The Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram » Restaurant reviews http://www.pressherald.com Mon, 26 Sep 2016 13:25:22 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.3.6 Dine Out Maine: Corner Room can delight, but choose your night and meal carefully http://www.pressherald.com/2016/09/25/dine-out-maine-the-corner-room-can-delight-but-choose-your-night-and-meal-carefully/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/09/25/dine-out-maine-the-corner-room-can-delight-but-choose-your-night-and-meal-carefully/#comments Sun, 25 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=1073481 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.

Garganelli

Garganelli

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: At Solo Italiano, there is magic in simplicity http://www.pressherald.com/2016/09/18/dine-out-maine-at-solo-italiano-there-is-magic-in-simplicity/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/09/18/dine-out-maine-at-solo-italiano-there-is-magic-in-simplicity/#comments Sun, 18 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=1062846 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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

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

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Dine Out: At Salt in Vinalhaven, chef offers contemporary dishes, riffs on French bistro classics http://www.pressherald.com/2016/09/11/at-salt-in-vinalhaven-a-pedigreed-chef-offers-a-solid-menu-of-contemporary-dishes-and-riffs-on-french-bistro-classics/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/09/11/at-salt-in-vinalhaven-a-pedigreed-chef-offers-a-solid-menu-of-contemporary-dishes-and-riffs-on-french-bistro-classics/#comments Sun, 11 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=1051870 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:
andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: Is Five Fifty-Five having a temporary lapse or a bigger problem? http://www.pressherald.com/2016/09/04/at-the-upscale-five-fifty-five-in-portland-our-reviewer-wonders-whether-his-experiences-signal-a-temporary-lapse-or-a-bigger-problem/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/09/04/at-the-upscale-five-fifty-five-in-portland-our-reviewer-wonders-whether-his-experiences-signal-a-temporary-lapse-or-a-bigger-problem/#comments Sun, 04 Sep 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=1042024 Editor’s note: An incomplete version of this review was inadvertently posted last Sunday.

I spend a lot of time with college professors. When I hear them complain about how hard it is to work in a “publish or perish” system, cranking out articles and books until they earn the permanent job security of tenure, I smile inwardly. They have no idea how bad it could be.

For restaurateurs, the pressure appears similar – every month (or more) they have to create new menus, refresh their dining spaces, perfect dishes and come up with a thousand creative ways to beguile a fickle public. But there is no such thing as tenure for a restaurant, no safe harbor where they can relax and coast on previous successes, especially in a city like Portland, where competition has grown fierce. A restaurant must always invent, reinvent, promote, and then rinse and repeat. It never stops.

For an upscale establishment like Five Fifty-Five, where diners spend significant amounts of money for a meal, the pressure is even more intense. When he and his wife Michelle opened the restaurant in 2003, chef and co-owner Steve Corry found very little competition in the category and quickly built a loyal following. Along the way, they scored some seriously impressive accolades for their local, seasonal dishes, including a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef award in 2007.

Some signature plates, like the truffled lobster “mac & cheese” ($33) have been on the menu for more than a decade. In her 41/2 star review from 2012, our then reviewer called the dish “legendary,” with a clever blending of homey and luxe components. On one recent visit, we were wowed by another stalwart, the simple, yet exceedingly good striploin ($34), cooked precisely to medium-rare and daubed with a lively, dazzlingly green chimichurri sauce. Steaks, one server told us, “are always in style here.”

But as the dining scene in Maine evolved, so has Five Fifty-Five. “We already filled the special occasion niche, but we didn’t want to get pigeonholed,” Steve Corry said, describing the opening of the restaurant’s more casual, bar-focused adjoining Point Five Lounge, and the conversion of the restaurant’s third floor into a private event room. “But with the food and the space, we’re always trying to stay current,” he said.

You can spot the restaurant’s push toward innovation in dishes like the baby kale salad with grilled watermelon and shaved coppa ($10). The addition of pistachios, pickled watermelon rind and couscous, not to mention a lime-juice-and-yogurt dressing, make reference to the culinary world’s newfound, Ottolenghi-fueled embrace of Middle Eastern ingredients and techniques. And while we found the inspiration clear, there were just too many things going on in this dish, too many contrasting elements shouting for attention in every bite. The incorporation of something grilled, something pickled, something starchy, and something cured seemed like a strange mutation of a bridal tradition, rather than a recipe for an appealing salad.

This is not to say that Five Fifty-Five can’t get excess right sometimes. In its similarly maximalist New England scallop entrée ($32), the kitchen pairs four impeccably grilled scallops with a warm salad of blanched cherry tomatoes, green onions, peas, pea pods, pea shoots, corn and shishito peppers. Whew.

Seared New England scallops

Seared New England scallops

Here though, the ingredients are barely manipulated, their flavors stitched together loosely with lemon thyme. And because they are, as Steve Corry called them, “a showcase of the best of what’s coming out of the ground right now,” their inclusion makes undeniable sense. Quite simply, this is August on a plate, and it is extraordinary.

Pastry chef Yazmin Saraya’s work was also precisely matched to the season and very enjoyable, particularly her riff on peaches and cream ($10). With its tender roasted peach half and contrasting dots of vibrantly orange peach-and-apricot puree and pale honey anglaise, along with a scoop of cardamom ice cream, the plate resembled a whimsical, confectionary version of a Twister board. Also excellent, her dense, almost fudgy corn cake ($10), which could have been improved only by eliminating the sour grilled corn kernels underneath the quenelle of gorgeous cajeta (caramelized condensed milk) ice cream.

Peaches and cream

Peaches and cream Photos by Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

Other dishes, tasted over two visits to the restaurant, were generally successful in places, with a few baffling errors of composition, execution or both. Our Carbonara-like spinach fettuccini with crispy pancetta and local mushrooms ($14 small/ $27 large) came topped with a jiggling raw egg yolk, which gave the presentation a certain concentric symmetry. But the yolk should have been blended in with the house-made pasta (and some pasta water) before serving, because rather than creating a silky, lushly emulsified sauce when pierced, the runny yolk just puddled at the bottom of the bowl, adding nearly nothing to the dish, even when stirred into the rapidly cooling pasta. Worse, the whole dish was underseasoned and tasted mostly of the oil that had been used to sauté the mushrooms.

Similarly, the pork chop with braised Stonecipher Farms kale and collards ($28) had some real high points. Chief among these (and most important for the dish) was a faultlessly grilled chop, sourced from Bucksport, and topped with a splendidly tangy barbecue sauce made from cider vinegar, tomato paste, caramelized onion and whiskey. We also loved the delightfully smoky braised greens, but we were disappointed by the skimpy serving of just a few leaves – a cruel tease that made us grab a menu to see if they were offered as a side (they were not). The real problem on the plate, however, was the local yellow eye beans, which were undercooked, a few actually still almost raw.

Occasionally, the kitchen duffs an entire dish, like the blackberry salad ($10) with ricotta salata, which featured fat ribbons of fresh cucumber and local greens, dressed in a broken, underflavored garlic scape vinaigrette and crunchy, unripe (and frankly terrible) blackberries sprinkled throughout.

I found these problems all the more surprising in light of what I had heard from a friend who once worked as a line cook at Five Fifty-Five. He told me recently how talented Steve Corry was at running his kitchen, especially expediting orders: “If a dish showed up on the pass with any mistake – literally any single flaw – he would send it back without ever getting angry, and get the cooks to do it right.”

But when I later learned that the Corrys’ attention has been pulled recently to their other big project, the re-opening of French bistro Petite Jacqueline in a new space in the Old Port, I started to see the meal’s problems in context. Without Steve’s expediting skills and eagle eyes on every plate, some errors were bound to slip past.

So too with service, which, along with an extensive and beautifully considered wine list that includes many bottles under $30 (and one for $21), is Michelle Corry’s domain. At turns inattentive, uncoordinated and occasionally bizarre, service felt much too casual for a restaurant at this price point. We sat with only a wine list – no menus – for nearly 10 minutes on one visit. On another, one server introduced herself to us and took drink orders using a fake British accent, and another startled a neighboring table finishing dessert by elbowing one diner and interrupting their conversation to quip, “Butter and sugar sure do taste good together, don’t they, folks?”

And that’s a shame, because we saw evidence of impressive cocktail knowledge from one of our servers, who not only knew what went into both the refreshing, minty Cucumber Rickey ($12) and the too-sweet, gin-based Martinez ($12), but offered us suggestions for two similar drinks we might enjoy, as well as directions for how to make them at home. Had she been behind the bar, I’m pretty confident we wouldn’t have received an improperly strained Martinez that arrived with sizable chunks of ice floating on its surface.

It is hard to say if the meal’s problems point to a temporary (and easily fixed) lack of focus, or if they signal bigger, more endemic issues. Regardless, Five Fifty-Five has an exceptional reputation to uphold, and as hard as it is to see it struggle even briefly, and as much as we might want to let it use its well-earned stature as a crutch, that isn’t how things work. Getting things right at every single service is the only way to keep an increasing number of sophisticated, ambitious rivals at bay.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: Somerset Tap House serves perfectly average fare http://www.pressherald.com/2016/08/21/dine-out-maine-somerset-tap-house/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/08/21/dine-out-maine-somerset-tap-house/#comments Sun, 21 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=1021880 At Somerset Tap House, there is no chef. Instead, you’ll find a restaurant overseen by a Whole Foods Market “Team Leader,” or rather, several Team Leaders, whose collective goal, I learned after speaking with two of them, is to deliver “great product” in “a new full-service concept.” So, essentially: good food and table service (with an extra helping of jargon), all inside a restaurant tucked into Portland’s Whole Foods Market.

Once you are inside the semicircular glass-enclosed dining space with its tall, tufted, nailhead benches, mid-century scoop-style bar stools and dropped, wood-paneled platform ceiling, it’s actually possible to forget that you are about to eat a meal inside a 46,000-square-foot retail colossus. The visuals and space planning both conspire to make Somerset Tap House feel like a separate entity with an identity of its own, and that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, the illusion of separateness is a Potemkin village that doesn’t extend beyond the threshold of the pub. Despite a locked exterior entrance that leads directly into the parking lot, there is currently only one way in and out of the restaurant, and it is through a tangle of supermarket checkout lines. Jeff Gibson, Meat Team Leader and one of the senior Whole Foods staffers who designed the menu at Somerset Tap House, told me that this is not an accident. Officially, the company has concerns about people taking open alcoholic drinks out onto the patio and then through the entrance to the market. But when you consider that supermarket employees and shoppers (especially families) are, according to Gibson, the restaurant’s key target audiences, it makes a particular kind of corporate sense to close off any direct access and instead funnel everyone through the store.

I learned first-hand how powerful this commercial corralling can be when I visited Somerset Tap House with three adults and two elementary-school age children. When we arrived and made the longish walk past the Whole Foods tills, my guests began sketching out details of an unplanned, after-dinner supermarket excursion, improvising a shopping list that hit seven items by the time we arrived at the bar. As our harried server/host/bartender – the only front-of-house staff in the restaurant that evening – told us, “We don’t serve dessert, but the store bakery makes great cookies,” the kids quickly added ice cream, chocolate and some of those cookies to the list. And that is how the cost of our visit nearly doubled before we had even taken a bite.

With so many people at the table, we were able to order a very wide cross-section of dishes, beginning with a few solid starters, like the Bang Bang Cauliflower ($8), deep fried florets of panko, flour and cornstarch-breaded cauliflower with a crunchy exterior and soft, savory interior, served with a local (but not house-made) Schlotterbeck & Foss sweet chili sauce. Or the thick-cut, skin-on Belgian style pub fries ($5), cooked to order and seasoned with rosemary oil and parmesan. Our favorite of the appetizers was the grilled Caesar salad ($7), sprinkled with lots of cracked pepper and a crisp, rustic cornbread crumble. With the extra dimension of flavor from the sweet cornbread and smoky char on the romaine, we (and especially the children) didn’t even miss the anchovies.

We also shared a few less exciting starters, like a dreary hummus plate ($5) where the star of the dish was a mound of crinkle-cut potato chips dusted with outsourced DennyMike’s garlic and paprika-flavored Pixie Dust. Sadly, the hummus they were intended to liven up was a flavorless beige glob. And the oppositely problematic wings ($6 for 6/$10 for 12), made from antibiotic- and hormone-free chicken and prepared in two styles, Sriracha Buffalo (another DennyMike’s seasoning) and salt and pepper. Both varieties arrived still moist inside, but were adventurously overseasoned.

Perhaps most disappointing is that the kitchen’s enthusiasm with the pre-made spice mix is probably the biggest risk Somerset Tap House takes. Indeed, the sandwich list reads like the mathematical average of 100 standard American pub menus. If you asked the statistician Nate Silver to design a hamburger based on national polling, this is what you might get.

That makes perfect sense when you consider that every single plate has been workshopped extensively. According to Gibson, “There are lots of people who are involved in the project. So when you’re an executive chef in your own restaurant, you make your own decisions, whereas here, there are lots of sets of eyes on things to determine if they make sense, they follow the culture of the company, they represent who we are, and they help build the brand.”

With no single person’s creative vision to guide the menu, you wind up with perfectly average sandwiches like the grilled cheese ($7) on Whole Foods Market sourdough and filled with – no surprise – a blend of anonymous cheeses designed not to offend, rather than to delight. Or the lobster roll ($18), a standard mayonnaise and celery salt recipe, made with cryo-vaced lobster that, while local, tasted like it was a few thousand miles away from where it was caught.

The best sandwich we ate was a tofu sandwich ($10), featuring a slice of firm tofu crusted in (pre-made) Drum Rock Fis-Chic batter and fried to exactly the right crisp, golden doneness. Had the bottom bun not dissolved halfway through the meal, thanks to a careless layering of tomato, lettuce and pickles, this would have been a knockout. As it was, it was simply the only sandwich memorable enough to order again.

Other dishes were unfortunately below average, like chewy, flavor-free fish and chips ($16) or the poorly executed Somerset burger ($13) that came to our table blistered black on the outside and cold and raw at its center. Worst of all was a tragically overcooked grilled chicken sandwich ($9), burnt to a cinder and lubricated with chevre before being slid into a Whole Foods Market bakery sesame roll. It was so scorched that it was completely inedible to both the 9-year-old who ordered it and the grown-ups tasked with finishing it.

Fortunately, some excellent local beverages were available to help bolster the adults’ appetites, including a toasty, chocolatey Burnside Brown Ale ($6), and a fruity, very hoppy Wanderlust Farmhouse Ale ($6), both from Portland’s Foundation Brewing Company. Those, plus a few glasses of vibrantly floral Le Charmel rose ($9), made the meal of largely characterless pub grub much more pleasant. When I asked our overtaxed server if the market sold those same beers and wines for people to take home, he told me, “Not everything, because the store has a different alcohol license. But we have a lot of what you ate in the store,” as if our entire meal had been a demonstration of how to cook with Whole Foods groceries.

Later, in both my conversation with Gibson and a casual chat with a Whole Foods cashier on another visit, I heard about the restaurant’s upcoming plans to link Somerset Tap House more tightly with the supermarket’s prepared foods business, a move that promises to distribute menu decisions across an even wider range of senior employees. Consequently, it also seems destined to make the food even more blandly average and dependent on pre-made ingredients and sauces – not to mention very likely to involve at least one more corporate Team Leader, just for good measure.

Burnside Brown Ale is among a rich selection of local brews.

Burnside Brown Ale is among a rich selection of local brews.

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 andrewross.maine@gmail.com and on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

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Dine Out Maine: Even at 17 years old, reliable Local 188 maintains its creative spark http://www.pressherald.com/2016/08/07/dine-out-maine-even-at-17-years-old-reliable-local-188-maintains-its-creative-spark/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/08/07/dine-out-maine-even-at-17-years-old-reliable-local-188-maintains-its-creative-spark/#comments Sun, 07 Aug 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=1001335 “Long in the tooth” is a phrase that sounds as if it should have something to do with food, but doesn’t – like a flavor that fades out in a slow coda, lingering on your tongue and maybe wearing out its welcome by a few seconds. Instead, the term is just a colorful way of saying “old.” It’s how a friend of mine described Local 188 when I told her I was going for dinner one night recently, adding that the restaurant had been part of the Portland dining scene “for centuries.” Well, since 1999 at least, when Executive Chef Jay Villani opened the Spanish-influenced restaurant as the first of his trio of restaurants that now includes Sonny’s and Salvage BBQ.

After 17 years, Local 188 has also been written about more than a few times. Three and a half years ago, the Press Herald published a four-star review that praised the “impossibly intense” smoked chicken and the savory pumpkin bread pudding, calling the meal “among the most interesting and satisfying in town.”

But even in the short span of a few years, Portland’s food scene has snowballed into something larger, more complex, and certainly much more competitive than it was. Which makes it all the more amazing that a teenage restaurant like Local 188, with its shabby chic décor, mix-and-match light fixtures and tin ceilings, still sees lines of patrons waiting to eat brunch on weekends, and still manages, according to Villani, to seat more than 160 people on a typical Friday or Saturday night.

Some of that popularity comes down to booze: Local 188 might be a restaurant, but its beverage program feels more like it comes from a bar. Typically, you’ll find an entire dozen draft beers, along with a carefully considered, mostly Old World wine list and some gorgeous cocktails, like the bittersweet The Fever ($11), which, with homemade blood orange-infused gin, made an excellent aperitif.

Another reason for Local 188’s longevity is Villani’s management style. He still shows up at the restaurant every morning. For weekend brunch service, he also cooks alongside his young staff, whom he views as one of the restaurant’s biggest assets. Referring to himself as their spiritual guru and advisor, he uses his team’s zeal to keep the restaurant (and especially its menu) fresh. “These days, it’s about the kids in the kitchen. I want them to take their ideas and make what they enjoy eating and not to think if it’s going to be a hit or a miss. I tell them, ‘You make something new you believe in, that you really love, and I’ll be right behind you,’ ” Villani said.

One place where this approach has paid dividends is on the dessert menu, where you’ll find a strawberry shortcake with a chèvre and parsnip panna cotta ($8), or pastry chef Pat Tubbs’ literally named take on a Black Forest cherry dessert, the Bosque Negro ($8), a dense triple chocolate brownie dripping with slow-melting charred vanilla ice cream and dotted with deep red pickled cherries. Tubbs ties sweet and savory elements together with a Spanish-accented sherry pastry cream, soft raisin fruit jellies that echo aromas in the sherry, and a sprinkling of fried pine nuts that have been tossed in paprika. There’s a lot going on here, but apart from needing a little more vanilla char flavor in the ice cream, it all comes together in this remarkably inventive dessert – even the plating, which is aptly Picasso-esque.

It’s no surprise that presentation matters at Local 188 when you understand that it was originally a gallery, with tapas and wine offered as a way of attracting potential art buyers. Today, you’ll find murals and paintings on the walls, but also clear attention to the visual in dishes like the super-tangy, clean and simple white anchovies ($5), made in-house, but served in an open anchovy tin – a sly reference to both Magritte and Warhol, one that subverts expectations of what’s inside. Villani got the idea for the presentation on a tapas-eating trip to Barcelona he took with some of his Local 188 chefs, where they ate “really fantastic canned products served at the table in their tins,” he said.

Anchovies also showed up in a brown butter vinaigrette that topped the charred asparagus salad ($8) with shaved manchego and saffron croutons, a dish that, our server accurately remarked, “tastes like a backyard barbecue.” It also paired wonderfully with a slice of the very straightforward, if slightly underseasoned, traditional Spanish tortilla ($8) a thick omelet of sorts, made with layers of potato, bell pepper, cheese and scallion, and plated with a thick smear of a perky garlic aioli.

Another old standard, the classic paella ($28) needed a little tweaking. While we adored the fresh chourico (a Portuguese version of chorizo that is chunkier and a little more fatty) made for the restaurant at Salvage BBQ, as well as the intense tomato flavor, we couldn’t get past the rice. Good paellas soak up saffron-rich broth in thirsty, sponge-like quantities because they start with short-grained and starchy Bomba rice (or, in a pinch, Arborio). When all the broth is gone, the supersaturated grains at the bottom of the pan form a savory, crunchy bottom crust called “socarrat” that is as important to the dish as the clams and saffron – mostly because it is addictively tasty. Instead, our paella was made with a medium-long grain canilla rice that remained a little wet and consequently never developed the crispy socarrat, even after we had devoured the excellent seafood, chicken and grill-marked sausage. Switch up the rice, and I’d wager that this becomes one of the best paellas in the region.

By some distance, the star of our meal was the North Spore oyster mushrooms in a smoked brisket vinaigrette ($9). The sleight of hand worked by combining an ultra-concentrated beef sauce with grill-seared mushrooms gave this dish the illusion of meatiness, as if every salty, smoky bite were orders of magnitude richer than it actually was. The plate also illustrated yet another reason why Local 188 is still in business: its blend of creativity and frugality. That sauce I couldn’t get enough of? It’s made with jus left over from the weekend’s brunch brisket hash. “Everyone squawks about buying local, but when you do it (like in those mushrooms) there’s a compression and you have to make up costs somewhere. It’s a fine line making money on a restaurant these days, so we try to use every single thing. But only if it actually tastes good,” Villani said.

That he can make thriftiness this appealing says something important about Villani’s success running restaurants. It’s not enough just to be an inspirational boss or a creative cook with lots of ideas, or even to present artistic, visually compelling plates to diners. Those things help, certainly, but what really matters is that you’re thinking about all of a restaurant’s complicated moving parts and can keep them working together smoothly, even if the machinery is 17 years old. May we all be half this good when we are getting a little long in the tooth ourselves.

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: andrewross.maine@gmail.com; Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: At Nosh Kitchen Bar in Portland, size matters http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/31/dine-out-maine-at-nosh-kitchen-bar-in-portland-size-matters/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/31/dine-out-maine-at-nosh-kitchen-bar-in-portland-size-matters/#comments Sun, 31 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=991382 Ask a group of New Yorkers or Yiddish speakers (or both) what they think of when they hear the word “nosh,” and you’ll get a surprisingly good consensus. Mostly, they’ll say the word describes snack food of some sort, almost never a full meal. As a verb, it describes an activity in the gray area between nibbling and casual grazing.

But you don’t have to know what the term means when you walk into Nosh, in Portland’s arts district, because the restaurant helps you out with a definition printed on the front door. It’s a good idea, even if it doesn’t prepare you for what you’ll encounter inside, in the arched dining room that still retains plaster work from its first incarnation as a movie theater. Incongruous with the delicate ceiling is a heavily branded bar with local beers on tap, along with three televisions (all tuned to different channels), high tables with elevated wooden banquette seating and a partly open kitchen that looks like a place where a DJ might spin the music that blares throughout the echoing space. Nosh is, in a word, loud.

But that fits with at least part of chef/owner Jason Loring’s vision for his restaurant. “Lots of the complaints we get are about the loudness. But boisterous is what we’re looking for,” he said. “We want it to be a place where if someone breaks a glass or smashes some plates, it’s not a big deal. You won’t even notice.”

High volume also seems to be a natural match for the menu’s overarching focus on high-concept extreme hamburgers, including one constructed from two thick slices of Sicilian pizza (from another Loring restaurant, Slab) and one that uses two entire doughnuts in place of a bun. Or the Nosh Mac ‘N Stack ($15), an American cheese-coated beef patty sandwiched between two leaden, deep-fried squares of compressed macaroni and cheese that look like and have the heft of paving tiles. We found the macaroni to be well-seasoned but very dry, a necessary concession to the process required to get it to retain its shape until it is served.

At the same time, the beef itself was outstanding, as it was in both the Nosh Burger ($12), a breakfast-style hamburger with blue cheese spread and a fried egg on top, and the classic (but still oversized) Cheese Burger ($10). Nosh’s executive chef Noah Leether has a real talent for keeping patties moist and just a little pink inside. Sadly, the impressive grill technique simply gets lost amid the attention-sucking spectacle of a monster truck of a burger.

Nosh wasn’t always like this. When it opened in 2010, the restaurant served what Loring describes as “lots of fish, pickled items, homemade charcuterie, vegetables … a couple of burgers too, but it was a lot like tapas,” a menu very much in tune with the name. Soon after, Loring saw an episode of “Man vs. Food” and thought it might be fun (and a good marketing strategy) to put what he describes as a “ridiculous” burger on the menu. With that, the practically libertine Apocalypse Now Burger ($21), a beef, pork belly, foie gras and bacon behemoth, was born. It wasn’t long before Nosh attracted attention for its towering hamburgers, including from the very television program that inspired the new sandwich.

It also wasn’t long before the equilibrium of the place shifted dramatically, away from vegetables and seafood, away from smorgasbord-style spreads of small items, evolving toward jumbo sandwiches with their own gravitational field, like the foot-long spicy shrimp po-boy ($14), which, stuffed mostly with shredded lettuce and topped with six tempura-battered (and soggy) shrimp, somehow manages to feel too large and stingy at the same time.

Even though the change in focus fit with Loring’s plan to run a casual, late-night eatery, he was a little discouraged by the rejection of his original offerings. “But I got a quick business education out of it: Sometimes customers don’t know they want something until you put it on the menu, and the restaurant just flowed in that direction,” he said. “I wasn’t going to fight it. Ultimately, I’m fine with it, but it took a little getting used to.”

A few reminders remain of what the old Nosh must have been, like snappy, sour Maitland Mountain Farms spicy pickles ($4) and a well-conceived, if not perfectly executed Mediterranean plate ($15) of mezze with nutty and slightly sweet falafel, tender and oniony Israeli couscous salad, alongside characterless pitted olives, bland hummus, and wedges of grilled naan that desperately needed another brush of oil.

There is a lot on the menu that also feels perfunctory, like the serviceable if undistinguished Reuben sandwich ($14), a tuna avocado toast ($13) made with tuna salad and Mexican cheese that tastes like a dry, open-face deli-style tuna melt, and both of the desserts we tasted when we visited. The Betty Ford Brownie Sundae ($8) was a mass grave of a dessert, where seemingly anything in the bakery from which Nosh outsources its sweets – from an Oreo and chocolate chip brownie, to vanilla ice cream, chocolate ganache, dulce de leche and peanuts – was squashed unceremoniously into a bowl and buried in whipped cream. On my next visit with two college-age friends, I tasted another slice of that same brownie (as well as the same ice cream and peanuts), this time folded inside in a “churro” taco ($9) that was really just a fried white flour tortilla sprinkled with cinnamon sugar.

Yet the menu has some bright spots. Some of the most successful post-evolution dishes balance greasy elements with brighter flavors, like wonderful sweet potato tater-tot “nachos” ($11) that feature garlic sour cream and marinara-like ranchero sauce, or the best dish I ate at Nosh: crisp, savory polenta fries ($12) made with cheddar cheese and topped with a fresh, green jalapeño sauce, arugula and slices of vividly spicy Fresno chilies. These still have all the appeal of bar food without the excess of a fat-upon-fat gut bomb.

After both visits to Nosh, I left puzzled about its intended audience. Surely anyone sensitive to noise won’t feel welcome, nor will anyone watching their LDL cholesterol (or waistline). My millennial friends enjoyed the vibrancy of the place, but commented that the appealing ideas often suffered from spotty execution. Another remarked that Nosh reminded her of somewhere she might have gone while in college.

And suddenly, I saw clearly what Nosh has become. Today, there is no salmon, no bagels, no whitefish, no black-and-white cookies, nothing with pastrami – very little that is traditionally “noshy.” What the restaurant does have instead is whopping portions of bar food, steroidal burgers with ludicrous buns, and a booming sound system – like a restaurant that could fit right in next-door to a big land-grant university, a place where overexcited undergrads go before a big fraternity party. These days, perhaps it should be called Rush rather than Nosh.

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 andrewross.maine@gmail.com and on Twitter @AndrewRossME.

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Dine Out Maine: The Velveteen Habit excels at fresh uses for garden bounty http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/24/dine-out-maine-the-velveteen-habit-excels-at-fresh-uses-for-garden-bounty/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/24/dine-out-maine-the-velveteen-habit-excels-at-fresh-uses-for-garden-bounty/#comments Sun, 24 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=981925 There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. Our original plan was to drive down to Ogunquit, take in the summertime afternoon views as we made our way along the cliffs on Marginal Way and eventually zip over to The Velveteen Habit for dinner. But it had been drizzly and damp since morning, and our GPS had other plans for us, sending our car through miles of winding back roads in Cape Neddick as the sun slowly broke through the gray.

A beet salad with strawberries, ricotta and olives at the The Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick. Photo by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

A beet salad with strawberries, ricotta and olives at the The Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick. Photos by Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

But by the time we pulled into the parking lot of the farmhouse restaurant, the evening was bright, and we could see nothing but mist rising up from the expanse of green in the gardens behind. Everything, even the air, seemed alive.

It felt like a shame to go indoors, just as the weather was breaking, but we did, and followed our host to a long, open dining room with Windsor chairs and benches and rough beams crisscrossing the ceiling. From our table, and from just about any table in the room, we had a view of the four acres of gardens. “Feel free to take your wine glasses and head outside, if you like,” our server told a couple at a neighboring table. They didn’t hesitate. A few minutes later, as we drank a tart, herbal Sage It Isn’t So ($13) and bittersweet, frothily layered Rhubarb Sour ($13), we saw them pass by our window, wandering along the back of the house.

Even though The Velveteen Habit has been open only since 2014, its farmhouse and gardens have a reputation that stretches back more than two decades, when the beloved, James Beard Award-winning Arrows stood on the same spot. It’s easy to see how such a site would be appealing to a new buyer, even if it had stood vacant for two years: “We looked all over for the right property and redid everything inside, took it down to studs,” owner and beverage director Benjamin Goldman said. “Outside, we fixed up a lot of neglect, and now we have a working kitchen farm, honey bees, maple trees and apple trees. We use everything we can in the restaurant.”

Like their homegrown beets, which executive chef Chris Wilcox roasts, quarters and serves with sliced strawberries and ricotta in a salad ($12) he tops with a salty and unexpectedly crunchy olive topping. The olives get their surprising texture from slow dehydration, a trip through a spice grinder and then a quick massage with toasted panko breadcrumbs that distributes dark nicoise flavor and color throughout the mixture – exactly the right counterpoint to the sweetness of the root vegetables and summer berries.

Or the sugar snap peas that, along with discs of magenta watermelon radish, add crunch and lightness to broth-glazed gnocchi ($14) that sit atop a clever near-pesto made from radish tops, shallots, parsley and vinegar. The whole dish chirps with bright acidity, offset by nuttiness and umami from grated pecorino.

Should you decide that a few sugar snap peas aren’t enough for you, you can order a bag of them (or whatever seasonal produce the restaurant has too much of) to take home for $5 a pound. When we asked our server about the peas, he urged us to try them, telling us how popular they are. “And if it helps, you can imagine me with a sunburn and a straw hat when I bring them to you,” he joked.

If The Velveteen Habit’s farm gardens are like most home gardens, it won’t be long before zucchini is on the menu as a take-home option. It has already made its way into dishes like the pan-seared halibut filet ($34), served with sunflower seeds, roughly crumbled cornbread and marigold mint leaves and flowers. And while those zucchini medallions should have been hit with a little more acid or an extra lashing of the gorgeous green garlic puree, this dish was a joy – in part, because of the spicy, phenolic, grapefruity marigold mint that made eating halibut feel like a new experience.

Above: Jeff Bell enjoys a dinner with friends at The Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick. The restaurant in an old farmhouse has four acres of gardens out back. Left: A beet salad with strawberries, ricotta and olives.

Jeff Bell enjoys a dinner with friends at The Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick. The restaurant in an old farmhouse has 4 acres of gardens out back.

It’s not just the herbs that evoke uncommon sensations, either. Our glass of Domaine Philemon Fer Servadou ($12), made from a red wine grape grown in the southwest of France, tasted rough-and-tumble tannic, but exploded from the glass with aromas that reminded me of blowing up gargantuan Super Elastic Bubble Plastic balloons as a child.

The Fer was also a perfect wine to drink with Wilcox’s brined pork chop, served with toasted farro and fresh peas ($35). It was especially hard not to love the creamy grains, which get their risotto-like texture not from cream, but from a portion of the stock-softened farro itself that Wilcox blitzes into a paste and adds back to the pan. “We try to do things without crushing dishes with ridiculous amounts of butter and fat. I want people to feel satiated, but not gross. And if you make the farro this way, you can eat more of it,” he said.

