aroma; and a resinous, hoppy Malcontent Double IPA ($5 for 8 oz.) that, at nearly 9 percent alcohol, is a single-serving scene stealer.

Only one beer, the fruity, banana-scented Belgian-style Mr. Giggles Golden Strong ($5 for 8 oz.) showed hints of any off-flavor, with a Hubba Bubba-esque, esterified sweetness, but even with a little bubble gum on the palate, it was still a decent glass.

The team’s mastery of brewing makes sense, when you consider that everyone from Julia Dilger, the CEO, to chef Dan Lindberg was at one point a homebrewer.

Beer is not only the connective tissue that links the team together, it also provides a creative orientation for the kitchen. As he develops new dishes, Lindberg is forced to think about not just balance among flavors, but also how his food will work with the brewery’s constantly changing roster of lagers and ales. “I like to take complex flavors and present them to the diner in a simple manner. A sandwich is the perfect vessel for doing that. And after doing fine dining (at Hugo’s), I thought it would be nice to go back to sandwiches and make them work with beer,” he said.

Some pose little challenge, like a straightforward tuna melt ($14) with sharp cheddar, Sriracha mayonnaise and pickled onions that were pink and crunchy, but missing the pointy vinegar bite of a good quick-pickle. Or the superb Spicy BLT ($13.50), with house-smoked pork belly, smoked tomato mayonnaise and an intensely racy hot pepper relish – a lively sandwich that offered a great counterpoint to the malty amber Autumn Sweater ($5 for 12 oz.).

Other are more complicated stumpers, like a misleadingly simple-sounding grilled cheese ($12), which according to Lindberg, turns out to be a deconstructed-then-reconstructed beet salad, in sandwich form. His reinterpretation builds layers of flavor through salt-brined roasted beets, chevre, charred pickled fennel and walnut butter. It also shifts the flavor profile so that this agreeable version of the dish works with the gentle, dry bitterness of Foulmouthed’s Fraktur ale ($5 for 12 oz.), rather than a more traditional glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

It’s no surprise that Lindberg transformed a salad into a sandwich because, as he told me, “Even I generally don’t think that I want a salad with a beer.” Perhaps that explains the least successful dish we ate: the Summer Harvest Salad ($13), a blackberry vinaigrette-dressed plate of mesclun and tomatoes, topped with dried-out, crunchy fried chickpeas and wedges of funky, fermented black radish that were too tough to spear with a fork, despite being deep fried.

Which is not to say that the kitchen is not adept at using its fryers; it makes a satisfyingly smoky poutine ($12) with lardons and pork gravy, and crunchy chicharrones ($6, served “with a side of ranch for your heart,” according to the menu) that stick pleasingly to your tongue as they pop in your mouth. Better yet are the cumin-flavored Korean BBQ pork nachos ($14), a mammoth plate that somehow manages to harmonize sweet, creamy, crunchy, sour and spicy flavors. It’s classic “beer food,” but nuanced and interesting enough to hold its own against anything the brewery produces.

In addition to its own beers, dispensed from six wall-mounted taps embellished with quirky handles (a camera, a shoe last, a wrench), Foulmouthed Brewing also offers cocktails like the blueberry vodka-based Summer Blues, made with aromatized Cocchi Rosa and triple sec – so sweet that one of my table-mates compared it to jungle juice. Unsurprisingly, the bar fares better with its beer cocktails, including a sweet and grainy hot buttered rum ($9), blended with wort, beer’s unfermented precursor. Or The Snoop ($7), a hip-hop reference and Double IPA-topped gin cocktail all in one.

When we ordered it, our server declared it to be “the s—,” and then launched into a breathless six- or seven-minute TED talk about ales, lagers, brewing, malt and the state of bars in Portland. He even brought out a sample of the day’s wort, placing it on the table and insisting that we all “try it so you can get a real idea of what we’re working with.”

As we finished our meal, we were a little afraid to call him back so we could order dessert, but by that point in the evening, the restaurant had filled up enough to give him a new captive audience, so our German chocolate cake sundae ($7) arrived without another word.

Presented in a 20-oz. beer mug, the sundae comprised layers of cake, chocolate butter cream, whipped cream and coconut-walnut brittle, along with a malted caramel sauce made from the run-off from brewing. In another context, that sauce might have been confusing, but here, at a table in a brewpub, it was a comfortable fit. More than that, the entire dish offered another example of Foulmouthed Brewing’s self-assured proficiency at connecting beer and food – even dessert – and making the experience of settling in for a meal in the renovated shell of an old South Portland garage feel like the most natural thing in the world.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 2 Brewing is located in a repurposed auto garage in South Portland.Fri, 09 Dec 2016 14:27:45 +0000
Dine Out Maine: At Saltwater Grille in South Portland, you’ll find stunning views and flashes of potential Sun, 16 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Portlanders can get a little touchy when you bring up comparisons to Brooklyn. Maybe it has something to do with feeling like big-city egotism just doesn’t translate to Maine. But at night, when you sit down for dinner at Saltwater Grille and look at the sparkling skyline across the Fore River, headlights darting in your peripheral vision back and forth across the Casco Bay Bridge, it’s hard to keep from thinking about New York – even if it’s just to thank a higher power that you’re not there.

