March 18, 2013

Dine Out Maine: At LFK, name is elusive, but food is easy to love

By NANCY HEISER

It's 5 p.m. on a Saturday, and outdoors around Longfellow Square in Portland, the snow-spitting night is redolent with savory food in the first throes of browning. Which high-quality restaurant is it from -- Petite Jacqueline, Boda, Local 188, Pai Men Mayaki?

click image to enlarge

LFK occupies the former home of Cunningham Books in Portland’s Longfellow Square.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

LFK

188 State St., Portland 899-3277

****

HOURS: 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Monday to Friday; noon to 1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. Kitchen closes at 12:30 a.m.; brunch is coming.

CREDIT CARDS: All major

PRICE RANGE: Starters and sides, $5 to $12; entrees and sandwiches, $10 to $16

VEGETARIAN: Yes, more choices that you'd expect in a pub

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

KIDS: Welcome

RESERVATIONS: Only for very large parties

BAR: Central and large, full service, 10 taps that turn over frequently, even daily. Specialty cocktails, fine spirits, wine by the glass

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: The atmosphere at this gastropub is laid-back and open; the unfussy, reasonably priced food is excellent. It's contemporary, comfort-style fare. Look for Portland's creative types in the mix, but visitors and even children (in the earlier hours) will feel like they belong.

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.

It's early, so a few of these aren't serving yet. We duck into nearby LFK, a faintly signed establishment, and what a serendipitous find it is. We enjoyed our supper that night and returned for an "official" review visit on a Tuesday. The kitchen was as busy then as the many taps.

Yes, this is a spot for craft beer lovers. There's a list on the bar menu of those waiting to be tapped so you have something to look forward to if your favorite isn't flowing. Tastes are readily offered.

Folks who don't need their liquor sweet or highly disguised will enjoy the specialty cocktails (all $9), and there's a good, if not abundant, selection of fine spirits.

LFK occupies the former home of Cunningham Books, and pays homage to this past with dark wood furnishings, a smattering of books, antique typewriters and stuffed chairs. It looks comfortable and lived in, like it's long been a neighborhood fixture, even though it's been open only 10 months. The huge plate-glass windows bring in the bustle and light of the city square.

The vintage atmosphere reflects the building it occupies. At any moment, Charles Dickens might stride in and remark on the new-fangled machines that allow one to dispose of the fountain pen forever.

And fancy this: Single typewriter keys line up at the bottom lip of the bar to spell out the first line of an Emily Dickinson poem. The regional arm of the Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM), if there were such a body beyond Garrison Keillor's imagination, would do well to reserve this spot for a meeting.

But back to the job of critiquing the food.

Roasted cauliflower with romesco ($9) was an excellent vegetarian dish, and could either be a starter or an entree for a smaller appetite. The rosy, peppery sauce was textured with near-pureed walnuts and pine nuts; the cauliflower was slightly firm and nicely browned. It came with a side of greens.

Mushroom stew ($13) held big, meaty pieces of portabella plus oyster, crimini and button mushrooms in a sherry-rich and savory sauce (thick but not too thick), served over a mound of buttermilk garlic mashed red potatoes. This dish proves how very satisfying meatless can be.

Three bean tempeh chili ($11) -- tempeh is a firm patty of fermented soybean and used as a meat substitute -- was more chocolately from mole than fiery hot from a heavy dose of chilis. There's a deft hand in this kitchen.

Without intending to -- just because they sounded good -- we ended up with three vegetarian dishes out of four total. But that itself is worthy of note. Here is a pub kitchen, of all places, and a tiny one at that, that knows how to cook meatless entrees with flair and aplomb.

But by no means is meat overlooked. The hamburger ($10) was thick, hand-formed, juicy-greasy and served with garlic mayonnaise on a dark, toasty pretzel roll from Rosemont Bakery. Excellent.

And what a nice change from run-of-the-mill fries was the tangy side potato salad: Cold but German-style with olive oil, grainy mustard and house-pickled capers.

Other possibilities we can't vouch for, because we didn't try them: Hanger steak ($16), bacon-wrapped meatloaf ($15) and kielbasa with sauerkraut and juniper berries ($13).

The first night, we sat at the bar and felt as welcome as regulars. We asked the obvious question: What does LFK stand for?

"Liquor for Kids," said the tall, ponytailed bartender, making a joke out of a query he probably gets nightly. "Longfellow Fellowship of Knights," he says next.

"We encourage people to make what they want of it," he says, finally.

On that Tuesday, we were at a table by the window, pigging out and feeling silly at our excess while our waitress left us alone until she noticed we needed attention (such as take-out boxes for all those hearty dishes we couldn't finish). She calmly addressed any query with a friendly, here-if-you-need-me approach. Much appreciated.

For "dessert," because we hadn't thought of it earlier, we ordered a Brass Flower -- a flute of Hendricks gin, elderflower liqueur, grapefruit juice and prosecco.

This tart and fizzy drink with a faint hint of the liqueur was something to start the hearty and unfussy meals you'll find at LFK. It would be great with a savory Sunday brunch (and it's coming).

Don't let the muted exterior and draft-blocking curtain discourage you from ducking into LKF for supper or a cocktail. The atmosphere is laid-back and literary boho without feeling forced, and the unfussy food is excellent and priced reasonably enough to make this an easy place to stop in and sup.

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at:

nancyheiser.com

 

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