Friday, March 7, 2014
By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY
Fun fact: Corned beef dates to 1621 and takes its etymology not from the vegetable, but from the practice of preserving meat with large grains of salt called "corns."
Bintliff’s American Cafe serves brunch daily at 98 Portland St. in Portland.
Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer
The decor inside Bintliff's, with its walls framed with antique-style ephemera, borders on eclectic.
BINTLIFF'S AMERICAN CAFE,
98 Portland St., Portland. 774-0005; bintliffscafe.com
HOURS: Brunch daily, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.
CREDIT CARDS: Visa, Mastercard and American Express
PRICE RANGE: $2.99 for a single pancake to $12.99
KIDS: Welcome, but no children's menu
RESERVATIONS: Accepted Monday to Friday; not taken Saturday and Sunday. Expect a wait on the weekends.
BAR: Full. Specialty drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, available.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes, on the first floor
BOTTOM LINE: Bintliff's American Cafe has been serving brunch to Portland for 18 years, and the skill shows. They know what works, and they balance familiar standards with enough creativity to keep the energy fresh. Like your well-worn jeans accented with a brand-new scarf, the Bintliff's experience makes you feel simultaneously comfortable, modern and satisfied.
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.
Throughout the years, especially with the advent of mass-market canned meat products, the result has gone terribly awry, and diners new to an establishment's menu are often forced to make judgment calls. Will the corned beef be wiggled in gelatin from a jumbo can, or will it be lovingly carved from a fresh, seasoned cut of home-style beef?
Thankfully, Bintliff's American Cafe prefers the latter, and also thankfully, for more than 18 years, this restaurant has offered one of the most consistent brunch menus in Maine. When a visitor asks for the best brunch, my response is automatic. "Do you like corned beef? You've got to go to Bintliff's."
By the early 1900s, corned beef was a staple among restaurants known for serving cheap, hearty meals similar to today's all-American diners. These diners were known colloquially as hash houses, from the French "hachet," meaning "to chop," because cooks would often chop leftovers into one-pan suppers.
Bintliff's American Cafe is no ordinary hash house, and "hash" is such an inelegant word for this Bintliff's specialty. Large pieces of lean corned beef are mixed with white potatoes, sweet potatoes and onions to create this quintessential comfort food. The side portion is enormous ($5.99), and the full order ($11.99) is gargantuan. You will bring home leftovers in a box, and they taste just as good, if not better, the next day.
With green cloth napkins and elaborate menus free of stains or misspellings, Bintliff's ranks many steps above a traditional diner or cafe, both in price and presentation. The decor, with its dark woodwork and walls framed with antique-style ephemera, straddles the eclectic, while the food itself is rooted in standards.
Pancakes, eggs, toast, bacon and waffles are found on any brunch menu, but Bintliff's expresses these offerings with a creative elegance.
In addition to standard waffles, Bintliff's offers a Georgia Pecan Caramel ($8.99) version that is pressed with toasted pecans, drizzled with caramel and topped with whipped cream. The waffle is perfectly crisp on the outside and soft in the middle, and the saltiness of the pecans offsets the sweet caramel.
Rather than cloying, it is extraordinarily well-balanced. Add fresh mixed fruit or strawberries for $2.99 (no sign of frozen or canned) and these waffles are elevated to a holy sensation.
While the recipes are often fancy, Bintliff's avoids pretension. The staff is friendly, casual and attentive -- especially upon arrival and during the inevitable wait.
And there will be a wait.
Reservations are not accepted during weekend brunch, so know this before you go. If you see people lined up outside, take a breath and just roll with it. Expect to stand outside or cramped against the hostess station for a good 20 minutes.
Put your name on the list, pour yourself a mug of hot coffee from the self-serve counter, and chat. Bring a newspaper. Just about when you've finished your first cup, the hostess will call your name.
A note about that hostess, and a detail this former waitress respected, is that she explained the wait from a staff perspective. "We just seated a party of 15, and we're giving the server a little time to catch up," she said.
I appreciated that bit of humanization, and I think those around me did too. And if the worst part of the day is enjoying a mug of local Coffee By Design coffee ($1.99), how bad is your life?
(A note for parents: Bintliff's does not list a children's menu, and I interpret this as a subtle hint. Between the inevitable weekend wait and the lack of kid-friendly items, this might not be the best location for little ones. Think of Bintliff's weekend brunch as an experience best savored by adults.)
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