The spectacular view not only evokes a sense of being in a large metropolis, it also disconnects you from where you actually are: a remote pocket of South Portland, nearly a half-mile from any major thoroughfare. Add in the restaurant’s beach house contemporary décor, with tongue-and-groove boards on the ceiling and a massive exterior deck that opens out onto a busy marina, and the result is an escapist waterfront fantasy that seems to exist in its own parallel universe.

No wonder the restaurant has built up a crowd of loyal regulars, many of whom have been coming in since Saltwater Grille opened in 2000. And they’re dedicated to more than the view. The regulars have their favorite old-school casual dining dishes on the eclectic, seafood-leaning menu – items like steamed mussels with bacon and bleu cheese ($17), and owner Mark Loring’s signature dish, a lobster fettuccine ($30) – that the restaurant offers because frequent diners demand them. “During the off-season, it’s all the loyal people within a 5 to 10 mile radius who come in day in and day out. They keep us open. I give them the comfort food they’re used to. In the summer, we cater to a broader clientele, and we stretch our legs a little, bring in new techniques and flavors,” said executive chef Dave McGuirk, formerly of Hawthorne in Washington, D.C.

When he took over the kitchen in September, 2015, McGuirk made some other changes to the restaurant, updating kitchen protocols and modernizing the sourcing of ingredients, moving to fresh, local suppliers wherever possible. He even – very slowly to avoid upsetting the regulars – began to introduce some improvements to the dated menu.

One change is a malt aioli dipping sauce that Saltwater Grille now serves with its Cracklin’ Calamari ($16), a legacy dish that is otherwise the same as it has been since the restaurant’s first dinner service 16 years ago. Served with chopped red onions, Parmesan and a lackluster balsamic vinaigrette, the crisp, deep-fried and battered squid was middling bar food on its own. But with McGuirk’s rich and piercingly sharp aioli, full of garlic confit and a little smoked paprika, the calamari became something worth ordering again – although next time as a main dish, because the portion was enough to feed four.

Large portions are apparently another thing that has not changed at Saltwater Grille, as noted by our then critic, who described leaving behind “a good two-thirds of our entrees on the plate,” in her three-star review from 2005.

The shore dinner ($35), another oversized evergreen, prepared seafood shack-style, also had its ups and downs. Among the downs were tough blackened shrimp and masa-encrusted spicy clams, which in addition to tasting too much like garlic powder, were fried so long they had the texture of crispy pieces of latex glove.

Contrast that with the ups: light and well-executed French fries and McGuirk’s addition to this plate, a Guinness-battered, panko-encrusted fillet of haddock that tasted of turmeric, lime juice and malt vinegar. Stupendous.

Even when McGuirk’s own dishes don’t turn out perfectly, they are still significantly better than many of the menu’s old standbys. One example is his smoked mozzarella and mashed potato pizzetta ($18), first quickly grilled to give it a terrific dark bottom crust, then topped with bacon and thin slices of Angus ribeye and finished in the restaurant’s pizza oven. Texturally excellent, this dish just needs a tweak or two: With so many smoky, meaty ingredients, all other flavors get lost.

Or perhaps his tart lemon-cranberry panna cotta ($9), presented in a small mason jar that has been unappealingly drizzled with chocolate so that it is impossible to touch. While the panna cotta was both too cold and too thickened, giving it a consistency similar to an aerated cheesecake, it was refreshingly tart, with great astringency from the cranberries – and ultimately hard to resist finishing.

When everything comes together for McGuirk, as it does in his seafood pappardelle ($28), his talent is unmistakable. A perfect pairing for the barnyardy Tohu pinot noir ($34), this rich pasta with shrimp, mussels and lobster meat is remarkable because of its intense, but never overpowering, layers of flavor. Every bite offers spice and subtle heat from soft knots of chorizo, along with white wine, garlic and shallot. Just a few tastes and you can see that, when he is given the freedom to employ all of his creative skills, McGuirk is capable of producing food that is a match for Saltwater Grille’s distractingly gorgeous scenery.

What’s standing in his way? That Mesozoic-Era menu, full of bar food and snoozeworthy standards that McGuirk doesn’t feel comfortable altering. “I don’t have an ego when it comes to the menu. I kept most of the popular dishes the same when I changed it, because I didn’t want to upset the regulars. I want them to have a fall-back,” he said.

But by not making use of its executive chef’s proficiencies, the restaurant holds itself back, in a time warp of sorts. Even with the small changes McGuirk has managed to sneak through in his tenure at the restaurant, the place still feels forgotten and out of step with the region’s dining scene. That feels like a lost opportunity, especially with its built-in advantage: a phenomenal position on the waterfront. Saltwater Grille ought to be a huge draw for locals and summer tourists alike, a destination for its food as well as its view. And it has almost everything required to become just that. All it needs now is a tiny dash of ego – but only a dash. After all, this isn’t Brooklyn.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 1:54 a.m. on Oct. 17, 2016 to correct Mark Loring’s first name.

