Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By NANCY HEISER
Even before it opened, a fair amount of media hype surrounded Carmen at The Danforth.
Original artwork graces the walls at Carmen at The Danforth, an elegant new restaurant in an inn on Portland’s West End.
Jill Brady/Staff Photographer
CARMEN AT THE DANFORTH, 163 Danforth St., Portland. 358-7103, danforthmaine.com/restaurant
HOURS: 5:30 p.m. to close Tuesday to Saturday CREDIT CARDS: Visa, MC, AmEx
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers $9 to $15, entrees $24 to $29
GLUTEN-FREE: can accommodate
BAR: Full. Sommelier Jen Flock's expanding wine list features Old World, California and even Lebanese wine, with bottles $30 to $200. Nine options by the glass, $8 to $12.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: Carmen at The Danforth offers marvelous Latin-inspired twists on familiar items while introducing ingredients seldom found on Maine menus. The restaurant's intimate, elegant setting in a historic inn in Portland's West End makes it hardly a spot you'd expect to find this delicious and fascinating cuisine. But that's all part of the magic.
Ratings follow this scale: *Poor ** Fair *** Good **** Excellent ***** Extraordinary
Understandably so. Puerto Rico native Carmen Gonzalez enjoys celebrity status, having been a finalist in season two of "Top Chef Masters," and she soon will host a Spanish-language television show slated to air in 20 countries.
Kimberly Swan, owner of The Danforth, persuaded her friend to become a partner in creating the small, elegant restaurant in the historic inn on Portland's West End. The 40-seat establishment opened in late May.
At Carmen, you'll find interesting and delicious twists on familiar items -- cod, pork, skirt steak -- as well as ingredients you probably haven't tried before. Yucca fries, tamarind-rum gel and plantain fritters aren't common items in these northern parts.
An excellent cod entree was prepared with a Latin American/Caribbean flair -- pan seared, finished in the oven and paired with a lovely pureed criolla sauce composed of, among other things, tomatoes, cilantro, jalapenos, dry sherry, butter and cream.
Artichokes and a silky and distinctive boniato mash accompanied the fish ($24). I really enjoyed this side item, a cream-colored, tropical sweet potato, which was less sweet but nuttier than the familiar orange-fleshed variety.
Spanish culture also influenced a crispy-skinned striped bass served with a stew of house-made chorizo, fresh garbanzo beans (these are green in color, if you've only seen the canned or dried variety) and beet greens ($28.50).
Both entrees were delicious and innovative preparations.
The Rohan duck breast entree deserves raves. Like superlatives across a page, the components lined up in a row, each one as good as the next: Succulent and tender slices of breast meat, a roulade of tender and moist duck leg studded with corn kernels, an ethereal corn flan, and finally a warm, lemony spinach -- all underpinned by a port sauce that was buttery and tangy at once ($29).
We started our meal with Manchego fritters, small spheres of cheese nicely softened by the fried breading ($9).
Slices of fried green plantain held smoked salmon, capers and mustard sauce, a crisp and witty new vehicle for an Old World favorite ($14).
The monkfish croquettes were outstanding too, but we wished for more than the mere dot of the flavor-rich Romesco sauce atop each one ($12.50).
Grilled baby flower octopus was delicately textured and brown, unfolding its crispy "petals" for the diner's enjoyment. The accompanying chayote slaw offered us not much more than a hint of the pear-like vegetable ($15).
The cuisine here is delicious and novel, but those who also consume with their eyes while dining at special-occasion restaurants might wish for more artful composition in some instances.
A case in point was the tasty escabeche of rainbow trout (appetizer, $13). This was a warm, vinegary filet surrounded with a few leaves of dressed Tuscan kale (although the menu billing calls this a salad, it wasn't more than a garnish, a separate and not entirely trivial objection). Here we have earthy colors, brown and dark green. Some might like to see an accent color on this duo-chromatic plate, a little fiesta for the eyes. Others might not care in the slightest.
For me, that signature duck entree -- so wonderful to eat -- would elevate to heaven with a touch more artfulness to its progression of brown, yellow and green on the plate.
Gonzalez cooks her outstanding flan in her grandmother's pan. It's a high and attractive dessert, a triangle of sweet, custardy softness ($10).
Ours was served with a refrigerator chill, which did not allow the exquisite melt-in-your-mouth aspect to fully stand out. (A reason this might be so: The staff was operating in small kitchen on a busy, hot night, and food safety would be paramount.)
But rhapsodize I must about the warm, fruit-rich and fluffy mango bread pudding with rum-spiked creme anglais ($9) -- bliss on a plate.
Several cheeses are offered on the dessert menu as well.
The service at Carmen at The Danforth was professional and knowledgeable.
Gonzalez, who is diminutive in size but big in personality, makes a point of visiting with guests to chat about her food, history -- whatever you'd like to ask -- and this adds to the specialness of the dining experience at The Danforth.
The restaurant occupies two dining rooms on the inn's ground floor, opposite a parlor with live piano music. Much of the lighting comes from chandeliers, the walls bear original and changing artwork, and the noise level is comfortably low.
This is a singular spot for dining, and what's more, the traditional setting gives nothing away about the delectable and novel cuisine that arrives from the kitchen.
That welcome surprise just adds to the pleasure.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at: