Monday, December 9, 2013
By NANCY HEISER
In this column, my co-reviewer, Shonna Milliken Humphrey, and I seek to discover and communicate what makes a restaurant special or unique. That's why you'll seldom find us reviewing the chains.
After personally logging just over 50 reviews for this newspaper, I thought it was time to highlight a few things that we've found particularly noteworthy around the state.
Favorite comfort food dish: Homemade cannelloni at Caiola's in Portland. A tangy sauce with sweet red pepper, onion and cream enveloped ricotta-filled pasta that was thin and tender like a crepe. You could eat the leftovers standing up, at home, cold, for breakfast. (I won't tell.)
Close second: Brined, then buttermilk-soaked, fried chicken legs with romaine, red onion and lemon dressing at the East Ender in Portland.
Notable attention to design: Solo Bistro, Bath. Chic and uncluttered, with blonde tables and sherbet-colored chairs, the space is inviting and airy. Nothing here is standard issue. The Scandinavian dishes, flatware and glasses are all lovely to hold, behold and eat from.
Memorable fish chowder: I have yet to find a place whose rendition rivals that of the Dolphin Marina and Restaurant in Harpswell. Rich as Croesus and chock full of fish, the classic soup comes with a giant blueberry muffin that's a perfect Maine match. A hearty bowl will stick to your ribs all day. A gorgeous setting to boot.
Best view that isn't coastal: Blair Hill Inn, Greenville. Sit in wicker armchairs high above the furling shoreline of Moosehead Lake and ridges of mountain and forest. A civilized outpost at the edge of the wilderness. Another front porch worth a trip: Grey Havens Inn in Georgetown, with expansive views of upper Casco Bay.
Best port in a mountain snowstorm: One Stanley Avenue, Kingfield. When it's winter again, know that the fire is going, the tapers are lit and the wine from an extensive and interesting list is ready to pour at this Victorian inn. The place and food are a bit of a throwback, but it's a comfortable and quiet place to linger, and you can slide over to their B-and-B at Three Stanley Ave. for a night's sleep without spending a fortune. The powder will glisten tomorrow.
Big personality honor: Cafe Miranda in Rockland. Find globally inspired food in a space with 1950s diner decor, kitschy items such as strings of pink flamingo lights, and dishes named Bleu Job and Wedgie. You'll find huge portions at this extroverted eatery with a massive menu. It might also have the most arresting restroom -- it's all Elvis memorabilia.
Unfailingly gracious service: It matters less whether you pour wine with nary a drop spilled; it's more important to communicate well and have the diner's comfort and enjoyment foremost in mind -- and somehow make it all look easy even though it's not.
We found particularly wonderful service at Portland's Cinque Terre (now Vignola Cinque Terre) and Back Bay Grill; SeaGrass Bistro in Yarmouth; and Natalie's at the Camden Harbour Inn. Not surprisingly, all these establishments served excellent food, and also not surprisingly, in most cases the chef/owner was on hand to keep a careful eye on the details.
Highest nutrition in a single delicious dish: The memorable kale chiffonade salad, dressed with sesame tahini vinaigrette and sprinkled with hemp seeds and candied pecans, at Bandaloop in Kennebunkport. This dish proves the point that you don't have to put butter, bacon or chocolate in a dish to make it outrageously good.
Best dessert in a bowl: Buttermilk panna cotta with caramel passion fruit, pineapple, papaya and mango at Bresca in Portland. Heaven.
Best dessert on a plate: Earth in Kennebunkport transformed strawberry shortcake into a work of art. We found lemon verbena whipped cream and candied fennel in addition to three tiny, warm biscuits and fruit arranged on a plate like a Miro sculpture.
Biggest punch per square foot: The tiny, humble and lightly staffed A-1 Diner in Gardiner turns out international dishes with enticing flavors as well as standard diner fare with apparent ease. How do they do it?
Three bites I won't soon forget: Red radishes sauteed in duck fat with duck confit atop warm arugula at Bar Lola in Portland; the Toro corn appetizer -- fresh ears rolled in grated cotija, garli aioli and pimento -- at Earth; and fried oysters at The Slipway in Thomaston. Crisp, light coating over a juicy burst of hot, briny flavor. Killer.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at: