Tuesday, December 10, 2013
By NANCY HEISER
June is here, and Maine's seasonal restaurants are in full swing. This creates a summer conundrum for someone in my job -- too many opportunities, so little time. In my next few columns, I'll cover a handful of notable establishments that are open, at least for dinner, only part of the year.
The Porthole is set along a crumbling cobblestone street that’s really a byway along the wharf in Portland. The atmosphere inside is shopworn, and there are picnic tables outside on a deck.
Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Staff Photographer
PORTHOLE, 20 Custom House Wharf, Portland. 780-6533; portholemaine.com
HOURS: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Not open for dinner after October
CREDIT CARDS: All major
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers $7 to $10, sandwiches $8 to $14, entrees $13 to $18
KIDS: Welcome. Separate menu
BAR: Full. Three house wines served by the glass, $6.50. Four beers on tap, including local and standard brews, and several bottles
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: Check out casual Porthole for fresh seafood that comes from the market right on the wharf, as well as soups, salads, grilled sandwiches and other land-based items, including flatiron steak or poutine with hand-cut fries. All this is served in a no-frills atmosphere -- a working wharf in downtown Portland. The food is very good, the experience fun and the prices not too heavy on the wallet. Breakfast is popular here, too.
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 first is smack in the middle of Portland's working waterfront.
It's not particularly attractive in a traditional sense. A rusty sign with the Coca Cola logo marks the Porthole, an eatery set along a crumbling cobblestone street that's really a byway along the wharf. Harbor Fish Market is right here, its ramshackle stalls boarded up at night.
Enter the restaurant and you might mingle with those whose jobs involve the sea or with after-hours professionals who work in offices nearby. You'll also find a few tourists, who are likely to enter from the opposite side, where there's an outdoor server station and picnic tables on a deck.
Porthole, established in 1929 with vintage signage and furnishings to prove it, serves breakfast and lunch all year long. In the warmer months, you can get dinner. It's mostly the same food that appears on the lunch menu, along with a couple of specials. The new chef made a few additions in late June, including a flatiron steak, a portabella mushroom pasta and fried Maine shrimp, but these items weren't available when we visited.
Inside, the atmosphere is shopworn. Grubby. Divey. It has worn-out paint and cracked linoleum floors, a potbelly stove in the middle of the space, and a long bar that faces an open kitchen. The view from outside is not of tranquil islands and lighthouses, but of fishing boats and wharf activity. Personally, I love this spot's gritty waterfront character, but it's not for everyone. Visit with an open mind. Consider it a great place to people-watch or set your next short story.
We sat indoors. We didn't at all feel like we were invading a sacred space just for locals. The young servers, dressed in Porthole T-shirts and shorts, were friendly. On a weeknight with little traffic, we were well taken care of.
As might be expected at a basic spot like this, wine choices were, well, basic: three choices from Round Hill served only by the glass. But it has a full bar and four beer taps. Most beverages are served in mason jars.
The new chef, Will Spear, who came from the Samoset Resort and Blue Nose Inn in Bar Harbor, had been on board about six weeks. We liked everything we tried from his kitchen.
We started with curried carrot bisque -- thick, grainy, and hot in temperature ($5). It hit the spot.
Eating mussels by the water has to be one of Maine's great pastimes. Porthole's version, a big bowl of ultra-fresh seafood in a chorizo, tomato, garlic broth and served with grilled homemade foccacia, did not disappoint ($9).
Crab cakes, fat with crab and two on a plate for $10, were tasty but lacked an outer crispiness. Big sections of cold lobster claw and tail meat mingled with goat cheese, wild blueberries and sugared walnuts in a bowl of greens with a blueberry vinaigrette made a sweet, summer entree salad ($17). Think lobster dessert.
A nice surprise was the grilled wild sockeye salmon for only $15. The seafood came prepared with terikayi sauce (soy, pineapple juice and ginger) and served over a grilled pineapple ring. It was a colorful, juicy and delicious entree, if not particularly inventive.
Hand-cut french fries -- likely a good base for the classic poutine you can get here -- and a respectable coleslaw lowered the platter a tad. Porthole may be a step up from the typical clam shack, but it's not too many steps.
Several slices of warm, medium-rare beef topped a pile of greens with an Asian-style dressing. Here was a pineapple ring again, bringing a welcome brightness to this main dish salad ($10).
The dishes we tried were not precious, delicate or exceptionally creative affairs. But they were fresh, varied and appealing.
Porthole offers a different approach to waterfront dining. Food-wise, this spot finds middle ground, serving many dishes that are different from the long list of fried seafood platters you find at many casual eateries (although you can get a few of those, too) or the elaborate entrees of upscale restaurants whose picture windows allow only sheltered views of the ocean.
Setting-wise, it's unique. You are dining on top of the water. The view is more interesting than idyllic. If you want to add atmosphere, the place rocks with live music on the weekends, including reggae beginning at 3 p.m. on Sundays.
To finish, our server made a fresh pot of coffee and brought us big mugs with unlimited refills -- for a buck. You gotta love that.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at:
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