]]> 3 came together in the seafood pappardelle.Tue, 27 Dec 2016 11:22:38 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Carriage House in East Boothbay makes comforting dishes with a twist Sun, 09 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 I knew there was something unusual about The Carriage House Restaurant in East Boothbay when my dinner guest looked up from his menu and asked me, “What’s gribiche?”

The only reason I knew gribiche was because I had made it once, in a maudlin period several years ago, after a few weeks left to fend for myself in a tiny city apartment. Whenever I got hungry and didn’t want to face solo restaurant dining, I would dip into “The Pleasures of Cooking for One,” a guide that Judith Jones, Julia Child’s long-time friend and editor, wrote after becoming a widow. In it, she describes the chunky, herbal French sauce, made by mixing parsley, tiny French pickles (cornichons), mustard and capers along with chopped hard-boiled eggs as one of her favorite ways of perking up plain meats and fish. It’s full of recognizable flavors, but it somehow feels a little exotic – half sauce, half distraction from the world around you.

Chef/owner Kelly Farrin’s use of gribiche as the dressing for his fried haddock sandwich ($13) echoes this sense of the slightly unconventional, adding tangy brightness to a familiar dish. “For me, being a Mainer, tartar sauce is a big thing. So I just make a tartar sauce, but with capers and shallot and lemon zest, and grate hard-boiled eggs into it. I like the consistency of an egg salad, and that’s what gribiche reminds me of,” said Farrin, formerly of Primo in Rockland.

Another benefit: The gribiche cut some of the excess salt in the crunchy, peppery batter coating a fillet of beautifully fried fish. And if a haddock sandwich doesn’t appeal, you’ll find the same gribiche and a rice wine vinaigrette served with the restaurant’s crispy calamari ($14) appetizer.

Experimenting with unexpected flavors is not something you probably would have associated with The Carriage House during its first incarnation as a restaurant from 1986 to 2001 (and then in fits and starts until last year). Even today, looking at the dining room, with its high-gloss whole-log posts, checkerboard linoleum floor and walk-in fridge clad in wood, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the restaurant is a bit of a throwback. But Farrin, who was raised in the area, is aware of the disconnect and thinks a lot about how to bridge his style of cooking with food that will appeal to the community – particularly in a space that has such a long local history. “I used to eat here as a kid. Now, I want to keep a home-cooking feel without cutting corners, and with some upgrades,” he said.

One of those upgrades comes in the form of a short but memorable cocktail list that includes drinks made with fresh fruit, such as the Indian Summer ($11), sorbet-like in flavor, with muddled strawberries, elderflower liqueur, mint and gin. There are also half-a-dozen New England beers on tap (four of them from Maine), and a brief but comprehensive, reasonably priced New and Old World wine list that offers bottles that top out at $37 and plenty of by-the-glass pours. There is something here that matches up well with everything on the menu, whether it is an updated recipe or a dependable classic.

One of the unashamedly traditional dishes is the Linekin Bay fish chowder ($12), made with a white roux, cooked with leeks, celery and house-made fish stock, as well as generous chunks of potato, bacon and lots of cream. It’s a craveable concoction that works as well in the early days of autumn as it might when there’s frost in the forecast.

Not all the menu’s old-faithful dishes are quite as successful, although none is anything less than decent, like a utilitarian mixed greens salad ($12) with a dressing that would have been a standout on a more interesting bed of greens. Similarly, we loved the lush, sweet-and-salty peanut butter icing on the chocolate cake ($8) made on Tuesday by the restaurant’s visiting baker, but were disappointed that, by Friday, the cake itself was a little dry. We probably should have listened when our server told us, “I love cake, but you can’t ever go wrong with pie.”

It’s almost exactly what she told us about the ribeye with mashed potatoes and roasted onions ($32), and luckily, we heeded her recommendation. We were rewarded with a perfectly pink, medium-rare steak, rubbed with Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper. Better than the excellent beef though, were the Brussels sprouts, softened and charred, then tossed in something out of left field: a tart, sweet and gently fiery jelly that Farrin makes from poblano, jalapeño and bell peppers.

A warmly lit nook on the restaurant's second floor.

A warmly lit nook on the restaurant’s second floor.

If it seems like a lot of work to put into one small element of a substantial plate of food, it is. But there’s a strategy at work here, one that encapsulates Farrin’s culinary philosophy: “I think about the whole bite: Take a slice of the steak, the potatoes, the cast iron onions on top. And I wanted people who didn’t like Brussels sprouts to respect them. I just think it’s kind of neat when people say it’s good,” he said.