Actually, I would have happily taken a second helping, having enjoyed the farro a little more than the chop itself, which while well-seasoned, was overcooked by a minute or two.

The Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick is housed in a home built in 1765 and has four acres of gardens.

The Velveteen Habit in Cape Neddick is housed in a home built in 1765 and has 4 acres of gardens.

Feeling unstuffed did leave me with an appetite for dessert, however. Our table opted to share the soft, brown-butter scented “madeleines” ($6), which are actually financiers (with almonds replaced by pistachios) baked in a madeleine pan. The texture added by the crushed green nuts was excellent, but the batter was just a bit too sweet and overshadowed the nuanced pistachio flavors. Still, an easy fix to make in an otherwise very agreeable dessert that was just the right size to top off the meal without requiring us to find the next notch on our belts.

Satisfied but still mobile, we took our overdue ramble through the gardens, now golden in the twilight. Seeing what was starting to ripen made me wonder aloud what would be on the menu in a week or a month, and mostly made me want to come back out into the countryside to find out.

It’s true that The Velveteen Habit is out of the way for most people, but that is part of its allure – the grounds and the food both make it worth a detour, even if you happen to visit on a day that keeps you from a stroll along the nearby coastline.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: A wine writer and a restaurant critic go to a bar … http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/17/dine-out-maine-a-wine-writer-and-a-restaurant-critic-go-to-a-bar/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/17/dine-out-maine-a-wine-writer-and-a-restaurant-critic-go-to-a-bar/#comments Sun, 17 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=972091 Even though their natural wine shop, Maine & Loire, opened first, 18 months ago, co-owners Peter and Orenda Hale always planned to build a wine bar in the shared space. “But we were expecting a baby and couldn’t do it all at once. On a totally selfish level, we chose the store because we kept asking ourselves, ‘What are we going to drink?’ ” Orenda Hale said. Once their son was born, they were able to turn the front two-thirds of their high-ceilinged Washington Avenue storefront into the charmingly chic restaurant, Drifters Wife.

Knowing that wine informs so much of the Drifters Wife experience, I wanted to visit with someone with a passion for the stuff, someone for whom wine is a polestar. So I brought along the Press Herald’s wine writer, Joe Appel. We dined at Drifters Wife and decided to organize this review with questions and answers that reflect our conversation as we drank glasses of savory Domaine Dupasquier 2012 rosé ($11) and unfiltered and stone-fruit scented Caneva da Nani “Col Fondo” ($11).

Ross: What’s your impression of the wine selection at Drifters Wife (both bottles and glasses)?

Appel: I love the list overall, because it has so obviously been put together according to one criterion above all others: the personal passions of the people who run the place. You don’t have to be really into wine to see that they’re not taking the obvious route, with prestigious names, bottles that are easy to sell, etc.

The Hales’ “wine ethics” focus on organic or similar-practice viticulture, the use of native yeasts and small-scale production. They’ve chosen wines that are expressive, that offer themselves up undoctored, that teach us something new about the world. That’s noble. Also, it takes a lot of guts to fill a list with names of producers that are this unfamiliar to the majority of the area’s wine drinkers.

I’m grateful for how reasonably priced the wines are. There are some incredible values there, whether you’re paying $34 a bottle or $84. As a wine retailer myself, I’m acutely aware of many bars’ and restaurants’ obscene mark-ups, often on far inferior wines to the ones at Drifters Wife, meant to trick customers into paying a premium for lifestyle ego massage. The wine prices at Drifters Wife are intended to get people to try new things. Again, noble.

I’d like to see Drifters Wife add more of the New World wines from the new generation of vintners in the United States, Australia and Chile, among other places, making extraordinarily distinctive wines, with the viticulture and wine production taking place according to the same “natural” principles the Hales hold dear.

Also, the strength of the list is its bottles. The by-the-glass list is short, and I haven’t noticed enough of the offerings rotating as frequently as they could. This is meant to be a wine bar, not a full restaurant, and the majority of wine that is consumed there is by the glass. It’s frustratingly tantalizing to see such a deep, varied list of bottles but not easily be able to sample its true breadth.

Appel: At most restaurants, the role of the beverage program is to support the food menu; reasonably or not, liquids are seen as secondary. At Drifters Wife, that relationship is inverted. How do you see the connection between food and wine at Drifters Wife, and what do you think of the food?

Ross: Before I arrived, I thought that the balance between attention paid to food would be about 20:80, in favor of wine. But when I read the evening’s menu and started eating, I very quickly realized that it’s much closer to 50:50, maybe 40:60, but overall, very even.

One thing that makes this parity of attention clear is the fact that executive chef Ben Jackson (formerly of Diner and Reynard in New York’s Wythe Hotel) changes the eclectic, mostly modern American menu very frequently, sometimes every single night. This quicksilver approach means he can’t put together a stagnant menu comprising wine bar greatest hits, like quiche and salmon salads. Instead, Jackson challenges himself every day to be adventurous and innovative – incredible, when you stop to consider that his entire kitchen is made up of an oven and two induction burners.

A great example is his revelatory, ultra-tender beef tongue, served with bitter local puntarelle greens and farro ($17). Jackson marinates the tongue in a salt-free bath of spices for 24 hours, then cooks it all day in a low oven, seasons the deeply flavored broth, and adds roasted aromatics, plus, in Jackson’s words, “just about any herb you can think of,” such as basil, parsley and mint. It may sound like a haphazard process, but it is not; the flavors and textures are clear and precise.

Even more impressively, the balance of fat (beef tongue is surprisingly fatty), pungent aromatics, and bite from the puntarelle sets up an ideal backdrop for a range of wine pairings. While eating this dish, we both drank a lemony, mineral Chasselas (Dominique Lucas Quintessence, $48 for a bottle), and every once in a while, I snuck in a few sips of that rosé I mentioned earlier; both yielded different, equally compelling experiences.

For me, this is one of the things Jackson does best: He produces creative dishes that adapt to the context of the wine you drink with them, yet they never feel like neutral options.

I also love how the entire team rejects a doctrinaire stand on pairings: “We trust Ben to do what he wants. If you have good enough wine and good enough food, it’s pretty rare that you’d screw it up,” Peter Hale told me.

Ross: What are the complications and hurdles in building a wine list for a restaurant like Drifters Wife, especially in light of its focus on natural wines?

Appel: Here in Portland, the Hales are building something from close to the ground up. That’s dangerous; you risk sending people somewhere else to get a beer or malbec. Not all the wines at Drifters Wife are funky, super mineral, limpid to the point of nudity or wild-tasting, but many are. The challenge is making the connection for people between these wines and the food, beer and cocktails they already like. The challenge is to show people that, actually, these wines are closer to what wine has been historically than what they might be used to.

Ross: What should diners be on the lookout for at a place like Drifters Wife – wines or styles they might find nowhere else?

Appel: Well, the list of wines they might find nowhere else, or only in one or two other places, is long. But my first suggestion overall would be to seek out the wines of unfamiliar colors – orange wines, vins jaunes, some of the more interesting rosés. Also, the sparkling wines are great in ways that are both unconventional and immediately gratifying and delicious.

One of the most dramatic set of differences that wines made “naturally” exhibit is interesting textures, rather than flavors. So, explore the many white wines on the list that achieve levels of tannin and viscosity ordinarily associated more with reds. Ask whoever is working to point you to some of these. Peter, Orenda and Alexis (our server) are not only enthusiastic about their wines, they have the rare ability to describe them in quite precise, useful ways.

Appel: What sort of dining experience do you think works best for someone visiting Drifters Wife? Is it more suited to solo or couples’ dining than a group, or vice versa? Does it function as a place to go for a full meal?

Ross: It’s easy to picture yourself at Drifters Wife with a date, snacking on broccoli florets glazed with preserved lemon and golden raisin vinaigrette, and dipped in briny anchoide ($8), or sharing a crisp Red Russian kale salad with buttery, crunchy brown breadcrumbs ($8). I can definitely see myself doing the same while sitting at the bar, sipping a glass of the Pierre Olivier Bonhomme Le Telquel ($12) – a very softly tannic Touraine gamay blend, full of berry and spice.

But I think small groups of three to six diners would fare equally well, especially because with an increase in head count comes opportunity to explore the exciting list of bottles, even the more expensive ones, such as the legendary Domaine Tempier Bandol ($86), a gorgeously structured mourvedre blend with just enough cinsault in the mix to send up tiny sparks of anise as you drink.

In terms of constructing full meals, I don’t see Drifters Wife as being different from most small-plates restaurants. Even with only eight menu items, there’s a breadth of size, flavor and type of dish – from bluefish and cucumber marinated in apple cider vinegar, basil and dill ($11) that reminded me of the filling from a perfect whitefish salad bagel, to an unmissable dessert, the malabi pudding with strawberries ($8). This simple Middle Eastern milk pudding is also another example of Jackson’s genius for not getting in the way of the wine; the pudding is calibrated to be sweet but also just savory enough (thanks to a little Maldon sea salt) that it doesn’t coat your palate and leave you unable to finish any leftover wine. You really can have your dessert and drink it, 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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: Zapoteca in Portland gets some things very right http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/10/dine-out-maine-zapoteca-in-portland-gets-some-things-very-right/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/10/dine-out-maine-zapoteca-in-portland-gets-some-things-very-right/#comments Sun, 10 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=961943 Shannon Bard is a chef who cares about precision and order. You can see it in the perfect disk of chunky guacamole ($8) she serves at her Fore Street stalwart, Zapoteca. Rather than scoop a loose, sloppy lump of crushed avocado, tomato and onion onto a plate, she carefully shapes it with a steel ring mold and presents it like a miniature planet around which freshly fried tortilla chips orbit.

It may seem like a cheap trick, but on a rectangular plate, her plating shifts your attention away from the crisp and delicate chips to the real star of the show, the cilantro-scented, hintingly bitter guac. “When you have a big pile of something on your plate, I don’t think it looks right. I don’t think it’s appealing. I really like uniformity,” Bard said.

While that sounds like something a molecular gastronomist might say, primly tweezering microgreens onto a white saucer of infused foam, Bard’s expression of uniformity isn’t at all stark and clinical. And that hasn’t changed since the Maine Sunday Telegram last reviewed Zapoteca in 2011, two months after it opened. In her four-star review, our then critic remarked on the kitchen’s thoughtful use of ingredients, and noted that the restaurant is “not overly formal, nor is it working hard to be hip.”

Indeed, just check out the dark, exposed brick walls that run the length of the restaurant – there is an organic sense of tidiness here, broken up (or maybe highlighted) by a few long, mismatched mirrors and punched-tin light fixtures.

In the El Pepino margarita ($10) as well, we found a clean, almost symmetrical balance among flavors of muddled cucumber, citrusy Gran Gala and young plata tequila. Floating on top were three cross-sectioned slices of jalapeño so thin they could have been shaved with a razor, giving the cocktail a pleasing hit of slow-percolating heat.

Unfortunately, not all of Zapoteca’s gestures towards precision work out this well. In her interpretation of pork carnitas ($24), Bard serves pulled, slow-roasted pork not as a mound of shreds, but as a pressed brick of meat that has been seared in pork fat on a flat-top grill.

This pressing and second cooking yields a great shape, exterior color and crunch, but has the unintended consequence of removing moisture and completely drying out the pork. Even combining bites of the carnitas with the sensational accompanying pickled onions, black beans and lively red tomato chili sauce failed to resuscitate the meat.

Similarly, the generous half-chicken in mole sauce ($23) suffered from dry patches throughout. In particular, the edges of the chicken meat were dry and even chewy, especially in places where there was no skin, like along the fleshy portion of the breast and drumstick. Given that Zapoteca’s mole chicken involves a slow confit in duck fat, coriander, black pepper and thyme, the dryness came as a surprise. That is, until I learned that the chicken was cooked two more times before serving: Once involving a pan-sear to give it color, and then a turn in the wood oven to give it a smoky flavor and crispy skin (and if the skin still is not crisp enough, there’s an optional third firing with a blowtorch).

As I sampled the still-tender meat from the center of the thigh, dipped in Bard’s intoxicatingly aromatic Oaxacan mole sauce, it was hard not to think about missed opportunities. This dish might have been superb had the kitchen limited itself to one re-heating.

Nevertheless, the mole was such a darkly complex take on traditional flavors it would be tempting to order the dish again, if only for the sauce.

One very nontraditional dish, the cauliflower steaks ($9), pan-sauteed with mild black garlic, and served with tangy pasilla oil and a smoky-sweet chipotle-raisin sauce, found its way onto the menu after Bard made a visit to a Mexican food conference in San Antonio.

“I always wanted to do an interpretation because there’s a huge vegetarian population here, and plus, my husband (Zapoteca co-owner and manager Tom Bard) is a huge cauliflower fan,” she said.

We loved the combination of textures and the sear on the florets, but couldn’t get past the lack of salt, which made the bright, peppery flavors in the sauces taste disappointingly like Mrs. Dash.

The jalapeños rellenos ($9), with their simple, intentionally soft egg-white crust were much better. Bard and her team fire-roast, peel and de-seed jumbo jalapeños, fill them with freshly grated local Pineland Farms cheese and deep fry them until the cheese is melted and the exterior is just past golden.

If the heat from the pepper is too much for you – and it varies from pepper to pepper and from tip (least hot) to stem-end (eye-watering) – there are cooling chunks of tomato and avocado, along with Mexican crema and black bean-tomato sauce on the plate.

Zapoteca's Veracruzano halibut ($28) is made with green olives, capers, raisins and diced tomato, with thick slices of pickled carrots and jalapeños. Below, Diners place their orders during a busy dinner hour. The cilantro-scented guacamole, bottom, is shaped with a ring mold for serving.

Veracruzano halibut  Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

If you’re on the hunt for spicy heat, our favorite plate of the night, the Veracruzano halibut ($28) offered plenty of it. Served in a pan sauce made from green olives, capers, raisins and diced tomato, the dish had an almost Sicilian personality, but the thick slices of piquant pickled carrots and fiery pickled jalapeños gave the whole thing a distinctly North American accent.

Not only was the halibut cooked beautifully, but the grilled tomato slice sitting atop the fillet added an extra dimension of sweetness, as well as another subtle element to balance out the other high-amplitude flavors.

As we enjoyed a duo of flans ($9) – one respectable, if slightly overset vanilla flan and an outstanding, caramel-and-cream fig flan – we couldn’t help but notice a different sort of amplitude taking over the dining room; what began as a relatively quiet meal had devolved into a struggle to be heard and understood across the table.

Much of this clamor came from boisterous (and possibly overserved) sports fans at the bar. The defeated-looking floor manager tried to convince them to keep their voices down, but the restaurant was already filling up, noise reinforcing itself in increasingly unpleasant layers.

When our very friendly server stopped by our table, mouthing an inaudible thank you as she set our bill on the table, I was struck by the disconnect between the careful discipline and order present in so many of Zapoteca’s dishes and the deafening racket of the dining room.

But in the end, perhaps that’s what the well-stocked tequila bar is there for – to help you embrace a little sonic entropy on a wild Friday night. Because after all, there are some things you just can’t control.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: At Red Sea, comfortable chatter, excellent Ethiopian food go together http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/03/dine-out-maine-at-red-sea-restaurant-in-portland-the-comfortable-chatter-and-excellent-ethiopian-food-go-together/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/07/03/dine-out-maine-at-red-sea-restaurant-in-portland-the-comfortable-chatter-and-excellent-ethiopian-food-go-together/#comments Sun, 03 Jul 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=952055 I once asked my friend Ababa why she thought her region’s cuisine – perhaps more than any African cooking except Moroccan – had become so popular in the United States. “That’s easy,” she responded, “Ethiopian food is like that terrible cheese pot you all eat here.” “Fondue?” I asked, bemused. “Yes. You can’t eat that without being social. Our food is the same way. It forces you to talk, but it tastes a lot better than a bowl of cheese,” she said.

Regardless of how you feel about melted Gruyere, she had a point. It’s nearly impossible to imagine sitting in silence around a big common platter of thick vegetable stews and meats, tearing rough, irregular pieces of spongy, slightly sour injera bread and eating with your hands. Talking, whether to ask permission to dip into the lentils or to grab the one lonely, sauce-kissed hard-boiled egg, is as much a part of the meal as the dishes themselves.

No surprise then that Yemane Tsegai, co-owner and manager of Washington Avenue’s Red Sea Restaurant in Portland, is a big proponent of dinnertime chatter. “It’s how you keep your culture from generation to generation or share your culture. You eat, you talk,” he said. The meter-wide family-style platters of finger food prepared by his wife, co-owner and chef Akbret Batha, certainly grease the wheels of conversation in the garish but cheerful, six-table yellow dining room, especially if you happen to be visiting with someone who has never eaten Ethiopian or Eritrean food before.

But all the conversations at Red Sea aren’t about novelty – there is just as much to say about the quality of the food, which is, on balance, very high. Batha is at her best with her spiciest dishes, made with her own personal spice blends, including both dry and wet versions of traditional berbere. Compounded from cumin, jalapeño, garlic and Ethiopian black cardamom (along with a few other secret ingredients), Batha’s berbere sings with nutty, smoky flavors and stings with arrow points of fiery heat.

In her beef sambusas ($5), crispy, deep-fried triangular parcels of phyllo-style dough filled with ground beef and onion, berbere comes through with every bite, never letting you forget that you’re eating something exponentially more interesting than hamburger. It is a shame that Batha uses “only a tiny bit” of her bespoke blend in the lentil version of the same dish; the starchy legumes need more of a jump-start if they want to compete with their beefy cousins.

Batha’s spice mix is also the star of her tsebhi birsen, a loose red lentil stew that is served on its own ($12) or as part of the colossal vegetarian sampler ($26) which purports to be for two people, but could easily feed three, especially when you factor in the delightful homemade injera that both sits beneath and accompanies every plated meal in the restaurant. If you’re not a fan of peppery heat, the sampler includes several milder dishes, such as an outstanding alicha ($12), featuring slow cooked cabbage and chunks of potato and carrot. The tumtumo ($12), a thick yellow lentil stew, is also mild – but perhaps too close to the border that mild shares with bland. That said, there’s plenty of flavor in the sampler’s other two dishes, okra lightly stewed with tomatoes and garlic ($12), and hamli ($12), a blend of mustard greens and kale, simmered with a knockout combination of jalapeño, garlic and peppers.

While Red Sea offers plenty of vegetarian options, its concise menu also features meat and fish dishes, like the filling and massively portioned lamb fitfit tibsi ($14), a dish made from sauteed minced lamb and berbere that is finished by crushing pieces of injera into the mix. There is something very meta about eating a lamb-and-bread stew with torn strips of yet more bread.

Several of the restaurant’s meat dishes also rely on a shared mother sauce of red peppers, wet berbere, onions and a harvest’s worth of tomatoes – a sauce that simultaneously borrows from and thumbs its nose at Italian culinary traditions introduced during the occupation of Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Amazingly, using a common base for many items does not lead to the monotony or uniformity of flavors you might expect. “We can use the same sauce but make it taste very different because of two things: the flavor of the meat and the way we cook with the sauce,” Tsegai told me. In the tsebhi dorho ($13), chicken drumsticks and thighs are simmered slowly in a bath of the mother sauce until they are cooked through but still juicy. The result is rich, with a strong acidity from the tomato, and wonderfully messy, so be sure to have an extra few strips of injera waiting – this is not first-date fare.

Our favorite dish of the evening, the perfectly flaky Eritrean-style haddock ($13), began with the same base sauce, but expanded into a more sophisticated layering of flavors, from gentle, green astringency to a clear, spicy heat that was much more pronounced here than in the chicken. It’s hard to imagine a better way of connecting the best of the North Atlantic to the Horn of Africa, especially when you realize that this remarkable dish comes out of a kitchen the size of a minivan.

When my companions and I started winding down our meal, Tsegai (who is the restaurant’s only server, as well as its manager) checked in, but never hurried us along, never pushed us to order the restaurant’s only dessert, baklava ($4). Perhaps because, after two years helming Red Sea, he understood better than we did that we would continue to chat and nibble away at what remained on the platters in front of us – especially the injera, which soaked up more sauce and got better and better with every passing minute. Meals at Red Sea, it seems, happen at their own leisurely pace, and when you’re finished with your food, you don’t rush things. You do what comes naturally – you talk.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossMEv

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Dine Out Maine: When you break bread at Tiqa, you’ll sense you’re in good hands http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/26/dine-out-maine-when-you-break-bread-at-tiqa-youll-sense-that-you-are-in-good-hands/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/26/dine-out-maine-when-you-break-bread-at-tiqa-youll-sense-that-you-are-in-good-hands/#comments Sun, 26 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=941567 Let’s start with bread. You can tell a lot about a restaurant by the bread they serve, or even if they do. At a place like Tiqa, where all bread is made in-house and overseen by Executive Pastry Chef Robyn Ray, it’s even more revealing, because what ends up in your bread basket is the evidence of purposeful choices the kitchen has made – decisions that started with flour and water.

Now stop to consider that calculus in a restaurant whose pan-Mediterranean theme spans 12 very different countries, including Spain, Italy, Turkey and Israel, all with their own bread traditions. Just figuring out how to put some gluten on the table requires a spreadsheet and a slide rule.

To complicate things further, Executive Chef Bo Byrne, who took over the kitchen in October, was not trained in Mediterranean cooking. Starting when he was a dishwasher too young for an after-work drink, Byrne made his career working through David Turin’s network of restaurants, starting with David’s on Monument Square in Portland, and ending at David’s Opus Ten, where he was head chef.

So with a great deal of research involving conversations and stacks of cookbooks, Ray and Byrne faced the challenge of presenting just a few breads to represent a wide spectrum of cuisines. What they came up with is an admirable answer to this particular riddle: Slices of a rustic sourdough evoke yeasty, nutty flavors of crusty French levain, and wedges of pale, fresh Middle Eastern pita make the perfect vehicles for sopping up fruity olive oil. But the highlight of the international bread plate is its rectangles of Italian focaccia, topped not with salt and rosemary, but with a moss-green dusting of tart and aromatic za’atar.

Tiqa’s za’atar is Byrne’s own blend, one that incorporates an abundance of white sesame seeds for extra crunch. Fair game, since za’atar, like many great spice blends, varies from place to place and cook to cook. His is simple, with oregano, sumac, white sesame, salt and pepper. You might miss the thyme or hyssop a bit, but there is an unfussy linearity to Byrne’s za’atar that he uses to draw violent slashes across deep, meaty flavors and to underline floral, herbal fragrances in vegetables.

If you scarf down all the flavorful focaccia before you have a chance to see how the spices work with other dishes, don’t worry: On the bread plate, you’ll find a small bowl of extra za’atar that you can save for later.

We especially enjoyed it sprinkled on the smooth hummus that came as part of the mezze plate ($16), and to be fair, it needed a boost, as did the undercooked and underseasoned Brussels sprouts. But apart from these two hiccups, the rest of the mezze were enjoyable, from the meaty olives, served warm, to unbelievably airy little footballs of falafel engineered for lightness by using cooked chickpeas rather than raw. Best of all was an ultra-citrusy baba ghanoush made with the juicy, smoky flesh of scorched eggplant and fresh lemon juice and finished with lemon zest.

Those same citrus flavors popped up again in another of Ray’s dishes, the baklava ($8) with tahini gelato and candied lemon. One of the line cooks brought our plate over to us from the open kitchen where we had been watching him throughout the meal, and announced that, while what we were about to eat was his favorite dessert at Tiqa, it featured his least favorite job. “Getting all the white pith off of those lemon peels is the worst! It’s painful. Literally,” he said. Byrne later explained that “a chef with expert knife skills can do it in one move, but the guys who are still learning just chip away at the white part. It takes them forever.”

I felt empathy for all the prep cooks with their cramped, aching fingers, but the results made that pain worthwhile. The high notes of the sticky, candied lemon peel were perfectly calculated to brighten the subtle, almost peanut-buttery gelato and crispy walnut-and-almond filled baklava.

Whereas you’d normally think of coffee as a good match for such a sweet dessert, I have to put in a good word for the ginger and fig infused martini ($10). With flavors that call to mind a grappa, or as my dining companion noted, an old-timey Brach’s spiced jellybean, the cocktail makes a great pairing for this dessert.

It also matched up well with the scallop and pork belly kabob ($18). We loved the grill-marked scallops, cooked just enough to give them a bit of chew and keep them on their skewer, as well as their unusual, gently bitter chermoula glaze, made from grated onion and saffron. In contrast, the pork belly – a version of a Portuguese chicharon – was a little overcooked and chewy. Then there’s the questionable decision to serve the pork glaze, a slap-in-the-face vinegary chili concoction, as a dipping sauce. In brushable quantities on the pork, it was lovely, but on its own, it was lethal.

Still, it’s hard to fault the kitchen for taking risks; some do pay off well, like the haddock ($26) crusted in pure pulverized red lentils that lend a round sweetness to the fish. The dish’s braised kale, not to mention the white bean ragout with tomato, shallots and chorizo would even make an excellent light entrée if paired together. Also the sumac roasted chicken ($26), a roasted half-bird rubbed generously with sumac and oil and served on markook, a flat, unleavened bread similar to a lavash or Indian chapati. Yes, the markook was overbaked, but the pungent flavor on the crispy chicken skin, fresh bite from raw red onion and the savory, quick-sauteed asparagus all made the dish feel like something you might savor while overlooking a Levantine beach, not in a spacious, glass-fronted dining room on Commercial Street.

Moreover, none of the dishes seem like they were dreamed up by a chef who has spent his entire professional career cooking in Portland – someone who told me he was never a very good student in school. Because through unremitting, ongoing research, Byrne and his team have found a way through Tiqa’s multinational logic puzzle, and has stitched together a competent menu to represent 12 disparate cultures and cuisines. While it’s not always perfect, their solution is still a pretty elegant one.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: At Scales in Portland, head straight for the updated seafood shack classics http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/19/dine-out-maine-at-scales-in-portland-head-straight-for-the-updated-seafood-shack-classics/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/19/dine-out-maine-at-scales-in-portland-head-straight-for-the-updated-seafood-shack-classics/#comments Sun, 19 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=931613 Walking into the dining room at Scales, I couldn’t keep my focus on the person checking our reservation at the reception desk.

My attention kept pinging away from the open kitchen, the chic, sanded driftwood booths and sturdy steel tables, up to the ceiling. Here, mounted like a broken slot machine hemorrhaging silver coins, was my distraction: a device that spluttered and excreted something every few seconds into a black rolling wheelbarrow yards below. “It’s ice,” the host told me, without my having to ask, “For the raw bar. I don’t know why they have it there.” When I remarked that I had never seen anything like it, she looked at me conspiratorially and said quietly, “Some things around here don’t make much sense.”

Almost immediately, I saw that she might be on to something. It started with the restaurant’s disorienting “team service” system: Greeting, seating, table maintenance, order-taking and food delivery are assigned to groups of waitstaff, rather than to specific individuals.

In theory, this no-territory scheme allows any server to assist any diner, at any time – a clever idea, especially in a restaurant so large it can seat more than 160 people at a time. But in practice, there are complications: “It has actually created some communication challenges between servers and me,” executive chef Mike Smith (formerly chef de cuisine at Toro in Boston) said, “because if I look for someone who rang up a certain ticket, sometimes I just can’t figure out who did it.”

Team service also means that when you come for a meal, you might place an order with one person and then never see him or her again. It’s even more confusing if, as happened to our table, nobody bothers to explain the approach before (or during) the meal. As someone who spent 20 minutes of one visit trying to figure out which server to ask to change a wine order, I’m not a big fan of a system that requires instructions on how to be a diner.

Luckily, eating at Scales was much less complicated than ordering. The menu is a diverse collection of cold, hot, cooked and raw seafood items, along with sandwiches and even a few non-seafood options like a mustardy braised short-rib pot roast ($30). According to Smith, “We want to give a nod to old-school American seafood houses, in an upscale way, with something on the menu for everyone.”

Some of Scales’ best dishes are the ones that hew closest to the simple, original ideas that made them summer shack classics, like the fried whole belly clams ($16 side dish, $24 plate) coated in a nostalgic, rustic dredge of plain all-purpose flour and cracker meal, and plated with a house-made tartar sauce that incorporates excellent homemade pickles. Or the roasted lobster ($37), split and packed tight with a sweet-savory stuffing made from panko, Ritz crackers, fennel pollen and delicate Espelette pepper, all showered in clarified butter and served in its roasting pan.

Both dishes were great matches for a sake-and-gin Maine Wharf ($12), a cocktail made slightly savory with Maine sugar kelp and celery – think of it as a barely dirty martini.

The fish and shellfish stew ($28), while not technically a standard of coastal fish shacks, also benefits from fidelity to its conceptual ancestors: cioppino and bouillabaisse. In the fragrant, spicy broth float chunks of swordfish, littlenecks and most importantly, loads of tender pieces of squid, all bubbling under a slab of grilled bread big enough to act as a flotation device. This hearty, mostly-loyal take on an old standard gets a new spring in its step courtesy of fruity Calabrian chilies and a final-second sprinkling of orange zest and fennel fronds. You’ll want to drape your napkin over your head and inhale the steam coming off this stew.

The lobster bisque ($9 for a cup, $14 for a bowl) was just as impressive and featured a heavily fortified lobster stock with a mineral, raisiny lushness, thanks to the sweet sherry in the broth, and – best of all – a generous mound of warm lobster meat floated on top that had been finished separately in brown butter to keep it from getting overcooked.

Only a few dishes left us scratching our heads, like the seared scallops ($33) with wild fennel sausage. Served in a gigantic cast iron pan that was as hot as a meteorite, this was a tricky dish to eat without incurring a few burns (as one of our many servers did). And after a few bites, we weren’t really sure if we were willing to risk it. The scallops showed off a lovely sear, but alongside bitter charred endive and a palate-neutralizing cream sauce, any delicate flavor from the sausage and fennel disappeared.

Smith told me later that the dish was based on a classic scallop preparation served with blood sausage, but like a low resolution scan of a faxed photograph, this blurry version bore little resemblance to a much better original.

The sides were also hit or miss. The Hasselback potato ($8.50), a debauched riff on a baked potato that has been sliced to look like a rack of poker chips, was first cooked with butter, then deep fried and garnished with onions and bacon. Heart-healthy? No. A hit? Absolutely.

The Parker House rolls ($4), on the other hand, which look more like semicircular Chinese buns, were sticky and overbaked – not the airy, fluffy, milk dough rolls you’d expect. Worse, one miserly portion consisted of two tiny, desultory rolls. Definitely a miss.

As we sat sharing a serving of the delightfully tart rhubarb compote and strawberry-milk-dusted chiffon cake ($9), admiring the restaurant’s wharfside views, we were distracted again, this time not by the ice machine. Four different servers flitted like hummingbirds over to the table, stopped for a microsecond and then sped away before saying a word. They seemed caught up in a loop of wasted effort, doing work that their colleagues had done mere minutes before.

Still, you have to make some allowances for a Leviathan of a restaurant that can serve hundreds of diners in an evening. Perhaps the team service model needs a few tweaks to eliminate overlaps, or perhaps the whole thing just needs more time to reach a comfortable equilibrium, just as the menu, after several iterations of changes, seems to be doing.

But in a restaurant at this price point – and there is no getting around the fact that these are Boston or New York prices – diners should reasonably expect that all the elements that make up their dining experience reveal careful thought and planning. In the end, everything, from the food to the service, should simply make sense.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: Starting from scratch at creative, comfortable Abilene in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/12/starting-from-scratch-thats-a-mantra-at-creative-comfortable-abiline-in-portland/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/12/starting-from-scratch-thats-a-mantra-at-creative-comfortable-abiline-in-portland/#comments Sun, 12 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=920724 Before they moved to Portland to open Abilene, chef-owners Travis Colgan and Anna Connolly ran a seasonal restaurant in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains where the clientele had two things on their minds: eating well, and packing in 10,000 calories before daybreak. Every day, they served massive portions of fresh, homemade pasta, roasted chicken and barbecue to heavily blistered and exhausted groups of Pacific Crest Trail hikers.

“They would eat one huge entrée and come back for another one,” Colgan said, “But it was really a lot of fun, and we got to have a different through-hiker acting as our dishwasher every night.”

