November 6, 2011

Dine Out Maine: Food's creative, delicious and abundant at Bintliff's

Bintliff's American Cafe, which serves brunch daily from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., is no ordinary hash house.

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."

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Bintliff’s American Cafe serves brunch daily at 98 Portland St. in Portland.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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The decor inside Bintliff's, with its walls framed with antique-style ephemera, borders on eclectic.

DINING REVIEW

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

VEGETARIAN: Yes

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.) 

We were led upstairs, and instead of the offered booth -- perfectly overstuffed and comfortable for the upcoming winter months, but too dim for one of the season's last bright mornings -- we asked for outside seating, and the hostess cheerfully obliged. Nestled into a metal table and chair in what can best be described as a treehouse locale, we sat on the upstairs back patio. (Winter has reared its ugly head since the date of this review, so outside dining may no longer be an option.)

The branches provided a canopy to filter the autumn sun, and we were able to peek over the railing at the large party below us on the first floor deck. This was a perfect spot to spy what other diners had ordered. I love watching the translation of menu to plate, but I loved overhearing the convivial spirit most of all.

Beverage requests -- hot green tea and a non-alcoholic Sparkling Peach Cooler ($2.79) with peach and cranberry juices, soda water and lime -- were brought almost immediately upon ordering.

I was excited to note the presence of local favorite Rocket Fuel, a high-test concoction with its creative roots at the Gorham Grind coffee house.

I wholeheartedly recommend the Signature Bloody Mary ($6.99) too -- spicy and smooth with a refreshing tang. Both the Bloody Mary and Mimosa ($7.99) are 14 ounces, no ice, and worth every penny. 

The Tuscany Scramble ($7.99), however, is my favorite. Crispy croutons and soft roasted garlic scrambled in eggs, all tossed with fresh tomato and shaved Parmesan cheese.

The Bintliff Scramble ($6.99) is equally impressive in its simplicity: Eggs, fresh basil, cracked black pepper and Italian cheese. 

Simple, creative abundance seems to be the motto at Bintliff's. 

The Eggs Buerre Noir ($8.99) is a combination of portabella and button mushrooms, capers and parsley saut? in browned butter, but be warned: The dish is as rich and heavy as it is described. Delicious, but heavy with flavor. 

Three lean strips of North Country Smokehouse thick-cut applewood smoked bacon ($3.29) were delivered hot and crisp, with barely a hint of fat. 

If taste tends toward a Benedict, Bintliff's offers a variety, but the standout is the Maine Lobster Benedict with large portions of fresh lobster and spinach all balanced on an English muffin with two poached eggs and hollandaise sauce (market price).

Also, the Louisiana Bayou Benedict ($10.99) with grilled Andouille sausage on homemade corncakes topped with two poached eggs and spicy Cajun hollandaise is a clever Bayou-meets-Casco Bay interpretation. 

The verdict? Bintliff's is remarkably consistent in its brunch offerings, and it has been so for more than 18 years. There will always be a wait in line during weekend peak time, but the staff mitigates any inconvenience with ample coffee and the promise of tasty, unique dining. 

If you feel like a casual brunch for grown-ups and are willing to pay just a bit more for an elevated experience, Bintliff's is my hands-down, immediate recommendation.  

(Be sure to order the corned beef hash.)

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a freelance writer and published author.

 

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