January 16, 2011

Taste & Tell: Looking for a lovingly made spoonful? Go Figa

By N.L. ENGLISH

The chef at Figa had me in the palms of her capable hands within two bites of the eggplant Napoleon ($6), one night's appetizer special. Humble eggplant had been transformed into discs of creamy tenderness and lacy, crisp edges as slightly browned goat cheese chimed in with sour and tangy richness.

click image to enlarge

Figa opened in 2010. “It turned out exactly how I wanted,” says chef/owner Lee Farrington of the building’s renovations.

John Patriquin

DINING REVIEW

FIGA, 249 Congress St., Portland. 518-9400; figarestaurant.com

RATING: ****1/2

HOURS: Open for dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, Mastercard and Discover

PRICE RANGE: $15 to $20

VEGETARIAN DISHES: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Available by request

KIDS: Yes, if your child enjoys good food

RESERVATIONS: Not taken

BAR: Wine and beer

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Lee Farrington's attention is on her cooking at Figa, where her repertoire of spices and flavors will make the meal she and her good staff create for you -- perhaps wild boar Rendang with its top-secret sauce -- something you will want to enjoy again.

Rating based on a five-star scale. It is the policy of the Maine Sunday Telegram to visit an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory.

Nothing slapdash came before us as we happily foraged through appetizers, entrees and desserts from a menu worthy of rapt attention. The first two are categorized as spoons (very small servings), forks (appetizer-size), and knives (entrees) -- but those spoons work for me as the right size for an appetizer that teases the appetite instead of slaying it.

My dinner companions were just as pleased with the scallop "spoon" special ($6), two translucent scallops fringed with golden sev -- a fried coating made with sieved, fried chickpeas. Jicama, pear and apple slaw paired with tangy miso-citrus vinaigrette and a red chili oil jazzed up the scallops.

Shrimp patia ($6) showcased Maine's sweet shrimp to stunning effect in a smoky sweet sauce. To make it, the chef sweats onions in a hot pan, pops mustard seeds and toasts cumin, curry, garam masala, chili powder and chili flakes, then simmers the mixture with diced ginger, garlic and stewed tomatoes for two hours.

"Oh my god, it's like the garbage can in that thing," said chef/owner Lee Farrington with a laugh.

The perfectly cooked shrimp are set on a thin, dense blini, a lovely foil to the vibrant spice of the sauce. It's made with corn meal, corn, scallions and curry powder, among other things, from a recipe tweaked by the sous chef, Justin Edgerton.

Farrington cooked at Tabla, a Danny Meyer restaurant, and Raga on East 6th Street in New York City. Once in Maine, she worked at Uffa and got the lay of the land.

In 2008, she bought the building that Figa is in. In December 2009, a neighbor cut off a shared water line, and a legal battle ensued. A $20,000 water line had to be put in before she could open, which created a long delay.

Carved teak mirrors from Bali hang on the exposed brick walls. The back of the wall bench was made from pews from the former Chestnut Street Church. Iron bar stools were made by Ed Lutjens of Portland.

Ryan Wallace Custom Woodworking and Renovation built the entire room in what was formerly a hair salon. "It turned out exactly how I wanted it," Farrington said, "And you can't ask for better than that." The honey, gold and red tones of the repurposed wood, gold cork hanging lights and warm sage walls infuse the room with informal beauty.

A little slider ($7), distracting us from the surroundings, put all the fast-food American delights inside a little round meat sandwich, candied cucumber pickles topping caramelized hamburger inside a crispy toasted bun.

Wines by the glass include Niento Senetiner Malbec Reserva 2008 ($10), meaty and full-bodied, and Clos St. Thomas Les Gourmets Blanc 2008 from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon ($9). Crisp with fresh citrus, they show a knack for choosing good wine. Carm White Reserva 2006 ($39) from the Douro of Portugal was laced with restrained oak, buttery vanilla and caramel. Apaltagua Estate Carmenere 2007 ($28) from Colchagua, Chile, blended a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon with Carmenere grapes to produce a robust dark-red wine.

We particularly liked the bread. House-made, chewy and dense with an exquisite flavor, it's a kind of bread that is rarely found even in Portland's sophisticated bakeries. The butter had been infused with honey, an unwelcome distraction from the bread's flavors.

(Continued on page 2)

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