It’s no easy feat to take home-cooking classics and inject them with exactly the right amount of personality to stay true to your passions for flavor, while still appealing to diners who want something comforting and familiar. Farrin does so by using an almost surgical approach to surprise – an unexpected sauce here, a fresh Vermont burrata there (in the roasted beet salad, $14). And, by and large, he pulls it off, transforming The Carriage House into the kind of place I might be willing to drive an hour to visit, the next time I’m home alone, feeling too lazy to cook for myself, but still in need of a few joyful distractions.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 ribeye was cooked to perfection.Tue, 27 Dec 2016 11:28:36 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Expansive menu at Yosaku may be too large Sun, 02 Oct 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Every time I think I’ve got Yosaku figured out, it confuses me all over again. It starts the minute I walk in to the Portland restaurant’s Tardis-like interior, which feels like an uncomfortable chimera of two different businesses, bolted together. Turn right and you’ll find an open sushi kitchen and Japanese seating with low tables set up on a raised lacquered-beam platform – very traditional. Head to your left though, and you’ll see what looks like a corporate dining room with a few wood-railed screens, lots of purely functional furniture, and a drab wall-to-wall carpet. Plus, when the weather is nice, there are another 40 to 50 seats on the open patio. With a capacity that, according to executive chef and owner Takahiro Sato, exceeds 150 people in the summer, Yosaku is an enormous restaurant.

Not to be outdone, the menu is equally super-sized, clocking in at an eye-popping 45 appetizers, plus more than 100 sushi and sashimi choices, as well as udon, soba, tempura, donburi (rice bowls) and grilled meals. “The restaurant is huge, and we need to fill it up every day so we don’t have to charge more. That means we serve many choices so we can get a variety of customers,” Sato said. A big menu can create big challenges, and this one – with enough dishes to support five or six separate restaurants, each with a distinct identity – is no exception.

One of the biggest is service. Staff, dressed in Kendo garments, seem frequently rushed and not especially well-trained. On one visit, our entrees showed up within a minute of our appetizers. On another, our empty dinner plates remained on the table after our dessert arrived. Servers also struggle to answer questions about dishes, but it’s hard to fault Yosaku’s staff for imperfect menu knowledge. Imagine showing up for your first week as a server and having to master the ingredients in roughly five dozen specialty sushi rolls. And that’s just one single page of the menu.

Still, unfamiliarity with the restaurant’s dishes has a sharp end, as I discovered when I was served a hot bowl of sliced beef udon ($14) on a tray next to a small wooden shaker. When I asked a passing server, she told us, “That’s the sauce for the noodles. I haven’t tried it, but I hear it’s really good.” I inverted the dispenser and discovered not a sauce inside, but shichi-mi togarashi: a hot pepper blend containing chili and sansho peppers, sesame seeds, ginger and several other spices. It’s lucky that very little came out, because the condiment lent the overly sweet broth a concussive punch.

Managing the vast menu also forces the restaurant to cut corners in places, as with its tart, vinaigrette-dressed ika sansai squid salad ($5.75), with thinly sliced mountain vegetables like fern, mushroom, bamboo and wood ear mushrooms. It’s a very good squid salad, but not one that Yosaku prepares itself. Rather, it comes as a pre-made frozen product and is thawed for service.

The kitchen also appears to skip steps, occasionally sending out dishes that don’t seem to have been tasted, like a hospital-food-bland avocado salad ($4.50), or an oily-tasting, double-crusted tempura matcha ice cream ($5) – a dessert highlighted along with the tempura cheesecake in our 3.5-star review from 2006 as “a real indulgence.”

On the other hand, when Yosaku’s head chef Masahiro Matsuyama (who is in charge of all non-seafood dishes) succeeds, he does so with real flair. You get a sense of his skills from the vegetable tempura ($4), an appetizer that features slices of sweet potato, squash, yam and stalks of asparagus, all battered with an ultra-light rice flour coating. Best of the bunch was a single broccoli floret that, when dipped into a pale, dashi-based sauce, tasted wild, complex and full of umami – a million miles away from crudite.

His kinpira gobo ($4), a slow-braised burdock root salad with slices of carrot, was a homey version of a classic Japanese starter, and a very solid one, if perhaps a little too sweet. Here, in contrast to the squid salad, the rough, rustic slices of burdock root are a giveaway that it is fresh and made in-house, and not the pre-prepared machine-sliced matchsticks that you’ll see elsewhere. The crunch and fibrous texture of the dish make it a great starter before a sushi meal.

But before we get to sushi, let’s talk about rice. Preparing outstanding sushi rice is equal parts art and science. It requires close attention to every step as the chef rinses, boils, seasons with vinegar and cools the rice – but not too much, as it must be kept at approximately body temperature until it is served. Jiro Ono, the world-renowned sushi chef profiled in “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” famously trains his apprentices by having them do nothing but prepare rice for two years.

At Yosaku, rice is an issue. It’s close to being right, but every time I have visited, the grains have been just a little tough and undercooked, and on occasion, a bit too vinegary. These aren’t ruinous problems, but they are enough to make the experience of eating a pure slice of raw fish a little less extraordinary.

