April 3, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Hail Merry Table, full of crepes, European and yummy

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

Tucked along the almost secretive (and certainly the most Paris-invoking) cobblestone avenue of Portland's Wharf Street, with its old-fashioned gas-lamp-style street lights and European ambience, is The Merry Table Creperie.

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The Merry Table owner and executive chef Jean Claude Vassalle delivers a dessert crepe to Bob and Carolyn Scholl of Connecticut.

Gordon Chibroski / Staff Photographer

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Gordon Chibroski

DINING REVIEW

THE MERRY TABLE CREPERIE

43 Wharf St., Portland. 899-4494; themerrytable.com

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. Call ahead to confirm hours, as they fluctuate seasonally.

****

PRICE RANGE: $3.95 to $18.95, with most savory crepes in the $12 to $14 range and sweet crepes in the $6 to $7 range

BAR: Full bar

CREDIT CARDS: All major

VEGETARIAN: Yes

KIDS: No children's menu

RESERVATIONS: Yes

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes, but the Wharf Street cobblestones might not be the easiest to navigate.

BOTTOM LINE: I suggest this warm, friendly space when Quebec is too far to drive. Crepe enthusiasts should love the area's only dedicated creperie, and the Merry Table also delivers excellent French classics in a cozy and rustic space. Seasonal outdoor seating is especially inviting when the weather is good. Call ahead if you want cassoulet, as that dish sells quickly. For a special treat, plan to go on the first and third Thursday of each month for French language-speaking nights.

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 welcome sign hangs above the door while inviting, warm light shines from the window. From the outside, this small bistro looks like a place you want to enter, and once inside, that impression amplifies.

With yellow walls, eclectic framed art, exposed wooden beams and wide wood floors, the space is cozy and welcoming. The tables, rough-hewn and set with festive red plates and single tulips, are meant for lingering over. Add a happy "bon soir" from Myriam the server and a nod from owner Jean-Claude, and let the merriment begin.

First, a McManis Syrah ($8 per glass). While the California wine, which is medium-bodied and oh-so-softly tannic, is a terrific everyday drinking option, I was surprised at the wine list's fairly limited French options.

There was the Veuve Clicquot for celebrating sparkle lovers ($69 per bottle) and a 2009 Chateau Virecout from Bordeaux ($29.50 per bottle), as well as others. but for such a French-inspired spot, I was hoping for more French variety.

But that is my only criticism.

Well, not really. I have another. On this night, the Traditional Cassoulet ($18.95), a stew of duck confit, kielbasa, cannellini beans and bacon, was sold out. The greedy lunch crowd finished it all, and I was momentarily disappointed. For cassoulet lovers, the lesson here is to call ahead.

That noted, how bad is life when your task is to work your way down The Merry Table's menu of other options? (Answer: Fantastic. Your life is fantastic.)

First, the appetizers. Myriam served us Warm Camembert ($7.95) in the form of four biscotti-sized pieces of rosemary crostini topped with caramelized red onions and a slice of smooth, slightly melted Camembert. Combine the subtle and sweet flavor of the caramelized onion with the robust cheese in its softened rind, and this simple appetizer is among my personal favorites.

Then, Myriam served the Tartines ($8.95) -- another four pieces of toasted bread, but this time French baguette with wild mushrooms, goat cheese and truffle oil. The mushrooms, roughly chopped and simply prepared to a fork-tender texture, and the light scent of truffle were also particular favorites.

Because it is a French locale, I also tried the French Onion Soup ($6.95). Presented in a handled crock, this home-style soup bubbled up and over with an inch of melted cheese on its bread, and met every rich and hearty expectation.

A creperie, however, must focus on the crepes, and The Merry Table offers both sweet and savory options. With 10 signature savory crepes as well as a crepe du jour, the choice was tough. How do you eliminate the Duck Confit ($14.95) from the roster? Or the Saumon ($13.95) with its Boursin and capers?

But choices must be made, and the winners were Provencale ($13.95) with its option of shrimp or scallop, house spinach pesto and tomato folded into an expertly shaped, light and springy crepe with melted Swiss cheese. The large portion of scallops was a nice surprise, none overcooked in the slightest, and the spinach pesto added just the right amount of zip to the experience.

The Poulet ($11.95) was the same neatly folded crepe but stuffed with tender, grilled slices of chicken breast, tomato, caramelized onion and a mild bechamel. Vegetarians will enjoy the Epinard ($11.95), also with the bechamel but with spinach, tomato, caramelized onion and garlic tucked inside. Each of the savory crepes is presented alongside a simple salad of lightly dressed field greens and shredded carrots, and each felt like a wrapped package just waiting to be opened.

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