At their small New American restaurant near Woodfords Corner, the pair no longer serve dishes from their West Coast endurance menu, but their focus on making as much as possible from scratch has remained firmly in place – from homemade limoncello ($8) to astonishingly precise, al dente tagliatelle that creates a nest to hug garlicky breaded chicken cutlets, prepared marsala-style in a sweet-savory mushroom sauce ($17).

Even the shrubs – old-fashioned vinegar syrups that Abilene uses to concoct puckery cocktails like the strawberry basil rum shrub ($7) – are made in-house from fresh fruit and spices. “It’s just fermented fruit, but it has an indescribable flavor you can’t compare to anything else,” Connolly explained. Brewing their own shrubs lets Abilene keep cocktail costs down: an especially good idea when a tiny, four-ounce bottle of commercially made shrub can cost upwards of $15. And with so much of their own house blend on hand, the kitchen is able to experiment, using shrubs to add tang to salad dressings and marinades. Colgan and Connolly aren’t avant garde chefs by any means, but they do introduce a few welcome variations into familiar dishes, like their vegetarian tacos ($7). Made with soft corn tortillas loaded with caramelized sweet potatoes and tooth-tender asparagus spears, these palm-sized parcels are served with a drizzle of chimichurri-inspired cilantro cream that gives them a nuanced herbal aroma, not to mention a refreshing hit of acid.

Their take on the Caesar salad ($6 for a small portion, $8 for a large) also features small but compelling changes, like the use of roasted garlic in place of anchovies and shreds of kale that give the salad a bit of agreeable chew and color, not to mention making it vegetarian-friendly. “Everyone has a bad ‘Caesar salad in an airport’ experience, so we switched things up to give it an interesting twist…and more nutrition,” Connolly said. Well-considered alterations like these work wonders to freshen up a dish that can be a total snooze.

Kale makes another appearance in the decidedly less healthy flash-fried crispy kale ($11), a brilliant green appetizer dotted with tomatoes, shallots and pecans, and then covered by a fluffy veil of rasp-shaven Parmesan. Fascinated by its earthy, vegetal crunch and powerful thwacks of salt and umami, I could have eaten an entire meal of this appetizer alone. Who knew kale could be a guilty pleasure?

Not every part of the meal was this captivating, however. Our French 75 ($8) disappointed because it turned out to be just a simple St. Germain and Champagne cocktail, and not the ultra-lemony gin-and-bubbly cocktail promised. And then there was the Brussels sprouts and mushroom risotto ($16) – actually more of a pilaf – that suffered at once from two opposite cooking problems: The sprouts were underdone, while the mushrooms were limp and overdone. Worst of all, the dish arrived dry and brothless; one careless spark might have sent the entire plate up in a brushfire.

Fortunately, Abilene made up quite a bit of lost ground with dessert, a fudgy chocolate truffle cake ($7) with tart macerated blackberries and strawberries spooned over the top. “This is my favorite thing here. It’s just the right amount of sweet and not too indulgent,” our server – the only person working the restaurant’s cozy dining room and bar – said, as she set our plate on the table. I understood what she meant immediately. Neither the cake nor its presentation was showy, but the dessert didn’t need anything to amplify its homey allure. Just being a slice of well-executed, scratch-made chocolate cake with an uncomplicated fruit topping was enough.

The same holds true for the restaurant itself. With a calming, no-frills setting that reveals neither an expensive architectural makeover nor any real attempt at swank design, Abilene feels like a room in someone’s house – an ideal place to go when you want a quiet meal. You can see why all those lonely, fatigued hikers must have been overjoyed to find Colgan and Connolly cooking as they emerged from the California wilderness. The comfortable, familiar food and setting seem to spell “home.”

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: Thai Esaan, a humble take-out joint, delivers spectacular food http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/05/thai-esaan-a-humble-take-out-joint-in-portland-with-just-a-few-seats-delivers-spectacular-food/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/06/05/thai-esaan-a-humble-take-out-joint-in-portland-with-just-a-few-seats-delivers-spectacular-food/#comments Sun, 05 Jun 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=909251 In Singapore, there is hawker stall (a sort of stationary food cart) famous all over Asia for its Hainanese Chicken Rice, a simple-looking plate of white rice, pale poached chicken, a few vegetables and a potent chili sauce. It’s a stealth dish whose glory hides in plain sight. If you were to judge Chicken Rice based on how it looks, you’d never give a second thought – most tourists don’t. But take just one bite of the ginger-and-garlic infused meat, the rice that coyly reveals to you that it has been bathed in chicken fat, the layered, umami-rich heat of the sauce, and you immediately comprehend why this is one of the culinary wonders of the world.

I will always remember visiting Singapore for the first time, when I took my place at 10 a.m. in a quarter-mile long line for that same hawker stall, already aware that every single day, it sold out just half-an-hour after opening. Ahead of me were peckish office workers and “stand-ins,” who had been paid to wait in the line – some stood there four or five days each week. Luckily, I got one of the very last portions of the day and ate sitting on a concrete bench, steaming plate in hand, telling myself to enjoy it, because I would never taste another Chicken Rice as fantastic as what I was eating then.

But Siwaporn Roberts, chef and co-owner of Thai Esaan, proved me wrong.

At her pint-sized restaurant on Forest Avenue in Portland, Roberts serves the Thai version of Chicken Rice, khao mun gai ($12), with a thick, vibrant sauce full of hot chilies, fermented soybean paste, sweet soy sauce and a little fish sauce, alongside decadent mounds of aromatic rice and slices of unbelievably moist chicken breast. “Most restaurants don’t make khao mun gai because it’s too difficult,” she told me, “but I wanted to make it for people who like to try new, different foods.”

Indeed, Thai Esaan’s extraordinary khao mun gai is a perfect introduction to the cuisine of northeastern Thailand – the region that gives the mostly take-out restaurant its name. Cradled between Laos and Cambodia and known for dishes that focus on spicy heat, sticky rice and flamboyantly herbal ground meat salads (laabs), Esaan is a rural part of the country with no major international city. If you’ve never heard of it, you’ve got plenty of company.

Over the past 20 years though, the region’s cooking has spread, first through Thailand’s big cities, out into Asia, and then to the United States, where a few celebrated chefs have borrowed northeastern Thai recipes and served them to great acclaim. Roberts’ recipes, on the other hand, are all her own, refined in tandem with her mother throughout their 15 years cooking in local restaurants. “They worked at a few places in Maine and tried to share their recipes, but they always left because the owners changed things too much. The food wasn’t right,” Ben Boonseng, the general manager (and Roberts’ son) said. “My mom wanted to open her own restaurant where we shop for fresh ingredients every morning, and she can focus on quality because she cooks it all.”

Left to her own devices, Roberts is able to do justice to classics like green papaya salad ($8), a dish of shredded unripe papaya, green beans, tomatoes and peanuts, all doused in a spicy, sour fish-sauce dressing. Elsewhere, you might find a version made by just tossing the components together in a bowl, but at Thai Esaan, Roberts develops tremendous flavor by roughing up the ingredients by hand with a light pounding in a large stone mortar and pestle.

Freedom to choose her own menu also gives her the chance to present dishes rarely found at other Thai restaurants in this country. One example is the street food dish, ba mee ($8 and $10, depending on choice of protein), a bowl of supple egg noodles and wontons coated with a pork-and-garlic sauce, and served either with or without a brawny, anise-scented broth. Think of ba mee as ramen’s much bolder, raunchier fraternal twin, but the sibling you secretly like better.

It’s hard to choose a favorite among the regional Esaan specialties, with options like the superb laab gai ($10), a salad of tender ground chicken, red onion and carrot, marinated in a bracing dressing of mint, cilantro, lime juice and sticky toasted rice powder. Or kanaa moo grob ($12) Chinese broccoli, thin carrot discs and crispy strips of fried pork shoulder sautéed in a sweet, mellow sauce made from soy and mild chilies.

Introducing uncommon Esaan dishes to an unfamiliar public has required a few accommodations for American tastes, like the substitution of pork shoulder for pork belly (too fatty) in the kanaa moo grob, or the inclusion of chicken breast in the khao mun gai rather than cleavered chunks of whole poached chicken (too much skin). Yet rather than diminishing her, making compromises seems to have brought a clarity of flavor and preparation to Roberts’ cooking, forcing her to spotlight northeastern Thai spicing and technique.

But beware: you’ll miss the best part of the show if you treat Thai Esaan like any other take-out joint. Sure, the pad Thai ($8/$10) and green curry ($8/$10) are very respectable, even great, versions of old standbys and will not disappoint, but they aren’t what makes this restaurant so exceptional. They are simply the dishes that a Thai restaurant must serve in order to survive.

Boonseng and Roberts understand that even though they have to make a few allowances for diners to catch up with them, their little eight-seat restaurant is unique. “There are a lot of Thai places here, but we are doing something totally different. We don’t really have any competition in Portland. It’s just us,” Boonseng said.

Frankly, it would be easy to drive right past clean yet unassuming little Thai Esaan if you only looked at its exterior – exactly the way so many tourists ignore Chicken Rice because it doesn’t broadcast its special qualities in a garish peacock display. But if you do that, you will miss some of the area’s most exciting cooking, the kind of food that is not only worth a special trip, but worth remembering later.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: Old Vines Wine Bar In Kennebunk http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/22/dine-out-maine-devoted-clientele-involved-staff-give-old-vines-stronger-flavor/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/22/dine-out-maine-devoted-clientele-involved-staff-give-old-vines-stronger-flavor/#comments Sun, 22 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=890091 Most restaurants operate in a top-down fashion, with the owners and the chefs positioned above all the other staff, making decisions about food, wine, service and even ultimately about when to close the place down for good. But there is something more populist in the DNA of Kennebunk’s Old Vines Wine Bar, something that tips the balance of power in the opposite direction.

You can probably trace this ethos back to the restaurant’s recent Lazarus-like revival. In late 2014, after the previous owner shuttered the place, two regulars, Jon Ellms and Rick Taranto, stepped in and bought the business themselves. They were not restaurateurs, but they pressed on and reopened a few months later, broadened the menu and eventually hired Joel Souza (formerly of David’s KPT and The Colonial Inn in Concord, Massachusetts) as their new chef this January.

“Rick and Jon didn’t want it to stop, so they just fixed the problem themselves. And they are here all the time, eating, getting their hands dirty working, helping set up events – anything and everything,” Souza said.

Indeed, the restaurant’s entire team has been part of its recent transition from a bar that serves light pub snacks to a fully realized small plates restaurant with an extensive wine and cocktail list.

As we discussed the wines offered by the glass with our server, he told us how they were selected: “Everyone on staff got together for three really long, really intense days of tasting and we chose what to serve by the glass together.” When I asked Souza about this democratic selection process, he added, “Here, everyone has a voice and maybe even their own steering wheel and can take things in the direction they want to. Everyone has their input.”

The system has worked particularly well for the list of white wine pours; there are super crisp sauvignon blancs (in two styles), chardonnays (oaked and unoaked), a gently floral and petillant Oregon pinot blanc blend ($6 for a 3-ounce pour and $12 for 6 ounces), and even an off-dry German riesling ($4/$8). There’s a white wine here to pair with just about everything on the broad menu.

Democracy has not been as kind to the red pours. We loved the bacony, unoaked Ique malbec ($4/$8) and the hearty, spice box-scented nebbiolo ($8/15), but among the cabernet sauvignons and massive, fruit-blasted red blends, found nothing by the glass on the lighter side.

That’s a shame, because several of the menu’s offerings, most especially the wonderful baby kale salad with terrifically stinky fromage forte and macerated cherries ($12), would have been superb matches for a glass of Beaujolais or Bardolino. To get a lighter red, you need to buy a bottle.

No matter what wine you select, there is a lot to like about the Old Vines menu. Dishes are mostly nominally French or Italian, but Souza takes familiar foods as a starting point and finds creative ways to “pack as much flavor as possible into a small plate and create something people haven’t seen before, or haven’t been able to try in Kennebunk,” he said.

Nowhere is this more evident than in his take on steak frites ($16), a juicy, grilled flatiron served with soft, almost poutine-like french fries sprinkled with pecorino romano and a watercress salad. And oh, that salad! Topped with petal-pink pickled onions and dressed with a lemon vinaigrette infused with horseradish – a clever reference to the traditional steak frites accompaniment – the greens practically incandesce with brightness.

Even on the cheese and charcuterie plates, we saw evidence of Souza’s big-flavor project in his extraordinary homemade giardiniera with sprigs of barely dressed pea shoots. Served alongside our order of fat-streaked duck prosciutto ($12) and toasty, semi-soft Ouleout cheese ($10), the pickle of red pepper, carrot and tiny cauliflower florets offered exactly the right fresh, tangy balance to the cheese and house-cured meat.

It’s easy to appreciate little touches like a bit of chunky texture to add interest in the lemony homemade hummus ($8), dusted with nostril-expanding za’atar and served with savory toasted pita triangles. Or the addition of just enough cinnamon to the roasted beet salad ($10) to conjure up images of Morocco. Or even the sticky toffee pudding ($7), baked in a ramekin so that every last serving comes with a tender center and a firm, chewy perimeter.

Some menu holdovers from the restaurant’s previous regime remain, such as Old Vines’ signature dish: the oven-roasted chicken meatballs ($12) – straightforward Italian-style fare served with a pomodoro sauce and basil chiffonade. On our visit, we found the meatballs to be a little overcooked and the sauce far too acidic – more like hot sauce – perhaps due to the white wine the kitchen uses in its pomodoro. At the same time, the meatballs themselves had an agreeable complexity, which Souza explained comes from the use of lots of marble rye bread in the panade that binds them. While this wasn’t a terrible dish, plenty of other, more interesting plates better represent what the kitchen is doing today.

But maybe keeping the chicken meatball as its mascot isn’t evidence of an identity crisis at all. Perhaps it’s humility acting as camouflage to keep too many tourists from filling up the little restaurant’s few dozen seats and crowding out the regulars.

That clientele still plays an important part in the collaborative evolution of the restaurant, candidly and frequently sharing thoughts on new menu items with Souza: “I’ve never had this level of feedback, and a lot of these guys have pretty refined palates. It makes me better at what I do because I can see what’s working and what isn’t really fast,” he said.

And considering that it was two of those very same regulars who saved the business and hired its innovative chef, it’s easy to see why everyone would want to keep a few seats open for them.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Sisters Gourmet Deli in Portland does it just right http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/19/sisters-gourmet-deli/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/19/sisters-gourmet-deli/#comments Fri, 20 May 2016 02:31:46 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=888204 http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/19/sisters-gourmet-deli/feed/ 0 http://www.pressherald.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/134820_497457-20160516_sisters-g2-e1463487810286.jpgThu, 19 May 2016 22:39:31 +0000 Dine Out Maine: The Treehouse http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/15/dine-out-maine-the-treehouse-is-a-cozy-charming-other-worldly-space-with-pretty-good-food/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/15/dine-out-maine-the-treehouse-is-a-cozy-charming-other-worldly-space-with-pretty-good-food/#comments Sun, 15 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=879222 The Treehouse’s front-of-house team may very well be the happiest restaurant staff in town. Here’s how I know: When we arrived for our reservation, my friend told the host his name. “Hey guys, this is William!” she announced to the servers nearby. “Nice to meet you,” one replied. “Glad you came in tonight,” another said, smiling genuinely, taking our coats and asking, “So you haven’t been here before? Can one of us give you a tour of the place? I love it here – it’s amazing.” Such Disney-level enthusiasm is normally enough to make me wary, but once she started guiding us around the dining room, I realized: She wasn’t wrong.

Across the second-story space, woven tree boughs create arches that stretch from rough-hewn posts, outdoor string lights cast a warm, crepuscular glow, and vibrant green leaves from what must be a hundred living plants make the room itself seem impossibly like it is in the middle of a growth spurt. The outdoor deck, open when the weather is good, evokes the same kind of woodsy fantasy – you half expect to catch sight of a fairy.

Greg Gilman, the chef, owner, and – no surprise – former sculpture student, crafted the surreal space using materials salvaged from an old barn in Gorham. “It’s my baby. It’s like my art,” he told me, adding, “By the time someone walks up the 12 or 13 steps to the restaurant, they’ll forget they came in off of Stevens Avenue. The space is transforming.”

Despite names that match the fanciful room, our cocktails were not transformational. The Pearls and Buoys ($9), a bittersweet spiced rum drink, was not quite sweet enough, possibly due to the use of Orleans aperitif as an inexact substitute for Campari. The Crows Nest ($10), a coconut and tequila sour frozen cocktail, was significantly better, although not as satisfying as a well-prepared margarita might have been.

If the cocktails were a little uninspiring, the wine list was just the opposite. The wines by the glass represent a solid bunch of decently priced, New and Old World pours, but if you feel like having more than a glass or two, check out the short list of bottles. Here you’ll find fantastic values, including four wines under $30 – a real steal on unique bottles sourced from a small importation company. We tested the lower limits of the list, opting for The Bean ($23), a Stellenbosch Pinotage with a toasty, mocha nose and tons of pleasant ripe, black cherry flavor. Nothing subtle about this wine, but as I sat drinking it in such an outrageous dining room, that seemed like a feature, not a flaw.

The wine was also a great match for the juicy pork tenderloin ($19), with its garlic-and-herb crust and blueberry-ginger glaze, as well as the super savory wild mushroom flatbread ($10). The combination of goat and Romano cheeses, caramelized onion, and New Hampshire shiitake and king oyster mushrooms felt like a throwback to the autumn, but in the best possible way.

As successful as some of the dishes were, we did witness one real stumble. The pan-fried Brussels sprouts ($6) were undercooked and wet, mounded into a soupy balsamic-soy pool that hid slices of soggy bacon. For those with unhappy childhood memories of eating vegetables, the sprouts should probably come with a trigger warning.

Thankfully, the rest of our meal underscored Greg Gilman’s talents with seafood, especially the Maine crab cakes ($12), two tender patties stuffed with so much fresh crab meat, they barely held together – exactly the delicate structure a good crab cake should possess. When I asked Gilman about the cakes, he told me that they contain only four ingredients, which represents a sea change from the way he once made them. “I dated a woman when I lived on Peaks Island – a witch. Her son once showed me a voodoo doll with pieces of my clothing on it, and I think she bewitched me, because my crab cakes changed after being with her. They became really simple,” he said.

The similarly straightforward warm three-fish salad with littlenecks, shrimp and mussels ($18) required no magic in its preparation. The light seafood sauté with its flavors of shallot, lemon and peppery arugula can be eaten as a shareable appetizer or as an entrée for one person. Despite the greens not being dressed before serving, it is still easy to imagine enjoying this salad outside on the deck in the summertime.

Three Fish Salad at the Tree House Cafe

Three Fish Salad at the Tree House Cafe

And it’s a pretty safe bet that Gilman will keep this, or a similar dish, on the menu throughout the year, because, as he told me, he always tries to include three or four entrée-sized salads on his menu. He loves a simple salad-plus-protein combination himself (and eats one at the end of every shift when he cooks). Also, salads give him an opportunity to play with prepping garnishes. “I cut every single one to order. I like that crisp look – not something you’d even notice unless it was done wrong, but I like salad plates to look organic, not manipulated,” he said.

It is no surprise whatsoever to hear that a cook (Gilman is self-taught and refuses to call himself a chef) with such a strong visual sensibility would take the time to plate his food in a style that mimics the natural, almost wild, design of the dining room. That untamed aesthetic extends to other aspects of the restaurant as well: “I create a space that the crew gets to come play in. We all get to do what we love to do and they make up their job as they go along,” he said. Somehow, improbably, it all works – the staff seem happy and the dining room is nearly full every night. So what if normal rules don’t apply at The Treehouse? That’s exactly what makes you want to come back.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

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Dine Out Maine: Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/08/dine-out-maine-woodford-food-beverage-in-portland-is-an-emphatically-american-bistro-that-travels-the-world/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/08/dine-out-maine-woodford-food-beverage-in-portland-is-an-emphatically-american-bistro-that-travels-the-world/#comments Sun, 08 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=869469 When you stand at the bustling Woodfords Corner intersection and look at the funky, glass-fronted building with the zigzag roofline, what you see says a lot about you and your relationship with Portland.

If you have a long memory of the city, you might remember this spot as where the original Valle’s Steak House stood for several decades, packing in hungry crowds long before the restaurant’s triple-gable roof makeover. If you can’t recall quite that far back, perhaps you remember the mortgage company (and more likely, its gigantic clock) that stood there. Or, if your Portland memories are all recent ones, you may think of 660 Forest Avenue as what it is has been for the past three months: the home of Woodford Food & Beverage.

Birch Shambaugh and Fayth Preyer, the restaurant’s co-owners, are responsible for the building’s most recent transformation from cubicle farm to fresh, neat dining space with white wall tiles, leather banquettes, and a chunky, well-stocked bar. Importantly, the thoughtful renovation also retained key architectural features to anchor the room to its rich local history. “The building’s unique geometry strongly influenced how we approached the build,” he said.

Executive chef Courtney Loreg’s menu echoes this approach, curating culinary influences to produce a deceptively simple take on American brasserie fare. Loreg, who cooked at Fore Street and Bresca, said, “There’s a little bit of French, a little Italian – others too – but in the end, it is definitely still an American style of cooking.”

Nothing says American more than the portions – even normally small dishes like appetizers and salads arrive in quantities large enough to share. The apple and cheddar salad ($9), for example, tossed with endive and ribbons of fennel is substantial enough to make a light meal. Better still is a beet salad ($9) with the surprising addition of subtly sour preserved cherries to a base of crunchy radicchio, feather-light goat cheese mousse and tender roasted beets. Cherries and beets together? Reserve judgment until you taste – this is a combination that works, tying together several strands of flavor and texture in every forkful.

Even the burger ($16) is a foodie Rorschach test – nodding to Jewish cuisine (the brisket), Southern cooking (the grilled Vidalia), and modern Japanese baking (the toasted sesame bun, fresh from the ovens of nearby Ten Ten Pié in Portland). Add in the perfectly crisp and gorgeously seasoned French fries, redolent with a spice mix that includes ground fennel seed, and you end up with a dish that tastes exotic but feels very much like home.

We also fell in love with both of the shank dishes. The braised pork shanks ($21) bathe in a brothy stew of white beans, bacon and thyme. It is easy to overcook a foreshank, but Loreg keeps her braise long and slow. It’s a trick she repeats with braised lamb shanks ($28), nestled into a bed of soft yellow polenta and coated in a sweet and spicy glaze that derives its flavors from simmering dates, tomatoes, and smoky ancho chilies for hours. Both versions showcase Loreg’s talent for designing a menu that borrows flavors from many places, while always speaking the language of comfort food.

Braised Pork Shank with white bean stew at Woodford Food & Beverage, above.

Braised Pork Shank with white bean stew at Woodford Food & Beverage. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Even the familiar roast chicken ($21) takes on a subtly exotic character when it is served with a harissa, yogurt and honey sauce. This is an outstandingly juicy half-bird that stays so moist because, according to our server, the kitchen “puts butter everywhere you can fit butter – on the skin, under the skin, everywhere.”

It seemed like a sin to visit a restaurant on the same site as the venerable Valle’s without ordering a steak ($22), and we were glad we did. The tangy balsamic marinade accents but never intrudes on the flavor of the expertly grilled tri-tip sirloin, and the classic horseradish cream accompaniment gives the dish a serious kick. Donald Valle himself might have appreciated this excellent steak.

The sirloin was served with enough French fries to feed two or three people, and we sat long after the other plates had been cleared, nibbling at the still-warm fries. “At this restaurant, I’ve learned never to take away a plate with French fries still on it,” our server said, as we finished the fries and our carafe of the house Côtes du Rhône ($34).

A bottle of table wine, Les Embruns 'La Croix des Saintes', Sable de Camargue Rose, France 2015. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

A bottle of table wine, Les Embruns ‘La Croix des Saintes’, Sable de Camargue Rose, France 2015. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

That carafe of wine merits a little attention of its own. The star of the restaurant’s impressive beverage program is the list of 10 house wines offered by the glass, half-liter and liter, and served tableside from bottles labeled, modestly, “Table Wine.” If the rebranding seems purposefully understated, what is inside is anything but. We enjoyed a frothy, apple-scented Italian Prosecco ($8/18/32) on our first visit – a light meal – and then opted for a fleshy and robust Austrian Zweigelt ($8/18/30) to go with another dinner featuring lots of burgers and steaks. Offering a few wines by the carafe is a traditional brasserie move, but pouring an international range is a clever twist that gives the diner options that parallel the menu’s breadth.

Dessert options change frequently, and portions are (no surprise) substantial – a bonus for tables wanting to share sweet treats like the toasted Fuji apple crisp with honey and sea salt ice cream ($8). We devoured every bite of the sticky, crunchy crisp and would have asked for another scoop of the ice cream if we didn’t have another dessert on its way. The buttermilk panna cotta ($8) came flecked with vanilla bean and announced itself with a seductive jiggle. A cranberry coulis swirled atop offered zippy balance to the cream and buttermilk; together, every mouthful conjured up both Cape Cod and Capri.

Connections like these are no accident. Woodford Food & Beverage’s mission seems to be to evoke and reference its many influences while connecting them back to something meaningfully local. At its core, it is an American bistro, but what you taste when you visit will say as much about the world as it does about Portland.

Brisket burger, smoked bacon, grilled sweet onion, dijonnaise, cheddar cheese blend, house made pickle, sesame bun served with fries and aioli. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

Brisket burger, smoked bacon, grilled sweet onion, dijonnaise, cheddar cheese blend, house made pickle, sesame bun served with fries and aioli. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

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:andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. on May 10, 2016 to correct the restaurant’s dinner hours and reservation policy.

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Dine Out Maine: Emilitsa in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/01/dine-out-maine-at-emilitsa-its-all-in-the-family/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/05/01/dine-out-maine-at-emilitsa-its-all-in-the-family/#comments Sun, 01 May 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=858947 “The first time I deboned a whole fish at the table,” our server told us as she expertly passed her sharp knife along the backbone of a steaming grilled gilt head bream ($32), “I popped the head off and flipped it right into the poor customer’s lap!” We both laughed. I’ll admit that I also watched her hands a little nervously as she continued, “But the owners didn’t fire me. They just taught me better and made me practice, and that was many years ago. Now they are like family,” she explained, as she finished by deftly sliding a glistening and totally boneless filet onto the plate.

That waitstaff should feel like members of the Emilitsa clan comes as no surprise, given that the team behind the Congress Street restaurant is an actual family. The Greek-American Regas brothers, Demos and John, respectively the former chef and the general manager, ran the restaurant as a double act since it opened in 2008, with Demos in the kitchen and John overseeing the business. Then in mid-2015, Niko Regas took over the kitchen, replacing his father as executive chef.

It’s a transition that was slow in coming – Niko trained at restaurants in York and in Minneapolis, including a stint at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Chambers Kitchen, but started out at the very bottom when he came to Emilitsa. “I wanted to prove myself to the staff and to me, so I started in the dish pit. Then I moved up,” he said.

Today, as executive chef, he is continuing his measured approach, introducing new menu items and preparations slowly – partly because, as he told me, Emilitsa’s regulars grow attached to their favorites, and partly because he genuinely loves the restaurant’s traditional Greek fare and the cuisine’s emphasis on great ingredients and strong culinary skills.

Take as an example the fantastic dal lentil spread ($8), served as a complimentary starter and also available a la carte. The smooth lentil puree is seasoned with bay leaves and olive oil. Pretty simple. But when raw, diagonally sliced sweet Vidalia onion slivers are added to it, the dish sparks to life with an electric pop. According to Niko Regas, much of this flavor is due to a precision slicing technique: “If you break the thin skin between all the layers, that’s where all the flavor is. It really makes the dish.”

We were also wowed by the deceptively simple sheep’s milk cheese and fig appetizer ($13). Salty kefalograviera cheese and balsamic-poached Kimi figs are the two co-stars of this dish. Lightly battered and pan-fried until a crunchy brown crust forms, the cheese is paired with figs that are so sticky and sugary, they taste almost candied. Kimis are no normal figs – they are an ultra-sweet variety that come from the region of Greece where Niko Regas’s grandmother Emilitsa, the restaurant’s namesake, was raised.

As we ate, we saw general manager John Regas pass a dozen times from the kitchen into the yellow-toned, softly lit dining room and back past the open-air wine rack loaded with all-Greek bottles – like the crisp, if one-note, Domaine Spiropoulos Moschofilero ($40) we drank with dinner.

On one of his trips, John Regas stopped to chat with a neighboring table who, just like us, were sharing the lamb loin chops ($33). The chops (sourced from Australia) are dry-rubbed with Greek mountain herbs like rosemary, oregano and thyme, then marked on the grill and brought up to serving temperature. We found ours just a touch underdone, but were impressed with the harmony of flavors linking the beautifully singed, aromatic herbs and the juicy lamb. As John Regas left their table, our neighbor remarked, “I’m glad I went to the gym earlier. Worth it…but I think I should probably go again tomorrow.”

Paithakia galaktos tis skaras (grilled lamb chops)

Paithakia galaktos tis skaras (grilled lamb chops)

Blame the sides for part of the dangerously wonderful caloric bargain this plate forces you to make: a potato-parsnip mash with feta and chunky green onion, and barely wilted young spinach, slick with lemon juice and olive oil. The cheesy mash is so irresistible that, when Niko Regas tried switching it out for a different accompaniment, there was an absolute uproar from repeat customers. “People actually walked out when it wasn’t there,” he said.

Not everything on the menu at Emilitsa is compelling enough to prompt such a protest. We found the classic Greek rice pudding ($7), a custard, cream and cinnamon dessert that requires laborious stirring, to be just a little undercooked and chalky. Similarly, the braised rabbit appetizer ($15), a rolled phyllo cylinder stuffed with kalamata olives, feta, tomato and tidbits of wild-tasting rabbit, suffered from over-saucing with a sharp grainy mustard and beer reduction. But on the strength of the flaky pastry parcels, it remained an enjoyable enough take on a Greek meat strudel.

Fava spread

Fava spread

One of the most impressive testaments to Niko Regas’s competence is that even the weaker dishes at Emilitsa are still pretty good. When we discussed the evolution of Emilitsa – of how a restaurant so rooted in Greek tradition changes when a son takes over a kitchen from his father – Niko Regas said that, when you work with family, change requires a lot of negotiation; it’s a slow process. None of that has stopped him from making plans to reinvent classics with new flavors that appeal to a younger crowd than Emilitsa’s older-skewing patrons. “I can’t wait for the new season. I’m working out a soft shell crab dish that will be incredible,” he said, adding, “I just want to play with flavors and still do ‘real’ Greek food.” Just as working his way up from Emilitsa’s dish pit was about proving his basic kitchen skills, Niko Regas’s turn at the helm has validated him again: this time as a gifted executive chef who knows his classics. What he does next with his family’s confidence and support will be very exciting to see.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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Dine Out Maine: Veranda Noodle House in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2016/04/24/dine-out-maine-veranda-noodle-housevietnamese-dishes-succeed-thai-not-so-much-at-the-newest-veranda/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/04/24/dine-out-maine-veranda-noodle-housevietnamese-dishes-succeed-thai-not-so-much-at-the-newest-veranda/#comments Sun, 24 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=848741 Over the last decade, the name Veranda has become synonymous with Asian food in Portland. Hai Pham and Sonka Nguyen launched their empire in East Deering with two restaurants that stare across the street at one another: Veranda Thai and the Vietnamese-focused Veranda Noodle Bar. The husband-and-wife team then moved into Woodfords Corner, where they opened Veranda Asian Market (and Chinese BBQ) in 2012, and late last year, a fourth business in the Old Port, Veranda Noodle House. Throughout, they say their expansion across the city has been driven by one purpose: to expose more people to the cuisines they adore.

Shrimp Sugarcane

Shrimp Sugarcane. Shawn Patrick Quellette/Staff Photographer

Veranda’s new outpost, in the nearly unchanged, exposed brick space formerly occupied by the Salt Exchange, takes this goal seriously by serving a vast menu whose length and breadth rivals that of a diner. Comprising what Nguyen described as their favorite dishes from the original two restaurants, the 100+ item menu (not including a few dozen lunch specials), includes dozens of Thai dishes that require complicated sauces as well as an equal number of simpler Vietnamese dishes that, because of their long cooking times, are every bit as time-consuming to prepare. Such an ambitious menu creates a frantic urgency for the kitchen. “We make everything ourselves. Right now, with all the Vietnamese and Thai dishes – especially the appetizers – it’s already keeping our kitchen crazy busy,” she said.

