December 29, 2013

Dine Out Maine: The Cafe

At The Cafe, above Pat’s Meat Market in Portland, the fare is simple and tasty.

By John Golden

Not every restaurant in our local universe has to be cutting-edge to satisfy. Consider The Cafe, previously known as Pat’s Meat Market Cafe, where you won’t find a menu of precious farm-to-table dishes because it’s definitely a place for simpler fare.

click image to enlarge

The Cafe is located upstairs from Pat’s Meat Market and Grocery, long a fixture on Stevens Avenue in Portland.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

THE CAFE

** 1/2

WHERE: 484 Stevens Ave., Portland. 874-0706; thecafeportland.com

HOURS: Dinner, 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday

CREDIT CARDS: Yes

PRICE RANGE: First courses, $8 to $18; entrees, $16 to $28

VEGETARIAN: Yes (a few choices)

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes (a few choices)

KIDS: Yes, welcome

RESERVATIONS: Yes

BAR: Full bar

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: No

BOTTOM LINE: The restaurant offers a menu of simple fare, some of which has distinction. The ravioli crisps are a popular menu item, as is the baked flatbread with duck confit, cranberry chutney and chevre. There are many composed salads, and entrees run the gamut from Atlantic haddock filet and Thai lobster sauté to north Atlantic sea scallops. There’s always a pork-dish preparation, either a chop or tenderloin, and baked chicken breasts are another favorite with a changing selection. The kitchen also offers a New York sirloin. The wine is very moderately priced with most bottles in the $25 to $35 range and many offerings by the glass.

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.

What’s more, it is fiercely loyal; mostly local patrons go there for the hearty, vaguely Mediterranean (and some Asian) fare served in a cozily woody room on the second floor above the venerable Pat’s Meat Market and Grocery on Steven’s Avenue in Deering Center.

The restaurant and butcher shop are aligned under the aegis of Jaime Vacchiano, the admired Pat’s Meat Market butcher-proprietor. He was responsible for creating the café upstairs in 1995 and for bringing back its original chef, Greg Gilman, after a two-year hiatus when the restaurant was closed from 2009 to 2011.

The quality of the meats and poultry served at the restaurant are first-rate since they come from the butcher shop; the produce is also very fresh, though the menu doesn’t indicate if it’s locally sourced.

But the buck stops there. Ultimately we found on our first visit that the cooking was uninspired, caught in a culinary time warp. So many dishes rely on a mix of ingredients that were considered hackneyed even 30 years ago. Sun-dried tomatoes, red grapes, vinaigrettes, nuts and fruits dominate the plates, often unnecessarily, on the various meats, fish and poultry that they’re meant to enhance.

Three of us arrived on a busy night. With a reservation in hand we were immediately seated at a comfortable table. It dawned on me, however, that since my two guest-tasters were serious foodies, a down-home place like Pat’s might be challenging for them.

Our waitress was extremely friendly, but her inexperience was disconcerting. When, for example, we asked for some clarification on various dishes she couldn’t tell us much without going back to the kitchen for the answers.

Nonetheless we decided – on our own – to start off with an order of the kitchen’s signature dish, ravioli crisps ($8). These were in fact very good, filled with pumpkin puree and sautéed until crisp with shallots, garlic, walnuts, lemon and cream. At one time this was considered an enlightened dish on Italian restaurant menus. Now it’s just comfortable.

We then zeroed in on several salads to share: an arugula ($9) and an Aegean marinated chicken ($14). The arugula salad was mostly spinach and greens heavily garnished with the ubiquitous red grapes and blue cheese, walnuts and lemon vinaigrette.

The first problem was the greens held traces of sand, a sure sign of a careless kitchen. Those “seedless” red grapes loomed as garnish and were best pushed aside because they were not, as advertised, seedless.

The Aegean chicken was a messy plate with an overkill of sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers and balsamic vinegar tossed with more of those sandy greens.

Our main courses could have been dead-ringers from a cafeteria buffet. One of my guests ordered the Thai lobster sauté ($25). If a restaurant is aiming to be simple and local, why resort to a facsimile of Thai cooking when Portland is awash with very good native Thai chefs?

A plate holding a thimble of lobster knuckle was surrounded by clams, mussels and calamari sautéed with sweet red pepper, Thai chili, curry, basil, coconut milk, garlic and lime.

From there the rest of the meal spiraled to middle-of-the-road blandness. Two of us considered entrees on the menu that included a wild mushroom sauté ($16), north Atlantic sea scallop ($25) and an Atlantic haddock filet in a phyllo crust ($25) among some of the other choices.

(Continued on page 2)

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