You can really spot the faults in the rice when eating simple nigiri, like the maguro tuna, salmon, or the marvelous, buttery yellowtail that come with the Acadia sushi set meal ($22). All three slices of fish were a delight, but the rice was the weak point. Fortunately, the Acadia meal also came with a decent Kewpie mayonnaise-based clam salad and a long sushi roll made with Maine crab and slightly crunchy green tobiko (flying fish roe), all topped with thin slices of crimson tuna and raw, glossy sweet shrimp (botan ebi). And perhaps the best part: the botan ebi heads that have been seasoned and deep-fried – these are not just a garnish! Despite their extra-crunchy texture, they are edible and require that you take your time to chew them slowly, avoiding pointy bits. They are absolutely worth the effort.

I also sampled two sashimi: the unagi (eel, $5.50) and the saba (mackerel, $4). Mackerel sashimi is almost always served lightly marinated, both to cut the strong fishy flavor, as well as to help cure the outside of the flesh to keep it from spoiling. The saba was respectable, but hampered by a too-acidic marinade. For the unagi, the kitchen grills strips of freshwater eel, slathering the meat with a rich and funky basting sauce, made by simmering soy, sugar, sake and the eel heads for several hours. Sato told me that their sauce actually takes two full days to make. Such careful attention to process and detail pays off, because Yosaku’s unagi is divine.

Brian and Amy Chamberlain of Gorham, New Hampshire, enjoy the Japanese-style pond and greenery on the patio. The couple used to frequent Yosaku when they lived in Portland.

Brian and Amy Chamberlain of Gorham, N.H., enjoy the Japanese-style pond and greenery on the patio. The couple used to frequent Yosaku when they lived in Portland.

When you consider that Sato has been in the seafood business for more than 40 years, it should come as no shock that seafood dishes are the strongest elements of his restaurant’s extended dance remix of a menu. “I’ve always been interested in seafood. It’s why I came to Maine,” he said. But when you ask Sato, now 71 and thinking about what he calls his “secret final dreams,” he won’t tell you about lobsters or fish. Instead, it’s buckwheat. “Northern Maine is a perfect spot to grow buckwheat for soba noodles. We are harvesting now and going to ship samples to Japan. Maybe soon you’ll see Japanese soba made from Maine flour,” he said. What his new buckwheat business means for Yosaku remains to be seen, but it’s a safe bet that we can count on one thing: It’ll be a surprise to us all.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at or on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

]]> 3 Lim places scallions atop a lunch sashimi platter.Mon, 03 Oct 2016 12:46:24 +0000
Dine Out Maine: Corner Room can delight, but choose your night and meal carefully Sun, 25 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 The table to my left is arguing with their server about a mistake on their bill. Every time she walks away, they try to enlist neighboring tables into their misery, but I work hard not to make eye contact. And then, as if cued off-stage by someone wearing a walkie-talkie headset, a different server cuts the tension by clattering dozens of pieces of silverware to the floor on the other side of our two-top. Pulling the corners of her mouth down with her fingers, addressing us as if we were a room full of pre-kindergarteners, she mugs: “Oops! Long night. Frowny facey!” This is Saturday night at The Corner Room Italian Kitchen & Bar in Portland, and it’s not even the weirdest part of the evening.

That came about an hour before, when we arrived, checked in at the reception stand and then came back for a table a little later, as instructed. Instead of being seated, we were asked to wait on the bench by the front door. “I know we told you 20, but it’s been a really heavy service, and everybody is really tired. So we’re just going to give everyone a chance to rest. You know, catch their breath before we seat you? Maybe 10 to 15 more minutes,” our host said. So we sat by the boot-scuffed front door and watched the big-screen television mounted over the bar for the next 20 minutes. When our host eventually returned with menus in hand, she asked, “Still want to eat?”

Considerably less than before, but we did.

Nearly seven years ago, our reviewer ate at owner and executive chef Harding Lee Smith’s (The Grill Room, The Front Room, and Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room) American-inflected Italian restaurant, awarding it four stars in a mixed review that lauded the pasta all’Amatriciana’s “simple greatness,” while warning that some dishes “can be simply too rich.” As I took my menu, I was eager to see what had changed.

With more than two dozen appetizers and salads (not counting 20 salumi and cheeses), several pizzas and main dishes and another dozen pastas, the restaurant’s menu is astonishingly lengthy. According to chef de cuisine Greg Wilson, this is because “Harding always likes a lot of options. He wants people to find something they like to eat when they come in.”

Several of the menu’s more appealing-sounding items are made on site from scratch, like a dark chocolate hazelnut torte ($9) an indulgent Nutella-chocolate treat, plated playfully to resemble an ice cream cone; or a blueberry compote with a warm lemon shortcake biscuit ($9) that the kitchen bakes to order and tops with gelato that is made with a crushing excess of vanilla flavoring.

The kitchen also makes three of its salumi ($7 each) options in-house: bresaola, pork lonza and duck prosciutto. These cured meats are salted for a few days and hung in the restaurant’s walk-in refrigerators, where they age for a minimum of six weeks. The lean, translucent pink lonza (also known as lomo) was excellent: sweet and a little nutty – the best of the three house-made salumi by a mile. The bresaola, sliced into rough curls with fringed ends, was far too dry, while the duck prosciutto came in stiff, jagged splinters and tasted more of old olive oil than cured meat.