So busy that everyone, including front of house staff, is occasionally enlisted to help out with prep work: “When you have any free time, or if it gets slow, you go [make] dumplings for the next day. It’s a lot of work,” Nguyen said. “But is all so good, we didn’t want to leave anything out.”

If the quality of the steamed Thai dumplings ($6) is an indicator of how well that strategy is working, it may be time to reconsider. While the ground pork, ginger and chopped napa cabbage filling was beautifully seasoned and portioned well, the dough wrappers were sticky, thick and downright stodgy.

The calamari puffs ($8) also reflected a lack of careful attention. Too heavily battered and barely warm when they arrived at the table, this appetizer tasted strongly of not-so-fresh fryer oil – all the more surprising given that we arrived to a nearly empty restaurant at the very beginning of dinner service.

Luckily, we also ordered the fresh Vietnamese shrimp spring rolls ($7), light, rice-paper wrapped soft parcels stuffed with cooling layers of carrot, lettuce, rice noodles, mint leaves and a single, bias-cut scallion stem instead of the usual chives. When dipped into the accompanying sweet-sour fish sauce, these highlighted chef Pham’s ability to build complex flavors and improve upon classics through very small alterations.

This same skill was evident in the Shrimp Sugarcane & Viet Ham vermicelli salad ($14), a dish that brought together smoky grilled skewers of ham and shrimp paste, slippery rice noodles and cucumber to create a stellar Vietnamese bun. The kitchen slices the crispy shrimp and pork off their sugarcane skewers where they are sweetened naturally during grilling, and presents them garnished with loads of cilantro and mint. When excellent street food and traditional home cooking meet, it looks and tastes exactly like this.

Crispy Bird Nest

Crispy Bird Nest. Shawn Patrick Quellette/Staff Photographer

No Vietnamese dish reveals a chef’s skills better than his or her pho, a beef soup made by charring aromatic ingredients like ginger, onion and star anise, and simmering them for several hours in a beef bone stock. It’s a process that takes patience and hard work, as the soup must be skimmed regularly until it loses all traces of cloudiness. Veranda’s rare beef and flank pho ($12) was a solid, respectable version – a bit heavy on the star anise, but ultimately perfectly satisfying when mixed with the accompanying fresh herbs, jalapeño and squeeze of tingly acidity from the lime wedge.

The quality of these two mains helped counteract our table’s disappointment at one of the evening’s weakest dishes, the Spicy Basil Haddock ($18). There is no getting around the fact that our haddock fillet was ruinously overcooked, steamed into a rubbery plank and then topped with stir-fried red and green bell peppers, mushrooms and onions. The basil seed paste that made up the base of the sauce lent it a lovely aroma, but all other flavors were muted and pushed into the background by sugar and hot chili pepper – even at a spice level of two out of four stars.

Our server (who would recommend to us only dishes that were “what people usually order” and not what she personally enjoyed eating) encouraged us to us try the Drunken Noodles with tofu ($12), explaining that they get their name because they get drunk in the sauce. Nguyen later explained further, “When you cook it, you don’t have to soften the noodles beforehand. They take in all the flavor and get soft as the chef flips the wok.” Built on a foundation of broad, flat rice noodles and embellished with pan-fried vegetables and cubes of firm tofu, this plate alone of all the Thai dishes we ate struck a decent balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy.

PORTLAND, ME - APRIL 21: Fresh Spring Roll at Veranda Noodle House Thursday, April 21, 2016. (Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

Fresh Spring Roll at Veranda Noodle House Thursday, April 21, 2016. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The stark contrast between the largely successful Vietnamese offerings and the hit-or-miss Thai dishes is worth paying attention to, especially in a restaurant where understaffing creates significant problems. Nevertheless, it’s a straightforward problem to solve: A much shorter menu with a tight focus on Vietnamese classics would highlight Veranda’s considerable strengths. It would also give Pham and Nguyen more of a platform to really engage with their passion to share the very best of the food they love with a city that is always hungry for more.

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

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Dine Out Maine: Roustabout in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2016/04/17/dine-out-maine-at-roustabout-diners-kept-on-their-toes-with-surprising-riffs-on-italian-american-classics/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/04/17/dine-out-maine-at-roustabout-diners-kept-on-their-toes-with-surprising-riffs-on-italian-american-classics/#comments Sun, 17 Apr 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=837839 Editor’s note: More than 80 people threw their hats into the ring (their spoons into the bowl?) when we advertised for a new restaurant critic last winter. This week, we are pleased to announce our new Dine Out Maine restaurant critic, Andrew Ross. This is his first review.

A menu that features dishes like eggplant parm and garlic bread sounds like something you’d expect to find alongside red-checked tablecloths, candleholders made from straw-wrapped Chianti bottles – and maybe even a pair of cartoon dogs sharing a romantic plate of pasta in an alley.

But in designing their new Washington Avenue restaurant, Roustabout, co-owners Kit Paschal (formerly of Portland Hunt & Alpine Club and Boston’s Eastern Standard), and Anders Tallberg (Hugo’s and Hungry Mother in Cambridge, Massachusetts) ditched the traditional red-sauce joint template, cleanly stripping away every stereotype and replacing it with imagery that reflects the nautical heritage of the city. “When you walk in, you know you’re in Portland, Maine,” Tallberg says.

It would be easy to interpret the mismatch between the restaurant’s image and menu as identity confusion, but to do so would miss the point. Roustabout is all about keeping customers guessing, rather like the “dazzle camouflage,” designed to help war ships confuse enemies about a ship’s position and speed, that breaks up the wall between the bar and the restaurant’s front windows. Indeed, Tallberg describes Roustabout as a place where diners order familiar Italian-American food and are pleasantly surprised when they get a “riff on what [they] thought it was going to be.”

Playing with expectations gives Roustabout freedom, and the kitchen takes full advantage. A perfect example is one of the menu’s standouts, the arancini ($10). Rather than use leftover rice and slop tomato sauce on top, Tallberg creates each component of the dish with arancini in mind. He begins with an unusual cheese stock made from Grana Padano rinds, ladling it into a risotto along with sharp grated caciocavallo, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon. When the risotto is fried into balls and plated onto a velvety eggplant puree and topped with tart, shredded pickled cabbage, what results is a dish that looks like an old classic but tastes spectacularly complex and modern.

Similarly, the winter squash lasagna ($17), defies expectations in the best ways. Served with the corners of roughly cut homemade pasta sheets browned and draped over the sides of a cast iron pan, the dish looks nothing like a conventional lasagna. It doesn’t taste like one either, with layered textures moving from rich and lightly spicy béchamel and sweet butternut puree, to barely firm pickled apples, to a topping of funky shredded Brussels sprouts. Lasagna here is a concept, not an end-product, “a vehicle for great ingredients,” Tallberg calls it.

The kitchen takes the same approach with the excellent, almost creamy garlic soup ($9). Made from a base of sautéed onions, parsley, bay leaves, pepper and bread, the soup acts as a showcase for intense garlic flavors that come from hefty doses of raw garlic added three times during cooking, the last right before the soup is pureed and served.

Some items on Roustabout’s menu read simply as upgraded versions of familiar standbys. The whole leaf Caesar salad ($9) benefits from preserved lemons and an unexpectedly tangy dressing that lend the dish a fragrant brightness and balances out the umami from marinated white anchovies. Then there is the arctic char picatta ($21), cooked with a traditional butter, white wine and caper sauce, but served with broccoli rabe and salsa verde. It’s a small change that adds a little bitterness and welcome acidic, high note flavors to the flaky fish.

The arancini rest on eggplant puree and are topped with pickled cabbage.

The arancini rest on eggplant puree and are topped with pickled cabbage. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

The restaurant’s garlic bread ($7) appears to be a straightforward rendition. But what makes Roustabout unique is their homemade, tight-crumbed Tuscan bread and infused chili oil. For the spicy drizzle, Tallberg cures Calabrian chilies from Stonecipher Farm in Bowdoinham. The bread does its best to hold the runny melting garlic butter and oil, but this is an extremely messy dish – your face (and possibly your shirtfront) will gleam with oil after a few bites. Regardless, the pepper and garlic flavors are superb. “I could sit and eat this all night,” our server told us, “with a glass of wine and a really big pile of napkins.”

Roustabout’s bolognese ($18), served with homemade tagliatelle, takes the idea of a ground beef ragu and gives it a few key twists that dramatically elevate the dish. First is the restaurant’s use of fresh whole pork shoulders, which the kitchen grinds and adds to pancetta. Then there is the lush sauce base made from cream, sage, nutmeg and a fonduta packed with pungent tallegio. These elements produce a rich and incredibly smooth bolognese without a trace of graininess.

Desserts include stalwarts like tiramisu ($10) and a toasted almond panna cotta ($10) that is perhaps slightly too savory but rescued by a chewy candied fennel and raisin compote topping. But the standout is the decidedly un-Italian “Mess” ($10), a dense brownie served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and chocolate sprinkles. The dessert is what someone might serve at a birthday party thrown for a sophisticated 8-year-old – all the best, uncomplicated sweet elements are there, with just a few adult touches like the fudgy, intentionally underbaked brownie and salted caramel sauce.

PORTLAND, ME - APRIL 8: Bolognese with tagliatelle, fonduta, and basil, photographed for Dine Out Maine at Roustabout Friday, April 8, 2016. (Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer)

Bolognese with tagliatelle, fonduta, and basil at Roustabout. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

It’s a dish that makes perfect sense in a space that, when filled, feels a lot like there is a celebration happening. Which is to say, loud. All hard surfaces (except for the banquettes) and open spaces, the dining room can get so noisy you can’t hear the people seated at your own table. Tallberg describes it unapologetically as “a lively space,” one that reminds him of rowdy dinners around his godfather’s huge dining table.

That liveliness isn’t something you might naturally associate with a restaurant whose customers range so widely – from Baby Boomer couples out for a weekday dinner to groups of young professionals fresh from work. But it is one of the many surprising components that fit together to make Roustabout what it is: a welcoming and ambitious local restaurant that, despite its seafaring décor, just so happens to be a red-sauce Italian joint at heart.

The Salato Highball features house-infused spicy tequila, Strega, lime juice and a cucumber garnish.

The Salato Highball features house-infused spicy tequila, Strega, lime juice and a cucumber garnish. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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:

andrewross.maine@gmail.com

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Dine Out Maine: Guest reviewer visits Paciarino in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2016/03/20/dine-out-maine-paciarino-in-portland/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/03/20/dine-out-maine-paciarino-in-portland/#comments Sun, 20 Mar 2016 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=820986 Editor’s Note: While our search for a new restaurant critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram was open, an unexpected would-be critic threw his hat into the ring (his puck onto the ice?). We decided to take him up on it, so as we finalize our choice for a Dine Out critic, we’ve invited Portland Pirates goalie Mike McKenna to guest review a meal at Paciarino in Portland.

You might know me from my day job as a goaltender for the Portland Pirates … you know … the guy who willingly steps in front of 100 mph disks of frozen rubber. But away from the arena, I’ve developed a passion for food, one that has grown exponentially since I arrived in Portland. I get help from TV shows like “Top Chef,” and a subscription to Food & Wine magazine, but I freely admit I’m still in the infancy of my culinary knowledge and expertise.

Still, living in a city as food-oriented as Portland can be transformative: The wealth and diversity of dining options is world-class. Now in my third full season here as a player, I’ve made a point of embracing the scene and all it has to offer.

In his third year as a goalie for the Portland Pirates, Mike McKenna has made a point of embracing the city’s wealth of dine-out options.

In his third year as a goalie for the Portland Pirates, Mike McKenna has made a point of embracing the city’s wealth of dine-out options.

So when I saw last month that the Maine Sunday Telegram was searching for a new restaurant critic, I tweeted the paper and made a suggestion: “Restaurant critic? Guys…I’m here…win / win for everyone!” Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky tweeted back (something along the lines of “um, are you joking?”), and I told her that while I’d no plans to quit my day job, I’d be happy to give it a try between games while she searched for a permanent critic.

That’s how I found myself several weeks later at Paciarino, the long-running eatery located at the edge of the Old Port on Fore Street, pen and fork in hand. “Italiani Autentici” may be the motto, but the word “tradition” summed up my experience.

The layout of Paciarino lends itself to curious eyes: The open kitchen is noticeably large, while a square-shaped bar overlooks both the prep area and dining room. It’s not ideal, as seating is somewhat cramped both at the bar and in the dining area. You won’t be able to bring an entire youth hockey team in, but it works well enough for the intended audience of couples and small parties. Pastel colors and light wood create a mildly rustic atmosphere, which is accentuated by historic photos of Italy.

The menu reads like a concise tutorial in Italian cuisine: Dishes are described by flavors, ingredients and historical tidbits. Paciarino is pasta-centric, with pasta comprising nearly three-fourths of the menu. The pasta and the sauces are all made from scratch each and every day from a combination of local and imported Italian ingredients.

Being a professional athlete comes with certain expectations: Train hard, eat healthy, take care of your body. And for years, “carbo-loading” was a term thrown around with athletes. Ten or 15 years ago, a large plate of pasta from Paciarino would have been considered an ideal pregame meal for an athlete. Not so much today: Protein has come on strong, and refined, simple carbohydrates have largely been replaced by complex. So I consider a meal at Paciarino a bit of a “cheat” – the sort of meal I enjoy once a week in order to keep my sanity.

The restaurant makes a nearly flawless rendition of Lasagne alla Bolognese ($21.50). Americans know what to expect: copious amounts of ricotta cheese. But not so fast. At Paciarino, it’s prepared in a traditional manner using bechamel, a thick white sauce made from butter, flour and milk. A brick-sized portion is served layered with fresh noodles, melted Parmesan cheese and a thick, meaty Bolognese sauce rich with slow-cooked flavor. A credit to the bechamel (and most certainly someone’s Nonna), the result is luxuriously creamy and delicious. Considering the heft of the dish, it’s probably the last thing I would ever want to eat directly before playing a game. Insert picture of me sprawled on the ice in a food coma here.

In stark contrast, the athlete-friendly Organic Italian Salad ($7.50) is made from fresh greens topped with cherry tomatoes, red onion slices and a dusting of Parmesan cheese. Dressed lightly with extra-virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, the greens were allowed to shine rather than drown. Unfortunately, the red onion was cut too thick – instead of being a good team player, it dominated the salad.

Ravioli Ricotta e Spinaci alla Bolognese

Ravioli Ricotta e Spinaci alla Bolognese

Paciarino bills its Ravioli Ricotta e Spinaci alla Bolognese ($18.99) as “one of our most popular.” The ravioli are stuffed with ricotta cheese, sauteed spinach and Parmesan and flavored with garlic and nutmeg. Then they’re topped with house Bolognese sauce, dusted with more Parmesan, and finished with a drizzle of imported Sicilian extra-virgin olive oil. Some Americanized Italian restaurants smother their pastas in red sauce, but Paciarino astutely exercises restraint: The fresh ingredients that make up the ravioli stuffing are the center of attention, with the Bolognese providing just the right amount – and no more – of meaty contrast. It’s a well-executed dish, and I can see why it’s popular.

Equally good was the Tris di Bruschette ($7.50), Paciarino’s take on the quintessential Italian appetizer. Again, the fresh produce took center stage: An herby pomodoro showcased locally grown basil; a more traditional chunky tomato mixture was equally refreshing; and a delicious garlic oil rounded out the trio of bruschette toppings.

A wise restaurateur once told me the true test of a pasta restaurant is its simplest dish: There’s nowhere for the chef to hide. At Paciarino, a mostly satisfying dish of Spaghetti Aglio Olieo e Peperoncino ($14.99) – spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and hot peppers – fits that description. Next time, I might like a little less heat (for my wife) and an extra dose of garlic (for me). And while spaghetti is traditional, and it was properly served al dente, I think the additional chew of a thicker noodle would make the dish more interesting.

Despite nutritional guilt setting in – not to mention a loaf of fresh Italian bread, two appetizers and three entrees – my wife and I decided to attempt dessert (she was 9 months pregnant at the time, so eating for two). Practice the next morning would be a tough one, I knew, so I’d be able to work off the extra calories. Or at least that’s how I justified dessert.

Boccondivino

Boccondivino

Paciarino’s homemade tiramisu ($8.39), served individually in tidy glass jars, was superb. But the real showstopper came in the form of Boccondivino ($8.39), or “God’s Bite.” The restaurant soaks crisp, quarter-size amaretti cookies in dark roasted coffee, then sandwiches them together with mascarpone cream. “Crazy good,” my wife said. In a sugar-induced stupor, I mumbled something back. I can’t remember if it was actually words or just sounds. These cookies are that good.

If you are looking for innovation or trendy techniques, cross Paciarino off your list. But if you crave a nice plate of traditionally crafted pasta, along with a good glass of Italian red, this is your spot. No matter what your mustachioed, flannel-wearing, must-eat-the-next-big-thing foodie friend says, the world still needs restaurants that embrace the past.

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Dine Out Maine: Custom Deluxe in Biddeford http://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/31/at-custom-deluxe-in-biddeford-find-deliciously-re-imagined-american-favorites/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/31/at-custom-deluxe-in-biddeford-find-deliciously-re-imagined-american-favorites/#comments Sun, 31 Jan 2016 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=792784 Editor’s note: After about a year of Dining Out and telling readers about it, James H. Schwartz has decided to step down as restaurant critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram. We regret to say that this is his last review. The Dine Out column will be on hiatus while we look for his replacement.

Thomas Malz doesn’t like to call Custom Deluxe a bistro. “That word’s overused,” the 31-year-old Vermont-born chef says with a laugh. “Our place has the spirit of a bistro – unpretentious, easy and accessible – but with the same kind of service you’d find in a really good restaurant.”

And the same kind of memorable food. The popular Biddeford bistro (apologies, Chef) that Malz opened last summer with his fiancée, Megan McVey, serves American favorites with some serious twists – baked beans finished with miso and sesame seeds, dried cranberry and farro salad tossed with an almond pistou, maple doughnuts that cozy up to smoked cheddar and cracked pepper. Custom Deluxe may be small (the restaurant seats just 25 customers) but Malz’s cuisine makes a big impression.

Take the plate of pork ribs ($11) served with a fennel and apple slaw. They’re fall-apart-tender on the inside, extraordinarily crisp on the outside – as if the entire rib had been plunged into a fryer prior to serving. “That’s because it was,” Malz explains. “First I put a rub on the ribs for several hours, then I steam them to tenderize the meat, and smoke them. And then we put them into the fryer.” That brief descent into boiling oil produces a coating as noisy and crunchy as cracklings, and it encases shreds of meat as moist as confit. While the dish needed salt the evening we visited (in fact several dishes here benefited from a sprinkle), the intense pork flavor was bold and unmistakable. Malz sources most of his meat locally, from Hoglund’s in Biddeford: “They’re dedicated to quality,” he says, “and we want to keep our money local.”

An appetizer as mundane as mushroom soup ($9) makes a splash, as well. It’s poured tableside from a colorful sauceboat into a broad, white bowl filled with fresh peas and a scoop of tangy Greek yogurt. Why the haute presentation? Malz, a Culinary Institute of America grad, and McVey met while working at The Greenbrier, the fabled resort hotel in the mountains of West Virginia. “Serving the soup this way is old-school and French,” she says. “It’s a little bit of a surprise and a throwback to where our paths first crossed.” Drama aside, that soup is rich and velvety and has robust mushroom flavor. Malz combines white button mushrooms, portobellos and dried shiitakes for a stock with a savory, woodsy aroma. Hints of tarragon and sesame oil also waft from the bowl. His signature soup is extraordinarily filling – and marvelous.

The only modest disappointment here was the simple pasta ($12), a small bowl of house-made spaghetti that the menu said was tossed with Quebec cheddar and enriched with a soft egg. The noodles were decidedly bland.

Perhaps all the flavor and texture meant for that dish landed in the farro salad ($5) we ordered as an accompaniment? Too long overlooked by American cooks, farro – Italian-born pearls of wheat with a chewy texture and a hearty taste – is showing up on menus across the United States today, and the farro salad at Custom Deluxe exemplifies its appeal. While the dried cranberries are a fairly predictable addition, the almond pistou elevates the dish and accentuates the grain’s distinctive nutty flavor.

Malz’s tribute to his New England roots – a bean supper ($14) – may be his best entrée. At first glance, it looks ordinary, with a few alarmingly crimson chunks of Maine Reds piled into a bowl with a spoonful of baked beans. But looks are deceiving. The beans are earthy, sugary, complex. And no wonder. Malz cooks them with turnips and carrots and – get this – bottles of Moxie and root beer, then finishes them with miso, the traditional Japanese seasoning made of fermented soybeans. As for the Maine Reds, they’re boiled in dashi, a Japanese broth flavored with fish flakes and seaweed. Underneath the beans, dogs and a few fatty chunks of ham, is a mound of sticky rice showered with sesame seeds. Though a crazy cross-cultural mashup, the dish is as comforting as a warm blanket. I loved it.

Pork ribs with fennel, apple, parsnip and almond.

Pork ribs with fennel, apple, parsnip and almond.

Dashi, miso and Maine Reds? What inspired this dish? Part family, part place and part imagination, Malz said on one of his regular forays into the dining room. He always ate boiled Reds during summers spent in Wells, and he liked the way dashi imparted a deeper salty flavor (“appropriate because we’re close to the ocean.”) Finally, he’d heard stories about U.S. servicemen in Asia combining typical American dishes with donburi rice bowls. “I’d been thinking about a bean supper since we opened and a riff (just) made sense.”

Like most of the food at Custom Deluxe, the desserts ($7 each) are satisfying and packed with contrasting flavors. The “Fancy Cakes,” as they’re called on the menu, are an updated version of pineapple upside down cake. In place of canned pineapple, the restaurant uses sweet, citrusy satsumas and mild, floral Meyer lemons. The cakes are seriously moist. As if they aren’t filling enough on their own (they are), they’re served with a frozen yogurt meringue that melts so quickly on the tongue, you wonder if you’ve imagined it.

The Bean Supper, with Maine Reds, baked beans, Dashi rice and samurai sauce. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

The Bean Supper, with Maine Reds, baked beans, Dashi rice and samurai sauce. John Ewing/Staff Photographer

I’d have enjoyed a bigger portion of the yeast donut, but a friend across the table scarfed hers down before I could grab a second bite. What I did manage to steal was delicious, a classic raised donut tossed with sugar and served over spiced apple sauce with house-smoked cheddar cheese grated over the top, plus a scoop of frozen maple mousse and – for added punch – black pepper. The dish is a showcase for apples, cheddar and maple syrup, what Malz calls “the best that the North Country has to offer the rest of the world.”

Custom Deluxe is already a local favorite. When it first opened you could easily nab a table if you went early most weeknights, but the owners say they’ve given up predicting when or why the place fills up. The night we visited, every table was full – including the most secluded one (and the best one for avoiding drafts) in the nook overlooking Main Street. You may have to wait a few minutes to be seated, but the smells wafting out of the kitchen will compel you to stay.

On the way out, we noticed a framed automobile title hanging on the wall near the front door. It’s for a blue, 1973 Chevy Custom Deluxe – a classic that once belonged to the chef’s grandfather. “We carried the model name over to our restaurant,” Megan McVey says. That tale is heart-warming, unpretentious and American. Like the bistro itself.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.

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Dine Out Maine: Green Elephant in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/24/even-meat-lovers-will-find-plenty-to-like-at-green-elephant-an-asian-vegetarian-bistro-in-portland/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/24/even-meat-lovers-will-find-plenty-to-like-at-green-elephant-an-asian-vegetarian-bistro-in-portland/#comments Sun, 24 Jan 2016 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=789233 Green Elephant’s version of pad Thai. Courtesy photo

Green Elephant’s version of pad Thai. Courtesy photo

Editor’s Note: After about a year of Dining Out and telling readers about it, James H. Schwartz has decided to step down as restaurant critic for the Maine Sunday Telegram. Next week, we regret to say, will be his last review. Our Dine Out column will be on hiatus while we look for his replacement.

Vegetarian restaurants seem to fall into two categories: They’re either up-market and experimental (think heirloom smoked vegetables and 11-course vegetarian tasting menus) or laid-back and crunchy – more Birkenstocks than Blahniks.

Green Elephant, a self-styled “vegetarian bistro” in downtown Portland, is a completely different animal. Yes, it’s dynamic and hip, with the electric-green wall behind the bar and a veneer of rough-cut stone blocks dominating the other side of the dining room. But it’s also affordable (most entrees cost $15 or less). And it’s relaxed; an invitation on the restaurant’s website encourages you to come as you are, “with your best formal attire or in your favorite pajamas.”

Owners Dan Sriprasert and Bob Wongsaichua (who also own Boda, just down the street) say they have a mission to prepare consistently fresh “Asian-inspired vegetarian cuisine … with something for everyone.” If their fusion-style cooking isn’t groundbreaking, it’s certainly appealing, with enough tasty appetizers, curries, noodle dishes and meat-free stir-fries to satisfy a range of customers.

Take the Brussels sprouts ($7), one of many items on the menu that are both vegan and gluten-free. Crunchy on the outside with tender interiors, these sprouts are seasoned with tamari and brown sugar and have a pleasing, sweet finish.

Our waitress (who, like all the staff on duty, was terrific) said the fried sprouts remain one of the most popular appetizers – so popular that the recipe was included in “Portland, Maine Chef’s Table,” published in 2012.

In pointing out a few other favorites on the menu, the waitress recommended Soy Sticks, ($7), a vegan appetizer that looks for all the world like chicken drumsticks but turns out to be a soy alternative molded onto bamboo skewers in the vague shape of chicken legs, then fried and served with a garlic-chili-cilantro sauce. That sauce was good – thick like a duck sauce yet sharper and more complex – and the soy “meat” was an adventure in texture, the outside thin and crisp, like the skin on a piece of rotisserie chicken, and the inside dense and almost bready – similar to the stuffing you might find filling a holiday bird.

Heavy is probably the most accurate descriptor for the least satisfying appetizer we tried: Roti Canai. When you first see it on the menu the name of the dish looks frighteningly like “Root Canal,” but it turns out to be a soft, Indian-style flatbread that poses little threat to bridgework. The thin rounds of bread ($7) resemble paratha, with golden brown, barely charred crusts, but the bread tasted bland and unpleasantly oily. Roti Canai is served with a bowl of thin, vegetable curry dip flavored with mild spices. The dip was better on its own.

Main courses are more consistent and memorable. Peanut curry ($14) made with soy meat is slow-cooked in coconut milk and filled with chunks of sweet potatoes, chick peas, carrots and onions; it’s served with a mound of jasmine brown rice. Green Elephant’s kitchen excels at curry. This version is rich and thick and slightly sweet. Cloaked in sauce, the vegetables – particularly the sweet potatoes – are enormously satisfying. You can order the curry and most other entrees on the menu made mild (level 1) or spicy (level 4), but all seem fairly tame: We ordered level 2 and barely broke a sweat. Next time I’d throw caution to the wind and order a spicier version.

The dining room at Green Elephant.

The dining room at Green Elephant.

The Panang curry ($15) was nearly as good. Also coconut milk-based, this curry is filled with a medley of vegetables with contrasting textures, from supple squash and Thai eggplant to crisp-tender red and green peppers, broccoli and carrots, plus a few cubes of tempeh, the cake-like soybean cubes that have a nutty flavor and a consistency as hearty as a slice of meat terrine. Like most Panang curries, Green Elephant’s is flavored with lime leaves, but there’s nothing citrusy or tart about the taste. It’s savory and balanced and smooth – a rustic, soothing vegetarian stew that’s ideal for a snowy night.

The best dish of the evening was Singapore noodles ($13), translucent strands of rice vermicelli stir-fried with egg, vegetables and tofu, seasoned with curry and finished with a sprinkling of fried shallots for extra crunch. That crunch was key – not only because of the flavor, but also because it helped differentiate this curry-scented dish from the others we tried.

A curry noodle dish called Siamese Dream. Courtesy photo

A curry noodle dish called Siamese Dream. Courtesy photo

In fact, that’s something to watch out for at Green Elephant. There’s a sameness to a few of the dishes here. True, some contain tofu and others tempeh. And the curries we tried had carrots while the noodles featured snow peas and bok choy. But many of the underlying flavors and spices are similar. (One friend had trouble remembering which dish he was eating … “Is this the Panang curry or a stir-fry?”) If you’re looking for greater variety, consider ordering dishes with markedly different spice levels or try one noodle dish, one curry and one order of the excellent Thai basil fried rice ($12).

Desserts, all $7, include a vegan chocolate orange mousse pie, a vegan soy-free combo of coconut ice cream and fried banana fritters, and a trio of sorbets with fresh fruit. Go with the sorbet. Why? Dinner here is seriously filling. That banana confection is too heavy – and too sweet. A refreshing spoonful of sorbet is all you’ll want for dessert.

Meat-free restaurants may not be for everyone. But Green Elephant comes close. It’s fun, congenial and healthful, an easy place for vegetarians, dedicated carnivores – and the rest of us – to enjoy.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.

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Dine Out Maine: Suzukiya in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/17/slurp-alert-the-ramen-rocks-at-this-family-owned-noodle-house/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/17/slurp-alert-the-ramen-rocks-at-this-family-owned-noodle-house/#comments Sun, 17 Jan 2016 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=784153 Kei Suzuki has an eye for detail.

You notice it the moment you walk into Ramen Suzukiya, the tiny, brightly lighted noodle shop that he and his son, Cory, designed and opened on Congress Street early last summer.

It’s evident in the Japanese and Chinese characters that he painted onto the coffered ceiling; most refer to food and friendship, a few others spell out his last name. (“-Ya,” by the way, is the Japanese suffix used to denote a family business. Suzukiya basically means “Suzuki family firm.”)

It’s visible in the long community table that he commissioned for the center of the room – an enormous, live-edged slab of white pine held together with inlaid bowties and polished to a mirror sheen.

And it’s obvious the moment you see a ramen bowl delivered to that table atop a plain bamboo mat and filled to the brim with a mound of glistening house-made noodles, artfully sliced vegetables and one half of a delicately cooked soft-boiled egg, its golden yolk oozing out and enriching the aromatic broth.

Those ingredients and the entire menu may be simple (Suzukiya offers just four different ramen bowls and two accompanying mini-rice bowls) but the presentation – and the flavors – are impressive.

Find a seat at the table or along the counter overlooking Congress Street (the restaurant seats only 13 customers, but turnover is swift) and order your ramen ($12). All but the vegetarian option are filled with noodles, baby bok choy, scallions, that irresistible egg and a slice of succulent stewed pork called cha-shu. (Vegetarian bowls have tofu in place of the egg and pork.)

It’s the soups that are completely different. The salty shoyu is flavored with soy sauce and seaweed, miso is marginally less salty but markedly richer and infused with bonito flakes, and the Hakata-style is the heartiest of all – a silken, creamy broth that coats the back of a spoon and smacks of long-simmered pork.

After placing your order with Kei Suzuki (he’s warm and kind and more than happy to answer questions), check out the bags of flour stacked architecturally near the kitchen. They’re not here purely for display. Suzuki makes all his noodles by hand and uses a selection of different organic King Arthur flours: “We make the noodles two days in advance, wrap each serving and put them in the refrigerator (to rest),” he says. Ramen is different from other Japanese noodles such as udon and soba, he explains, “because it needs to have a firm texture before you can serve it.”

That texture makes an impression. Twist your chopsticks into the hot noodles (you can also use one of the red, lacquered spoons delivered on a tray), blow on them slightly and bite into the curly threads. They are firm and barely salted but so flavorful and substantial you can’t think of simply swallowing them. No, these are ramen to chew and savor – a far cry from the bland, dehydrated noodles you extract from a package and douse in boiling water. Instantly satisfying on their own, they’re even better with a few paper-thin shreds of cabbage, a drop of egg yolk and a sip of that piping hot broth. I lowered my head and tried to resist slurping (a compliment to the chef in Japan, but unseemly here in Maine). Every now and then I’d discover another treasure floating in the soup – like a sliver of wakame, the dark green seaweed that has a subtle, pleasantly sweet taste. But nothing interrupted my ramen rhythm. Once you’ve started sipping the savory, steaming soup that fills your bowl, it’s hard to stop.

