March 25, 2012

Dine Out Maine: David's 388 is a classic, and it's easy to see why

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

With Portland's reputation as a foodie city expanding as quickly as my restaurant trend reading list, I get distracted by the newest, sparkliest and most innovative kitchen crazes. Molecular gastronomy? Agri-chefs? Peruvian cuisine?

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An excellent date locale, David's 388 is worth the trip to South Portland.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

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David's 388 was opened five years ago by David Turin, who also owns David's in Monument Square in Portland.

John Ewing / Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

DAVID'S 388, 388 Cottage Road, South Portland; davids388.com

★★★★1/2

HOURS: 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

BAR: Full bar

CREDIT CARDS: All major

PRICE RANGE FOR FOOD: $7 to $28 

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

RESERVATIONS: Yes

KID-FRIENDLY: No kids' menu

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: David's 388 is a South Portland neighborhood treat for high-end casual food lovers.  Intimate and cozy, the kitchen creates meals that feel fancy, not fussy, and with $7 appetizers and $15 main dishes, dining here is an accessible treat. An excellent date locale, David's 388 is worth the trip over the bridge.

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.

When there are so many directions to look and an abundance of menu options to discover, standard bearers sometimes take a back seat. And that is a shame, because award-winning chefs like David Turin led Maine's original dining revolution.

"Right, David's! I always forget that place. It's great," is a common reaction, followed with an apologetic, "I still haven't been to the new location."

The "new" location, David's 388 in South Portland, is now five years old, and embarrassed that I too had yet to visit, I fixed the omission in my food canon as quickly as possible. On a tree-lined neighborhood corner not far from Willard Beach sits an intimate, cozier version of Turin's Monument Square original and home to one of the finest high-end casual dining menus in greater Portland.

What makes it so good? Balance. A little bit innovative and a little bit traditional, chef de cuisine Bo Byrne's menu is accessible. Each dish is created with a subtle expertise that pushes tamer palates to explore while also offering familiar, relaxing standards for those wanting a home base.

Osso Bucco ($15) sounds much lovelier than "bone with a hole," right? The David's 388 crew could call this pork dish any name, and I would still want to lick the plate dry. The pork, braised in local beer until the meat resists any attempt to cling to its namesake, is presented between crispy fried onions and creamy risotto. I spooned the rich sauce like soup, savoring each distinct texture.

But I am skipping ahead. Appetizers, at $8, are the perfect sample size, and they complement the main dishes, each generally priced at $15. The David's 388 concept is to provide options, and it does so with signature smaller-sized portions. While not exactly tapas, the food is meant to be combined and shared.

The wine list is fine (bottles $32 to $78, by the glass $7 to $8), and both the by-the-glass pinot noir (Angeline, California) and malbec (Acordeon, Argentina) had no surprises, but I vote enthusiastically for the cocktails.

David's 388 version of the classic Mayfair eschews orange juice and apricot brandy in favor of fresh lemon juice, and includes a savory salt-thyme rim. This gin cocktail is smooth, and I look forward to drinking more of them as the summer months approach.

Appetizers included tuna tartar with coconut-chili truffle oil. When the diminutive serving of bright pink tuna arrived, it was small only in portion size -- the taste was gigantic. (To the kitchen's immense credit, the truffles were flavorful specks and not simply oil with truffle flavoring.)

The lightly fried calamari appetizer was tossed in chili balsamic dressing with feta, kalamata olives, tomato and onion, and once again, I was impressed with the ability to layer unique salt-based flavor upon flavor in a distinct, yet harmonious, manner. This, gentle people, is an impressive culinary skill.

Let us pause between courses to notice the decor. The napkins are heavy cloth and dark, which, although a small detail, is one I appreciate, because white napkins always feel vaguely exhibitionist to me -- each stain and spill as evidence.

With a high tin ceiling and comfortable banquettes, the snug dining space feels much larger, and size only becomes an issue with the restrooms, with dimensions reminiscent of a commuter airplane. That noted, the bathrooms are impeccably clean and well-appointed with elegant, modern fixtures.

Some critics may argue that seared rare tuna passed its innovative phase many years ago, but there is a reason for this favorite's popularity and continued menu placement. At David's 388, it's served with asparagus, soba noodles and citrus dressing. The tuna, seared on the outside and cherry red inside, is a classic.

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