December 2, 2013

Dine Out Maine: Scale Katahdin for good food and Winnie's world-class libations

Katahdin Restaurant Wood Fire Grill & Bar is a Portland pre- and post-theater dining spot.

By John Golden

Sometimes you wonder why certain restaurants even exist. That very thought crossed my mind after an initial visit to Katahdin Restaurant Wood Fire Grill & Bar on a recent Saturday night. After about an hour and 15 minutes of dining at the top of the stairs in its second-floor dining room, we left nonplussed. However, a return visit offered a more favorable impression.

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Winnie Moody is the brains behind the bar at Katahdin, where she has reigned as one of Portland’s best-known mixologists for 15 years.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

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Located next door to Portland Stage Company, Katahdin is thronged with theater goers on show nights.

Katahdin Restaurant Wood Fire Grill & Bar

***

WHERE: 27 Forest Ave., Portland. 774-1740; katahdinrestaurant.com

HOURS: Dinner 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday (often reserved for special events on Tuesdays)

CREDIT CARDS: Yes

PRICE RANGE: First courses, $6.95 to $13.50; entrees, $14 to $24.75; desserts, $7 to $9

VEGETARIAN: Yes (a few choices)

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes (a few choices)

KIDS: Yes, welcome

RESERVATIONS: Yes

BAR: Full bar

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: This is Portland’s premier pre-theater restaurant, where wood-oven-grilled and roasted fare is featured. Standout preparations include house-baked focaccia, butternut squash tart, steak frites, salmon, pork tenderloin and pasta. Desserts change but include wonderful home-made ice cream and a rich bread pudding. It’s also a popular destination for post-theater cocktails, supper and dessert.

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.

The restaurant moved to its present Forest Avenue location in 2009 after a long stint a few blocks away. Since then, chatter about this Portland dining establishment has been virtually nil.

In its previous guise, Katahdin was an amusingly funky hangout. There at the strategic corner of Spring and High streets, it stood as the gateway to the West End.

The decor was as mismatched and nonconforming as the patrons. But the place was fun, and no one seemed to mind its idiosyncratic nature after downing a few of Winnie the bartender’s cleverly crafted cocktails. Her trademark drink often included a cocktail in a stem glass accompanied by a chaser in a mini-carafe over ice – all perfectly stirred or shaken.

As for the food back then, California-bred chef and owner Becky Simmons prepared a menu of wispy dishes with fruity salsas – a definite nod to her Left Coast-cuisine heritage.

After getting caught in a tangle of real estate maneuverings, they found themselves without a lease and moved a few blocks west to the netherworld of Forest Avenue off Congress Street.

Their new space is slick and serious. You enter a great looking bar, and if it’s your first time there, as it was for me, you might find yourself craning your neck expecting to glimpse a dining room beyond.

But there isn’t one. Instead, two perfunctory tables are against a half-partition in the bar and a grouping of several tables are in the back. These are reserved for those who won’t – or can’t – climb the stairs to the dining room on the second floor.

The soul of the restaurant is definitely the barroom. This is where Winnie, partner and bartender nonpareil, holds court in a sweep of graciousness and warmth that makes her one of the most popular mixologists in town.

Upstairs, however, the space is a happenstance collection of 10 or so tables. The one at which we were seated was a few feet away from the stairs. If you have a smidgen of acrophobia, you could feel woozy. My dinner guest, a newcomer to Portland and concerned about our cold climate, had a different take. He reasoned that it was an advantage being away from the drafty street-front door.

Whether it was intentional or not, Katahdin’s move to this quirky space was a stroke of genius. With the Portland Stage Company next door, it became the Arts District’s preeminent pre-theater dining establishment.

But here’s the rub: What happens if you’re not there for dinner before the theater? By 7:45, the restaurant empties out as diners head next door for the 8 p.m. show time. The place is virtually abandoned, and you might as well put your elbows on the table and stretch your legs out in the aisle.

Persnicketiness aside, my guest enjoyed a glass of Liberty School Cabernet, 2010 ($12), and auspiciously presented to me was a vodka gimlet – one of Winnie’s preprandial double shots.

(Continued on page 2)

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