Some pastas (all except linguine, penne, bucatini and the spaghetti used for side dishes) are also made in-house, including an exceptionally balanced and well-seasoned garganelli ($18 small, $24 large), served with goat cheese and a fresh, super-seasonal medley of corn, tomatoes, basil, summer squash and capers. Tremendously good and exactly the kind of vegetarian main dish that even an omnivore could love.

The bucatini with seafood ($25/$29), on the other hand, was dire. Inspired by a classic Mediterranean pairing of spicy sausage with shrimp, the pasta got a little rich, raisiny Spanish flavor from sherry. But with greasy semicircles of chorizo as tough as a chew toy and not a single piece of lobster (as listed on the menu) anywhere in the bowl, it was an oily, off-kilter mess of a dish.

The Cast Iron Chicken ($23), named after the pan used to first sear and then finish the bird in the oven, was another let-down. While the chicken was properly cooked and had a nice crisp skin (in places), the polenta, pan sauce and peperonata were undersalted and tasted powerfully of burned garlic. Bland and burnt are never a good combination, especially in a rustic, amply portioned main dish that our server described as “a big plate of food that you’ll want to eat all of.” I did not.

The similarly sizable salads had problems of their own. The bitter greens ($10) were a lively mix of radicchio, endive and arugula – a smart combination of aggressive and gentle bitterness. I assumed the roasted grapes would cut some of the harsher flavors with caramelized sweetness. But what I found on the plate were cold, whole red grapes each with a single, tiny blackened dot, as if the kitchen defined “roasting” as bringing the fruit in contact with a pinpoint of flame for no more than a microsecond.

The Corner Room’s chopped salad ($12), a “throwback to a classic Italian-American salad,” as Wilson described it, was a kitchen sink affair. The restaurant stretches (but does not make its own) fresh cheese curds, turning them into mozzarella that it cubes generously into the greens along with salami, chickpeas and tomatoes, and then tops with a too-herby oregano vinaigrette.

Both salads were much less interesting than their descriptions promised, and neither was nearly as good as the simplest on the menu: the Caesar ($10). With long, intact romaine leaves and a sparklingly acidic, lemony dressing to offset the flavor of rich white anchovies, this was a faithful and undeniably appealing version of an old classic.

The Corner Room's salumi plate

The Corner Room’s salumi plate

On both visits, we took advantage of The Corner Room’s decent selection of wines by the carafe, first opting for a plummy, soft Puglian Terremare Feudi di Guagnano ($9/glass, $22/carafe) that stood up well to the baked crespelle ($12), an underwhelming rolled Italian crepe filled with creamy ricotta and beef that was dried out on the ends. With our second meal, we opted for a spicy, oaky Dolomite “Cliffhanger” ($9/$21) to match up with a gorgeous prosciutto and arugula pizza ($18), baked in the restaurant’s stone deck pizza oven. I like my crust heavily blistered, but even a little underbaked, this pizza was still a salty, simply dressed delight.

I imagine it’s possible to create a road map to help diners navigate The Corner Room’s extensive menu and weather its inexplicably off-putting service stumbles – problems that made us feel as stressed out as our servers on a Saturday, then practically disappeared when we returned on a Tuesday. But I don’t need to. Squint your eyes just a little, and you’ll see the outlines of a fantastic Italian-American joint that serves great simple food: pizzas, seasonal pasta and a first-rate Caesar. Just ignore half (two-thirds, really) of the unnecessarily complicated menu and pray that you’re not in the dining room on a busy night.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

Twitter: AndrewRossME

]]> 9 Shea, a prep cook at The Corner Room, prepares fresh lasagna noodles. Many of the restaurant's pastas are made in house, including the garganelli, below.Thu, 29 Sep 2016 07:55:48 +0000
Dine Out Maine: At Solo Italiano, there is magic in simplicity Sun, 18 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Three months ago, if you had asked me to predict at which restaurant I would eat jaw-achingly sweet blackberries – plump as a toddler’s thumb and picked that morning by our server as she walked through a South Portland park – I would never have guessed Solo Italiano. Vinland, sure. Maybe even Fore Street or Local Sprouts Café, but not a glass-and-exposed-brick Commercial Street venture, right in the swirling center of Portland’s tourist vortex.

If you’ve been to the Old Port recently, you might recognize the location as the high-profile corner spot occupied until March by owner Angelo Ciocca’s previous restaurant, Ebb & Flow, which was open for just over a year and didn’t develop a clear identity. Now, with a restyled interior that tempers all the metal and glass with purples and deep blues, it feels like a space that has come to celebrate its proximity to the water.

That’s just as true of the Ligurian menu that Genova-born Paolo Laboa, Solo Italiano’s executive chef and co-owner, has developed. Each section features seafood, from antipasti to secondi, not to mention an entire list of raw fish dishes, prepared in the restaurant’s open crudo kitchen. Even the thin and cheesy, Recco-style focaccia options include seafood.

“People in Maine really get fish,” Laboa said. “They’re used to being surrounded by beautiful seafood, and they want to eat it. I’m Genovese, I understand that. It’s a lot like where I come from, with a mountain in the back, then just the city, and then the sea.”

