Tuesday, May 21, 2013
By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY
- Dining reviews practically write themselves when the experience is outstanding, and although less fun (since restaurants do represent a person's livelihood), they are equally easy to compose when the experience involves a spectacular failure. The creative stumbling happens in the middle, when a meal is "meh."
White Cap Grille serves a variety of good options ranging from standard pub stuff to more sophisticated fare.
WHITE CAP GRILLE, 164 Middle St., Portland. 899-1881; whitecapgrille.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to close daily
BAR: Full bar with signature mixed drinks and local beers on tap
PRICE RANGE: $5.99 to $24.99
CREDIT CARDS: All major
VEGETARIAN: Yes. Nice selection of gluten-free options.
RESERVATIONS: Yes, but not usually necessary. Call ahead for large parties or special events.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: White Cap Grille is conveniently located, and for timid palates accustomed to familiar offerings, it serves a variety of good options. As an upside, the facility is independently owned.
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.
Since "meh" does not translate as a technical term in any culinary dictionary, let me explain.
When I review a restaurant meal, I ask questions. Who would be drawn to the menu? What aspects are particularly noteworthy? How does the space compare to competing establishments?
Among my focus group of four very attuned appetites, the answers for White Cap Grille in Portland were unanimous.
White Cap Grille is ideal for pedestrian visitors staying at one of the nearby hotels, timid palates and Old Port office workers seeking a convenient happy hour. It also pairs well with those wanting a familiar mall-side dining experience but with the feel-good benefit of independent ownership.
This is not, necessarily, a bad thing.
Let me repeat that. White Cap Grille is not bad at all, and in a community with fewer choices, I suspect it might even be a stand-out. It's not bad, but in Portland's increasingly competitive food service industry, it suffers by comparison. Good is still OK, but it might not be OK -- or memorable -- enough.
For instance, I was immediately unsettled by the seemingly random concepts. Is White Cap Grille a burger joint? A cocktail lounge? Fine dining? Family style? Pub fare? As a critic, it is tough to gauge White Cap Grille against what it promises, because I did not immediately know. And in an aggressive market, a distinctive elevator pitch is key.
The price point is $5.99 to $24.99, with most entrees in the $18 to $24 range, and this generally signals high-quality casual dining. But the menu's emphasis on sandwiches (eight different options, plus four burger styles with a separate and elaborate burger assembly menu) and salads (six signature options) at $7.55 to $14.99, had me thinking cafe or pub grub.
The space feels kid-friendly, but then the viognier on the wine list confused me. While it is a favorite dry white wine of mine, it is also rare to see its presence at a family-style establishment. The cocktail list, with light-hearted names -- the Honeycrisp, the Tropical Crush -- felt like a tiki bar. Beer on tap -- Allagash, Shipyard, Sebago, and Tuckerman's Pale Ale from North Conway -- implied a neighborhood watering hole.
Add in elegant-sounding lobster risotto cakes and confit of chicken, and the entire concept felt disjointed.
The other side of the argument is, naturally, that White Cap Grille seeks to please every palate, and that's a fine idea in theory. But two hours after settling the check, I had to review my photos and notes, struggling to recall what I had ordered, the color of the decor and even the physical address.
(Here is where I insert a free marketing lesson: Category of One, and it is applicable to every business. Figure out the single thing or service that only you do -- or that you do better than your competition.)
The downtown brick space is decorated with attractive, contemporary furnishings and fixtures in hip hues and funky shapes. It boasts indoor and patio seating, and the interior high ceilings add a spacious dimension in each of the bar and dining areas -- both upstairs and down.
We enjoyed the outside seating, tucked into the farthest nook with plenty of opportunity for people-watching. The service was mostly pleasant and mostly attuned -- we repeated requests, and when our servers (plural) were not aware of preparation technique or ingredients, at least they delivered the news with smiling faces. The bathrooms were clean. And mostly, the food tasted OK.
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