September 23, 2012

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

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

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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

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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.

For the second course, we chose Bangs Island Mussels and Summer Tomato Salad. The mussels, with cherry peppers, golden garlic and chive butter, tasted savory and delicious, but I want to especially laud the salad with local tomatoes and house-made mozzarella. The "broken blossom vinaigrette," Maine sea salt, and fresh basil turned this plateful of color into no ordinary Caprese.

I don't know if I have ever tasted a mozzarella so perfectly kneaded, with the slightest buttery taste and smoothest possible texture. The Maine sea salt and three basil leaves enhanced the flavors, and I encourage patrons to request any dish that includes Five Fifty-Five's house-made mozzarella.

We both very much enjoyed the two mammoth pepper-crusted New England scallops, whipped fennel potatoes, butter glazed beans and organic baby carrots in -- yes -- another emulsion, this time vanilla. By the time we finished the scallops, though, Travis noted that my bribe to treat him to a post-dinner burger if he did not enjoy the meal was unnecessary; he became a Five Fifty-Five convert.

After hearing about Corry's legendary truffled lobster "mac and cheese," I am delighted to report that the butter-poached Maine lobster and torchio pasta, blended with cheese, white truffle oil and the best -- shaved black truffles -- did not disappoint.

The torchio pasta (shaped like the base of a torch) is designed to hold weighty, substantive sauces, and is equally well-suited to chunks of fresh lobster. Worth noting for truffle fans, this dish did not rely on tiny shaving specks, but, rather almond-sized slivers, and my truffle-loving heart was happy.

The artisanal cheese course was a lovely supplement with seasonal fruit compote, crostini and candied nuts, and it arrived like a well-paced musical ensemble, leading to the crescendo of dessert (and what a dessert!), chocolate five ways and a blueberry turnover.

Rather than embrace the deconstructionist trend, the pastry chef's blueberry turnover was, in fact, an actual turnover, a crescent of fine pastry wrapped around a jammy filling and served alongside a scattering of wild Maine berries and small scoop of ice cream.

The chocolate five ways was also refreshingly direct: Truffle, candy, mousse, cookie and syrup. Direct, yes. Simple, no. The syrup, a chocolate balsamic gastrique, was especially noteworthy, but all aspects of the dessert were elegant -- each layered with flavor and texture, and all extremely tasty.

When I tried to get an accurate read on the night's clientele, it was tough. Patrons ranged from young parents with a remarkably quiet baby to elegantly dressed date-night couples and a large family whose ages spanned from teenagers to folks in their 60s. (Of note, the staff kindly and discreetly brought the older gentleman a pair of reading glasses when he struggled with the menu.)

Which, fittingly, brings me back to the initial Tolkien wisdom written on the wall. Five Fifty-Five offers good food and cheer, and every table seemed merry in its own individual way. But be warned that the experience will cost a bit of hoarded gold. That noted, the experience is well worth it.

Five Fifty-Five is Manhattan-style dining with a Napa Valley sensibility, crafted especially for Maine's food-loving community. The price point might make a Five Fifty-Five dinner a special-occasion experience, but the brunch and bar menus are absolutely accessible. (Oyster Thursdays include $1.55 raw oysters, as well as drink specials.)

And who doesn't enjoy a good splurge?

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

 

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