August 11, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Outliers a great success story in Portland's dining handbook

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

Mention the Outliers Eatery location, and the follow-up is inevitable: "The place that used to have the airplane tail sticking on its roof?" Putting the politics of Portland's gentrification aside, Outliers is a model for transformation.

click image to enlarge

Outliers’ space is modern and minimalist, yet feels warm and welcoming. The menu includes intentionally vague small plates and main dishes, allowing the kitchen more creativity.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Outliers, 231 York St., Portland

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

OUTLIERS

231 York St., Portland

747-4166; outlierseatery.com

HOURS: 4 to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

*****

PRICES: $2.50 to $14 for small plates; $24 to $27 for main dishes

BAR: Full bar with specialty cocktails

CREDIT CARDS: Yes

VEGETARIAN: Limited, but the kitchen seems willing to modify.

RESERVATIONS: Yes

KIDS: No children's menu

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Outliers Eatery is as good as Portland's dining scene gets. The atmosphere balances modern austerity with welcoming charm; the location is neighborhood-y with a harbor view. Parking is easy, the staff is professional and charming, and the food is thoughtfully prepared with a balance of freestyle and control. The menu winks at diners with literary sensibilities, but never dips into obnoxiousness.

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.

No longer a dingy and dubious landmark, the space now has a charming, neat gray shingled facade. Rather than cottage-style, as its exterior suggests, the dining room features tufted gray leather banquettes and elegant, suspended glass light fixtures. Sculpted copper waves stretch to the ceiling behind the bar.

The space exudes a modern, minimalist sensibility, but rather than cool and austere, it feels warm and undeniably welcoming.

Table settings add interest, with smooth weighted flatware and heavy mottled plates. Little potted herbs grace the outside seating, and I loved the quaint effect of fresh rosemary.

Serendipitously, I visited Outliers on the eve of Hunter S. Thompson's birthday. This is worth noting, as bits of the gonzo journalist are everywhere.

On the cocktail menu (the "Dr. Gonzo" has gin, whiskey and absinthe) for sure, along with many other literary references that include "Savage Water of Sorcery" and "Betting on the Moon."

But whereas the cocktail menu only alludes to Tom Robbins and Charles Bukowski, a full-on Thompson homage happens in the bathroom. There are black fixtures, a broken mirror, maps of Buenos Aires and other collectible ephemera, plus a pay phone with a recording that will interest any Thompson enthusiast.

Rather than hipster highbrow and full of gratuitous winking -- my fear -- Outliers is equal opportunity with its in-jokes, such as "Ice House" cocktail or the nod to its oft-changing menu descriptions with a quote at the top: "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."

I would later learn that the staff was short-handed, and the crowd was bigger than anticipated for a Wednesday night. I mention this only because from a diner's perspective, the whole experience felt seamless. Portland is a city known for its food, and I now put Outliers Eatery on my top five dining experiences list.

Choosing outside seating for the water view allowed me to absorb the neighborhood sensation of the place. Dog walkers passed by, parking was easy, and the whole place felt like a locals-only secret.

The menu includes intentionally vague small plates and main dishes listed only as "oysters" and "halibut," "duck" and "charcuterie." Void of any descriptors, we relied heavily on our server's knowledge, and she was fantastic.

She listed the preparations, repeated as necessary, and suggested that the lack of specifics allowed for more kitchen creativity and flexibility. We agreed.

Oysters ($2.50 each) were Glidden Point and grit-free, and pre-covered with a traditional mignonette alongside the equally traditional tomato-horseradish sauce. It was robust and briny yum in a shell.

If Smoked Salmon Pate ($12) is on the menu, I suggest ordering it. The Outliers version is served with thin slices; sweet, pink pickled onions; capers; and a fan of four crostini on field greens. This ultra-smooth and smoky spread's portion is plenty for sharing.

Heirloom Tomato and Blue Cheese ($11) is a plateful of bite-sized sweet heirloom tomato pieces presented with a handful of walnuts and crumbled, pungent blue cheese, and includes a poached egg (the kitchen was happy to hold the egg from our order). I got the distinct sense that the kitchen was happy to accommodate almost any reasonable request.

The Outliers version of Maine lobster ($25) was deconstructed with six large pieces of homemade silky gnocchi and an abundance of flavorful lobster hunks scattered on the plate. This dish was a table favorite with its white wine cream sauce, redolent with both coriander and fennel.

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