No surprise then that Laboa (along with his crudo chef, Jordan Rubin) is talented at using ingredients from the ocean. You can taste it in dishes like the Italian-Spanish carpaccio “gazpacho” ($14), an island of thinly sliced, buttery yellowtail surrounded by a lagoon of radiant yellow puree made from cucumber, tomato, bread, basil and garlic. Or the tender braised octopus ($18) with saffron-kissed, slow-cooked new potatoes, bottarga and chili flakes, which was a terrific take on a Mediterranean classic, despite needing perhaps another minute on the grill.

While seafood is a strength at Solo Italiano, it is by no means the restaurant’s specialty. Laboa, who previously helmed Farina in San Francisco, was the winner of the World Pesto Championship in 2008, and he makes sure to include his prize-winning sauce in several places, such as in the silk handkerchief (mandilli di seta) pasta ($22), where his classic basil pesto pops up as the star of the show. Indeed, it is not uncommon for Laboa’s pestos to be the best component of a dish, as with his dandelion version, served alongside a blended romesco-like tomato sauce underneath a too-generously salted fillet of halibut ($36). So too, in his take on orecchiette and sausage ($22), where Laboa takes a theoretical approach to pesto by pureeing not herbs, but blanched Stonecipher Farm broccolini stems and olive oil in order to distribute a vibrant green freshness through the dish. It’s a pity that the underseasoned housemade sausage did not add much to the pasta, because the components of this dish that did work were phenomenal.

Another place where Laboa’s pesto genius played out to note-perfect effect was in his creative interpretation of a tomato and basil salad, reinvented as a dessert. His Caprese gelatos ($9) comprised one dairy-free scoop of fruity, fragrant tomato sorbetto and one full-fat, raw milk-based scoop of grassy, aromatic basil gelato, united not by mozzarella but by fresh whipped cream and a single drop of balsamic vinegar. It reminded me of school vacations when I would eat ripe, late-summer tomatoes off the vine while my father mowed the lawn nearby. Absolutely sublime.

There was something nostalgic, too, about the papardelle with lamb ragu ($23). Described by the menu as “an inconceivable local heirloom tomato sauce,” the ragu was made with ground lamb shoulder, sage, rosemary and juniper, and served on a bed of precisely al dente egg pasta, infused with mint. At our table, we were split on this dish. We were all captivated by the elaborate interplay of herbs, and while some of us loved the homey, rustic presentation that called to mind a very grandmotherly way of cooking, some of us wanted to see a little more cheffy technique, especially in a plate of pasta that cost upwards of $20.

I’ll admit, I was torn myself, until I talked with Laboa later and asked him about his vision for the restaurant. Real Italian recipes, like his family’s pesto, are what he cares about most, and if that allows him a chance to show off, that’s fine. If not, he’s OK with that, too.

“We buy a lot of stuff from farms that is already beautiful,” he said. “I just don’t touch the food too much, don’t overdo it, don’t overdress it. Let the food speak and give the flavors some freedom.”

That restraint is key. It’s what makes Laboa the kind of chef who will serve you a cold beet salad with sharp Gorgonzola ($11) and decorate the plate with nothing but lemon zest. Or send out a wobbly, barely set panna cotta ($8) and unashamedly skip ornate garnishes to present it simply, with a dozen perfect South Portland blackberries foraged by his front-of-house staff. He told me, “Those blackberries are what we’re about. Simple food, but we try to pay attention to all the details. Small things, they make a big difference.” And despite a few minor hiccups, it is precisely those tiny, magical elements, not the lurid Commercial Street pageantry you might expect, that make Solo Italiano such a welcome surprise.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Molly and Rich Evans of Portland enjoy a drink after their meal.

Molly and Rich Evans of Portland enjoy a drink after their meal. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Photos by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

]]> 3 Laboa, left, the chef at Solo Italiano, with his crudo chef, Jordan Rubin.Sat, 17 Sep 2016 20:38:48 +0000
Dine Out: At Salt in Vinalhaven, chef offers contemporary dishes, riffs on French bistro classics Sun, 11 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 Every year, thanks to the arrival of ferries teeming with “summer people,” Vinalhaven’s population swells from about 1,200 to nearly twice that number. Year-round island residents are resigned to it, and although they see the economic benefit to hosting visitors, that doesn’t mean they have to like it.

Many avoid the sleepy commercial strip in town as much as possible, and, as one islander told me, “We just work and sort of hide out from July until the end of August. But it makes you crazy after a while, and you have to cheat sometimes. You end up going out to eat at least a few times in the summer.” And at Salt – a 40-seat, upscale and mostly French contemporary bistro housed in a centuries-old former pharmacy – the kitchen is ready for them.

To be fair, executive chef and owner John Feingold (formerly of Daniel in New York and Spring in Paris) is ready for all diners, including summer people. “In June, it’s probably 80 percent locals getting their licks in before the season, and then it flips in August and then drifts back,” he said. A tidal ebbing and flowing of customers seems just about right for a seasonal restaurant in one of the biggest lobstering communities in the nation, one that supplies Salt with exceptionally fresh seafood that frequently goes from ocean to plate in a matter of hours or minutes.

