June 2, 2013

Portland's hardest-working chef piles more on his plate

Unsated by the success of his three 'Room' restaurants, Harding Lee Smith is bringing his demanding standards to yet another eatery, adding to what some call a 'mini empire.'

By Meredith Goad mgoad@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 5)

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The chef's day is always filled with activity. Harding Lee Smith shops for fish recently at Browne Trading Co. in Portland.

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Portland restaurateur Harding Lee Smith interacts recently with a longtime patron as he prepares for evening service at The Grill Room & Bar on Exchange Street. Smith's fourth restaurant is set to open at Custom House Wharf later this month.

Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

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The upstairs, which will have a wood-fired oven, will be used mostly as a private dining and function space that can serve about 85 people. This is also where the "Oyster Room" will be.

"We're not building it to be here for two weeks, or two years or even five years. It's here to be here for 20 years. I hope it will live beyond me, you know what I mean? Now that I have a child coming, maybe the child will be running it."

He crossed his fingers and looked skyward.

"Please?"

 

Smith joked that it was now time to head back to his "real job" at The Corner Room.

He met with state and local health inspectors, then walked down Exchange Street to spend some time at The Grill Room, where alcohol sales reps were lying in wait for his arrival.

By 4 p.m. the dining room at The Corner Room was starting to buzz. Candles were lit, giving the room a soft glow. The ceiling fans, classic crown molding and Tuscan red walls added to the warm atmosphere. A bartender raced by, balancing several clinking wine glasses in both hands.

The staff knew the night would be busy because there was a ballet performance at nearby Merrill Auditorium. Smith describes the Merrill crowd as being like a wave of locusts, swooping in to dine between 5:45 and 7:15 p.m. before flying off to catch the performance.

"It will get pretty nutty in here," he said.

Smith took his place behind the antipasti bar. He likes the fact that, from here, he can see both the dining room and the kitchen, and talk to customers who sit at the curved bar.

On the bar was a stack of white plates, a basket of tomatoes, a bowl of eggs, a block of cheese on a cheeseboard, a Berkel meat slicer and bottles of extra virgin olive oil, orange olive oil, white truffle oil and vincotto negroamaro. Old cutting boards and butcher knives hung from a wrought-iron rack overhead.

Smith grabbed a large cup of ice and soda to sip on during service, and started mixing salads and writing the specials.

The specials included a hake dish, a Smith favorite. ("It's really meaty but still flaky inside.") The hake would be served with a cauliflower puree and a watercress and cara cara orange salad. ("Cara cara oranges right now are really beautiful. They're honey-like.")

Sometimes, Smith said, a special won't sell because the description isn't worded correctly. When the chef added octopus sopressata to the menu, the dish initially didn't go over well with customers. "They think, 'Octopus salami. Oooh, gross,' " Smith said. "I changed it to octopus carpaccio?" He made a whistling noise. "Flying out the door."

At 4:45 p.m., it was time for the staff meeting. The servers crowded in front of Smith at the antipasti bar.

"OK, the first page of your menu," Smith began. "The salumi list, that's where you start. We've talked about it many times. When you talk about the salumis and the cheeses, we sell them, and if you don't, we don't."

Smith told them about the pork loin cured with blood orange and fennel and about the arctic char tartare, coarsely chopped and tossed simply with lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, a little red onion and caper, served with a grapefruit and arugula salad. The servers took notes with the intensity of White House reporters at a presidential news conference.

Eventually, he came to the octopus.

"It's a carpaccio in name only, it's not a true carpaccio," Smith said. "It's cooked. The octopus is braised for six hours and then pressed through a terrine so it has a marbleized look to it."

Soon, customers started arriving, and so did Smith's first order.

"When you talk about the salumi and cheese, you sell the salumi and cheese," Smith happily pronounced. "Boom, first ticket."

A few minutes later, he put up another plate of salumi. "See? Talk about the salumi, sell the salumi."

Smith loves salumi, and he may soon be ramping up his own production of the Italian meats. His brother-in-law and his wife live on a small farm in Windham where they'll be raising heritage breed pigs this year for Smith's restaurants.

Smith plans to renovate the barn into a commercial space with a dry aging room for beef for The Grill Room and a salumeria where he can cure his own salamis and meats, age them properly, and sell them.

He's already dreaming of his next big thing -- a retail storefront that includes an Italian deli.

"I always have a project on the horizon," he said. "I get bored very easily."

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@mainetoday.com

 

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Additional Photos

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Smith takes in the aroma of a red during a wine tasting at The Grill Room.

Gabe Souza

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Smith consults with the project manager at his newest venture, Boone's Fish House and Oyster Room in renovated space on Custom House Wharf.

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The demands of his growing restaurant empire in Portland mean Smith's phone is never far away.

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A mirror at The Grill Room & Bar in Portland reflects chef and restaurateur Harding Lee Smith as he meets with his staff recently. A fellow chef in Portland who used to work for Smith describes him as extremely demanding but fiercely loyal to employees who work hard and show loyalty to him.

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Near the end of a long day, Smith walks his dogs across Congress Street before heading back downtown to check in on the two restaurants he owns on Exchange Street.

 


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