Friday, December 13, 2013
By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY
Google "splinathes gin" and, oddly, Local 188's name tops the search results. What is splinathes? It's a plant that creates a numbing sensation for teeth, and when infused into gin, makes a tongue tingle too.
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
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
KID-FRIENDLY: No children's menu
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.
According to the website, splinathes is among the infusions available at Local 188, but because options rotate, it was not listed on the night of my visit. Not to worry -- others included hot pepper cachaca, really hot pepper vodka and pineapple tequila. For a winter evening, the fig and vanilla infused bourbon ($7) seemed appropriate, and the result was a pleasant and welcoming two-finger pour of scent and flavor. Subtle and smooth.
Not nearly as smooth, though, as the Old Rip Van Winkle 10-year Handmade Bourbon ($10). Local 188 acquired two cases of this whiskey, only available in Maine for a limited time each year. It's bottled in Kentucky "as close to barrel proof as possible." Sadly, when it's gone, it's gone, and I was told it's going fast. Wheated bourbon lovers, I suggest tasting this while it lasts. It is a bourbon for bourbon lovers.
Let me back up.
"Farm to Table" is a phrase in the restaurant industry, and it carries certain bragging rights -- sometimes obnoxious ones. At Local 188, "farm to table" dictates almost every aspect, but rather than "hipper than thou," owner-chef Jay Villani and general manager Garry Bowcott offer the neighborhood a sweet, cozy place to relax and feel good about the food consumed. (And with free parking in the back, an Arts District rarity!)
"A great date spot," noted my husband, Travis, and I agreed, admiring the ambient lighting and menu of items that beg to be shared.
Sure, the vibe welcomes the hipster crowd, and we saw clusters of skinny jeans and horned rims. But we also saw an equal number of theater going-type couples, some "of a certain age" and a few scattered solo diners.
With the varied configuration of communal sofas, bar stools and a good-sized dining room made intimate with low lighting and close tables, it felt like there was space for every taste.
As mentioned, the menu changes regularly with nightly preparation styles, and the offerings are grouped smartly by tapas ($5 to $13), raciones ($13 to $15), salads ($10 to $11) and entrees ($18 to market price).
Our server knew the menu and achieved that balance of helpful without hovering. When asked, she offered suggestions. She watched us vacillate between the signature house paella ($21) and the smoked half chicken ($21), and she acknowledged that while both are delicious, the smoked chicken is pretty special. "There's smoked chicken, and then there's this smoked chicken," she said.
She was right. Brined in lime tequila for 48 hours, the half-chicken arrived toasty brown, skin intact, with an impossibly intense, smoky flavor that lingered and lingered. How, we wondered, did the kitchen pack so much flavor into this piece of chicken meat?
We were primed well, though, having already eaten a plateful of fried sunchokes ($7). Not to be confused with the thistle family's globe artichokes, sunchokes (or Jerusalem artichoke) are part of the sunflower family, and when uncooked resemble a sort of large ginger root. With a starchy, potato texture, Local 188 prepares these sunchokes (an organic, old homestyle varietal grown at Wholesome Valley Farm in Smyrna) in a black garlic aioli with Cajun honey that results in a tangy, creamy sort of jacked-up barbecue sauce -- easily one of the best meal moments.
The green salad ($13), ample and topped with goat cheese and garlic Dijon dressing, was tasty, but as Travis observed, "You probably wouldn't come here just for the salad."
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."