Which does prompt a seasonal question: Ramen hits the spot this week as a winter pick-me-up, but will it appeal to a wide audience on a hot and humid August day?

Suzuki says yes. “In Japan, ramen shops are like pizza shops here…They are around every corner, (open all year) and you typically stop in for a quick bowl.” Suzukiya seems to work the same way. Couples and young families stream in and out, settling down for a few minutes with a bowl of noodles, but rarely lingering for more than an hour. Many are regulars who live on Munjoy Hill and have standing orders. (“I always have the same ramen: miso,” one customer told me. “If it weren’t so good, I might try something different.”)

He may have a point: While all the ramens we tried were delicious, the accompanying “dons” or rice bowls ($5) available as sides both missed the mark. The fish don featured a small piece of salmon placed like a trophy atop a few spoonfuls of sticky rice. The menu noted that the fish was cooked sous vide with a teriyaki sauce, yet it tasted disappointingly dry. And a bowl of beef don sprinkled with an eye-catching julienne of ruby-colored peppers was only slightly more interesting. Marinated in a house-made soy-based sauce, then stewed with onion and ginger, the meat was good – but not nearly as good as the cha-shu served with the ramen: That pork was deeply flavorful, and as soft as a slice of pâté – an ideal foil for the ramen and the crisp vegetables.

Desserts at Suzukiya are almost an afterthought. In fact, if you don’t notice them at the bottom of the menu and remember to ask about availability, no one will remind you. (And you don’t really need dessert. A ramen bowl may be modest in size, but it’s definitely filling.) The restaurant serves three types of Japanese ice cream most nights ($3 each): green tea, black sesame and ginger. The ginger – two scoops studded with chunks of crystallized ginger served in an intricate blue and white bowl with scalloped edges – was predictable but good.

Suzukiya is not hidebound. Kei Suzuki continues to experiment and tweak tradition, adding bok choy and cabbage (“not traditional,” he says), considering gluten-free rice noodles (definitely not traditional), and serving plain eggs instead of the soy-marinated eggs he considered too salty for American palates. “I want to create a Maine style” using local ingredients, he explains. “The long-term goal is that Cory will be able to do the farming for the restaurant and provide us with the vegetables we need.”

It’s an ongoing experiment that already works well. The success is in the details.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.

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Dine Out Maine: 76 Pleasant Street in Norway http://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/10/at-76-pleasant-street-in-norway-amazing-dishes-come-from-a-little-four-burner-stove/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/10/at-76-pleasant-street-in-norway-amazing-dishes-come-from-a-little-four-burner-stove/#comments Sun, 10 Jan 2016 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=779960 An evening at 76 Pleasant Street is a journey into the unexpected.

There’s the restaurant itself, a tiny operation serving only 24 customers, that you discover inside of a sprawling 19th-century clapboard manse located on a quiet road running north from downtown Norway.

There’s the menu, which consists of just a few appetizers and entrees, and includes the predictable – corn chowder and filet of beef – but also the surprising: escargots with Sambuca and prosciutto, braised pork belly with currants and butternut squash, and Icelandic cod with Ancho tomato broth and parsley puree. (We’ll get to that.)

And, most importantly, there’s the cooking, which is assured, consistent and deliciously unanticipated.

“Visitors often ask us what we’re doing in Norway,” says Amy Baker, an experienced restaurateur who opened 76 Pleasant Street with her husband, Bret, in 2010. (She shares responsibilities for prep and takes care of the front of the house. He works in the kitchen, behind – get this – a modest four-burner stove.) “Certainly the banks were skeptical when we said we wanted to relocate from Lake Tahoe and open here … They didn’t think it would work.” But the skeptics underestimated the enthusiastic clientele coming to the area, she says, as well as the “amazing support” the Bakers received from the local community. “If we had opened in Portland we’d be one restaurant among a million. Here, we’re one of a kind.”

So is that pork belly ($9), a thick slab that’s dry-brined with sugar and salt, then braised in beer for hours before being seared in a blazing hot cast-iron pan. The outside is outrageously crisp (think the best, crispiest bacon you’ve ever tried) and the interior is luxuriously fatty, with an appealing sweetness from both the brine and the currant-laced syrup drizzled around the plate. Slice off a corner (you’ll likely hear the crunch) and savor the fat and flavor oozing from the meat. Sure, you’ll crave a larger serving, but even a little more of this unctuous treat would be way too much. Dinner’s just started.

If you’re lucky, you’ve gone with a few friends and encouraged (well, begged) at least one of them to order escargots ($12). They’re not served in the shell with one of those spring-loaded and vaguely medieval-looking extraction tongs. Instead, they’re piled onto a plate around a hunk of crostini and accompanied by sweet, soft slivers of cooked shallot, a few shards of crisped prosciutto and a chiffonade of fresh basil. A friend marveled at the flavor (the begging apparently worked), offering a snail with a question: “Can you make out the sweetness?” Yes, absolutely, but what is it? Star anise? Honey? Fennel sautéed with the shallots? Wrong on all counts. “That’s Sambuca,” Amy Baker explains. “Bret sautés the snails with butter and garlic and a splash of the Italian liqueur…It’s become one of our most popular appetizers.”

Unexpected sweetness comes through once again in the roasted cod ($24), served in a pool of tomato broth made with San Marzano tomatoes and topped with a jam-like dollop of parsley puree enriched with golden raisins. Those accompaniments are delicious, but the cod could easily stand on its own: It’s impeccably cooked, moist and flavorful, and nearly as soft as butter.

Another friend offers a taste of his lamb entree ($28), a trio of juicy loin chops served with a few spoonfuls of aromatic harissa on the side. Like the fish, this meat is expertly cooked (the chops are tasty reminders of all the reasons to love mild lamb) and carefully seasoned. And this time the kitchen has replaced sweetness with fire; the ancho and guajillo chilies in the harissa lend greater depth to the meat. In a piquant flourish, Bret Baker finishes the plate with a few leaves of arugula tossed with garlic oil and lemon juice.

There’s still more pepper in the pink-peppered filet of beef ($28) served with whipped cannellini beans and crimini mushrooms. By now, all of us at the table are anticipating inventive sauces, and the beef delivers. It’s served with a tart gastrique made with sherry vinegar and shallots, chili paste and sugar. Paired with that sauce, the rare slices of beef are juicy, meaty and entirely delicious.

Four diners, four different entrees, can all of us be equally impressed? “These are the best scallops ($27) I’ve had in a long time,” says the last friend to weigh in. “They’re perfectly cooked.” Barely warm in the center, caramelized on the outside, the large bivalves are plump and sweet and rich-tasting – especially after a bath in the pool of brown butter and cauliflower puree on the plate. Texture plays a significant role here, too: the supple scallops are topped with a few finely chopped hazelnuts.

Like all of the appetizers and entrees we try at 76 Pleasant Street, desserts ($6.50 each) prove intensely flavored and varied. Limoncello cake may be the best of all, with sugary layers of yellow sponge cake separated by a tart limoncello cream and showered with gingersnap crumbs.

A free-form apple crisp with salted caramel gelato is nearly as good (it’s made with tart Granny Smiths as well as sweeter Golden Delicious apples). And the profiterole is excellent. And large. It’s a shatteringly crisp vessel for a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and it’s drenched in a sharply-flavored espresso-chocolate ganache.

Enjoying desserts – and an entire dinner – this good, this far off Maine’s well-beaten restaurant path is a genuine surprise. Thoroughly unexpected. Entirely delicious. And absolutely unforgettable.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.

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Dine Out Maine: David’s KPT in Kennebunkport http://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/03/at-beautiful-davids-kpt-in-kennebunkport-the-food-is-sometimes-great-sometimes-not/ http://www.pressherald.com/2016/01/03/at-beautiful-davids-kpt-in-kennebunkport-the-food-is-sometimes-great-sometimes-not/#comments Sun, 03 Jan 2016 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=775932 There’s a number in the musical “A Chorus Line” that brings down the house every time. “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three” is an anthem about style and substance and the often skewed relationship between the two. If you think that talent trumps appearance, a newly voluptuous hoofer sings, you’ll have to think again.

I heard a customer humming that song after she folded her napkin and walked away from David’s KPT in Kennebunkport last week. Point taken. The restaurant, on the first floor of the Boathouse Waterfront Hotel, is certainly great looking. With a high-ceilinged dining room painted a deep navy blue, columns intricately wrapped in rope (part of a marine-inspired design theme) and a dramatically lighted bar, it’s got style in spades. But substance? Not so much. The hallmark of the cuisine at David Turin’s Kennebunkport eatery seems to be inconsistency. Some of the dishes look ravishing and taste delicious, others are distinctly disappointing and seriously short on flavor. What gives?

Full disclosure: I’m a fan of Turin’s South Portland restaurant, David’s 388, and haven’t had a poor meal there. (His empire also includes David’s Monument Square and David’s Opus Ten.) So an evening at KPT started with high hopes. Too bad they were dashed by the waitress: Though efficient, she was noticeably cool and only willing to offer suggestions about the evening’s best dishes when pressed. She also seemed overworked (“this may take a little while,” she said when we ordered a bottle of wine) and undertrained: At a white tablecloth restaurant with most entrees priced above $25, stacking the dishes boarding house-style strikes a discordant note.

Worse, several of her recommendations fell flat. A seafood sausage appetizer ($11) looked luscious – the thickly cut rounds of sausage containing lobster, scallops and salmon were as colorful as a Broadway marquee – but the texture seemed dry and the consistency reminiscent of canned albacore tuna packed in water instead of oil. Perhaps a slice from the middle would be moister? No such luck. The seafood in this artfully composed package tasted overcooked.

A plate of potstickers and sliced beef ($11) proved more of a mixed bag. An arugula salad on the plate was terrific – the spicy leaves lightly slicked with a tart, bright dressing – but the dumplings themselves were pallid. We tried to identify the filling (meat? vegetables?) without success. At least the generous portion of sliced beef added to the plate was good. Barely cooked through, deeply tender and juicy, it paired beautifully with that peppery salad.

One appetizer at KPT was a showstopper. The roasted beet salad ($12) looked like a set designer’s dream, with slices of gold and red beets, piped pillows of white goat cheese yogurt and a vivid slash of burgundy-colored beet gastrique across one side of the plate. And the flavor? One singular sensation: intensely sweet beets flattered by the slightly sour yogurt and adorned with a handful of candied pecans. One of several vegetarian items on the menu, this plate was balanced and tasty enough to please a carnivore.

Turin’s skill with comfort classics shined through in a few entrees, especially pan-roasted chicken breast ($24). The brined breast was moist and mildly salty, with a skin so crispy it nearly started a fight at the table. And the cranberry-orange chutney that tagged along was a fine addition – filled with whole berries that exploded on the tongue like tiny balloons packed with fruit essence. A generous serving of KPT meatloaf ($19) was pretty good, as well. Not exactly surprising, but both flavorful and filling and served with a mound of appealingly lumpy garlic mashed potatoes. (As good as the pork-and-beef meatloaf was served hot, I couldn’t help thinking how it would taste cold, tucked between slices of bread for lunch.)

Meat-based entrees may be the way to go at David’s KPT, because, despite the lovely seaside setting and the seafood options on the menu, the fish and shellfish entrees we tried missed the mark. Take the pepper-crusted tuna ($27) served with soba noodles. Like most everything here, the dish looked marvelous, with thin slices of rare tuna fanned across the plate, a few spears of asparagus and a mound of sesame peanut soba noodles piled up like a tiny, fragile bird’s nest. But the glistening slices of tuna smacked of pepper – nothing more – and the noodles were gummy, with none of the nutty flavor that makes soba so appealing. Another seafood option, the oddly named “open-faced lobster ravioli” ($28), turned out to be a square of pasta, like a lasagna sheet, topped not just with lobster, but with scallops, shrimp and ricotta, plus green beans and julienned vegetables, covered – well, immersed – in a lake of sherry cream sauce. It was too much of a good thing – lobster Newburg on steroids.

Had we skipped dessert, we might have left disappointed. Thank goodness we didn’t. David’s KPT brings down the curtain with a selection of crowd-pleasers that deserves an ovation. The house cheesecake ($8) alone – a silky, creamy, ethereal slice – is reason enough to stand up and cheer. Equally good is a bowl of the chef’s “smoosh-in” ($8) – a brownie blended with ice cream and topped with Bailey’s Irish Cream and Kahlua. Evocative of childhood? Sure. Boozy? Yes. Rich? Are you kidding?

David’s KPT delivers with those desserts, and the ambiance of the place is unfailingly alluring. It’s just the cooking that’s uneven. I asked the customer who was humming the melody from “Chorus Line” what she thought of the place and her meal. “Looks: Ten,” she answered instantly. “Food: Three.”

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.

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Dine Out Maine: El Rayo in Scarborough http://www.pressherald.com/2015/12/27/dine-out-maine-originality-is-not-on-the-menu-at-el-rayo-in-scarborough-but-fun-and-flavor-if-you-order-carefully-are/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/12/27/dine-out-maine-originality-is-not-on-the-menu-at-el-rayo-in-scarborough-but-fun-and-flavor-if-you-order-carefully-are/#comments Sun, 27 Dec 2015 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=772737 What is it about noise? There are noisy restaurants you avoid because the din destroys the evening. And there are noisy restaurants you relish in spite of the ruckus: They’re fun and busy and consistently appealing, with a high energy level that balances out the high decibels.

El Rayo Taqueria in Scarborough (a new Portland location opens in the spring at 26 Free St.) is the latter. Sure, it’s boisterous and filled with kids and couples and strings of lights and trays of margaritas.

And, yes, it’s on an undistinguished stretch of Route 1 where the high beams from passing cars pierce the windows and rake over booths like the sweep of a beacon from a lighthouse.

But – distractions aside – the place feels good. And if the “authentic Mexican” food (a bit of an overstatement) is largely predictable, does that really matter? After you dig into your taco and adjust to the background roar, you may be surprised how much you’re enjoying the place.

Walk in the front door and look up and you’ll quickly discover part of the reason for the clamor. The ceilings at El Rayo are covered with corrugated metal, as if someone flipped the roof upside down and brought the outside in. Next, pick your seating: There are two-tops, booths, stools lined up in front of the curving bar, and tables that look like stumps but are actually thick slices of Indonesian monkey wood plunked down on bases and big enough to seat four or more.

You can order an $8.50 margarita (pretty good) or a $4 Mexican beer from one of the upbeat servers, or pass on drinks and go right for the guacamole ($5.75), a small bowl of creamy dip dotted with good-sized chunks of avocado. Grab one of the thin tortilla chips and plunge it into the vivid green guac: It’s bright and tart and seasoned with just enough salt and lime, plus a satisfying, lingering dose of heat from jalapenos and chipotles.

The deep-fried plantains ($4.95), served on a brilliant, salmon-colored plate, are nearly as good, thanks to the chipotle mayo they come with. Rich and thick, smoky and spicy with a strong spritz of citrus to boot, it turns the plantains into mere sauce-delivery systems. A friend sitting across the stump from me said, “See if you can get a juice glass filled with more of that stuff … I want to take it home.”

You may have to shout at your dinner partner to be heard, but you won’t have to raise your voice to hail down a server. Quite a few are moving through the dining room, and they’re all willing to answer questions, and happy to bring out more chips or more drinks or more of that chipotle mayonnaise. El Rayo’s website says, “Don’t be surprised to see the chef personally serve you.” We didn’t, but we probably saw every other member of the team.

The multi-page menu features quesadillas, burritos, salads and rice-and-bean bowls, as well as a few daily specials and a long list of tacos. While the waitress described the specials as “authentic,” both of those we tried fell flat. The corn poblano soup, a cream-based appetizer with roasted corn and poblano peppers ($4.95), was thick but lacked distinctive flavor. It was much better with a sprinkling of salt (turns out that’s what fills the El Jimador tequila flask on the table) and several large dribbles of arbol chili sauce. Likewise, the special empanadas ($11.95) filled with ground beef and caramelized onions looked good, and the pastry was light and deliciously flaky, but the filling had no taste, no spice. Nada.

So skip the lackluster specials and try a selection of tacos instead. Served on warm corn tortillas (you can request flour tortillas) and garnished with loads of cilantro, they’re fresh, varied and so full of flavor, I forgot all about the anemic empanadas. The al carbon ($3.95) has cubes of char-grilled chicken with a spicy pico de gallo salsa and grainy cotija cheese on top. Better still is the barbecued pulled pork ($3.95) filled with shreds of tender, juicy pork bathed in barbecue sauce and topped with a red onion escabeche. (The paper napkin dispenser on the table comes in handy here.)

Desserts at El Rayo include selections from both south and north of the border. (Rice Krispie squares anyone?) The key lime pie ($3.95) with graham cracker crust may have wandered over from Florida, but it’s intensely fresh-tasting with a filling tart enough to make you pucker yet nicely balanced with just the right amount of sugar.

There’s also a dessert listed as Mexican “chocolate pudding” ($3.95), with a heady aroma and the usual chocolate-cinnamon-cayenne blend. Its consistency approaches that of a slightly undercooked brownie. (A friend drove his spoon into the center of the pudding and raised his eyebrows. “Shouldn’t they call that chocolate spackle?” he asked.) Each spoonful tastes both spicy and sweet, and a lavish hand with the whipped cream doesn’t hurt, either.

El Rayo doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. It’s not fancy, it’s not particularly adventurous and it’s certainly not quiet. But the place is definitely fun, and affordable and on occasion pleasantly surprising. So go with a crowd, share a few of tacos and make as much noise as you want. You’ll be in good company.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.

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Dine Out Maine: Oak Street Bistro in Alfred http://www.pressherald.com/2015/12/20/dine-out-maine-theres-a-lot-going-on-at-oak-street-bistro-in-alfred/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/12/20/dine-out-maine-theres-a-lot-going-on-at-oak-street-bistro-in-alfred/#comments Sun, 20 Dec 2015 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=769518 There’s an important difference between abundance and excess. One means much. The other merely more. Well, excess is on full display at Oak Street Bistro in Alfred this month. The restaurant is lavishly decorated with garland and lights and wreaths and ornaments and ribbons and painted toy soldiers (you get the picture), plus an elaborate creche near the front door that includes airborne angels, wise men, camels – and one very tall palm tree.

And that’s not all. More Christmas decorations, yes, but also more reproduction Tiffany-style lamps (I counted 15 hanging from the ceiling in one dining room), more customers (there’s seating for 220) and more food (the servings are generous, and the detailed dinner menu of American favorites fills both sides of a very long, laminated card.) What’s missing in the midst of all this color and extravagance is creativity and consistency. A few of the appetizers and desserts are good, but most of the food is predictable and bland.

Take the order of French onion soup ($6.99), which arrives in a familiar crock filled with dark brown (as it turns out, watery) broth that’s studded with bits of onion and shrouded, as required, by a thick layer of hot, melting cheese. Plunge your spoon through the bubbling blanket and you discover … less. Less taste, less depth and less flavor. It’s definitely warming – and who doesn’t like melted cheese? – but that’s about it.

A serving of fried haddock ($16.99) proves much the same. The fish looks appealing enough: the large fillet is golden brown and served atop a generous portion of French fries, but neither the fish nor the spuds have much flavor. The haddock is dry and seriously under-seasoned and the spuds soggy and in desperate need of salt. (Had the kitchen mistakenly brought out a low-sodium plate?) Even the tartar sauce is tasteless.

Perhaps, you think, one of the weeknight specials will be a smarter choice? “I understand that the chef’s chicken piccata ($17.99) is excellent tonight,” our waiter announces. He’s enthusiastic and polite, but slightly harried (it takes 25 minutes to get the glasses of wine we ordered) and, it seems, woefully ill-informed. The touted special arrives with an enormous serving of overcooked penne, and is distinctly gummy – as if the chef has dredged each piece of poultry in far too much flour and forgotten to shake off the excess.

The tables all around us are full. The enormous bar is packed with customers. Diners don’t seem to mind the two wall-mounted televisions that are switched to different channels – one broadcasting a movie and the other a football game.

There’s lots to look at and plenty to listen to – a gifted pianist playing standards and holiday tunes in the corner also takes requests – but this evening is a definite disappointment. Walking past that intricate crèche, a friend says, “Maybe the staff puts all of their energy into decorating and simply skimps on the food prep?”

I mulled this over for a few days and decided to head back, this time early on a Sunday evening when most restaurants are quiet, the distractions are limited and it’s easy to get a table. And to my happy surprise this visit had more of what must make Oak Street popular with locals. The televisions were silent. The holiday music was piped in (the pianist apparently had the night off), and we found a few winning appetizers and desserts.

Consider the crusted scallops and bacon ($12.99). They’re plump, tender and wonderfully salty. (In keeping with the bistro’s unspoken More Is More theme, each scallop is wrapped with so much bacon that you can hardly spy the shellfish beneath.)

Crunching into the sweet, juicy packets, I couldn’t help but smile and think, “They know about flavor. They’ve just been hiding it.” A taste of the clam chowder ($4.99) – thick and chock-full of chopped clams, chopped celery, potato chunks and flavor – confirmed it.

Unfortunately, the entrees we tried on our second visit were as prosaic as those from round one. A burger ($11.99) with cheddar and jack cheeses, bacon, caramelized onions, lettuce and tomato was underseasoned and underwhelming, and the pile of accompanying sweet potato fries ($1.50) far from crisp. Parmesan-crusted salmon ($19.99) was crisper, but like so much else here, the fish cried out for salt.

The waitress Sunday night noted that all desserts are housemade, so, twist our arms, we went ahead and tried a hot fudge brownie sundae ($5.99). That celebration of indulgence – a chocolate chunk-filled brownie, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and an enormous ladle of hot fudge sauce – was pretty good. (If more than enough for the average diner, it’s perfect for two. Finally, a case where more really is more.)

Oak Street Bistro has a warm, welcoming atmosphere – especially at the holidays. There’s plenty of parking, plenty to ogle and plenty to try. But little stands out amid the excess. Too much for most of us? Yes. Too much of a good thing? Sadly, no.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.

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Dine Out Maine: Tempo Dulu in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2015/12/06/dine-out-maine-at-tempo-dulu-in-portland-look-for-exotic-southeast-asian-flavors-unapologetically-intense-spicing-and-pampering/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/12/06/dine-out-maine-at-tempo-dulu-in-portland-look-for-exotic-southeast-asian-flavors-unapologetically-intense-spicing-and-pampering/#comments Sun, 06 Dec 2015 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=761799 We dine out for different reasons. Sometimes it comes down to convenience – letting someone else do the cooking for a change. Occasionally it’s to mark a milestone with a meal that’s creatively presented and carefully served. Or perhaps it’s to try something resolutely different – a new restaurant, a new chef or a new dish that’s getting attention. Of course, there’s always hunger: We dine out in search of satisfaction. And, with apologies to Gertrude Stein, a pang is a pang is a pang.

There’s another reason to dine at Tempo Dulu, the ambitious new restaurant inside the Danforth Inn on Portland’s West End: for an intensely sensual experience. Dining here is like spending a few hours at a luxurious spa. And if absolutely everything you try is not to your liking, you still return home feeling pampered. The warm hand towels brought to the table when you arrive are perfumed with jasmine and frangipani, fragrances that linger throughout the meal. The walls of the exquisitely decorated space are covered with eye-catching works of contemporary art that make the warmly lighted rooms look more like prestigious galleries than prosaic dining rooms. Sounds all around are low and muted, including the footfalls of the wait staff who practice their exacting choreography in rubber-soled slippers. And the extravagant Southeast Asian-inspired dishes – almost all of them aromatic and deeply flavorful – are unlike any you’re liable to taste elsewhere in Maine. “Tempo dulu” may be an Indonesian phrase loosely translated as “olden days,” but there’s nothing passé or predictable about an evening here.

First the menus: There are three. A three-course prix fixe menu ($69) allows you to order an appetizer, an entrée and one dessert, and is enhanced with artful surprises from the kitchen. A chef’s tasting menu ($87) features rijsttafel (the traditional Indonesian-Dutch meal of rice and spicy side dishes), and a lobster tasting menu ($98) features, well, lobster.

The first surprise that appears in advance of the three-course menu is a Damariscotta oyster served on a bed of pink salt and peppercorns. Tilt the shell toward your tongue and the plump oyster slithers out on a fragrant wave of foam infused with Thai basil. In the midst of your reverie, this plate is removed and replaced with another holding a miniscule quail egg served with a few drops of spicy aioli and topped with crunchy slivers of fried shallot. The cool white of the egg is a marvelous foil for the fiery sauce, which is blended with sriracha. And in place of a yolk there’s a tiny spoonful coconut charcoal – yes, charcoal – bound with a dollop of Japanese mayonnaise. The filling is smooth and creamy with the vaguest mineral taste. It’s abundantly clear we’re not in Kansas anymore.

“My background is in French cuisine, and I trained at Le Cordon Bleu in London,” says executive chef Lawrence Klang, who opened the restaurant in June. “But Tempo Dulu is all about the flavors and scents of Indonesia and Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma and Cambodia … wholly new flavors and profiles for me and many of our guests.”

With the support of Tempo Dulu’s Dutch owners, Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest, who also own the Camden Harbour Inn and Natalie’s restaurant, Klang spent 2014 traveling throughout Southeast Asia and cooking in Bangkok, Bali and Singapore. Back in Maine, he built a menu that’s focused on “authenticity” (it’s why he makes his own, tear-inducing sambal sauce with a traditional combination of chili paste, palm sugar and ginger) “and flavor – just pure flavor.”

You taste both in the duck leg, a Chinese-inspired appetizer marinated in palm sugar and soy, and then fried. The meat is tender and crispy at the same time, a marriage of contrasting textures underscored by other morsels on the plate: shards of fried shallot and fried garlic that deliver extra crunch, and a piece of foie gras, as smooth as Thai silk, that melts away and leaves you longing for more.

Another appetizer, the Maine crab and shrimp cake, is less tantalizing. It’s served with hot mustard coconut butter and a lemon grass-tomato confit, but despite the accompaniments the shellfish tastes bland and the cake itself is a bit rubbery. Mild disappointment is quickly forgotten, however, with the arrival of another surprise from the kitchen, a mouthful of spiced apple sorbet, sweetened with honey, that cleanses the palate before the entrees arrive.

When choosing among five entrees, we followed the waiter’s advice and ordered Sumatra lamb, rosy slices of lamb loin scattered with raisins and set atop a pool of curry sauce. The lamb was certainly good, and the curry exotic – the sweet-sour taste of tamarind here, a whiff of cinnamon and coconut there – but our second entrée, steamed halibut with Bang Island mussels and yellow curry, was extraordinary. The halibut is marinated briefly with kaffir lime leaves and lime juice blended with coconut milk, then steamed and served with a few mussels and a spicy yellow curry. The smell alone was intoxicating, and the balance of flavors brilliant – the clean taste of the meaty, succulent fish, the rich fire of the curry and the simplicity of the steamed rice, which offset the heat of the dish.

If you still need to cool things down, Tempo Dulu offers a chilled passion fruit and saffron panna cotta for dessert that Klang says was inspired by sweets he tried in Vietnam. The dessert menu also includes spekkoek, a type of cake popular in Europe that was introduced to Indonesia during the “olden days” of Dutch colonization and evolved in its new Southeast Asian home. Spiced with star anise and cinnamon, it’s served here with coconut ice cream. While the texture is slightly dry, it’s a visual knock out. Slice into it and you realize it’s composed of ultra-thin layers no thicker than crepes, each piled on top of the next like carefully stacked cards in a deck. None of the portions – from appetizers to desserts – is extravagant, but the exuberant parade of dishes, and the creativity on display, leave you wanting little more.

Tempo Dulu isn’t for everyone. Much of the spicing is unapologetically intense; the tamarind in the curry, for example, or the chilies in the sambal. A few of the dishes (like the crab and shrimp cake) pale next to more flavorful options. And the place is definitely pricey for Maine: Couples who choose the most affordable of the three menus must still expect to spend well north of $150 dollars, excluding drinks. But if you’re dining out in search of something memorable, flavorful – and above all, sensual – Tempo Dulu is the place to go.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines. He received the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award in 2015.

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Dine Out Maine: Black Trumpet in Portsmouth, N.H. http://www.pressherald.com/2015/11/29/at-black-trumpet-in-portsmouth-new-hampshire-cross-cultural-foods-are-full-of-flavor/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/11/29/at-black-trumpet-in-portsmouth-new-hampshire-cross-cultural-foods-are-full-of-flavor/#comments Sun, 29 Nov 2015 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=758002 Black trumpets are unusual mushrooms. As the name suggests, they’re tall and dark and occasionally hard to find. (Foragers say you’ll miss them unless you keep your eyes peeled.) They thrive close to the water in damp, protected environments. Enthusiasts praise them for their fragrance and distinctive, rich flavor.

Black Trumpet, a bistro and wine bar in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is aptly named. The dark brick building stands on a quiet lane (it could easily be mistaken for an alleyway) that ends in a parking lot on the north side of town. The windows of the dining room on the ground floor, and the wine bar upstairs, overlook the waters of the harbor lapping at the base of the docks just outside. And many of the unconventional dishes here are aromatic, satisfying and flavorful.

Chef Evan Mallett, who opened the restaurant with his wife, Denise, in 2007, says the abundant layers of fragrance and taste are no accident: “I’m cross-pollinating here like crazy… I never went to culinary school but started cooking in New Hampshire, moved to Mexico, traveled throughout South America and to some extent in southern Europe and North Africa: All are inspirations for our menu. A customer once called our cooking ‘Mediterranean cuisine filtered through a geeky chef whose heart is in Latin America.’ ”

Consider the Moroccan goat cassoulet on the menu or, even better, the octopus and chorizo strata ($7), an appetizer that’s part Tortilla Espanola and part Italian strata with a few New England potatoes thrown in for good measure. Plunge your fork into the strata and you may find a cube of French bread as light as a spoonful of soufflé, or a tender chunk of octopus (it’s braised for hours) or a thin slice of fiery Spanish chorizo. This is a different kind of comfort food – warm and rich, yes, but also piquant and pungent. Mallett dusts the top of the strata with dried black olives ground with peppercorns, a garnish that makes it even more delicious.

The rabbit meatballs in rosemary cream ($9), made with rabbit from Song Away Farm in Loudon, New Hampshire, seemed like a riff on another Italian favorite – coniglio al rosmarino. The meatballs – served with a smoked tomato aspic – were as soft and yielding as dumplings but, unfortunately, the flavor was flat.

Nothing eases disappointment like an ample bread basket – or a bread bowl like the one at Black Trumpet. The bowl varies nightly – it held baguettes and pumpkin bread when we visited – and pumpkin bread in particular was very good. Baked by pastry chef Tim Cronin, it’s moist, dense, sweet and substantial – just a few pats of butter shy of dessert. The pumpkin Cronin uses is an heirloom variety called long pie that Mallett grows on his New Hampshire farm along with other indigenous foods from New England.

Long pie appears again in a vegetarian entrée: Pumpkin stuffed with walnut risotto. A visually stunning dish, the small serving of pale risotto is piled atop a segment of the orange pumpkin and surrounded by concentric rings of apple-cranberry puree and golden herb oil. I hesitated before destroying the painterly presentation, but the Parmesan-scented steam rising from the risotto was hard to resist. The pumpkin flesh pumpkin was tender and appealingly sweet, and the rice was a lovely complement – creamy yet with the requisite gentle bite at the center of each grain. Mallett adds roasted walnuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to the dish just before serving. Presentation be damned, nothing remained when the waiter returned to clear our plates.

The “daily filet” on the menu turned out to be cod, and the fish was competently roasted, but the pilaf served alongside was the real star of the plate. A mixture of black lentils and buckwheat groats, the pilaf was hearty and chewy and tasted distinctly toasted. This was another cross-cultural dish, for in addition to the North American-grown groats and the popular-in-Asia “Beluga” lentils, the cod was served with a Scandinavian-inspired yogurt sauce. Every forkful revealed another layer of flavor – first the clean taste of the simply prepared filet, then the earthiness of the blended grains, and finally the tart smack of the dilled yogurt. When Mallett cross pollinates, he does it well. As my friend said, “This is the kind of kitchen that wants to play … and it works.”

