Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By John Golden
In two recent visits to the East Ender for lunch and dinner, we encountered a few hiccups in service and food. The kitchen is perhaps still finding its way with a new chef at the helm.
AJ Hungerford of Portland (facing camera) dines at the East Ender.
Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
The brick storefront on Middle Street in Portland is a popular spot for lunch and dinner.
WHERE: 47 Middle St., Portland. 879-7669; eastenderportland.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
CREDIT CARDS: Yes
PRICE RANGE: $2 to $22
VEGETARIAN: Yes (a few choices)
GLUTEN-FREE: Yes (a few choices)
BAR: Full bar
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes (downstairs only)
BOTTOM LINE: The quintessential gastro-pub, with a lusty, varied menu of creatively prepared fare. Must-haves include the deviled eggs (with various fillings), the lobster poutine, trout fritters, the East Ender burger and a very good lobster salad sandwich. For starters and main courses, standouts include the mussels in green curry coconut milk, nachos with lobster, smoked hen, Montreal smoked brisket and hanger steak with bacon-bourbon butter. The drinks list is extensive, with local beers on tap and bottle. Specialty cocktails include key-lime martini; vodka, blood orange, ginger beer and lime; and gin cocktail with Cold River gin, saint germain, grapefruit and sauvignon blanc, among others.
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 original chef, Mitch Gerow, who was also part-owner when he and partner Meg Schroeter opened in 2011, left for California last summer. In his stead is Jack Smith, who hailed from a stint at Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room and is a veteran of the Grill Room.
The menu hasn’t changed appreciably, though it’s uncertain whether chef Smith has yet to capture the deft spirit of Gerow’s style – a repertoire of enlightened pub food made from scratch with local ingredients.
Most everything, though, is still prepared in-house. Nose-to-tail butchery is practiced in the kitchen, and it’s also where meats are cured, breads are baked, ice cream is churned and pastries are assembled.
In past visits, everything has always been first rate, with creative preparations on all fronts, capturing the essence of gastro-pub dining in offering artisanal beers, designer cocktails and lusty fare.
It’s popular at lunch and a clubby spot for dinner. It also attracts a late-night following of chefs who come after their stints at the stove to dine on such deliciously prepared nibbles as egg salad sliders with capers and shallots on house-made mini brioche ($9), smoked-trout fritters ($9), lobster poutine with fried taters ($16) or more substantial fare like Montreal smoked brisket with polenta cake ($22).
In addition to a compelling list of creative main dishes, sides and appetizers the East Ender’s burger platter ($13) ranks as one of the best in town. Made with ground local beef cheek and chuck, it’s beautifully charred and served with a mound of salt-and-vinegar fries.
The space, with its first and second floor dining rooms, is still an awkward one, though, in which to maneuver. The cramped quarters downstairs are reserved for lunch. The upstairs dining room open in the evening is very spacious with booths, tables and seating at the bar.
At our lunch visit last week, a dish from the sandwich list intrigued me. It was a fried bologna sandwich ($10), a throwback to a 1950s lunch-counter favorite. This contemporary version is prepared with seared mortadella (aka house-made mortadella di bologna), yellow mustard, lettuce and a fried egg on top. An artery clogger? Well, perhaps, but with today’s modern medications, it’s a safe enough digression once in a while.
My luncheon guest, a vegetarian, ordered risotto infused with beets and topped with a goat cheese mousse ($15).
To start, we shared a dish of broccoli fritters ($9). Five fritters were served in a bowl, and the first one I tried was delicious, filled with fresh and tender florets of broccoli. I asked my friend if he liked it. He did, except, he said, his held no broccoli within.
I opened up one, then another and another and all were just plain fritters.
I spoke to our waiter about the fritter debacle.
“The kitchen likes to mix ’em up,” he said, “some with broccoli and some without.”
“You mean,” I suggested, “that the chef might also send a sandwich out with one half-filled and the other half-empty?”
He chuckled and walked away.
Some moments later he returned with this news: The kitchen ran out of mortadella and the sandwich was taken off the menu.
For the sake of expediency, a double order of sliders (both $9) was the easiest way to resume lunch. The egg salad was very good, and the pulled pork’s tender strips of meat were nicely cloaked in a Carolina-style barbecue sauce.
My guest’s order of risotto arrived without incident. The rice was a soft shade of pink from the beet infusion and it was topped with a delicious mousse of goat cheese. My guest enjoyed it immensely.
At dinner a few days later, the experience was far better. The kitchen was fully stocked and our waitress was bright and courteous.
My dinner guest ordered the Paso Project 2009 Chardonnay ($8) from the short list of wines by the glass.
It would accompany her first course of fried calamari ($11). We both found these too bready, though the shredded pickled daikon offered refreshing relief from the heaviness of the flash-fried squid.
My first course of crab cakes ($15) was a heaping portion of two cakes that could have sufficed as a main course. It had a garnish of Thai fried cauliflower, which added nothing to the overall dish except to contribute another heavy element.
For a main course, my guest’s Caesar salad ($8) was classically prepared except that the Romaine was grilled – always a nice touch – and the dressing of white anchovies and Parmesan worked well, as did the accompanying grilled sour-dough bread.
I went with a robust dish of smoked hen in a Carolina-style barbecue sauce served with house-cured prosciutto, braised spinach and hush puppies. This was an enormous plateful. The smoky chicken was fall-off-the bone tender, but the hush puppies were dry and leaden.
For prurient reasons only, I also added a side dish of honeyed corn bread ($3). It was worth the extra calories.
For dessert we shared ice cream sandwiches. Three on the plate, the chocolate cookies held creamy vanilla ice cream within. The accompanying dipping sauce of dulce de leche was very sweet (as it’s meant to be) but overkill.
What’s inherent about gastro-pub fare is that it’s big, hearty food that needs to be washed down by good beers and spirits. This is easily accomplished at the East Ender.
And once this kitchen operates without such isolated mishaps as related earlier, their mission will be back on track.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at:email@example.com