January 27, 2013

Dine out Maine: 188 a sweet, cozy place offering a superb dining experience

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

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Server Cole Nadeau serves up green salads of market vegetables, local goat cheese, roasted garlic and dijon dressing. The four-star meal is made even better by an atmosphere that accommodates every taste and style.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

LOCAL 188

685 Congress St., Portland 761-7909; local188.com

****

HOURS: Dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. daily; until 10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; drinks until 1 a.m.; brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

PRICE RANGE: $4 to market price, with dinner entrees in the $20 range and an ample selection of smaller plates in the $7 to $13 range

BAR: Full bar, with specialty drinks that include house-infused liquors

CREDIT CARDS: All major

VEGETARIAN-FRIENDLY: Very

GLUTEN-FREE: Very

KID-FRIENDLY: No children's menu

RESERVATIONS: Yes

PARKING: Free, behind the building

BOTTOM LINE: Local 188's menu is thoughtful, balanced and keyed in to the unique desires of Portland foodie types -- and has been true to this concept since 1999. Its hipster reputation is not a mandate, just a nod to the area's upwardly mobile young culture. The restaurant serves excellent food in a gallery atmosphere that features work by local artists. With this mix of art and cuisine, it is a terrific neighborhood spot for a drink, a snack or a full-on dinner date. Meat-free options are plentiful.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

* Poor  * * Fair  * * * Good * * * * Excellent * * * * * Extraordinary.

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

The gnocchi ($13), however? That, I can see traveling a great distance to sample. With the night's preparation style focusing on smoked paprika dough, this gnocchi was a solid portion of hand-cut potato puffs with crisp and chew in equal proportion. The smoked paprika (emphasis on the "smoked;" this paprika is not your cupboard's shaker bottle) made the humble gnocchi into something exceptional.

The all-natural Angus hanger steak's ($25) nightly preparation was a simple one, focused less on seasoning and more on the meat itself. Tender and medium rare -- there was little to criticize in the presentation or taste.

Even when accompanied with one of the least expensive red wines on the by-the-glass list, a Navarro Correas Malbec ($7), both tasted of much higher quality in cut and vintage.

A nod to the Local 188 wine picker is important here, as the wine list is among the most varied and comprehensive in town. Even the cheap wines taste very good.

I was also impressed at the thought put into the vegetarian options. Of the 25 menu items, 10 were veggie-friendly, and five more were (shell)fish-focused. The savory pumpkin bread pudding and house apple sauce served with the smoked chicken would have been a tasty solo offering, as would the butternut squash potato cake served with the steak.

Oh, and the desserts! If toasted coconut tres leches ($7) is on the menu, pick that one. Again, we vacillated, and again, our server was right. "The coconut tres leches wins," she said with a decisiveness we had grown to trust, and we agreed, happily splitting this creamy (sweet, but not cloying) layered sponge cake and marveling at its delicate and subtle flavors.

Add an espresso ($2.50), and the meal ranks among the most interesting and satisfying in town.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel "Show Me Good Land."

 

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