One dessert on the sweets menu definitely works: It’s apple ricotta spice cake served with whipped brown butter ricotta and apple rum sauce. Like the pumpkin bread, the spice cake is dense and moist. It’s also seriously spicy, with hints of mace and ginger and allspice. In a nod to the growing number of customers avoiding gluten, the menu offers a gluten-free, vegan dessert – an almond date square with a crust made of almonds and oats, and a topping of pureed dates. It’s pretty good, just not as good as the apple cake.

A few online reviews suggest that Black Trumpet is a “special occasion-only” restaurant, but I can’t figure out why. The prices are reasonable (you can order small dishes, medium dishes, “bowls” – mainly large soups and salads – as well as main courses), service is informal and unhurried, and the welcome is warm. Perhaps it’s because Mallett’s cooking – like his favorite black trumpet mushrooms – is distinctive. And uncommonly good.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Terlingua in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2015/11/22/dine-out-maine-small-terlingua-stands-tall-with-texas-barbecue-and-latin-food/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/11/22/dine-out-maine-small-terlingua-stands-tall-with-texas-barbecue-and-latin-food/#comments Sun, 22 Nov 2015 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=754338 It’s not a run-of-the-mill BBQ joint: While this new restaurant at the foot of Munjoy Hill offers at least three types of barbecued meats most nights, it also serves red and green chili, poblano peppers stuffed with dried fruit and rice, ceviche, sautéed shrimp and mushroom empanadas.

It’s not sprawling and oppressively smoky (you won’t have to send your sweater to the dry cleaner after a visit): It’s compact and contemporary and colorful, with seating for about 30 at the copper-topped tables in the dining room, plus room for 10 more on stools that front the well-lighted bar.

And it’s not predictable: There are surprises here, including chef Wilson Rothschild’s memorable twist on pork cracklings and the outrageous chocolate bread pudding that he tops with house-made ice cream.

Terlingua may not be easy to pronounce (“We hear everything from tur-longy to tray-leezha,” a waiter said.) But ter-LING-wah is very easy to enjoy.

Pliny Reynolds and his wife, Melanie Kratovil, opened the restaurant in July on a stretch of Washington Avenue straddling East Bayside and the East End. He’s an architect who practiced in Austin, Texas, designing grocery stores and restaurants around the world. (Reynolds was part of a team that worked on Portland’s Whole Foods Market on Somerset Street.) She’s from a restaurant family: Her grandparents founded and managed Alisson’s in Kennebunkport.

“Our experience in the Southwest convinced us that Portland was ready for a Texas barbecue restaurant with Mexican influences,” Reynolds explains. “We didn’t want to compete in the Old Port, we wanted to do something different that was anchored in a residential neighborhood.” So Reynolds designed the restaurant himself and built it out with help from a friend. Then he moved his family in next door and settled his mother in an apartment upstairs. “We’ve got a little village going on here,” he says with a laugh.

The menu is not extensive, just six starters and six entrees, plus the handful of BBQ specials listed on a board near the front window. And almost every dish is available in a small or large portion. “We didn’t want to call ourselves a small plate restaurant,” Reynolds says, “but we like the idea of sharing and trying. We encourage customers to build their own experience.”

A small portion of the black bean & corn salad ($5) is a fine starter – intensely fresh and bright-tasting, thanks to a generous spritz of lime juice and a sprinkling of cilantro.

And kudos to the kitchen for treating beans with such care: the black beans are tender and creamy, comfort food from south of the border. (The restaurant is named for a Texas ghost town a few miles from the Rio Grande.)

You can’t go wrong with the pork belly chicharron ($9/$14) either. Too often, cracklings are deep fried and greasy, salty nibbles you can’t resist but soon regret. Not at Terlingua. Here the sautéed chicharron is a study in contrasts: crispy, scored skin covering a square of mild, juicy meat that’s drizzled with a fragrant hibiscus-infused honey. Bite into the pork and you can imagine yourself strolling through a market in Mexico (or ordering from a really good food truck). As if to underscore the juxtaposition of textures and flavors, the dish is served with a few leaves of green lettuce, tossed in a light vinaigrette. It tastes absolutely wonderful.

Was the kitchen as deft with other pork dishes? A smoky pork shoulder flavors a green chili studded with scallions, chunks of potatoes and corn, and topped with farmer’s cheese from Winter Hill Farm in Freeport. Terlingua takes chili seriously, roasting about 20 pounds of fresh Anaheims at a time and blending them into a rich vegetable stock for a dish that’s slightly sweet (thanks to the abundant corn) and spiced with plenty of pepper. While this pork was tasty, it could have used salt. There wasn’t any on the table, but our attentive waiter (the staff here is terrific) brought some quickly from the kitchen.

They were out of ribs the night we visited (Pliny Reynolds says, “We run out almost every night … they’re typically gone by 7 p.m.” So we tried the barbecued half-chicken ($17), rubbed with coffee, brown sugar and chili, and smoked for three hours over mesquite and oak. It’s simple and flavorful, not mopped with a heavy sauce (Terlingua offers a spicy vinegar-based sauce and a sweet barbecue sauce on the side) but pleasantly moist and tender. Note to self: next time head over early enough to nab some ribs.

The biggest surprise on the menu was slow-cooked greens ($5) with more of that memorable pork belly. Anyone who’s lived in the South can tell you that greens run the gamut from gray and tasteless to earthy and savory. The greens here aren’t just good – they’re great, with a pleasing mineral taste and a sharp kick, thanks to an enthusiastic splash of spicy, house-made vinegar.

A few things at Terlingua are less than successful. The flatbread offered with the chili and chicken is, well, flat. It’s got good grill marks and a pleasant sheen from a close encounter with honey butter, but the bread itself is lackluster. And the chili wasn’t the only dish that needed more salt.

Desserts, on the other hand, are stellar. Dulce de leche, Latin’s America’s magical, mind-blowing version of caramel, and it’s served here with twists of puff pastry sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar plus a few slices of apple ($6). (It’s billed simply as “Apple Dessert.” Self-delusion perhaps?)

It says something about the dulce de leche that a bowl of bread pudding seemed light by comparison. In actuality, maybe not, but it is exceedingly good: crispy-edged cubes of French bread suspended in a thick custard atop a layer of melted chocolate. It’s served with a caramelized banana and a scoop of fantastically creamy coconut ice cream. If it’s not the sweetest, most soul-soothing dessert you’ve tried this fall, it will certainly come close.

There’s a lot Terlingua is not. But here’s one thing it absolutely is: well worth a visit.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Down East, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Evo in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2015/11/15/at-evo-in-portland-good-things-really-do-come-in-small-packages/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/11/15/at-evo-in-portland-good-things-really-do-come-in-small-packages/#comments Sun, 15 Nov 2015 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=750216 Turns out good things really do come in small packages.

Evo, a tiny jewel box of a restaurant tucked into one corner of the Hyatt hotel on Fore Street, serves mezze – the diminutive, starter-sized dishes popular from the Middle East to the Balkans.

Executive chef Matt Ginn prepares them using local ingredients that he accents with a host of eastern Mediterranean flavors – and, oh, those flavors! The lemony tang of sumac … the fiery punch of chili harissa … the creamy richness of tahini … the sweetness of aleppo pepper.

The flavors are warm and bold and potent, and composed so skillfully that you’re constantly surprised but never overwhelmed. (You’ll see no customers desperately signaling for a glass of water.)

The individual servings look modest at first, but you quickly discover that they’re filling, and every single dish – including dessert – delivers enormous flavor and satisfaction.

“We’re all about reinterpreting flavors and elevating them,” Ginn says. “Customers initially think that our name stands for Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, but Evo actually stands for the evolution of eastern Mediterranean food … rustic mezze reinvented.”

With apologies to Darwin, evolution hasn’t seemed this exciting in eons.

The restaurant fills a soaring, contemporary space (designed by Canal 5 Studio in Portland) that is divided into two distinct areas: There’s seating for 28 customers at the bar and counters located at street level, and room for about 20 more at the tables filling the mezzanine above. Walk inside and you’ll see couples leaning over the bar, enthusing over steaming rounds of fluffy pita bread, or watching the controlled chaos in the modest kitchen. (“We work with one oven that has four burners,” Ginn says. “I have more fire power at home … but a small space forces you to be organized.”) Whether it’s the elegant interior, or the elegant wait staff (“Did you notice that they’re all beautiful?” a friend asked), it’s like entering a glittering urban loft where you know you’ll find something unexpected – and immediately feel part of the cool crowd.

The sense of drama builds as the first plates ascend from the kitchen. “Is this the baba gannouj?” we ask, when the waitress sets down a little saucer filled with a pale spread ($8) and topped with what look like bite-sized red flower blossoms. “It is,” she says, “roasted eggplant and garlic and lemon, and those are oven-dried tomatoes on top.” The baba is silky and smooth, mildly spiced with hints of pepper and fresh mint, and served with three rounds of the steamed pita we saw earlier. The eggplant tastes luxurious on its own, but it’s exquisite when used to fill the tender bread – especially with a sugary tomato folded in for good measure. Any fears of heading home hungry disappear quickly with that first, satisfying dish.

Roasted cauliflower ($8) is a lacy revelation. (Unlikely, yes, but you’ll just have to believe me.) The tiny florets are delicate and moist, with caramelized brown edges and the merest hint of salt. That deep, sesame flavor you taste with each forkful comes from a few drops of tahini sauce drizzled over the plate, and there’s an intense sweetness from a dab of what turns out to be pureed raisins that Ginn uses to balance the dish. We’re bowled over.

Presentation matters here, and lamb shawarma ($10) looks like a designer’s tribute to all things white. The lamb is swaddled in a pale, almost translucent round of Marook Mountain bread, served on a plain white plate, with half of a pickled white turnip on the side. (“Because of the way it’s wrapped, we call this our Lebanese burrito,” Ginn says.) The petite portion of hakurei turnip is crunchy, sour and sugary at the same time. The paper-thin slices of shaved lamb are marvelously mild. They dissolve so quickly on the tongue you’re left with only memories and regret.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, chicken ($10) served on skewers – the most predictable item on the menu – was the least interesting. The bed of barley was tasty (the pearls are cooked in chicken stock and taste soft and comforting), but the thin pieces of breast meat were dry.

Evo’s Maine lobster ($16) on the other hand, was unforgettable. Ginn was named Maine Lobster Chef of the Year last month for a version of this dish, and it’s easy to see why. First there’s the meat itself, a medium-sized claw and a single chunk of tail meat, so tender and sweet you’ll have to force yourself to share. Then there are little X’s of Turkish pasta – called manti – filled with starchy butternut squash and a few drops of tart yogurt. And, finally, there’s the broth pooling on the bottom of the free-form bowl – a pungent lobster stock so concentrated it coats the back of a spoon like a long-simmered seafood stew. Altogether, it’s opulence in a bowl.

The noise level was rising by the time we reluctantly allowed the waitress to clear our collection of small plates. But we couldn’t head home yet. We’d seen a few desserts carried to another table, and they looked too good to pass up.

The bitterness some people dislike in sesame paste appeals to me – it’s nutty and oily and distinctive. At Evo, tahini is used in a parfait ($8) topped with a shining layer of honey gelee and a sprinkling of candied pine nuts. The parfait is creamy and sweet, like gelato, but more sumptuous (if that’s possible.) A Lilliputian dollop of yogurt on top and a dribble of fruit puree cut through the sweetness and provide a delicious contrast. Who’d have thought that sweetened sesame paste could be vibrant? This version is. So is the date cake ($11), a dark, moist sliver served on top of a pudding made with yogurt and finished with segments of fresh citrus.

Evo may be a compact little restaurant, but flavors this big are no small matter. This is a restaurant with huge ambitions and a very bright future.

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Dine Out Maine: Isa in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2015/11/08/bistros-should-be-comfortable-and-friendly-and-offer-satisfying-food-isu-in-portland-delivers-on-all-counts/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/11/08/bistros-should-be-comfortable-and-friendly-and-offer-satisfying-food-isu-in-portland-delivers-on-all-counts/#comments Sun, 08 Nov 2015 09:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=746196 “Bistros are all about the Bs,” a restaurateur once told me. “The bar, the buzz and the braise.” You don’t walk inside expecting elaborate cuisine or exorbitantly priced entrees. You anticipate a good glass of wine, a warm welcome and the kind of comforting, familiar dishes that deliver flavor and satisfaction.

Isa, a modest-sized bistro that opened in Bayside last March, delivers all of these in a beautifully renovated historic space that nods to tradition (check out the black-and-white tiled floor and the original tin ceiling) but at the same time feels bright and contemporary and fuss-free. And if the food is occasionally good instead of great, the charm of the place and the genuinely friendly staff more than make up for it.

“We wanted to create a neighborhood spot that serves the type of food we like to eat at home, or share with friends at a dinner party,” says Suzie St. Pierre, who opened the restaurant in March with her chef husband, Isaul Perez. “Isaul wasn’t classically trained, and he didn’t go to culinary school,” she says. “The menu reflects his experience working in French and Italian restaurants in New York, plus his own subtle Mexican twist on things.”

Take the lobster tostada ($10), Perez’ stand-in for a perennial New England favorite. “Everyone does lobster rolls in Maine,” his wife says. “We decided it was time to try something different.” The appetizer spotlights chunks of steamed lobster quickly sautéed in butter, then layered onto a tortilla (from La Bodega Latina) along with paper-thin shavings of fennel, a few kernels of corn and a spoonful of creamy aioli spiced with guajillo chilies. First, you taste abundant richness and spice, thanks to the generous serving of shellfish and that piquant aioli. Then you discover the morsel of softened fennel, whose subtle sweetness pairs beautifully with the buttered lobster. Next, the plump, barely cooked kernels of corn pop against your teeth, tasting of summer. The play of flavors and textures is hypnotic. One tostada made a satisfying appetizer. Three would make an unforgettable meal.

That tostada is a hard act to follow, but meatballs in marinara sauce ($8) are a reasonable runner-up. Baked instead of fried, the trio of small meatballs is served beneath an enthusiastic grating of salty Pecorino cheese. By themselves, those meatballs would be fairly bland, but dunked into a pool of bright tomato sauce and topped with all that cheese, they’re moist and pleasing. The house-made marinara is good enough that you won’t want to let it get away. Sop it up with a chewy slice of Standard Baking Co. bread or ask the attentive waiter for a spoon.

As you’d hope from a bistro chef, Isaul Perez takes braising seriously. That’s obvious the moment you tuck into a bowl of his braised lamb and creamy polenta ($20). Meltingly tender and flavorful, the lamb (from North Star Sheep Farm in Windham), tastes as if it’s been simmering for days. (“Really just one day,” his wife says. “We braise it overnight with red wine and carrots and onions and celery.”) A chiffonade of young Brussels sprouts on top of the lamb adds a streak of color and an unexpected, peppery bite. But it’s the silken consistency and flavor of the jus that tops the polenta that will open your eyes. “So that’s what comfort tastes like,” a friend murmured after trying a bite.

Unfortunately, the restaurant’s grilled pork chop ($22), served with cannellini beans and mustard greens, missed the mark. The night we visited, the greens were pungent and pleasantly bitter, but the chop was overcooked and the beans undercooked, grainy instead of creamy. Green lentils, offered as a side dish ($6) with grilled kale and butter, were also a letdown. Though these greens, too, were nicely prepared (and wonderfully smoky), the lentils lacked salt or much flavor. If you feel like a side dish, try the house cut French fries ($5). A bistro standard, they’re served with the same spiced aioli that comes with the tostada.

Isa offers a small dessert menu, with four or five choices most evenings. Tres leches cake ($6), a Mexican favorite made with condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream, is comforting – moist and sweet with a consistency closer to pudding than cake. “Was this one of Isaul’s family recipes?” I asked his wife. “You’d think so,” she answered with a laugh, “but it’s mine…My husband isn’t much of a baker.” “Leave it to the girl from Pennsylvania to come up with our signature tres leches,” she said. Heritage notwithstanding, St. Pierre’s version is good. Each forkful melts quickly on the tongue, and tiny curls of candied orange peel on top provides a crunchy contrast.

Pumpkin mousse ($7) is also tasty, and one of several gluten-free dishes on the menu. (The restaurant is notably sensitive to customers with dietary restrictions; before taking orders the servers ask about allergies and restrictions.) A dollop of whipped mascarpone with the mousse tastes refreshing, but it’s the scattering of pepita brittle that challenges your molars and your expectations: It’s crunchy and sweet and surprisingly salty. An extra layer of brittle is hidden at the bottom of the dish – the topsy-turvy version of icing on the cake.

The atmosphere and the service at Isa are decidedly relaxed and informal. Based on the number of friends who seem to be meeting up after work, it’s already become a popular place for a drink. And with modest-sized portions that are reasonably priced, it’s also a fine choice for a laid-back supper. So start at the bar. Bask in the buzz. And savor the braise. This is a bistro that works.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Salt & Honey in Kennebunkport http://www.pressherald.com/2015/11/01/salt-and-honey-in-kennebunkport-feels-like-two-restaurants-in-one/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/11/01/salt-and-honey-in-kennebunkport-feels-like-two-restaurants-in-one/#comments Sun, 01 Nov 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=741931 Salt & Honey has a dual personality. There’s chef Jackson Yordon’s daytime restaurant, which opened in May 2014, and serves “approachable comfort food made fresh”(lobster omelettes, French toast, burritos, burgers and quesadillas) – all quite good and delivered by a smiling waiter in a sunny dining room with a pleasant view of Kennebunkport’s Dock Square. And there’s Yordon’s nighttime operation in the same space, which serves a modified version of the lunch menu (sans French toast and burritos) delivered by a less-than-engaging server in a darkened dining room with a dispiriting off-season view of vacant sidewalks. The difference is night and day.

Dinner last week started, literally, with high hopes. The restaurant stands at the top of a long flight of wooden stairs, on the second floor of a clapboard building on Ocean Avenue. (Note: There’s no handicapped access.) Two customers were chatting with the chef at the bar for much of the evening, but there were no other diners at the tables in the small dining room. The sole waitress on duty acknowledged us (“welcomed” would be too strong a word) and noted what was not available: No Stella Artois. No pork loin. Oh, and “no dessert.”

Not a great beginning. But things looked up when the appetizers that were available arrived. Autumn salad ($9) was fresh and refreshing, a large plate of kale tossed with mixed greens, dried cranberries, chunks of feta, sugary spiced walnuts and sweet cubes of butternut squash. “They certainly didn’t skimp on the walnuts,” my friend said with appreciation as he munched on the candy-like clusters. The kitchen didn’t skimp on dressing either: The greens were coated with just enough lemon vinaigrette to tenderize the kale and brighten the entire salad. Things were looking up.

They got even better with a plate of pork sliders, mounds of Carolina-style shredded pork piled with coleslaw on tiny, shiny burger buns. The shredded pork was tender and juicy with a peppery kick and a tart note of vinegar and mustard, and the slaw was a cabbage lover’s dream: long, shreds of green cabbage tossed in a mayonnaise-based dressing sweetened with honey and spiked with chili sauce. Biting into the sliders without making a mess required care (and confidence in dry cleaning) but with two sliders available for $8 or three for $11, we had multiple opportunities to hone our skills.

Entrees, by comparison, were a let-down. The fried fish in the fish tacos ($14) was moist but begging for salt, and the drizzle of sriracha aioli on the corn tortilla was too modest to have any impact. It was the same story with fish and chips ($15): A large piece of haddock tasted fresh and the coating was crispy (not oily), but the fillet itself was bland and the tartar sauce was thin. Good thing there was a large pile of (hot, crunchy, salty, in a word, wonderful) hand-cut fries on the plate. In a fit of misplaced optimism, we asked the waitress for vinegar available to go with them. You can guess her answer.

With no dessert on the menu, and spirits falling, we had little choice but to pay the modest bill and trudge back down the stairs.

What had gone wrong? Online reviews and a few locals lauded the food at Salt & Honey, and the website promised “amazing food made from scratch.”

The following day we returned – this time at midday, when the menu includes a combination of classic breakfast dishes and “Lighter Fare.” Suddenly, the answer was clear: Salt & Honey started as a breakfast and lunch restaurant, and when the sun shines Chef Yordon consistently prepares simple and delicious food.

His French toast is a caloric and comforting celebration of excess: two thick pieces of Italian peasant bread that have grown even fatter and softer after a luxurious bath in beaten eggs. The fried slices of toast arrived golden brown and glistening beneath a melting scoop of pastel-colored house-made peach butter. (Maple syrup is served on the side.)

Equally good, and equally filling, is Yordon’s burrito ($9.50), a grilled (think panini) flour tortilla overstuffed with eggs, black beans, zucchini, chorizo, caramelized onions and mushrooms that can be ordered with fontina or cheddar. The burrito comes with chunks of fried potatoes, and like the fries at dinner, they’re crisp without and creamy within, and sprinkled with a good amount of coarse salt. If French toast doesn’t haunt your dreams after lunch at Salt & Honey, these potatoes will do nicely.

Dinner at Salt & Honey can’t hold a candle to breakfast and lunch. The restaurant is open only three nights a week, the bar program is still under development, and the dishes that are available don’t appear to be keeping pace with the menu. Unless or until the kitchen commits to a dinner experience as good as what it serves up earlier in the day, two pieces of advice. Diners: Go early. And Chef: Stick to your day job.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Stirling & Mull in Freeport http://www.pressherald.com/2015/10/18/look-beyond-the-gimmicks-to-find-the-reliable-dishes-at-stirling-mull/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/10/18/look-beyond-the-gimmicks-to-find-the-reliable-dishes-at-stirling-mull/#comments Sun, 18 Oct 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=731918 Good restaurants need no gimmicks. Whether they’re big or small, affordable or pricey, the food is the draw.

At Stirling & Mull, a gastropub and wine bar that opened in Freeport last summer, gimmicks abound. You have the plastic bracelets, issued by servers after checking IDs, that permit you to pour your own beer. There’s the computerized wall where you can sample up to 32 ounces of 10 different draughts by touching your wristband to the restaurant’s logo, then waiting for a green light to illuminate. And touted on the menu, and on cards at each table, are the blazing-hot lava stones – “very popular in Belgium and the southern U.K.,” according to owner Ed McLean – on which fish and shellfish and steak are served, and then cooked by customers at their tables. Some of the gimmicks are amusing and inventive. A few are even intriguing on occasion. But by the time the check comes, you realize they’re merely diversions. They draw attention away from the food, which is inconsistent and often undistinguished. You can order a few reliable dishes here – no bracelets required – but you’ll have to look past the gimmicks to find them.

A televised hockey game is reflected in a mirror above the taps on the self-serve beer wall. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

A televised hockey game is reflected in a mirror above the taps on the self-serve beer wall. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

McLean and his wife, Shana, worked for the Department of Defense (he’s an Air Force vet) and were stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, for seven years. “When we moved home, we wanted to open a restaurant that showcased some of the European-style foods and flavors we discovered overseas,” he says. An admirable goal. Unfortunately, not all of their imports met with wide acclaim. Since the restaurant opened in July, the owners acknowledge they’ve streamlined the menu to attract customers craving the familiar.

That’s a shame, because some of the best offerings at Stirling & Mull came back to the States with the McLeans. Take the Schwabish salad ($7.95), a dish inspired by the composed salads of southwestern Germany, that features dressed greens served on a mound of potato salad and sauerkraut and surrounded by a ring of pickled beets and carrots. If it sounds filling (it is) and crunchy (it is that, too), the salad is also tart and flavorful, starchy and satisfying. Dig under the greens flecked with fronds of dill and taste the sharp tang of mustard in the potato salad. You’ll come across no gobs of mayonnaise – and you won’t miss them. Then spear a few slivers of brilliant red beet or a piece of carrot and savor the bright, refreshing sweetness. Delicious. The vegetables are pickled in house and would make a bracing appetizer on their own.

The Schwabish salad features house-pickled carrots, beets, potato salad, sauerkraut and dressed greens. Gabe Souze/Staff Photographer

The Schwabish salad features house-pickled carrots, beets, potato salad, sauerkraut and dressed greens. Gabe Souze/Staff Photographer

A cup of tomatoey Hungarian goulash ($5.95) is hearty, filled with shredded beef and topped with sour cream and scallions. The seasoning in the soup – a stew really – is mild, but the pungent paprika is unmistakable, along with a fleeting sweetness from the chunks of onion.

Unfortunately, one of the more ubiquitous appetizers on the menu, a pair of crab cakes ($11.95), served here with house-made aioli, is the most disappointing. The small cakes looked appealing: They were nicely browned and tall, like tiny soufflés just pulled from the oven. But they tasted unpleasantly fishy instead of fresh, and they were heavy, bready and oddly spongy. There are plenty of good crab cakes on menus across Maine. These are not among them.

Salmon, tiger shrimp and tuna steak are all “served sizzling on a lava stone” the menu says. That stone – part of the Black Rock Grill “system” – turns out to be a thick tile heated in an oven to more than 750 degrees F, then placed into a fitted platter and brought directly to the table with the entrée crackling and steaming. As theater, it’s a fine show. Just don’t look behind the curtain. A piece of salmon ($17.95), sizzling as promised, was distinctly raw in the center when the waiter set down the platter. So were the shrimp ($18.95) that a friend ordered – and eyed with concern. The waiter explained that this was participatory dining: “All you have to do is flip over the shrimp, and they’ll cook through,” he said. In regard to the salmon: “No flipping is required, but you will have to wait a few minutes.”

The Schwabish Salad, featuring house-pickled carrots, beets, potato salad, sauerkraut, and dressed greens, is one of the entrée offerings at Stirling & Mull in Freeport, Wednesday, October 14, 2015. Behind the salad is a dish of Hungarian goulash. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

The Schwabish Salad is one of the entrée offerings at Stirling & Mull in Freeport. Behind the salad is a dish of Hungarian goulash. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Cooking on stones may be clever (and clamorous), but it has problems. As soon as the largest shrimp looked cooked through, my friend sliced into it and declared the first bite to be “very good.” But since the rest of the shellfish on the stone kept cooking, the next was overdone and the final few tasted rubbery. Salmon fared only slightly better: The fillet was thick enough that for a few minutes the fish remained moist. But by the time the stone had cooled and the sizzling stilled, the last bites of fish were dry, veering toward crusty. Eating off a lava stone is, apparently, a question of timing: You have to wait patiently for the food to cook, and then you have to race against the clock before your entrée becomes dessicated.

A barbecue burger ($11.95) served on a pretzel roll (another nod to the owners’ time in Germany) proved a much better and less challenging bet. The 8-ounce burger made with beef from Pineland Farms was lightly seasoned and nicely grilled, and the roll was delicious: toasted, salty thanks to a heavy sprinkling of coarse crystals, and dense enough to soak up the juices that dripped from the burger without getting soggy.

Desserts ($4.95) at Stirling & Mull were a mixed bag. A generous serving of tiramisu (purchased from a supplier) was cool and fluffy. A pear tart, on the other hand was heavy and dry – and the whipped cream on the side tasted as if it had been spiced, inexplicably, with nearly whole peppercorns.

After choking on the whipped cream (a first), I couldn’t help but wonder whether something had gone wrong. Poor ordering? A bad night for the kitchen? An unfortunate accident involving the pepper mill?

Photographs on the website and Twitter feed touted beef cooked on those lava stones. Perhaps beef was the real draw and lunch the better bet?

Yes and no. When we returned at midday and ordered a center-cut top sirloin ($25.95), the waiter graciously suggested the best way to cook it: “I like to tell customers to pull the meat from the stone, slice it and then return the pieces to cook until they’re done to your liking,” he said. The approach had merits: the individual pieces cooked fairly quickly, and the cooking process was easy to control. Still … it still seemed as if the chef was off-duty, and we’d been tapped to fill his shoes. Also, though this beef was tender and flavorful, either the meat or the lava stone was very heavily salted. (The Black Rock Grill website shows that stones are liberally seasoned with coarse salt before any beef is added.)

One thing that was markedly better at lunch was the pear tart, which a friend ordered despite my warning. This time it was moist and fruity with a subtly sweet crust and a dusting of crunchy pistachios. And the whipped cream was, thankfully, pepper-free.

Stirling & Mull (her Scottish antecedents came from Stirlingshire, his from the Isle of Mull) is well located to benefit from the tourist trade in Freeport. The kitchen accepts call-in orders for diners in a hurry, and the restaurant hosts community events most weeks. (There’s a trivia night this Tuesday, an open-mike night on Thursday and live music from Beyond the Fall scheduled for Friday.) Certainly, the selection of 50 bottled beers and 22 on tap is impressive.

But do you dine out for drinks and music, bells and whistles, lava rocks and bracelets? Unless you gotta have a gimmick, you might as well grab a drink here and eat elsewhere.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine out Maine: Little Village Bistro in Wiscasset http://www.pressherald.com/2015/10/11/at-little-village-bistro-in-wiscasset-enjoy-a-good-dinner-thats-getting-better-all-the-time/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/10/11/at-little-village-bistro-in-wiscasset-enjoy-a-good-dinner-thats-getting-better-all-the-time/#comments Sun, 11 Oct 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=727449 Dining is a lot like theater. You set off with high expectations, looking forward to a novel experience or a production as memorable as the last one you loved. You’re led ceremonially to a seat, a fine one you hope, with a pleasant view and enough space to be comfortable. Leafing through the menu – or the playbill – you learn about what’s ahead and the cast of characters behind the scenes, and then you settle in, anticipation building, and wait for the performance to begin.

Little Village Bistro, the “refined, casual American” restaurant that Tony Bickford opened in Wiscasset last April, puts on a good show. Nondescript from the outside, the newly renovated space (Bickford did the work himself) is surprisingly attractive, with seating for about 45 customers in an L-shaped dining room and another nine stools in front of the mirror-backed bar. The ceilings are low and bleached white, the walls are painted a soft sage, and the tables and banquettes are cozy, if exceedingly close together, fostering a sense of intimacy.

Bickford’s opening act is impressive, with a selection of familiar appetizers that demonstrate his commitment to fresh ingredients and his gift for complementary flavors. A cup ($5) of sausage minestrone arrives brimming with buttery cannellini beans, slices of onion and carrot, slivers of salty pancetta and chunks of house-made sausage – but no pasta. “We leave it out,” Bickford says, “because we have more and more customers avoiding gluten.” The soup is meaty and hearty and satisfying thanks, in part, to a deeply flavorful broth made of chicken, beef stock and white wine. And that sausage (he uses pork from Buckspork of Maine in Chesterville) is a standout: mild and only slightly fatty, aromatic thanks to a sprinkling of fennel seed, and distinctly sweet. A modest cup of the minestrone was soothing and filling; a bowl plus a few slices of the bread baked fresh daily would make a fine meal.

The plate of crab cakes ($13) that followed was even better. While the presentation was uninspired (two cakes are served beneath a small mound of shredded cucumber salad with a scattering of parsley leaves on top) the flavor was eye opening. “I’m a crabmeat snob, and this is incredibly good,” a friend said. She cut off one corner of a crabcake, plunging the golden-brown morsel into a pool of caper-laced remoulade and offering it with a smile. Fresh and lightly seasoned, the crab had barely enough breadcrumbs to hold it together, and the remoulade was creamy, spicy (Bickford adds Tabasco, cayenne and paprika) and refreshingly bright, thanks to a few drops of lemon juice. Crab cakes bomb when they’re dry or leaden. These were airy and moist and well worth an ovation.

After such a strong opener, Act II was something of a letdown. The waitress recommended slow-simmered pot roast ($15) (“it’s one of our customers’ favorite dishes,” she said). A spoonful of the braising sauce was good – rich and meaty and fragrant with bay leaves and garlic – but the beef itself was dull. A long bath in the dark brown jus improved it, and it was better still layered with a spoonful of creamy mashed potatoes and a few lemon-zested peas.

A fillet of pan-seared, blackened Atlantic salmon ($16) was likewise uneven. The fish, though fresh, was overcooked. But the risotto underneath was a showstopper. Flavored with sweet tomatoes from Backyard Farms and topped with peppery microgreens from MicroMainea, the risotto was intensely creamy and rich – Bickford adds mascarpone to the tender grains of rice. He finishes the dish with a few drops of rosemary oil that heightened the flavor and added a subtle, piney scent. “Every chef has a go-to oil,” Bickford says, “and this is definitely one of mine. I like the fresh contrast it provides in a dish as starchy as risotto.” Bickford worked at the Thistle Inn in Boothbay Harbor before opening Little Village Bistro. He says he brought his rosemary oil, and many of his loyal customers, with him when he moved to Wiscasset.