Salt’s strongest dishes are the ones that take full advantage of local ingredients, like the phenomenal lobster papardelle ($28), made with housemade egg pasta, bias-cut asparagus and English peas, and a simple saucing of red pepper flakes, garlic, pepper and olive oil. If I hadn’t read the menu, I might have thought this was an Asian dish, with wide, translucent noodles rolled out so thinly that they resembled knife-cut chow fun, plenty of peppery heat and tons of umami in the savory yet surprisingly light sauce. As a backdrop for juicy chunks of superb Vinalhaven-caught lobster, the lively, uncomplicated pasta was exactly the right choice.

Local Beets Done Five Ways ($12) were also an excellent showcase for local foods – this time from the ground, not the sea. Some of the beets were grown on the island’s own Sparkplug Farm, and some were hyperlocally sourced, “from a guy down the road with a garden in his yard. We call them East Main Street beets,” Feingold said. Although the dish dips a toe into the treacherous waters of molecular gastronomy with its beet “caviar” spheres and slightly too-gelatinized beet foam that reminded us of a 1970s Jell-O dessert, the real stars of the plate were the lavender poached beets, just floral enough to amplify the sweetness of the vegetable’s purple flesh. The earthy sauteed greens and a magenta impasto of beet paint, not to mention a generous grind of fresh pepper, brought the dish together in a way that made sense and, most importantly, tasted fantastic.

With the beets, we particularly enjoyed sipping the slightly astringent Harbor Fizz ($11), a gin-and-blueberry cocktail flavored with lemon juice and finished generously with Prosecco. It was our favorite beverage of the evening, followed by a grassy and occasionally too-tannic Tuscan Carmignano Capezzana ($37), and an homage to Maine: the Salt Elixir ($11) made with Moxie soda, Fernet Branca, lime and orange. It’s hard not to root for a cocktail made with the state’s official soft drink, but when you blend two complex concoctions (Fernet and Moxie), what you get is a tastebud overload, where bitter gentian and mentholated herbs dominate as the strongest flavors. Imagine dissolving a Ricola cough drop and lime juice into a Dr. Pepper, and you’ll get a sense of this ambitious cocktail’s peculiar character.

Unfortunately, drink service took a very long time, as did plate clearing. At one point, we sat at our small two-top table with cocktail and wine glasses, amuse bouche plates, a bread plate and appetizer plates, all crowded up, cheek by jowl, until our main dishes arrived with nowhere to set them. To her credit, once our server (who was still learning the ropes) figured out what was going on, she apologized and joked, pointing at the apothecary cabinet running the length of the wall behind us, “If those drawers still worked, we could just skip busing the tables and shove the extra dishes inside!” We had to laugh.

The food, too, hit a few bumps here and there. We found the Dream Dates ($9) appetizer, made with a tart, funky blue cheese mousse and a smear of balsamic reduction to be overpoweringly sweet to eat on its own, even with smoky bacon and a peppery nasturtium flower to cut through what Feingold himself called “the painful sweetness of dates.” The plate was also overgarnished with in-season pea flowers that obscured, rather than accented the dates beneath them.

Our seared Barbary Duck breast ($27) was cooked just beyond medium rare, and ended up a little tough. On the other hand, the simple, classic French Puy lentils, cooked in a mirepoix and stock and served alongside, were outstanding, as was the single tiny confited tomato that lent a much-needed sweetness to the dish. But not quite enough. It made us think that we should have taken our server’s earlier advice and used the apothecary drawers to stash one of those smoky dates to eat later on with the duck.

I was also struck throughout our visit that nearly every other table was ordering dessert. Perhaps, I thought, because it was early August, so many of our fellow diners must be summer people cutting loose on vacation. No matter – we couldn’t be outliers, so we chose, at our server’s “hands down” recommendation, the chocolate pot de crème ($9) with a caramel swirl and pleasingly bitter cocoa nibs. Intensely rich and topped with a quenelle of boozy, bourbon-infused whipped cream and a sprinkling of fine black Icelandic lava salt, the chocolate custard was faultless.

When I looked over, toward the bay window where a tin shark hangs menacingly, I saw a local business owner whom I had spoken with several times during my two-week visit, polishing off a serving of the very same pot de creme. So much for my theory about dessert. He saw me, waved a greeting (everyone waves to everyone on Vinalhaven), and gave a thumbs-up as he pointed down at his dish. Clearly, it wasn’t just summer people who appreciated what John Feingold and his sous chef Dudley Irwin were doing in the kitchen. “I always want to share what I love with lots of people, but no matter what month it is, my most important customers are the people of Vinalhaven,” Feingold said. “When I look around the room and see a sixth-generation fisherman coming back for another piece of Stilton, now that’s a home run for me.”

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

]]> 0 century ago, the space housing Salt was the Vinalhaven apothecary.Mon, 12 Sep 2016 18:50:11 +0000