November 3, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Food fan tucks in his napkin, hoists his fork and prepares to dish

By John Golden

I’ve been going to restaurants ever since I can remember. Growing up in New York I was weaned on the infinite pleasures of dining out. That stratified Manhattan restaurant hierarchy of who you knew (the maitre d’) and where you sat (the best banquette) was taught to me at an early age.

Many years later my perusal of Maine dining – which I will now bring to you in this space, every Sunday – is altogether a different kettle of fish. It’s more about the food – the quality of what you’re eating and where it came from, important factors that make such an otherwise pompous social pecking order seem all the more superficial.

The thrill of it all still excites me today. Of course I have my favorite dining spots, and others that I avoid. As a critic I won’t sugar-coat the experience just to play nice. I will tell it like it is – to report on the good, bad or indifferent experience. Either way you’ll definitely know what I like or don’t. (Many of you might know me from my long-running food and dining blog, “The Golden Dish," which first appeared in the online pages of Downeast Magazine and is now on pressherald.com. I will continue to write the blog three times a week.)

My most unusual Maine dining experience was about 15 years ago during a visit to Portland. I went to a new restaurant on Middle Street called Café Always. It was then owned by today’s successful chefs and restaurateurs, Cheryl Lewis and Noreen Kotts (El Rayo and Cantina El Rayo).

The room was very minimal and the menu was intriguing. We were enjoying our wine when I noticed a squirrel scampering over the electrical wires across the street. Suddenly a flash of light and then a boom. The poor animal was instantly fried and the restaurant went dark. We never had our meal and I never went back.

I recalled this event recently when I went to Scratch Baking in South Portland to stock up on my Sunday stash of their remarkable bagels. The bakery’s fans were out in full force, 30 deep in the shop. When I walked in, though, the place was pitch black. They had just lost their power, leaving all of us bagel mavens empty-handed.

In fact, over the years I’ve experienced quite a few blackouts in restaurants and food shops where a daze-like stillness lingers over the darkness. Is this an omen about which I should be concerned? Probably not, but it’s something to think about.

For the most part I will cover the dining establishments in greater Portland and places farther afield, reporting on who is up to snuff and who isn’t.

I’m partial to good solid cooking. New England fare suits me fine, and diner food, too, if it’s done well. I also love Southern fare, classic French, Italian, Mediterranean, Latin and Asian.

In our little food kingdom we’ve earned a well-deserved reputation as a food-centric town. And it’s one of the reasons why I live here. But not every dining experience is a trip to paradise.

The other night I was at one of the popular new restaurants and had an uncharacteristically lackluster meal. I ordered chicken spring rolls to start, followed by lamb ragu over gnocchi. Admittedly these were two heavy dishes, which I probably shouldn’t have chosen together. But I wanted both and went for it.

The spring rolls were nice enough, crispy and filled with meat, but they were basically bland, without nuance. The ragu, however, served over the gnocchi, was delicious. Unfortunately the gnocchi were as hard as marbles. The most commonly used words that food writers ascribe to these pasta morsels are “pillowy,” “gossamer” and “light as air.” These missed on all counts.

I asked the waitress what kind of gnocchi these were supposed to be? (Potato? Ricotta?) She looked at me queerly, shrugged her shoulders and said, “Regular, I think.”

What’s new about the American dining scene is that we finally have a native cuisine. Gone are the usual facsimiles of French, Italian or continental cooking that dominated the top-tier establishments of the past.

Instead, today it’s all about American bistro cooking. It’s a broad term, with regional differences, but it pretty much defines every new restaurant, other than ethnic, that strives to be the next American bistro wunderkind. In Portland, Five Fifty-Five, Hugo’s, Fore Street, Back Bay Grill, Outliers, In’finiti and Caiola’s typify the genre.

Added to the mix is “fusion,” where the chef humorously or seriously fusses with elements of other cuisines. It can be very appealing.

Of those local establishments that pull it off, Hugo’s affects an America fusion sensibility superbly, as does the remarkable Masa Miyake with his Japanese fusion repertoire.

This regional take on cuisine is basically the new dining mantra in America that has produced outstanding restaurants all over the country. San Francisco, for example, is a great restaurant city where it’s all about American cooking. The Maine dining scene is often likened to the culinary goings-on in the Northwest. And formidable Maine chefs like Brian Hill (Francine, Shepherd’s Pie), Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier (MC Perkins Cove, Arrows), Melissa Kelly (Primo), Sam Hayward (Fore Street) and Steve Corry (Five Fifty-Five) maintain that high standard. They all rely on the bounty of local ingredients within the artisanal sphere of an American vernacular.

Ultimately what will be fun to track are the rising stars and dining establishments ripe for discovery. And you’ll read about them here.

John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications.

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