Memorable productions end with strong finishes, and Act III at the bistro was a definite crowd pleaser. Apple cake ($6), studded with slices of tart Granny Smiths, was deliciously moist and offered heft, plus the comforting flavors of vanilla and cinnamon. Bickford says he bakes the cake in an angel food pan and douses it straight out of the oven with a toffee glaze that seeps into every crevice.

Besting the apple cake didn’t seem likely, but for an encore the waitress brought over a simple cannoli ($6) filled with house-made ricotta and decorated with a dusting of crushed pistachios. The shell was fragile, with a dimpled surface that shattered noisily under a fork. And the ricotta brought down the house with a texture as smooth as whipped cream, and a focused sweetness (Bickford says he uses white balsamic vinegar to make the cheese) enhanced with a grind of nutmeg. The cannoli gets a drizzle of chocolate sauce, but doesn’t need it.

Bickford continues to tinker with the menu at Little Village Bistro, while addressing a few concerns. He suggests making reservations because the tables fill up quickly, and acknowledges there’s limited space for waiting if your table’s not ready when you are. A few of the entrees miss their marks and deserve attention, and customers looking forward to a quiet evening will want to steer clear of the bar area. (Enthusiastic patrons at happy hour can make conversation at adjacent tables difficult.) But, this is a still a new production, not a long-running show, and Bickford has the skill to work the kinks out.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. He lives in Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Bramhall in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2015/10/04/at-bramhall-in-portland-go-for-a-drink-and-stay-for-dinner/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/10/04/at-bramhall-in-portland-go-for-a-drink-and-stay-for-dinner/#comments Sun, 04 Oct 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=723174 You have to adjust your eyes as you descend the stairs into the subterranean recesses of Bramhall, a “modern speakeasy” located just off Congress Street in downtown Portland. It’s dim and grottolike down here, with candles illuminating the tables and industrial light fixtures casting a faint glow onto the brick walls. You may have to adjust your expectations as well, for this is a bar with a restaurant menu – as opposed to a restaurant with a bar menu. The small selection of appetizers includes the predictable (a mezze plate and a trio of cheeses) and the pubescent (Frito pie – about which more later), and entrées are currently limited to burgers, sandwiches and salads.

Still, through the darkness comes a gleam of light: The food at Bramhall is simple, affordable and tasty, and the atmosphere is both relaxed and inviting. This speakeasy may not be fancy, but it certainly is fun.

“Sit anywhere you’d like,” a friendly waitress calls out from the bar where she’s reading. A banquette along the wall is your best bet: It’s quite comfortable. The restaurant’s wood-and-metal stools, on the other hand, resemble medieval torture devices – only smaller and less stable. With Bruce Springsteen singing on the stereo, and the scent of beer in the air, the room has the feel and fragrance of a college ratskeller. (The employee who typed the menu was either an English major with a sense of humor or a freshman who skipped Intro to Spelling: Three cheeses, offered solo or with cured meats, are described as “artesian.”)

Start with the mezze plate ($10) – a wooden board, actually – covered with piles of salty hummus, whipped feta, baba ganoush, a spoonful of house-made tomato jam and a small bowl of pickled vegetables. Slathered onto one of the crisp rounds of crostini served alongside, the toppings are bracing and fresh-tasting, ideal accompaniments for a glass of Allagash White or Drouet Sauvignon Blanc. The whipped feta is good; it’s cool and velvety and melts on the tongue, and so is the peppery baba ganoush, which glistens under a drizzle of olive oil and has the mild, earthy flavor of roasted eggplant. Best of all are the pickled vegetables, a medley of red peppers, cauliflower, carrots and celery that are sweet and sour and crunchy at the same time. “I like the contrasts,” a friend says.” Sometimes mezze are mushy, but this platter shows off and retains the different textures. A fine beginning.

Frito pie, once unique to the Southwest but now going national, turns out to be chili, melted cheese, pickled jalapeños and scallions layered onto corn chips and served (for grins) inside a foil Fritos bag. If you like salt and spice when you’re having a drink – or pine for the snacks at a Super Bowl party – you’ll like it. A wisp of steam rises from the bag when you reach inside and use a chip to scoop into the beef chili. It’s surprisingly meaty and satisfying cloaked in melted cheese, and the tiny slices of jalapeño brighten the dish and add a welcome flash of heat.

The baked Cubano sandwich ($10) on the menu appealed – Niman Ranch ham, Swiss cheese, mojo sauce and mustard on ciabatta – but the waitress raved about the braised pork and suggested we try that instead.

She was right. Served on a dense onion roll and covered with pickles, the shredded pork was tender and juicy and dripping with fat. The spicy barbecue sauce was delicious, and so was the cole slaw offered on the side of the wooden plate, thinly sliced cabbage and carrot bound in a light, mustardy dressing.

The Bramhall burger ($11), a 6-ounce patty and also served on an onion roll, was good and pink on the inside, just as requested. But it paled next to the pork. (Next time, I’ll try the chicken confit BLT [$10] or the California smoked turkey sandwich [$11] made with meat from North Country Smokehouse in New Hampshire and topped with havarti, avocado, bacon and lettuce.)

“Our menu right now focuses on sandwiches and burgers,” said owner Mike Fraser, who opened the restaurant with his business partners after nine years waiting tables and working behind the bar at Fore Street. “But we just bought a rotisserie and we’re working on new additions … I want to start serving porchetta, and we’re also thinking about offering rotisserie chickens and maybe roast beef.” Fraser credits his friend Jason Loring, co-owner of Nosh Kitchen Bar and of Slab, with helping to develop the menu.

Service at Bramhall can be “relaxed” (most customers are contentedly nursing beverages, not eating meals), but the staff is unfailingly polite. When the waitress came back to check on us, we asked about dessert. She grimaced and apologized. “We don’t have dessert at the moment. We did have Izzy’s cheesecake but … Would you like another glass of wine instead?”

Bramhall is not a lot of things. It’s not a high-end dinner destination. It’s not a pricey tapas bar. It’s not particularly quiet and it’s not light and airy. But it is friendly. It is approachable. It is pleasantly laid back and even romantic in a low-light, slightly secret, no-one-will-ever-find-us-here kind of way.

Neighbors in the West End have plenty of places to go for dinner and a drink, but Bramhall is a good spot to try for drinks – plus a little dinner.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Rustica Cucina Italiana in Rockland http://www.pressherald.com/2015/09/27/rustica-cucina-italiana-in-rockland-offers-huge-portions-of-flavorful-satisfying-food/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/09/27/rustica-cucina-italiana-in-rockland-offers-huge-portions-of-flavorful-satisfying-food/#comments Sun, 27 Sep 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=719100 Restaurant names run the gamut. Some are pretentious, many are eponymous, a few become iconic (think Chez Panisse), and others remain purely descriptive. Rustica Cucina Italiana in Rockland falls into that last category. Chef John Stowe’s rustic kitchen serves enormous portions of hearty, familiar Italian and Italian-American favorites that are flavorful, satisfying and so filling you’ll likely have trouble cleaning your plate. If you’re exercising restraint, look elsewhere. Rustica is all about more.

“I don’t do foams, I don’t do pillows that pop, and I don’t do the understated kind of dishes you find in Italy,” Stowe says. “I think the American palate is looking for more… And if the portions seem large, you can always take the rest home and eat it for lunch.”

The dining room is large and loft-like, with a high ceiling (painted black), exposed pipes and brickwork, and polished wooden floors. Even on a weeknight it seems to fill quickly – and early. Rustica opens at 5 p.m. and by 5:30 p.m. many of the two-tops are already occupied.

Stowe never attended cooking school, but worked at Italian restaurants in Connecticut and California, then served as chef aboard the Kathryn B, a three-masted schooner that sailed the coast of Maine in the summer and the West Indies each winter. The key to his food is intense flavor: He uses generous amounts of citrus or aromatics to enhance the flavor of virtually everything he prepares.

If you think that field greens are predictable and boring, try Rustica’s artichoke salad ($8). A combination of vibrant baby greens, orange segments, shaved fennel, toasted pine nuts and fried artichokes, it’s dressed lightly in a bright dressing made with champagne vinegar, garlic, orange juice and orange zest. Stowe reduces the orange juice before adding it to the dressing, and you can taste the extra burst of flavor that this delivers. What keeps the vinaigrette so light? “I use more juice and more vinegar and much less oil than normal,” he says. The salad has been on the menu since Rustica opened in 2006, but remains so popular that Stowe has given up any thought of replacing it: “Customers would kill me.”

Roasted baby beets ($8.50) are served with a mascarpone cream enhanced with more citrus, this time lemon juice. The cream is cool and tart and melts quickly on the tongue, a delicious contrast to the roasted beets, which release a concentrated sweetness with every bite. This appetizer arrives with a salad of peppery arugula drizzled with a syrupy balsamic reduction, but really needs no accompaniment. The beets and cream are delicious on their own.

Stowe makes his hot Italian sausage in-house, and it’s heaped into a pasta bowl with fettuccine, crispy eggplant, mozzarella, basil and fresh spinach, then covered with a zesty house-made marinara sauce ($18). (Some tomato sauces, even those made with fresh tomatoes, taste unpleasantly sweet when too much sugar is used to tame the acid in the fruit. At Rustica, the kitchen relies on chunks of onions, sweating them down until they release their natural sweetness; they become a base for the classic red sauce.) This marinara was deeply satisfying and the pork sausage was a delicious surprise, “substantial, but not at all fatty,” a friend described it. But the panko-coated, deep-fried egg- plant was another story. A prolonged plunge in the marinara sapped the cubes of flavor and left them spongy. Oh well. I didn’t go hungry.

The risotto special with blue cheese, Portobello mushrooms and thinly sliced sirloin ($21) proved an amped-up American version of the classic Italian dish. Rustica’s risotto was creamy, redolent of onions, and rich with the taste of butter, melted blue and handfuls of Parmesan. A paper-thin shaving of beef from the bowl tasted tender and meaty. So did the large slices of mushrooms, which had absorbed the flavors of the stock to develop their own earthy, distinctly beefy flavor and fragrance. Rustica’s serving of risotto was ample – no, enormous (the word abbondanza sprang to mind) – and it was compulsively good.

In keeping with the rest of the menu, Rustica features familiar New World desserts (upside-down cake) and Old World favorites, like tiramisu and cannoli. The night we visited, the cannoli were filled with a blend of ricotta and mascarpone and flavored with an enthusiastic squeeze of lemon plus hints of ginger. They failed to live up to the rest of the meal; the filling was grainy and the shells – though house-made and rolled through the restaurant’s pasta machine – were tough. Either the thickness, or the baking time, required some attention.

And so did elements of the service at Rustica. While the staff were unfailingly polite, they occasionally seemed untrained. Our waitress offered pepper from a grinder set somewhere between coarse-as-you-can-get and positively nuclear: A more experienced server would have adjusted it before we had to stop her. And when our table was cleared, the server stacked our plates and silverware into a large pile, a technique that may pass muster in a school cafeteria (or at home) but not in a white-tablecloth restaurant.

Minor stumbles notwithstanding, Rustica has a great deal going for it. The space is inviting, the Italian-style food is comforting and familiar and the portions are beyond generous. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word rustic as “plain and simple…having the charm of the country.” Rustica is well named.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine out Maine: The Farmhouse Inn in Blue Hill http://www.pressherald.com/2015/09/20/fresh-new-face-hums-happily-along-in-big-old-barn/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/09/20/fresh-new-face-hums-happily-along-in-big-old-barn/#comments Sun, 20 Sep 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=714456 Appealing restaurants hum. You can feel it before you walk inside and hear it as soon as you’re seated – a buzz of activity and laughter that runs continuously in the background like a brook or a single bass note. The Farmhouse Inn, a new restaurant and bed-and-breakfast that opened earlier this year outside Blue Hill village, is definitely humming.

There’s a line of customers at the cherry bar inside the 1876 barn that was renovated painstakingly over the winter. Every one of the 18 tables is full (the restaurant can seat up to 95 customers) and waitresses are carrying plates to groups seated inside or on an adjacent patio.

You’ll also find the owners, Ann and Bill Rioux, in constant motion, distributing menus, sharing renovation stories (“The place was bank-owned and abandoned for four years – you should have seen it,” she says) and helping guests check into the nine rooms on the property.

This is a family business (the owners’ daughter, Megan, is the chef) with a strong local following, and the atmosphere is decidedly relaxed. So is the menu, which is divided into four parts (soups and salads, small plates, pub fare and entrees) and includes a combination of classic favorites, Asian-inspired dishes and a few daily seafood specials. “I’ve run a catering business for 20 years,” Ann Rioux explains, “and the restaurant grew out of that. Our menu features many of the foods I’ve always prepared.” (Full disclosure: I’ve known Ann Rioux since she owned and operated the Mill Stream restaurant in Blue Hill 15 years ago. Her husband, Bill, is a painting contractor who painted many houses in the area – including mine.)

Take the savory cheesecake ($8), a dense, rich appetizer filled with bacon, blue cheese and Vidalia onions and served with a toasted baguette. I slice off a wedge and spread it onto the bread, admiring the smooth texture and the sharp scent of the blue. The flavor is mild and pleasing, as delicate as a soufflé, but much more filling. Good by itself, it’s better topped with a spoonful of Nervous Nellie’s Hot Tomato Chutney, one of the only items on the menu not prepared in the kitchen. It’s made about 20 minutes away on Deer Isle.

A friend orders the spinach and artichoke dip ($7), another catering stalwart, topped with fresh tomatoes grown outside in the garden and a few salty Kalamata olives. Restaurant dips can run the gamut from gourmet to gluey, and I was dubious, but the version at the farmhouse was very good – a blend of the predictable (spinach and artichokes) and the flavorful (Parmesan, mozzarella and feta cheeses), as well as fresh herbs and aromatics. If your last experiment with dip involved Velveeta and a microwave – and failed miserably – give this one a try.

“Freshness matters,” Rioux says. “It’s the reason we use herbs we grow ourselves, like the parsley and dill in the dip. And it’s the reason we plan to grow all our own vegetables here in the next few years. Our goal is to construct a greenhouse and grow vegetables for at least three seasons of service, becoming a true farm-to-table restaurant. In the meantime, we’re buying as much as we can from local producers and cultivating good relationships with nearby farmers.”

The Farmhouse serves a different flatbread and a different curry every night, and the chicken curry ($16) was particularly good the night we visited. Fragrant with coconut milk and garlic, the dish was filled with carrots and peppers, scallions and pineapple, as well as shreds of chicken so tender they melted away before there was a chance to swallow. (Megan Rioux says she slow roasts chickens for hours with cumin, chili powder and onions.) Curry may not be standard comfort food in Maine kitchens, but this dish puts prosaic chicken and dumplings to shame.

Roasted haddock ($24) was another surprise. The fish was mild, but the Mediterranean-style topping was bold, a vibrant combination of salty olives, more of those fresh tomatoes, thin slices of garlic and the sweet tang of balsamic vinegar. It’s delightful when something as simple as roasted white fish and vegetables becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

While the menu is long and impressively varied, particularly the small plate menu, a few selections miss the mark. The peanut dipping sauce with the chicken meatballs ($7) was tasty, but the meatballs themselves lacked flavor. And though the setting is lovely and instantly inviting, the hum so audible from the front door can grow to a roar at dinner time. Ann Rioux says she is aware of the problem and already is looking into acoustical remedies. Meanwhile, you have three easy options: Go early, well before 7 p.m.; ask for a table on the patio in warmer weather; or reserve one of the quieter tables near the stairs.

As we walked across the lawn to the car, I turned to look back at The Farmhouse, listening to the laughter inside and appreciating the scent of the night’s special dessert – a fine strawberry apple crisp ($7) – being pulled from the oven. It brought back a favorite quote from E.B. White, who lived and wrote 20 minutes from here and understood the magic of Maine farms better than most. “The barn was very large,” he wrote. “It was very old … it often had a sort of peaceful smell – as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.”

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Down East, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Union at The Press Hotel in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2015/09/13/love-at-first-sight-or-perhaps-first-bite-at-union-in-the-press-hotel/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/09/13/love-at-first-sight-or-perhaps-first-bite-at-union-in-the-press-hotel/#comments Sun, 13 Sep 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=710384 Love at first sight can be joyful – and unnerving. The sense of delirium that accompanies a first encounter is tempered by caution. Can this be real? Is it as good as it seems? And, all too quickly, have I lost my mind?

Good news. Union, the restaurant that opened four months ago off the lobby of Portland’s new Press Hotel, is the real thing – a contemporary American farm-to-table restaurant that grabs you with its good looks, then sweeps you off your feet with dishes as delicious as they are ravishing. Dinner here is no fast-to-fade one-night stand. It’s a relaxing opportunity to savor and enjoy executive chef Josh Berry’s assured and consistent cooking. And you’ll wake up the next morning with a very broad smile on your face.

Walk inside and take a look around the dining room: It’s large and geometrically designed with a striking herringbone pattern on the floor, an elaborate wooden grid enlivening the ceiling, and tufted high-backed banquettes and wooden tables arrayed around the bar and busy, open kitchen. The aesthetic is decidedly modern – to wit, over-sized light fixtures and exposed steel beams – but thanks to windows admitting natural light on three sides and a soothing palate of earth tones, the restaurant feels inviting. (Kudos to the team that guided the exceptionally well-done revitalization of the 1923 building.)

The menu is thoughtfully designed, too, and divided into categories: charcuterie, salads, starters and small plates, plus a variety of fish and meat entrees grouped by preparation: “Grilled,” “Braised and Sautéed,” “Roasted” and “Pan Seared.” There are also two pasta and grain options.

Berry, a Maine native who previously worked at the Stowe Mountain Lodge in Vermont and The Balsams in New Hampshire, has a flair for elevating simple appetizers with bold accompaniments. Red curry adds spice to a chilled coconut soup; smoked blueberries (about which more later) infuse kale salad with haunting sweetness and fragrance; and – memorably – his lip-smacking lemon aioli and salty tonnato sauces animate a plate of panisses ($12).

Our waitress described this appetizer as “garbanzo fries” but that’s like calling Dom Perignon “bubbly.” The airy, ephemeral, bite-sized pillows of fried chickpea batter are golden brown, sprinkled with a shower of salt and served with dribbles of those two sauces, one bright the other briny. Panisses at Union are lighter than fried polenta wedges, crisper than French fries – one bite and they dissolve, revealing a tender, almost custardy interior. There were six on the plate – a tease. They were gone in an instant; I had to satisfy myself, instead, by mopping up the remaining aioli with a piece of oatmeal bread.

Those smoked blueberries appeared in a refreshing salad ($13) of peach slices, kale and prosciutto dressed with olive oil and topped with a scoop of ricotta. Each ingredient was distinct and intense (who knew blueberries could taste sweet and smoky at the same time?), but layered together on a fork, the contrasting flavors were sublime…salty ham with sugary fruit, smoky berries and creamy cheese. Some salads leave you feeling virtuous – but bored. Not this one.

Union spotlights ingredients from local suppliers and, according to the waitress, a commitment to building relationships with the state’s farmers and fishermen is what inspired the name. “Some people think it’s because we’re in the old Press Herald building, and we’re referring to the pressman’s union…but the name was really chosen because we’re in union or partnership with producers across New England. We celebrate their dedication, and we serve their ingredients with pride.” The kitchen treats those ingredients with respect. Not only are they cooked with care, they’re presented exquisitely. (In sight of diners, one cook meticulously assembled an entree with a practiced eye and a pair of surgically wielded chopsticks.

Take the roasted Casco Bay Cod ($28). Served in a broad-rimmed ceramic vessel – half bowl and half plate –the fish was dusted with scarlet Korean chili threads and surrounded by littleneck clams, a single head of baby bok choy, and slices of Chinese sausage ($28). The mild fish made an ideal foil for the clams, which exploded with salty liquor, and for the fatty pieces of fermented sausage. (That sausage was an unexpected delight. It had a tantalizing sugary taste, as if the pork had dipped briefly into a thin pool of syrup.) I closed my eyes to savor the smells rising from the soy broth at the bottom of the dish. As if reading my mind, a young waitress appeared out of nowhere with a spoon. It’s a pleasure – especially at a new restaurant –to find staff this professional, polite, relaxed and well informed.

A friend’s roast Cornish hen ($27) looked – and smelled – nearly as good, the generous serving of meat piled onto a mound of gleaming, white hominy spiked with chunks of bacon and served in a broth perfumed with truffles. Imagine if chicken and grits had gone to finishing school in France. He was willing to share: each groan-inducing bite was balanced and deeply satisfying.

Desserts at Union are tasty and occasionally inventive, though not quite as impressive as everything that precedes them. A rustic summer crostata ($9) of ripe stone fruits was sweet but the pastry lacked crispness and the scoop of sour cream ice cream on the side lacked tang. The Bee’s Knees ($9), a colorful testament to the work ethic of honey bees, featured a wedge of lavender gelato from Gorgeous Gelato, next to a piped line of meringue and a few dots of honey butter flecked with crunchy bee pollen. The slice of pistachio cake supporting this confection seemed an afterthought, but the gelato – good on its own – was even better drizzled with honey and scattered with a few tender (and unexpected) cilantro leaves.

Love at first sight is intoxicating. Sure, you can take it slow and quell your appetite. Or you can let yourself fall, as I fell for Union. Infatuation never tasted so good.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Oxford House Inn in Fryeburg http://www.pressherald.com/2015/09/06/if-youre-not-in-a-hurry-the-oxford-house-inn-is-a-fine-dining-destination/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/09/06/if-youre-not-in-a-hurry-the-oxford-house-inn-is-a-fine-dining-destination/#comments Sun, 06 Sep 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=707040 Jonathan Spak didn’t set out to run a restaurant in Fryeburg. He and his wife, Natalie, were on vacation in North Conway, New Hampshire, “and as a joke,” he remembers, “we said, ‘Let’s go see if there’s an inn for sale nearby.’ ” That was March 2007. They closed on the Oxford House Inn that September.

You can be glad they did. Their restaurant, located on the ground floor of the inn, serves classic American cuisine (grilled salmon, pork chops, Maine crab cakes), along with dishes inspired by Asian and Caribbean traditions, and much of it is creative, surprising and flavorful. Fryeburg may be an hour’s drive from downtown Portland (and the pace of dinner here can be decidedly slow – about which more later) but dinner is well worth a journey west.

The restaurant fills several rooms of a rambling 1913 lumber baron’s mansion on Main Street. You can ask to sit on the screened porch at the front of the house (good for people watching), in the “front” dining room (once a parlor), the smaller “middle” dining room (a Craftsman celebration of dark wood, floral wallpaper and leaded glass) or the back porch, which has picture windows framing drop-dead views of Mount Kearsarge in the distance. There’s also a bistro on the lower level where you can have a drink or order from the dinner menu.

We sat in the quiet “middle” dining room and started with smoked salmon served with zucchini-herb pancakes, horseradish cream and dilly beans ($11). Spak has a passion for toying with tradition (and for pickles; each night’s menu features an $8 “pickle snack”) and he calls this appetizer “an homage to the (British) usual salmon plate.” Vegetable pancakes stand in for the bread, horseradish cream takes the place of plain sour cream, and dilly beans appear where you might expect cornichons and capers.

I rolled a thin piece of salty Ducktrap Winter Harbor salmon onto my fork, speared an edge of the golden pancake and added a dollop of cream. The combination of tastes and textures was familiar but also sharper and more focused. It might have been the dilly beans – they were intensely fresh; the kitchen makes them just a week before serving and they added an audible snap and a jolt of brightness. If you try only one appetizer at the Oxford House, make it this one.

A small, crescent-shaped chicken empanada ($10), Spak’s version of a Jamaican meat patty, was filled with jerk-spiced chicken and baked into a simple pie crust. That crust could have been more tender, but the filling – with hints of allspice and cardamom and the slight bitterness of turmeric – was fragrant and flavorful. (Spak says it’s made with “a million and three ingredients and lots of love.”)

Good on its own, the empanada was even better with a drizzle of chimichurri. The flavors of green onions, cucumbers, parsley and vinegar registered loud and strong, and the tart sauce (traditionally served with grilled beef, but Spak’s no slave to tradition) was a fine complement to chicken, too.

Chicken emphatically took center stage again in a tortilla-crusted breast served with black beans and house-made chorizo ($25). The breast meat was moist and barely seasoned – an ideal foil for the salty skin and pungent tomatillo-and-chili salsa. The plate smelled wonderfully of chilies, cinnamon and sausage. It was a dish to make a grown man swoon.

Of course, some timeless recipes are best left alone, and Spak affords grilled filet mignon ($34) the respect it deserves. Served with garlicky whipped potatoes, mushrooms and a green peppercorn sauce, the beef was (again) lightly seasoned but impeccably cooked – tender and juicy, rich and intense. Spak sources many of his ingredients from farms you can see out the restaurant windows: “The potatoes we serve with the beef come from a place in the valley about two miles from here, and we get our mushrooms from a forager who comes by the restaurant,” he says. The filet, however, comes from a supplier based in Boston. “I would love to serve local meat,” he says, “but this entrée is so popular we’d probably eradicate a herd.”

Fryeburg is over an hour west of Portland, and to brace ourselves the journey home we ordered Mai Thai Pie – partly because the waitress gave it high marks, partly because it begged the question: How do you transform rum, cherries, citrus juice – and an umbrella – normally served in a double old fashioned glass, into a pie? Answer: With a blender. (As with the cocktail, you leave the umbrella out and use it as a garnish.) The pie’s achingly sweet filling, coconut custard with whispers of rum and lime juice, filled a crushed macaroon crust. It came with a boozy bitter cherry-and-brandy syrup and that single paper parasol on top. Kitsch rarely tasted so good.

Now about the service … I’ve gone to The Oxford House Inn twice, once several years ago and again last week. On my first visit the setting was spectacular, the food good and the service slow. When I went back last week, the setting was spectacular, the food very good and the service exceedingly slow. (I checked my watch, and our entrees arrived at the table one hour and 20 minutes after we sat down.) The chef acknowledges that his kitchen is small (“it’s tiny – maybe 13′ by 18′ – and we sometimes can seat more than 80 customers.”) If the staff can work out a graceful way to stagger reservations – especially in the summer months – and give the kitchen some well-deserved breathing room, this restaurant will be doing itself (and its customers) a big favor.

And I’ll be even more excited about heading back.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Old Port Sea Grill in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/30/dine-out-maine-at-old-port-sea-grill-dinner-is-no-winner-but-lunch-has-punch/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/30/dine-out-maine-at-old-port-sea-grill-dinner-is-no-winner-but-lunch-has-punch/#comments Sun, 30 Aug 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=702352 If you step inside The Old Port Sea Grill on Commercial Street in Portland, you’ll find yourself staring at fish – tropical fish swimming in a large tank just inside the front door, etched profiles of fish in the glass panels that divide the dining room, framed prints of fish hanging above the bar and colorful cutouts of fish mounted on the back wall close to the kitchen. The designer of the restaurant obviously has a way with fish.

Unfortunately, the kitchen does not. Despite a dinner menu that features a variety of fish and shellfish, simply grilled and in more elaborate preparations, much of the food here is bland, overcooked and underwhelming. In a town filled with restaurants that offer superb seafood, this one falls short.

As a supplement to the standard menu, a raw-bar menu offers six different types of oysters, plus clams, shrimp and chilled lobster. Based on the comments from customers at nearby tables, a tray of oysters ($3 each) or a small sampler ($45) might have been a better bet than the appetizers we tried.

Three seared scallops ($17) were served atop rounds of fried plantains on a plate decorated with crème fraîche and a few tiny pearls of black caviar. The scallops looked nicely browned but tasted overcooked and unpleasantly salty. And while the dollops of crème fraîche – cool cream melting into the warm scallops – added richness and a bright, tart note, those plantains contributed little but crunch. In fact, they were so crunchy that they overwhelmed the delicate flesh of the shellfish. Sure, tostones can be good on their own – starchy and crisp with tender interiors – but paired with these scallops they were a molar-busting mistake.

Crab cakes ($15) were marginally better, neither over mixed nor packed too tightly, and the coating of breadcrumbs was crispy. But the crab itself was tasteless. Without a reminder from the waitress or a glance at the menu, I might have wondered what I’d ordered. The best thing on this plate was a spoonful of slaw made with jicama and shredded carrot. Served as a salad, solo, it would have made the evening’s best starter.

Service at the dinner hour was slow – very slow – and when our entrées arrived, both were problematic. While a large piece of simply grilled salmon ($26) was competently prepared – the skin was attractively charred and the flesh was flavorful – the accompanying mustard vinaigrette proved cloyingly sweet. The salmon was better on its own, particularly with a few bites of the grilled zucchini and squash offered alongside.

And what did flounder ever do to deserve such ignominy? The waitress described it as Atlantic flounder stuffed with seafood, but the fillet was overcooked and indistinguishable, and the stuffing so insipid it was impossible to identify. It might have contained shrimp, maybe scallops – or a mixture of different shellfish – but I couldn’t tell. And the texture? Spongy, springy, rubbery. The stuffing had the consistency of a Chinese shrimp dumpling that had spent far too much time in the bamboo steamer. This time, even the vegetables on the plate could do little to save the dish. Chopped spears of asparagus were oily and under-salted, and a handful of chanterelle mushrooms tasted watery rather than woodsy. This dish was a real letdown, and at $29 one of the more expensive disappointments in an already disappointing evening.

It’s damning with faint praise to say that the best part of dinner was the basket of bread and the small pot of salmon paté that the waitress set down on our table after we arrived – and refilled upon request. The paté (really more a spread) was intensely flavored – a combination of cream cheese, salmon, dill and lemon juice. Yes, it was simple, but at least it was satisfying.

Simplicity may be the key to enjoying a good meal at The Old Port Grill. Simplicity – and lunch instead of dinner. On a visit at midday I chose the simplest fish dish I could find: a fish sandwich ($12), made of fried pollock with tartar sauce, lettuce and tomato on a soft roll. To my surprise (and delight) the sandwich was moist and flaky with a lightly browned crust that added contrast and just the right amount of crunch. Unlike the fish sauce at dinner, this tartar was tasty and balanced – a combination of sweet and tangy that complemented the fish.

A friend joining me for lunch fled surf for turf and ordered a burger. The beef was cooked medium well, as requested, with a thick slab of bacon and a slice of melting cheddar cheese on top. “There’s no such thing as a non-messy burger,” my friend said, reaching for his napkin (this one wasn’t) “and a tasty $12 hamburger isn’t bad in this town.”

The Old Port Grill has at least three things going for it: a prime location in the shadow of the U.S. Custom House, a fine fish sandwich at lunchtime, and that delicious salmon spread at dinner. But walk into this seafood restaurant with high hopes of a great meal and you’re likely to head home with a sinking feeling.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Dudley’s Refresher in Castine http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/23/at-dudleys-refresher-in-castine-chef-casts-a-serious-eye-on-classic-seashore-food/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/23/at-dudleys-refresher-in-castine-chef-casts-a-serious-eye-on-classic-seashore-food/#comments Sun, 23 Aug 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=698470 We should have stopped. We didn’t need to order the poutine and the curried mayo lobster roll and the house-made chips and the fish taco and the fried haddock. The cup of strawberry ice cream was definitely overkill. But underestimating serving size and over-indulging enthusiastically are part of any meal at Dudley’s Refresher, the new fish fry and take-out shack that opened three months ago on the town dock in Castine.

This isn’t fine food and white table cloth dining – you pick up your tray from a serving window next to the kitchen, and carry it to a picnic bench at the edge of the harbor. This is old-fashioned, high-fat, high-calorie seaside fare kicked up a notch by a passionate young chef who highlights artisanal ingredients from local farms. And while I wouldn’t necessarily describe a meal here as refreshing (I drove home in a contented state approaching catatonia), it’s definitely very good.

Dudley’s is the second restaurant opened by Michele Levesque and Michael Rossney, owners of El El Frijoles, a Mexican-style taqueria in nearby Sargentville. Dudley’s chef de cuisine, Kara van Emmerik, has worked with the owners for seven years and recently graduated from the Culinary Arts program at Eastern Maine Community College. “A huge part of our business model and the pride I take in Dudley’s is our dedication to using fresh, local ingredients,” she says. “We get our corn tortillas from Pachanga in Portland, lettuce from Horsepower Farm in Penobscot, beer for our beer batter from Strong Brewing Co. in Sedgwick. We wanted to elevate traditional coastal take-out cuisine, and show our customer base that they shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality for any setting.”

