April 21, 2013

Dine Out Maine: It's hard to find finer pub food than Frog and Turtle's

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

I suspect the Frog and Turtle sometimes suffers the Maine curse of long memory. "Oh, you mean the Uffa! people?" or "Where Chicky's Fine Diner used to be?"

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Line chef Kevin Heenan prepares the platters, which are offered on the pub menu. The restaurant also offers a dinner menu.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Walter Noah Tipton serves cheese and charcuterie platters to Allen and Amanda Conant at the Frog and Turtle in Westbrook.

Gordon Chibroski

THE FROG AND TURTLE

3 Bridge St., Westbrook

591-4185

thefrogandturtle.com

****

HOURS: Bar opens at 4 p.m. Dining hours are 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday.

PRICE RANGE: $5 to $29. Pub menu averages $11; dinner entrees $15 to $20; brunch $10.

BAR: Full

CREDIT CARDS: All major

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

KIDS: No children's menu

RESERVATIONS: Yes

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: The Frog and Turtle ups Westbrook's foodie street credibility and style. Local music is a treat, and its brunch is a good one. (Try the homemade raspberry jelly doughnuts for a sugar rush; a pint-sized Bloody Mary will bring a rush of a different kind.) For those seeking dinner, make a reservation and consider ordering from the upscale pub menu. A plate of pork wings with fiery tangerine sauce while listening to excellent local music makes for a great evening.

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.

Both are true, and stalwart (non-millennial) locals know that despite several years of operation, this gastro pub is, indeed, the brainchild of Uffa! chef James Tranchemontagne and does, indeed, occupy the Bridge Street spot vacated in 2007 by Chicky's Fine Diner.

Westbrook is working hard to redefine itself, and locales such as the Frog and Turtle anchor that effort. This is a good thing, so I suggest dispensing with any nostalgia and moving forward.

Another good thing about the Frog and Turtle is its commitment to local music. Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, the small stage hosts regular rotations of neighborhood entertainment, such as The Tone Kings and Moore, Wild and Lynch. It's lovely, this show of local support, and it creates a fun, listening room-style atmosphere.

Also lovely is the lounge-style seating area. Pass through the heavy curtain, and the big leather couch welcomes patrons. The long, heavy and gorgeously crafted wooden bar is to the left and tables span the room, all the way into the small dining room proper on the right.

The Frog and Turtle gets its details right -- salvaged stained glass, the woodwork in the restroom and the table of framed family-style photos. (Make sure to look for the lineup of staff posing naked with mugs strategically placed. It might be the most hilarious company photo ever shot.)

Less lovely? The clipped "Do you have reservations?" It's not the question, it's the unwelcoming tone and reluctant sigh of accommodation that rankles, and judging by multiple visits, it appears to be consistent. The lesson here: Reserve a table.

On this particular night, my husband Travis and I were seated at a quiet two-top set with simple, white dinnerware and sparkling, weighted flatware -- again, the eye for detail.

Our server brought a medium-bodied, smooth and accessible 2010 French Mas de Guiot Grenache Syrah blend ($8.50/glass, $33/bottle).

Unfortunately, the server also brought a large family with two small children to the table next to us. The infant began to cry, which prompted the toddler to do the same. The decibel level increased, and when the server returned, we placed our orders and discreetly requested a move to the bar.

This service is where the Frog and Turtle shines. The children were still audible from the bar when the appetizers were brought (and through dessert), and the staff apologized for the disruption. I note this blip to show how easily the staff improved the dining experience.

But, onward. I cut into the first of two appetizers: Pork Wings (three for $8) and Vegetable and Gruyere Fritters (five for $8). The pork, meaty and succulent, fell off the bones and tasted fine solo, but the choice of sauces make this a dish to seek.

Ninja was, predictably, heat-packed, but Tranchemontagne's fiery tangerine sauce offered heat with sweet, tangy citrus, and I happily licked my fingers dry.

The Vegetable and Gruyere Fritter -- more batter than vegetable, but well-balanced on the Gruyere, so an overall winner -- showed no sign of too much grease and, instead, was served nicely golden and crisp.

The Green Leaf Lettuce Salad (small; $8, large, $13) included egg, red onion, bacon and shaved Parmesan. The garlic dressing improved a tasty if familiar salad, and I would order this again.

As a fan of chowders, I wanted to love the Seafood Chowder ($9). Housemade with bacon, haddock, Maine shrimp and mussels, the chowder itself -- with a broth base, not cream -- arrived potato-heavy.

The broth itself tasted complex and layered, as expected with Tranchemontagne's reputation for exquisite sauces, and each spoonful sported a good variety of seafood texture. But at least one third of the bowl's volume consisted of chunky, red potato pieces. I like potatoes as much as any potato lover, but this was too much, and I suspect it was just a ladle gone awry.

The Traditional Chicken Pot Pie ($17) was a stew with shredded pieces of chicken breast, the same chunky red potatoes as the chowder, and green peas beneath a square of puff pastry. It was presented in a personal red Le Creuset casserole.

Again, this pot pie contains a less thick and more complex broth. No gelatinous, homestyle gravy -- more of a soup consistency. Traditionalists expecting a crumbly pie crust and thicker consistency might be disappointed, but to me, it was quite tasty.

The menu divides into two basic categories -- pub and dinner -- so we returned to the pub portion for an oven-baked flatbread. The Frogarita ($13) was the star of the night, boasting housemade dough rubbed down with pesto, roasted garlic, sliced tomatoes, basil, brie and bacon. I was curious, because it seemed like a lot -- and it was. A lot of very big flavors and textures -- pesto, garlic, bacon AND brie?

I counted at least 40 soft, whole-roasted garlic cloves. It was interesting and unique, as well as rich and memorable with its chewy-crisp crust, but also heavy. And one piece was all I could finish, as it dipped into salty flavor overload.

So, the recap? The pub menu seems to offer more originality and flavor than the dinner menu. This makes sense, considering the Frog and Turtle's gastro pub delineation.

Consider some of the other pub menu offerings: A house-cured charcuterie plate, poutine or maybe a six-ounce and growth-hormone-free Angus burger topped with fiore sardo. Mmm.

The dinner menu roots itself in comfort food standards. Think grilled ham and oven-roasted chicken breast. Still good, but safer, choices.

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

 

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