November 20, 2011

Dine Out Maine: Top of the East worth a visit for those drinks and that view

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

Christened at the height of 1927 Prohibition as part of the Eastland Hotel, the original Top of the East was called the Sun Parlor and conceived for well-heeled guests taking morning tea and lunch. (Interesting note: The hotel itself was named as a result of a public contest that yielded 100 dollars in gold to the winner.)

click image to enlarge

One of the best parts of the Top of the East restaurant at the Eastland Park Hotel in Portland is its sweeping view of the city. In this photo, cars pass through Congress Square.

Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

TOP OF THE EAST AT THE EASTLAND PARK HOTEL, 157 High St., Portland, 775-5411; eastlandparkhotel.com

***

HOURS: Open for dinner 5 p.m. to midnight Sunday to Thursday and 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday (food served until 10 p.m.)

VEGETARIAN: Yes, but limited

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, MasterCard, Discover and American Express

PRICE RANGE: $6 to $33

BAR: Full, with specialty cocktails, wine and spirits ranging from $6 to $295

KIDS: Not especially kid-friendly in the evening

RESERVATIONS: No

PARKING: Ample street parking. Garage nearby.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No

BOTTOM LINE: Go to the Top of the East for elegant cocktails while you can, before its planned two years of renovations. The ambience and service are outstanding, as is the extensive drink menu. Enjoy a holiday cocktail or glass of wine with the hands-down best view in Portland, either to begin or end an evening. The Top of the East does beverages and service exceptionally well.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

H Poor  HH Fair  HHH Good HHHH Excellent HHHHH Extraordinary.

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

Twelve floors up, situated on the highest level of what is now the Eastland Park Hotel, the lounge affords a panoramic view of the city and surrounding area, and this view spans all the good stuff: Casco Bay, the waterfront, architecturally impressive rooftops and a glimpse of Mount Washington. At night, it is the city skyline, backlit and twinkling for miles.

Nestled in the arms of this grand dame of Portland's hotel history, the Top of the East is less a standard hotel bar and more a local gem and date place. The view, the cocktails, dim lighting, sensual music, and discreet and attentive service atop a hotel full of private rooms suggest this lounge might be the right spot for all manner of rendezvous.

While Portland is among the country's best-fed areas, there are few locales that offer the Top of the East's old-school cocktail lounge ambience. The lobby of the hotel is wide, and the massive chandelier dangles hundreds of little crystals in a happy welcome.

Ride the elevator up, take a left and go up a few a more steps, and there is the lounge. Windows encase almost the entire perimeter, and the view is exquisite. Soft music is piped in, and the bartender encouraged us to choose any open seat. Two leather couches faced the windows, but otherwise it was a circle of small tables with chairs positioned to enjoy the vista of city lights.

Cocktails ($9 to $13) include hot and cold varieties (including some made with local favorite Cold River vodka). In contrast to the specialty cocktail list, the wine menu is a bound book, and by-the-glass offerings span Barefoot Moscato ($6.75) to Castello Banfi Proprietor's Reserve Sangiovese ($16.75). Bottles are priced at $22 to $295, with most of the 80-some choices falling in the $30 to $40 range.

Spirits abound as well. The spirit menu is not openly priced, but it includes at least six standard labels in each category. When I asked, costs were cited from $6 to $20, with a few as high as $80.

My glass of Freemark Abbey cabernet sauvignon ($16.25) was outstanding, and once tasted, it became clear why this wine is a smooth, drinkable Napa Valley darling. The wine was wonderful, but the martini ($10) was the clear winner, mixed dirty as requested with its minuscule ice shards and two fat, briny olives enhancing the flavor.

The coffee ($4) served in a tall, handled glass cup was a solid, respectable choice as well -- not quite French-press intense, but strong as if made from a quality drip machine. For those wanting to combine flavors, the Espresso Martini ($12) is a sweet and velvety option, served with three espresso beans floating as garnish.

Unfortunately, that's where the outstanding stopped with regard to the meal itself. I wanted to love the food. I really wanted to love the food. I was dressed up in fancy clothes and enjoying the beverages immensely, so when the Shrimp Cocktail ($11) arrived as four previously frozen shrimp lying limp and thawed on a plate with a little cup of jarred catsup and horseradish sauce, I dismissed it as a fluke.

The salads -- Strawberry and Spinach ($10) and Apple and Walnut ($10) -- sounded terrific with basil balsamic dressing and bacon balsamic dressing, respectively, but upon tasting, I had the distinct feeling that I could have created something similar at home from the Hannaford produce aisle. They weren't bad salads at all, but both the spinach and field greens seemed shaken from a plastic bag.

(Continued on page 2)

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