September 24, 2013

Dine out Maine: Boone's builds on its history with finely prepared seafood

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

I needed a fish place. Friends were visiting from the Mid-Atlantic, and they were hungry for a seafood-based dinner with mixed drinks, table service and a water view. Something "Maine-y," but not over-the-top with tourists -- a location between "fancy" and "beach shack" where food enthusiasts could experience high-quality casual dining.

click image to enlarge

Boone’s Fish House & Oyster Room in Portland is the latest of restaurateur Harding Lee Smith’s “Rooms,” joining The Front Room, The Corner Room and The Grill Room.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

BOONE'S FISH & OYSTER HOUSE, 86 Commercial St., Portland. 774-5725; boonesfishhouse.com

****

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily

PRICE RANGE: $3.50 to market, with dinner entrees in the $20 to $35 range

BAR: Full bar

CREDIT CARDS: Yes

VEGETARIAN: Yes

RESERVATIONS: No

KIDS: No kid's menu

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Boone's Fish House & Oyster Room is a great addition to Portland's list of seafood restaurant options. With (limited) on-site parking, two outside decks and a cavernous interior that manages to feel intimate despite its depth, this is the place to go for downtown seafood.

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.

Putting his colorful reputation aside, I suggested we try Harding Lee Smith's newest "room," and I am glad we did. While I did not meet Smith himself, manager Kathy was happy to give us a tour of the newly renovated space. Although her demeanor was no-nonsense, she was clearly enthusiastic, and I watched her extend a level of welcoming energy not just to my party, but to those around us, too.

The space itself is impressive, with two completely remodeled levels of gorgeous wood floors and exposed beam ceilings. Upstairs is the oyster bar, and downstairs with its stone fireplace is the dining room proper. Each level offers indoor or outside deck seating.

We chose upstairs, outside seating, and while I recommend this arrangement for the view and the ambience, it is important to note that if there's a party next door on the Porthole's patio, or a booze cruise docks, it can get very loud.

Not just loud, but like a weird and impromptu parking lot fiesta, part frat party and part wedding reception. That said, it was fun to people watch (and people-listen) on a still-warm evening, but if you want quiet, choose a table inside. Even though the interior is vast, the seating itself feels very intimate.

Oh, and parking? Get there early for a free on-site spot and take advantage of this rare Commercial Street perk. Arriving early has other perks, too, as seating is first come, first served, with no reservations.

While the upstairs and downstairs are, technically, separate spaces with separate menus, diners can overlap them, and we did.

We waited for our table at the upstairs bar and were passed a little slip of paper -- think a la carte sushi shops or yakitori joints -- that listed 20 snack-sized options, including 12 varieties of oysters, ranked by price, with space for writing in quantity. Also on the paper grid were tasting notes, which I appreciated because it is very, very difficult to accurately describe an oyster's nuances in words.

We tasted Bagaduces from Brooksfield ($2.80 each) that were "mild and creamy with low salinity" as well as John's River ($3.10) from Damariscotta that were, as promised, "sweet up front with a briny finish."

Cocktails were pricy, but very well constructed. ($9.50 for the La Paloma made with Herradura Silver Tequila, grapefruit, lime, agave and Ilegal Mezcal.)

After we were seated, the bread server stopped by with her basket to offer a biscuit or piece of blueberry cake. I asked about trying one of each, and while I appreciate restaurant expenses, it was a little unsettling to be told it's an extra dollar to do so. It felt vaguely accusatory, but sprung for the extra dollar, and both biscuit and blueberry cake were moist, light, flaky and lovely.

Also lovely? Tuna Tartare (market price) with its fan of five vertical crostini separated by raw diced yellowfin tuna, and scallions with a ginger and miso-flavored dressing.

Clever points go to the Oysters on Piggy Back. ($12) Again on crostini (this time six and horizontal), these were fat, breaded and fried oysters topping a layer of pork confit. The mix of crisp crostini, smooth pork spread, and rich oysters made a fun pre-dinner treat.

While there are plenty of sandwich options, try the Fish Dog ($12), a lobster-scallop sausage with saffron and pickled cabbage. I ordered it for the novelty factor because I wondered what an oyster and scallop sausage might taste like. The answer? Good. Spongy, for sure, with a mild saffron flavor and slightly unsettling pale white color, but in a buttered and toasted hot dog roll with spicy pickled cabbage, the effect was tasty.

Boone's version of retro-salad is the Iceberg Chopped. ($10) As described, this salad is chopped iceberg lettuce tossed with blue cheese, bacon, red onions, cucumbers, tomatoes in ample proportion with a rich homemade ranch dressing.

Those menu options felt like preliminary status though. I wanted to try the seafood, and the chalkboard fish is a rotating option that includes choice of house-made sauce: Bearnaise, Buerre Blanc, Sauce Vierge, Salsa Verde, Beer Butter, or Bacon Jam. (Sauce vierge. Mmm.)

While the six grilled sea scallops with Buerre Blanc were enormous with a robust woody flavor, the Fried Oysters won our table's "best in show." These fried oysters were priced at $21 for a 1/2 pint and a full pint for $25, so it made sense to order a mammoth brown bag full of them. While we got a hint of the preparation with the Oysters on Piggyback appetizer, nothing prepared us for the brown bag, neatly folded and tipped on its side with a massive show of lightly breaded oysters spilling out. Add a tartar sauce and spicy mayo, and we happily kept plucking and dunking.

Sides are a la carte and span from $2 to $5, including standards like fries and potato salad, as well as the more eclectic popovers, cheese grits, and rice-a-roni. (Get the popovers.)

I wanted to love the Carpet Bagger Steak ($26) because of its history. First appearing in 1898, the same year as Boone's, it's advertised as a wood grilled ribeye heart stuffed with oyster saute and served with parsleyed potatoes and farm vegetables. Sounds great, right? Steak can be tough to translate, and it's even tougher to execute. Mine was ordered medium, but I was warned that the kitchen can skew liberal in its interpretation. Not to worry, I said, I prefer a nice pink middle. What arrived was extraordinarily well-done. Tasty, but chewy. I'm glad I tried it, and the vegetables -- string beans and carrots -- although sort of safe and plain Jane, were cooked snappy and delicious, but my advice is to stick to the seafood at Boone's.

As a value proposition, Boone's offer a Shore Dinner that includes choice of lobster, steak, clams or chalkboard fish special. The shore dinner ranges from $35-$43, depending upon your choice, and includes fish chowder, biscuit, two sides and a piece of pie. If you are hungry, order this. It might be the best start-to-finish meal deal at this level of quality in town.

Pies on this night included blueberry and raspberry peach. Both with thick crusts, and both with just the right level of sweetness to allow the flavor of the fruit to shine.

Server Lily and manager Kathy checked in with us regularly and seemed genuinely interested in our experience. And I watched this happen all around us. Not hovering or obnoxious, but with little gestures that indicated "I want you to have a good time."

Given Smith's wide-ranging reputation, these good front-of-the-house hires are a positive step. My advice is go to Boone's for a low-key (I wouldn't call it casual, exactly) experience and finely prepared seafood. Order oysters or anything from the seafood family, and I doubt you'll be disappointed.

Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel "Show Me Good Land."

 

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