April 8, 2013

Dine Out Maine: David's Opus Ten creates a saga of culinary indulgence

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

Every once in a while, a writer gets to tell a story in food sophistication. From the first engaging opening sentence to that final sigh when the last page is turned. For David's Opus 10, the story is an epic.

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David’s Opus Ten features a dining area that has a few awkward seating spots, but that’s a minor detraction for a restaurant with an excellent fixed-price menu.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Owner David Turin and chef Bo Byrne get the details right, and there is much to love in this tucked-away spot.

DINING REVIEW

DAVID'S OPUS TEN

22 Monument Square, Portland. 773-4340; davidsopus10.com

****

HOURS: Fixed price menu at 6 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday: $55 for seven courses Tuesday to Thursday; $65 for nine courses Friday and Saturday. Optional wine pairings, $35 weekdays; $45 weekends.

BAR: Full bar

CREDIT CARDS: All major

VEGETARIAN, GLUTEN-FREE: Yes, if noted at time of reservation with a 48-hour notice.

KIDS: No children's menu

RESERVATIONS: Strongly encouraged

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: For a special occasion or for diners who have a few hours to savor and linger, this concept piece of a restaurant within a restaurant flexes its way (rightly so) into Portland's fine dining scene. Owner David Turin and chef Bo Byrne get the details right, and there is much to love in this tucked-away spot.

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.

I booked a 6:30 p.m. reservation, and I unlocked the car door for the drive home at 10:15. Even accounting for chit-chat and a walk to the parking space, David's Opus 10 diners should plan to commit more than three hours.

The tables do not turn (meaning each table accepts one reservation per evening), so plan closer to four hours, just to be safe. This timing is neither good nor bad, but it is significant for managing expectations. David's Opus 10 should not be considered one half of dinner and a show; it is the entire evening.

Our coats dispensed with by a polite and efficient hostess, my husband Travis and I were then greeted at the room's entrance by owner David Turin himself. The mini-kitchen is tucked into a corner, where Turin works side-by-side with former David's 388 chef Bo Byrne. (Note: Ask for the chef's table. It is bar-style seating for two, overlooking the kitchen activity, and it seems fun to watch.)

I say "seems" because the David's Opus 10 seating is my biggest criticism. The decor with exposed brick is modern and minimalist while still projecting warmth (as designed by Kaplan Thompson, who also designed Miyake on Fore Street). The vibe is inviting, not cold, and the banquette along the back wall looked comfortable, as did the table for larger parties.

Unfortunately, Trav and I were placed at an unusual diagonal configuration of double two-tops, where the diners next to us sat at an awkward kitty-corner and were privy to most of our conversation -- and us to theirs.

A conversation that, it should be noted, needed amplification because the depth of tables themselves was significant, so leaning in to whisper was not an easy option. This reads like a petty observation, I'm sure, but when seated for more than three hours, the brick wall view behind my husband's head and proximity to the party next door grew tiresome.

But that's the conflict, and every compelling narrative needs a conflict. It also needs a resolution, and that resolution is the food. Oh my goodness, the food. Because almost every course involved butter or dairy, David's Opus 10 is an experience meant for those with pulse and stamina.

The concept is fixed price, and $65 buys nine courses on the weekends, while seven weekday courses cost $55. Add wine pairings for $35 during the week, and $45 for weekends. "Trust us," Turin seems to suggest, and so we do.

The menu changes monthly, as described by our narrator, er, server, who welcomed us with an amuse bouche presentation that included a rolling cart with a cured leg of jambon and the fixings for the night's specialty cocktails.

The visual impact of the pig leg and liquor impressed my husband, and the detail of the mini-nibbles impressed me: Crostini, olives, paper-thin slices from the cured leg, bits of cave-aged Manchego cheese, and the tiniest dot of fig balsamic in the oil for bread-dipping.

Even though I was assured that the total amount of wine in the pairing menu equals about three full glasses, I prefer a linear approach, and challenged our server for a red wine that might work well with all the courses. Nonplussed, he poured me a 2006 Prunotto Barbaresco Classico, and I was so pleased, as the nebbiolo family produces some of my favorite flavors.

Trav, not a wine guy, asked for whiskey pairings instead. If either request seemed strange or pedestrian, it never showed in the staff's friendly accommodation.

The first course, a Morel and exotic mushroom gratin with a Madeira cream shooter, was served as a pair. A flaky gratin covered with earthy mushrooms was tempered by a demitasse of foam-topped soup.

Course two brought a piece of butter-poached lobster balanced on a crispy risotto cake in the center of two micro-green bunches dressed with citrus truffle flavor. This dish, one of the menu's lightest (and, I'd wager, simplest) preparations, was also my favorite. While lobster can be tricky, this dish's risotto cake and micro-greens showed balance in texture and a cohesive sort of flavor variety.

I loved it.

A seared scallop arrived next with a taste of bowfin caviar wrapped in a dainty cone of smoked salmon. This dish ranked among my favorites too, most especially for the novelty of the delicately sliced smoked salmon filled with the tiniest caviar. The kitchen hyper-focuses on detail with these elegant touches.

The first courses were dairy and butter, so what next? More butter? This time, with bacon? OK! Next came orecchiette with brown butter, a softly shirred quail egg and three matchsticks of pepper bacon, all swimming in a brown butter nage. Delicious -- but four courses of butter and cream is heavy, so by the time the lemon raspberry sorbet arrived with frozen basil-infused vodka (poured liberally at the table), I was ready for the palate cleanser.

Palate cleansed and halftime breather taken, the next course featured quail again, but this time grilled, not ovum, and presented beside a foie gras medallion and buttered toast with cranberry-pear gastrique.

Course number seven was lamb saddle and lamb presse, a thick coin of meat beside a pressed lamb portion. A touch of sweet potato and kale braise lightened the dish, but the undisputed star was the impossibly flavorful reduction sauce.

Course eight and Restaurant Week Signature Event winner were Feuilletage "beignets," with peppered strawberry and Grand Marnier creme Chantilly. Having never paired pepper with strawberry, this was a new taste for me, and I recommend it. Four spoon-sized puffs of fried mini doughnut in a sweet-hot strawberry sauce with black pepper made for a terrific and not-too-sweet dessert.

Usually, Trav and I tussle over the chocolate course, but by meal's end, we were spent. The Horchata and chocolate truffles, the chocolate and caramel nut bark, and the pecan, orange and cranberry sandy sat unclaimed for a few moments while we caught our breath and requested coffee and tea.

Once refreshed with caffeine (both coffee and tea served in a press at the table), our interest in dessert also refreshed, and the three final tastes made for a lovely conclusion.

So often, fine dining seems pretentious -- a race to create food that feels less like eating and more like performance art. Food should nourish. Food should taste good.

And, in this writer's opinion, food should be accessible. Teach me something new, show me a different flavor (like Horchata's slightly almond taste or the strawberry-pepper combination) -- but give it an organizing principle, so the experience feels cohesive.

Even when the organizing principle seems like dairy and butter, the David's Opus 10 kitchen shows latitude and imaginative scope. Most important, the staff is friendly, and the food tastes good. For a special night out or a night of epic food-focus, I recommend David's Opus Ten.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel "Show Me Good Land."

 

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