August 27, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Porthole keeps gritty charm, offers something for everyone


Given all that's been written about this waterfront establishment, I understand a certain level of dining hesitation, but in the hopeful spirit of second chances and new starts, Travis and I were hungry on a Sunday afternoon and thought, "Why not try the scrubbed-up, new version of The Porthole?" After The Porthole's careful (and expensive) kitchen renovations, we, like many local diners, wanted to know three things: Had its decor changed? Was the menu the same? And, most importantly, was the food good?

click image to enlarge

The Porthole’s massive waterside outdoor patio is terrific for beer on a hot afternoon (or Bloody Marys in the morning). While the food is decent, there seems to be a disconnection between diner expectation and delivery.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


THE PORTHOLE, 20 Custom House Wharf, Portland. 773-4653;


HOURS: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily

PRICE RANGE: $4 to $21

BAR: Full


VEGETARIAN: Limited, but seafood eaters will have expectations met.


KIDS: High chair and booster seats were available.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes, but better to use the patio entrance.

BOTTOM LINE: The Porthole has cleaned up its act, and it remains a fun downtown fixture for both locals and tourists. Drinking a cold beer on the patio and listening to live music is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon, but the dining experience can be uneven. Food is generally well-executed and tasty, but the more foodie-inclined menu, pricing and presentation feels incongruous with many aspects of the space. Manage expectations, and you'll likely enjoy yourself.

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 answers were not much, not exactly and mostly. Sound ambiguous? That was my experience.

The Custom House Wharf walk itself is very much unchanged. Diners will likely hunt for cramped and uneven parking and pass garbage dumpsters, the oft-photographed Harbor Fish Market, and the now-decrepit former Comedy Connection in an effort to reach The Porthole's iconic hanging Coca-Cola fountain sign. Not a problem, as this is part of the gritty charm of working waterfront dining.

Inside, the layout is neater now for sure, but the overall vibe is pretty much the same. A long wooden bar with stools that match the weathered aqua green-painted tables and cream-cushioned chairs set a 1970s retro blue-collar tone. Bright lighting and industrial flooring continue this theme. It's not quite kitsch-level, but there's an immediate vintage appeal. A massive waterside outdoor patio with a line of high-top tables is terrific for beer on a hot afternoon (or Bloody Marys in the morning), and low-end, tinny, diner cutlery wrapped in paper napkins feels right for the space.

Decor is where nostalgia stops though, and my initial menu scan was a strange experience. A $40 bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse on the same menu card as PBR cans and three flavors of Twisted Tea? Incongruous, but I credited it as another 1970s throwback and ordered an Allagash White on tap, served ice cold in a promotional Bacardi Mason jar with a handle. Trav's coffee was served in a standard black diner mug, and our water in plastic Shipyard Brewing cups. I am focusing on these presentation aspects in an effort to evaluate a dining experience on what it promises versus what it delivers, and because mismatch is my chief concern with The Porthole.

For instance, initial appetizers included what I would expect at a paper napkin, weathered furniture, beer-promoting, waterfront joint: clam chowder ($4/$7), handcut fries ($3) and jumbo chicken wings (six for $6/12 for $11). However, just below those appetizers were fish tacos with lemon sriracha aoli (two for $6/three for $8.50) and seared crab cakes ($12) with frisee salad and house-made remoulade. All delicious-sounding, but frisee? Remoulade?

To the kitchen's credit, the two seared crab cakes were well-constructed, loaded with meat and cooked golden-crispy. The tangy remoulade (although there was an awful lot of it) tasted delicious, and the elegant, minimalist, square cafe plate presentation would not have been out of place at any of Portland's higher end establishments. But, it looked weird against the banged-up table beside the plastic water cup.

From the Flash Fried New England Seafood section (next to the Maine Raw Bar section), fish bites ($8) arrived not in an overflowing casual basket, but as a cluster of dainty, quarter-sized portions arranged, again, on the same artful -- this time elongated and rectangular -- white porcelain serving dishes. Choice of sauces included cocktail, dill tartar, sweet and sour, and sweet tartar -- all house-made. The fish itself was nicely breaded, tender, hot and well-prepared, but next to my promotional Mason jar, I was unsure whether to lament the lack of cloth napkins or whine about the tiny portion.

Lobster rolls are offered in two varieties: The Classic Sandwich "with a toasted New England-style handmade hot dog roll with lettuce and choice of mayo or drawn butter" and alternatively, The Porthole Sandwich, a "handmade brioche hot dog roll with lettuce and a choice of aoli or a lemon butter emulsion." Both are priced to the market, which on this day was $17, and both were on the small side -- full of flavor but light on lobster meat. Trav and I ate one of each, and we discussed the law of diminishing returns. These were decent lobster rolls, but at $17, the value of "decent" gets tricky, and if I'd expected to discuss the subtler points of brioche and butter emulsion, I am not sure The Porthole would have been my first choice.

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