September 23, 2012

Dine Out Maine: Pricey, not pretentious, Five Fifty-Five worth every nickel

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

"If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world."

click image to enlarge

Five Fifty-Five’s dining room is formal, not stuffy. The award-winning Congress Street restaurant has become the darling of Maine’s high-end dining scene – with good reason.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

DINING REVIEW

FIVE FIFTY-FIVE, 555 Congress St., Portland. 761-0555; fivefifty-five.com

****1/2

HOURS: Dinner begins at 5 p.m. daily. Brunch is served from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

BAR: Full. Wide selection of beers and an equal variety of wines, including staff recommendations in a range of price points.

CREDIT CARDS: All major

KIDS: No children's menu

VEGETARIAN: Yes

RESERVATIONS: Suggested

WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Five Fifty-Five earns top rating for menu quality, service, originality and flavor. For those seeking a high-end dining experience that recalls bits of Napa and Manhattan sensibilities with a distinctive eye on its Maine clientele, it does not get better than Five Fifty-Five. While the pricing might prohibit this as an everyday treat, for food lovers, the experience is worth every single penny.

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.

This quote, from J.R.R. Tolkien and written on the dining room wall at Five Fifty-Five in Portland, set the tone for the evening, and because I was dining on the 39th anniversary of Tolkien's death, it also seemed oddly symbolic.

Much has been written about Five Fifty-Five and owners Steve and Michelle Corry since the restaurant's inception. With every award, both regional and national, that chef Steve wins for his food and every accolade Michelle receives for her extraordinary hostess skills, Five Fifty-Five's position as the darling of Maine's high-end dining scene becomes more and more fixed. I was eager to visit.

My husband joined me, but as a fan of good but unfussy food, he was initially put off by the menus I'd researched online. "Why call it an emulsion?" he asked, and with a puckered face, "Flavored foam just doesn't sound good to me." I bought credibility not by citing Five Fifty-Five's recent honor of "most romantic restaurant in Portland," but by sharing Steve Corry's roots as a beer guy and the Corry family passion for dog rescue.

Mollified but skeptical, my husband put on dress pants. He needn't have bothered, because we entered the establishment via the Point 5 Lounge, and the bar area welcomes patrons with warm lighting and a decidedly unfussy sensibility. (Nice jeans would have been fine.)

Just left of the hostess stand, the adjoining dining room is darker with a more subdued and ordered construction. With straight lines and right angles on each of its two levels, the setup is unquestionably formal, but not at all stuffy.

Upon arrival, I pointed to what might be the tiniest restaurant kitchen in Maine, where Corry and his team stood shoulder to shoulder, clearly visible from the table.

"See," I said, noting their matching ball caps, "he's a regular guy who happens to cook."

That is an epic understatement, but more in a moment.

Trained at Napa's French Laundry and Domaine Chandon, the Corrys' attention to service shines. Michelle is the hostess extraordinaire, and her entire team of impeccably dressed (all in black) servers took care to refill our glasses, answer questions and make unobtrusive suggestions.

When I asked for very basic information about an unfamiliar wine, the server was knowledgeable, not intentionally condescending, and questioned me about my personal tastes. She did her best to match-make; the result was outstanding, and Bourgeuil now tops my Loire Valley favorites list.

The recommendation -- a very reasonably priced Domaine de la Chanteleuserie Cabernet Franc ($36) -- tasted earthy, young and accessible (not at all resembling the big California Cab that I thought I wanted), and I enjoyed every perfect sip. Bonus for the winemaker's (translated as "where the larks sing") label with a Thomas Jefferson label quote: "Good wine is a necessity of life for me." I agreed wholeheartedly.

Now for the food. (And, oh, the food!) The menu separates by plate: Small, green, savory, cheese and sweet. Think appetizers, salad, entree and dessert. The eponymous cheese plate is artisanal cheese.

In addition to the standard menu, $60 buys a five-course tasting spree that changes seasonally, and we each chose the tasting option to see what Corry would capture with the last of the summer splendor.

The first course, Chilled Heirloom Tomato Soup, included a lone gulf shrimp, the aforementioned dot of arugula and herb emulsion, and a confit of fennel. While the chilled soup was not to my husband's taste, he acknowledged its evident high quality and admired the presentation that recalls abstract Cubist styling. I, however, loved the soup's impossibly smooth texture and robust set of flavors.

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