That setting, frankly, is, spectacular. You can sit at your picnic table and ogle the Training Ship State of Maine, flagship of the Maine Maritime Academy fleet, anchored a few feet away, or monitor activity on the town dock, where fishermen are loading boats and families are setting sail for Harborside and Islesboro. The remains of Fort George, the last post surrendered by the British at the close of the War of Independence, stand just a few blocks to the north. (Van Emmerik said the restaurant is named for Dudley Saltonstall, “the American leader of the fleet sent to Castine in 1779 to fight the British. He failed – apparently the guy was really an awful leader – but he meant well. We decided he deserved a second chance and named Dudley’s after him.” )

Lobster rolls ($15) are popular here, and they’re offered three ways: traditional, or with curried mayo or with a sesame and orange sauce spiked with fresh ginger. The young woman at the take-out window recommended the curry version. (“Go ahead, live dangerously. You can thank me later…”) Served in a yellow, plastic basket lined with a (fake) sheet of newsprint, the buttered roll was stuffed with intensely fresh chunks of lobster tossed in seasoned mayonnaise (or as the chef described it, mayo blended with curry paste “and some other spices I can’t tell you about”), and topped with a few sprigs of parsley. The curry was elusive at first – the taste earthy yet subtle. In a second bite, the flavors cycled: first, the richness of the lobster, then a hint of smokiness from the curry and finally the creamy finish of the whole-egg mayonnaise. A delicious surprise. “I’m a purist when it comes to lobster rolls,” a friend admitted, “but that waitress was right. This mayonnaise adds to the seafood without overpowering it.” The thick, house-made potato chips served alongside were crisp and salty and substantial – more slabs than chips. I loved them.

Several couples were ordering when we arrived at Dudley’s (the website says “we make everything here to your order. This may mean you’ll need to wait a bit if we are really busy”), and it took a few minutes before our fish taco ($8) was ready. I headed back to the shack when I heard my name, but the waitress said, “Stay where you are. It’s our fault it’s late… We’ll bring it out…” Nice. The taco – a small basket of corn tortillas (made with Maine-grown corn) topped with fried haddock, avocado crema and cabbage – was good, if a bit dry. Heaping more slaw on top helped (slivers of pickled chilies mixed in with the cabbage provided appealing bolts of flavor, and a squeeze of lime added brightness).

It may have been the sea air that convinced me to try the poutine, a generous serving of that French-Canadian classic that smothers crispy french fries in hot gravy and cheese curds. The menu said that the fries would be topped with an herb and lemon gremolata, but was it? Even if we’d been able to taste it, a citrus gremolata could never make a dent in this dish. It’s meant to stick to your ribs – or thighs. Dudley’s version does both.

The evening’s standout was the “Proper Chippy” ($14), a large piece of beer-battered haddock deep fried and served with a compulsively good pile of skin-on french fries. Castine is a long way down Route 166 from anywhere (a one-time resident told me “you drive and you drive and all you find is Castine”) but the chippy was reason enough to make the journey. The fish fillet was mild and meaty and cloaked in a crunchy, golden brown coating that crackled pleasingly with every bite. And the moisture that had gone missing in the taco? We found it here. I had to lean over the basket to keep the juicy haddock from dripping down the front of my shirt. The shards of salty, fried coating that fell to the bottom of the basket were too good to ignore – each nugget shatteringly crisp. They gave the excellent skin-on fries served with the haddock a run for their money.

The waitress at the take-out window said Dudley’s had no house-made desserts the night we visited, so the single sweet on the menu that evening was Mortons Moo ice cream from Ellsworth. It’s made one batch at a time and while the available flavors may vary, the strawberry ($3 for a small cone or cup) is particularly good.

Plenty of fish shacks offer great views and only so-so food. Dudley’s impresses with stunning surroundings, local ingredients and a few stand-out dishes. The difference really is refreshing.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Meanwhile in Belfast http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/16/at-the-new-meanwhile-in-belfast-two-natives-of-italy-serve-intensely-fresh-and-satisfying-pizza/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/16/at-the-new-meanwhile-in-belfast-two-natives-of-italy-serve-intensely-fresh-and-satisfying-pizza/#comments Sun, 16 Aug 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=694397 BELFAST — Take a seat at Meanwhile in Belfast, the new pizza restaurant that opened here in March, and you’ll discover that pizza is a sensual meal – a feast for all the senses. There’s the heady fragrance of fresh dough and the occasional whiff of garlic wafting from the kitchen and enticing customers (or passersby) to slow down and inhale; the sound of owner Alessandro Scelsi slicing prosciutto and bantering with young cooks working nearby; the sight of lightly browned, puffed circles of sourdough being pulled from his blistering hot, wood-fired oven; and the taste and touch of Scelsi’s pizzas – which are flavorful and crisp and moist and hot and intensely fresh and satisfying. Tearing into one is very nearly a carnal experience.

A waitress described one of the evening’s specials, a spicy broccolini and sausage pizza ($22) as a 12-inch pie, but it looked larger (and cantilevered far over the edges of the white plate she brought to the table.) The crust was dimpled and golden with a few edges that were appealingly charred, the dough thin and slightly crunchy, yet still soft and steaming inside. The crust was hot enough to burn my fingers, so I set the pizza down and waited a few seconds (no easy task), then took another large bite. If the toppings hadn’t looked so good, I might have made a meal of crust alone.

And the toppings were good: spears of broccolini, thick rounds of sausage, pools of barely melting mozzarella and an enthusiastic scattering of red pepper flakes. The peppery broccolini was particularly fine – the florets tasted (and sounded) as if they’d spent only seconds in the oven – and the sausage was salty and so abundantly juicy that I kept reaching for my napkin. The combination was delicious.

“I come from Turino in northern Italy and have been cooking with my mom and in kitchens in northern Europe for years,” says Alessandro Scelsi, who opened Meanwhile with his life and business partner Clementina Senatore after running a pizza pub in London. “Neapolitan pizzas, like the ones we make here, start with a slow-rising and very soft, hydrated dough. That’s why they’re so moist.” There’s no standard recipe, Scelsi says. “I’ve taken time and research to come up with my own recipe … small variable changes with the flour and water to get the crust I like.” And what makes the toppings so flavorful? “The entire pizza must be cooked for just about a minute – no more than 90 seconds – so that the ingredients taste good but nothing overcooks or melts like crazy.”

His Formentera pizza ($16) is scattered with artichokes, goat cheese, cherry tomatoes and fresh basil, extra-virgin olive oil pooling on the edge of the pie. The creamy cheese was barely warm enough to melt into the tomatoes, which retained their summer sweetness and brilliant red color. You could always order a salad at Meanwhile (a daily fresh salad is listed on the Small Plate menu), but why bother? The Formentera was a fresh salad and a crispy pizza in one.

The Cote d’Azur ($18) was more like a sandwich – a hearty sandwich covered with slices of Prosciutto di Parma, sugary sun-dried figs and fresh fior di latte mozzarella. (Scelsi hopes to find the time to make his own cow’s milk mozzarrella for the restaurant, but for now buys it from a cheese maker in Connecticut.) “Did you notice that we don’t slice any of the pizzas with a cutter?” the waitress said. “You can use your fork and knife to make slices, or just fold up the whole thing into quarters and eat it like street food.” The crust was thin enough to do just that, and not a single fig got lost in the process.

Meanwhile opened March 19, and still feels like a new venture. The low-ceilinged dining room is filled with a colorful combination of pastel-colored stools, wood and metal chairs, and simple wooden tables. (In the summer, there are also four café tables on a tiny patio outside.) When we asked for extra plates, the waitress brought out a black-and-white polka dot set, setting each one down near the turquoise wire basket that contained the silverware. She was new, too, having joined Meanwhile two weeks ago. “I was working at another really nice restaurant nearby, but I wanted to come here – the place has great energy,” she said.

Both Scelsi and Senatore are obviously energetic, working in the restaurant five days a week (“We first came to Maine to vacation, and I would like to rest a little more,” Scelsi admits) and tinkering with daily specials and the drinks program. Currently they offer a selection of wines from Italy and France, plus a long list of beers – some of them gluten-free. Scelsi says he’s also considering a gluten-free pizza, “but I haven’t gotten to a point where I’m satisfied with the crust.” (He has standards to uphold: He’s certified by Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the “True Neapolitan Pizza Association,” founded to insure the quality of traditional Neapolitan pizza internationally.)

Meanwhile in Belfast offers a few salads, one or two daily specials, and at least one sweet for after dinner (when I visited it was tiramisu [$10], prepared by Clementina’s mother, who was helping out for a few weeks), but pizzas are the obvious draw and the core of the business. The fare may be simple (Scelsi’s favorite meal is the simplest – a Margherita pizza [$12] with crushed tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and olive oil), but it’s seductively good.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Sea Glass in Cape Elizabeth http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/09/dine-out-at-sea-glass-consistency-is-the-missing-ingredient/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/09/dine-out-at-sea-glass-consistency-is-the-missing-ingredient/#comments Sun, 09 Aug 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=690492 When you walk into Inn by the Sea and admire the cottages and the flowers and the sailboats tacking in the distance, you may notice something missing. It’s the back wall, replaced here by enormous plate glass windows and doors that admit the spectacular view.

Something’s missing at Sea Glass, too, the small restaurant tucked into a corner of the resort in Cape Elizabeth. It isn’t elegance, which the upscale inn provides in spades. Or good service, which the exceedingly polite (and impossibly young) waiters and waitresses offer enthusiastically. It’s consistency. Executive chef Steve Sicinski, who took over in April, has introduced a menu with a range of seasonal dishes and an impressive selection of entrees and appetizers for those with dietary restrictions. A few are very good, but others are underseasoned or seriously lacking in flavor. And with prices as high as $39 for a bone-in filet of beef, a few “good” selections isn’t good enough. You long for both starters and main courses that taste consistently great.

The kitchen definitely has the skill to showcase and prepare fresh ingredients. A bowl of gazpacho ($11), served with blue corn chips and a small mound of guacamole, was vibrant and pleasantly sweet, filled with concentrated tomato flavor and impeccably seasoned. (Too many gazpachos taste like sodium-laced V8 juice. Sicinski’s version, perhaps because he has a background in spa cuisine, is a savory, summery exception.) I also liked the texture of the gazpacho – smooth but not thin – and the rich red color. There were cherry tomatoes growing in the luxuriant flower pots outside on the porch, and I asked one of the waiters if any of the plantings made their way into the soup. “Not yet,” he said. “Maybe later in the season.”

Another good starter was lamb meatballs ($13), served in one of the restaurant’s asymmetrical white bowls with a dollop of tzatziki, the Greek yogurt dressing, on the side. The meatballs were tender and piping hot, a fine contrast to the cool dressing filled with chunks of cucumber and bits of dill. I savored bites of the juicy lamb, dipping each morsel first into the tart dressing and then into a spoonful of tomatoey “vodka sauce” (the creamy version usually served with penne) on the side.

Unfortunately, my friend’s kale salad ($11), a shredded mixture of kale, cabbage, chopped tomatoes, cucumber and sprouts, proved disappointing. Though the ribbons of Tuscan kale were fresh and the slivers of red cabbage a crunchy complement, the promised “fresh ginger dressing” was so watery I half wondered if I they’d forgotten it. And while the presentation was attractive – the salad filled a clear glass bowl that looked like a broad-brimmed hat turned upside down and had shreds of carrots tossed in for color – the dish was eminently forgettable.

So was the pork shank ($26), a generous serving that fell from the bone but had little flavor. I kept returning to the shank searching for spice or seasoning or, frankly, any taste at all. Another friend, who tried a bite, shook her head as well. “Bland,” she concluded. The best part of this dish were the sides: an herbed spaetzle (that’s where the salt that the pork deserved must have ended up) and a mound of satisfying, barely bitter greens that had been braised in bacon.

Perhaps, I thought, it’s the wrong season for a long-simmered meat dish; maybe something lighter and simpler would be better? And, happily, a piece of grilled salmon ($26) was excellent. The fillet tasted mild and moist and was just cooked through. This time, though, while the centerpiece of the dish soared, the accompaniments sank: pan-fried noodles under the salmon were swimming in a kale and corn broth that had heat but little taste, and the handful of “foraged mushrooms” that looked so appetizing in the bowl also proved to be flavorless.

I half wondered if two teams were at work in the kitchen, one working with seasonings and the other without because the duck that another friend ordered was spiceless, while the confit-and-cabbage rolls served with it were piquant standouts. I pushed the lackluster duck to the side (though billed as “crispy,” the skin was not) and bit into one of the fried rolls. Here’s where they’re hiding this entree’s flavor, I thought. I bit through the crackling wrapper and savored the way it dissolved slowly on my tongue, revealing tender chunks of succulent duck leg that tasted even better dipped into the tangerine glaze in the bowl. It’s early days in Sicinski’s tenure, but if everything he introduces at Sea Glass can rise to the level of the confit-and-cabbage rolls, he’ll be on to something.

We looked out the window of the restaurant over the tables lined up on the porch (you can make reservations to sit inside or outside) and toward Crescent Beach to the south. The room was quiet, with about a dozen tables filling the wood-lined space. It would be easy to forget you’re in a hotel – the restaurant feels like an elegant, tranquil club. It’s easy to see why the restaurant is popular with guests and locals (who receive a 15 percent reduction of their bill upon request).

I wish dessert helped to change my impressions of Sea Glass, but a bite of lemon blueberry custard tart ($8) only reinforced the unpredictable experience. The tart looked good, the blueberries were fresh and the shavings of white chocolate on the side were a nice addition, but the tart was bland. A drizzle of lemon sauce on the side was the single source of bold flavor on the plate.

Sea Glass has a host of things going for it: a waterfront location 15 minutes from downtown Portland, exceptional service, beautifully maintained grounds and a jaw-dropping view. Based on the license plates we saw in the parking lot, the inn’s owners have found the attributes to attract guests from all over. But for their restaurant to really shine, the kitchen needs to find what’s missing.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Honey Paw in Portland http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/02/dine-out-maineenergetic-and-creative-cooking-at-honey-paw-will-draw-you-back/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/08/02/dine-out-maineenergetic-and-creative-cooking-at-honey-paw-will-draw-you-back/#comments Sun, 02 Aug 2015 08:00:19 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=686072 A chef once told me that restaurants are a lot like relatives. There are those you visit frequently and always enjoy, a few you see only on special occasions, and several you tolerate. If you’re lucky, though, there are one or two you want to know better. Sure, they have a few quirks, but they’re bright, creative, known for their good taste, and filled with such energy that you look forward to your next encounter.

The Honey Paw is that last kind of restaurant. The latest venture from Andrew Taylor, Mike Wiley and Arlin Smith, who also own Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co. next door, it’s a stylish, laid-back, sun-filled noodle bar (the website says they serve “pastas from across the globe … dishes that borrow traditions, styles, and techniques from a variety of sources and locales”) with a menu that includes appetizers ideal for sharing; five or six hot and cold house-made noodle bowls, from ravioli to soba; and several larger dishes available only after 5 p.m.

To brace myself for an evening of carbs, I started with vegetables: wok-fried greens from Stone Cipher Farm ($9) in Bowdoinham. (“Good choice,” said the friendly young waitress, who was taking orders and occasionally flipping LPs on the turntables near the front door.) They arrived moments later – a glistening, emerald mound of young greens served atop a celery root puree tinted orange with harissa chili paste.

I lifted a few of the leaves with a bright-red pair of chopsticks – color rules at The Honey Paw – and nibbled. They were wonderfully salty, slightly crunchy and earthy (so earthy there was a stick among them, but I hardly cared) with a delicate peppery taste and not a hint of bitterness. On my next bite, I discovered pieces of sunflower and hazelnut, part of a spice blend that added depth to the plate. If you have kids (or grownups) who won’t eat their vegetables, this is a dish to savor.

So is lobster tartine ($15), a thin piece of yeast bread slathered with a mousse made from lobster and scallops, then fried a deep golden brown and topped with shreds of fresh lobster and translucent rounds of radish. Let’s be honest: Maine restaurants serve lobster. Sometimes it’s steamed. Sometimes it’s boiled. You’ve had it picked. You’ve had it whole. You’ve had it with mac ‘n’ cheese. But rarely is it treated as artfully as at The Honey Paw.

This appetizer (the brainchild of Taylor, Wiley and chef de cuisine Thomas Pisha-Duffly) is ravishing to look at – an oceanic version of the shingled fruit galette you might see in the window of a French patisserie but decorated here with tender, yellow celery leaves, fried shallot, and crunchy bits of hijiki, the nearly black Asian sea vegetable.

With some hesitation – should I taste this or photograph it? – I bit into the tartine. It was softer than expected – the bread practically melted on my tongue – and the lobster tasted sweet and slightly lemony. But it was the contrasts I liked best: velvety shellfish mousse set off by crunchy slivers of radish; grassy celery leaves against briny hijiki. The sum of the parts – delicious.

Hard as it was to tear myself away from the tartine, I stopped to look around. The restaurant is compact but inviting, with a bar and 10 stools set against the back wall, a large communal table in the center of the room, and 14 more stools lining the windows overlooking Middle Street and an open space next door. A few couples were seated at small tables outside, and two waitresses moved between them, casually taking orders (they tote electronic tablets; the restaurant has a modern aesthetic so there are no paper pads here) and answering questions about the menu and the specials scrawled on a transparent panel near the front door.

I wanted to know about dolsot bibimbap ($29), not a noodle dish, but a Korean staple with rice, beef, kimchi and pickled vegetables served in a blisteringly hot earthenware bowl. “One of our most popular dishes,” the waitress said. “The skewered beef is beyond belief.” She had a point. Juicy, slightly sweet and appealingly salty, the tender chunks of beef were outstanding, especially with a drop of gochuchang, a pungent, piquant, fermented chili paste. I used my chopstick to pierce the yolk of a fried egg, then speared a length of pickled daikon, a piece of spicy cabbage and a few grains of crunchy rice from the bottom of the bowl. Each morsel was distinct and flavorful, but again the joy was in the mix.

I couldn’t wait to try one of the kitchen’s signature noodle dishes, chilled soba ($14) with nori, peanuts and a mushroom dipping sauce. The bowl arrived on a large wooden board (bark and all) and was piled with buckwheat noodles and paper-thin shreds of nori, the black-green sheets of seaweed. But the subtle sweetness that was so compulsively good in the bibimbap and the tartine seemed overpowering here. I liked the noodles – they were slightly nutty and chewy; the dipping sauce, though, paled in comparison.

I much preferred the udon noodles ($15), a steaming bowl filled with thick, sturdy noodles, chunks of fatty pork belly and a sunset-colored tonkotsu ramen broth. That broth – so rich and creamy it was nearly a sauce – was concentrated and meaty, like a stew that had been bubbling on the stove for hours. (When I asked Mike Wiley about it, he laughed and said, “It does boil for hours.… We let pork bones and marrow boil away to coax out all the collagen and flavor we can.”) The finished broth is so lush and luscious, it didn’t need the yolk of another fried egg on top to add yet another layer of richness (not that I’m complaining). I slurped salty spoonfuls, happily fishing for shreds of kimchi and cubes of pork.

You can’t help but notice the layers of details at The Honey Paw: the tiny wooden salt cellars on the counters, the red-and-black lacquered spoons, the chiffonade of seaweed decorating noodle bowls, the honeycomb pattern on the light fixtures – even the metal tray on which the waitress delivers your bill, held in place by a minuscule magnet that looks straight off a Parcheesi board. These exacting details extend to the restroom – the Zen-like sinks decorated with river rock, and the vintage black-and-white images of pasta makers lining the walls. (Those photographs were a gift from a longtime customer whose family once owned a pasta factory in New York state.)

A few things to keep in mind. The restaurant has been open for only three months, and service can occasionally seem, well, leisurely. The beautiful light admitted by those huge windows means you may want to bring sunglasses at lunchtime – or ask the waitress to lower the shades. And, whether it’s the music playing on one of the turntables near the door or the acoustics of the space itself (the dining room has a pressed tin ceiling), the restaurant can grow noisy.

But casual pacing and buzz are part of The Honey Paw’s winning personality. I’m not waiting for a special occasion or a family holiday. I’ll be back again soon.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: MK Kitchen in Gorham http://www.pressherald.com/2015/07/26/dine-out-maine-chef-uses-his-talents-in-fresh-ways-at-mk-kitchen-in-gorham/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/07/26/dine-out-maine-chef-uses-his-talents-in-fresh-ways-at-mk-kitchen-in-gorham/#comments Sun, 26 Jul 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=682026 The word “fresh” is used a lot these days. Ideas are fresh. Re-use is fresh. Fine fashion, new music and neon art are fresh (again.)

Well, fresh has rarely looked as beguiling or tasted as good as it does at MK Kitchen, the small restaurant that chef Mitch Kaldrovich and his wife, Lisa, opened in Gorham in April.

Kaldrovich’s New American cuisine embraces traditions from throughout the Americas (he was raised and trained in Argentina) and celebrates simplicity, restraint, clean flavors and the enthusiastic use of fresh vegetables and herbs. On occasion, I found myself thinking “but this is just a beet … or a slice of carrot … or a yam … or a sprig of chervil. Why does it taste so good?”

Kaldrovich says, “I choose the very best ingredients and prepare them for pleasure. I use my food to comfort. You don’t need a dictionary to enjoy the menu at our restaurant. You only need an appetite.”

My appetite was whetted by the first thing I saw on the menu, a summer tomato tart ($11) made with goat cheese from Fern Hill Farm in Naples, and served with a vibrant mound of local baby greens. Kaldrovich trained as a pastry chef and it shows: The crust was rich, crispy and buttery – as luxurious and indulgent as a wedge of shortbread. Slices of tomatoes piled on top brought sweetness to the tart, while a drizzle of pistou – the French cousin of pesto that the kitchen makes with constantly changing combinations of basil, chives, Italian parsley, mint, garlic “and lots of olive oil” – offered brightness.

I found myself sighing with each bite, savoring the corners of crust that melted rapidly on my tongue, the burst of flavor from the tomatoes and herbs, the bite of the garlic, and the warm almost lemony tang of the goat cheese.

Kaldrovich says he’ll always keep seasonal tarts on the menu (“I’m thinking about mushroom for the fall”), and they’re reason enough to visit.

So are “lobster cones” ($15), chunks of lobster meat tossed with herbs and a citrusy mayonnaise, then spooned into golden-brown, crispy flour tuiles that look like miniature ice cream cones. Each cone is finished with a few orangey pearls of flying fish roe. As I lifted one paper-thin cornet from a metal stand, I caught a whiff of tarragon from the lobster salad and the appealing briny scent of fresh shellfish. The delicate parcel shattered pleasantly against my teeth, liberating bits of lobster and mayonnaise and the salty caviar. Three small cones make up one appetizer, and the presentation (which at first glance seemed fussy) actually works. The cones are easy to share and easy to devour. No bibs or napkins are required. And, let’s face it: They’re cute.

MK Kitchen isn’t cute, it’s chic. The restaurant fills a brick corner building that once housed three separate businesses: a salon, sweet shop and a fabric store. Kaldrovich says he and his wife renovated and redesigned the place themselves, staining the floors, painting the walls and creating a bar with a community table and an appealing, open dining room filled with copper-clad tables (“a friend of the family made them,” Lisa Kaldrovich says). There’s no pretense here: The atmosphere is casual and comfortable, and so are the customers; I didn’t see (or miss) a business suit anywhere.

Kaldrovich served as executive chef and later food and beverage director at Inn by the Sea in Cape Elizabeth for seven years, and loyal customers who have followed him west often ask why he opened a restaurant in Gorham? “I live here and my wife is from here,” he says. “Plus, Portland is beautiful, but it’s saturated. Gorham needs more restaurants, and I have access to the farmers market on Saturdays a half block away, and the local farmers who bring produce right to our restaurant. This is the place.”

Local produce filled the menu the night I visited, particularly the section devoted to pasta and grains (which are priced for half and full orders).

A vegan organic quinoa ($11/$21) entrée looked like a full-page spread from Martha Stewart Living, with kaleidoscopic chunks of carrot, fresh corn, grilled broccoli florets, peas and spinach filling a broad white bowl piled with quinoa. Cooked poorly, quinoa is a bland and crunchy mess. But this quinoa was the very model of a fluffy pilaf, nicely yet minimally dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and a few drops of lemon juice. Ground breaking? Not at all. Comforting and healthful? Absolutely.

A friend who’d joined me for dinner dredged a broccoli floret through the grains and popped it into her mouth, the picture of contentment. “That,” she said, “is fresh.” “May I?” I asked, spearing a glistening carrot. She was right.

Nearly as good was a red beet risotto ($13-$24) made with carnaroli, a medium-grain rice that absorbs more liquid (“and flavor,” Kaldrovich says) than the better-known arborio. Once again, the dish was colorfully composed with a few arugula leaves and segments of citrus dotting the top of the ruby-colored rice and chunks of braised beets scattered through it. As I nibbled a chunk of braised beet, the smell of thyme and bay leaf wafted from the bowl.

Kaldrovich may be passionate about vegetarian fare, but he’s a carnivore (the man is Argentinian) and Pork Two Ways ($24) featured a spiced loin, grilled and served with sweet potato puree and a slice of pork belly. The loin was tender and deeply flavorful, and I could taste the coriander and smell the cinnamon and paprika that made up the rub. Still, the accompanying pork belly was a disappointment. Kaldrovich admits that it’s “an overused ingredient,” and I think he’s right. Though MK’s version was braised in white wine and finished with maple syrup, I tasted neither of those things.

I pushed it aside and returned to the pork loin, dipping each grilled slice into the chipotle barbecue sauce. (Flavored with birch syrup instead of molasses, the sauce is deliciously piney.)

Fittingly, my favorite dessert (all $9) here was not the cheesecake (that tasted nearly as rich as crème caramel), or the shortcake with minted strawberries but the scoop of blueberry sorbet made in-house. It was neither innovative nor elaborate, but cool, simple, smooth and satisfying.

Fresh.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. He retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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Dine Out Maine: Bandaloop in Kennebunkport http://www.pressherald.com/2015/07/19/dine-out-maineat-bandaloop-a-locally-sourced-globally-influenced-organic-eatery-look-for-bold-flavors-and-inventive-dishes/ http://www.pressherald.com/2015/07/19/dine-out-maineat-bandaloop-a-locally-sourced-globally-influenced-organic-eatery-look-for-bold-flavors-and-inventive-dishes/#comments Sun, 19 Jul 2015 08:00:00 +0000 http://www.pressherald.com/?p=677729 At Bandaloop in Kennebunkport, you can expect the unexpected. The name’s your first clue: It’s not a person, or a place, or a cuisine, but a fictional tribe with the secret to eternal life. Owners W. Scott Lee and his wife, Bridget, plucked it from a Tom Robbins novel and say, “We don’t know the full secret (but) good food and wines must be a part of it.”

The scale of the restaurant is deceptive, too. A business that looks diminutive from the outside turns out to fill a large 1850s-era barn as well as a sunny “new room,” once a patio, on the side that can seat another 40 customers.

Look around and you’ll see that the décor is decidedly offbeat, with sauté pans hanging from rafters, and – my favorite bit of whimsy – balloon whisks tacked to the walls and ceiling to serve as sconces and chandeliers.

But the big eye opener here is the food. On a given night the menu might include blue cheese egg rolls, a chicken breast served with twin sauces of Asian peanut and cilantro-pistachio pesto, or grilled salmon paired with spiced watermelon salsa – dishes so boldly flavored that you occasionally need a large glass of water to settle your taste buds.

Lee, who acknowledges “I’m not shy about spice,” seems intent on surprising at his “locally sourced, globally influenced organic eatery,” and he almost always succeeds.

Take those egg rolls ($9.50), which our waitress (both witty and well informed) promised were among her favorite appetizers. They’re deep fried, super shatteringly crisp and filled with a potent mixture of caramelized red onions, walnuts, spinach, and Danish blue that melts in the heat of the fryer and binds the ingredients together in a sharp, creamy blanket of flavor. If the combination sounds unusual for an egg roll – the ingredients would resemble pesto if they were processed more finely – who cares? The results are maddeningly good.

I returned to the plate again and again, dragging edges of each roll through a bowl of sweet and sour sauce made with port wine and balsamic vinegar, then savoring the intensity of the cheese and the complexity of the textures – the crunchy walnuts, the tender sweet onions. You know you should share an appetizer this good, but you may have to push yourself. Go ahead. There’s more to come.

Bandaloop features a different taco appetizer ($13) each night, always built on tasty corn tortillas from Portland’s Tortilleria Pachanga, made with organic and heritage corn grown in Maine. On my visit, the filling was grilled salmon and a cumin-laced watermelon salsa, a flavorful combination that demanded appreciation and a degree of dexterity. I rolled up one overstuffed bundle and bit into a morsel of the moist, medium-rare fish and a strip of spicy watermelon, then angled the tortilla to make sure none of the salsa dribbled away. (It was so good I’d gladly have licked my fingers clean.) The tastes were fresh and intense – the salmon mild and slightly fatty and the salsa fiery thanks to a few paper-thin slices of jalapeño and the chef’s house-made jalapeño syrup.

As with many of the dishes here, the starter also smelled tantalizing – whiffs of earthy corn and hints of cumin and Thai basil. If the waitress hadn’t arrived at the table with our entrees, I might have ordered another round of appetizers and called it a night.

Instead, I cut into a large piece of grilled swordfish ($28) and was glad I had. Lightly browned yet still deliciously juicy, it was served with another bold sauce – a spicy ginger-tamarind glaze. (“I don’t want people to feel as if they have to season their food,” Lee says. “I want it flavorful and well seasoned when they receive it.”) Some fish fillets would have been too delicate to tolerate even a drizzle of the vibrant glaze. Not brawny swordfish. There was only one disappointment on the plate: A mound of purple potato salad served cold – too cold for my taste – was a starchy distraction.

Cavatappi with chicken, sausage or tofu is Bandaloop’s version of macaroni and cheese, and the bowl we tried with andouille sausage ($19) was satisfying. Corkscrew-shaped pasta was coated in a sharp cheese sauce made from Vermont cheddar and enlivened with red pepper flakes, and the chunks of sausage were pleasantly oily and salty.

But the real standouts were the roasted tomatoes dotting the cavatappi: Each jewel-like, red chunk tasted like a summer afternoon, sweet, bright and concentrated, and an ideal counterpoint to the rich cheese sauce. The dish was so filling that I wondered if our waitress had mistakenly brought us the full portion, instead of the half that we’d ordered. “No, that’d be the mini” (a misnomer if I ever heard one.) There’s no mistaking the maxi, she reported. “It’s simply huge.”

So was the size of a few parties wandering into Bandaloop from Kennebunkport’s busy main drag. The restaurant is a magnet for family celebrations, and a large group was seated at the high table in the “new room” off the barn. The staff accommodated them well, but the noise level had definitely risen by the time we ordered dessert. (Acoustical panels line the ceiling of the dining room, so the owners have obviously made efforts to keep the noise level manageable.)

Have you noticed the proliferation of salted desserts these days? In recent weeks, I’ve seen salted peanut butter ice cream, salted fudge brownies, salted butterscotch bars – even a salted caramel truffle milkshake at Dairy Queen. So I wasn’t surprised when my friend found a sea salt crème caramel ($8) on Bandaloop’s menu. His response to the dish was enthusiastic, so before he could polish it off I swooped in for a bite – and it proved another surprise. Beautifully balanced between sweet and salty, the custard was more dense than delicate –in a good way.

I liked my bite on its own, balanced on the end of the attenuated iced tea spoon that the restaurant uses for dessert. I liked it even more dipped into the sugary caramel sauce flecked with flakes of Malden salt. I liked it best with a nibble of the crispy Danish butter cookie dotted with crushed chunks of salty pretzel that was served alongside.

Sure, Bandaloop has a few limits. The bread is house made, but it’s unpleasantly chewy. Depending upon where you’re seated the noise level can grow uncomfortably loud. And on occasion (think potatoes) the kitchen does miss the mark. But most of the time Scott Lee, a graduate of Johnson & Wales’ culinary arts program, turns out consistently inventive and highly flavorful dishes.

He may not have the secret to eternal life, but he’s cracked the code to preparing satisfying fare.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. He retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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