After a year in a new location, Katahdin Wood Fire Grill and Bar in Portland continues to enjoy weekend crowds and faithful regulars who are enamored of bartender Winnie Moody’s generous martinis, the kitchen’s good food and a community that always has a place for a newcomer.

Moody makes a good strong Old Fashioned ($10 with Maker’s Mark Bourbon) too.

Even if the hanger steak was too charred to taste as good as it should, high compliments go to chef/owner Becky Lee Simmons for the scallops on silky sweet potato and bacon hash, perfect pork dumplings and an excellent flourless chocolate cake with ganache.

The upstairs level, with some tables overlooking the bar and the first floor, is wrapped in butterscotch walls and gleaming sconces. Art worth studying hangs on the stairs and the walls. The business’s mascot, a steel mermaid with a sinuous tail, still holds the eye with her unaging attractions.

You can drink a toast to her with the Montevina Terra d’Oro Zinfandel 2007 ($10 a glass, $42 a bottle), a dense winter red with lush dark berries and a sturdy structure. Morande Cabernet 2007 ($9, $36) from Chile was mild to a fault. Fine local and national microbrews such as Brooklyn Chocolate Stout on draft ($7 a pint) keep the beer list interesting.

Skinny, chewy slices of focaccia are brought to the table with a dish of olive oil, herbs and balsamic; the focaccia, itself no stranger to olive oil, was a rich indulgence once dipped in that dish.

On the first visit, from a changing menu, three-cheese fondue ($9) surpassed that indulgence with its own roasted garlic cloves interspersed in the hot, rich depths of molten mild goat cheese and gruyere, with Parmesan stirred in. Skinny, grilled and crunchy pieces of focaccia accompanied this dish, and the melted cheese and some thyme and other herbs sprinkled on top was utterly satisfying during winter’s cold.

The fourth or fifth bite might start to seem like too much of a good thing, but anyone familiar with fondue knows that. This is a dish best shared.

Roasted beet salad ($8) had no drawbacks, the tender wedges of red beets and fresh lettuce leaves dressed with a mild, citrusy vinaigrette. A simple salad of greens ($6) had the same sure grip on simplicity, letting the fresh lettuce with sweet sherry and shallot vinaigrette monopolize the plate.

Steamed ginger pork dumplings ($9) beat out most Asian restaurant versions with delicate wrappers and lovely savory stuffing, though we were a little sad that only three were served. The lime dipping sauce kept its focus on sour and salty flavors, perfect with the dumplings.

Oysters on the half shell ($14) with Champagne mignonette are served most nights, and Maine oysters comprise the usual offering.

Steak frites is known here as “grilled marinated hanger steak, frites, steak jus” ($22), but two versions displayed different “jus,” the first thinner and tasting more like Worcestershire Sauce; the second sweeter and thicker. Both were good, and possibly result from the same marinade at different parts of the evening.

The frites were different too, the first plate’s pale and not crunchy. The second time around the frites were superior, each one dark golden brown, crunchy and addictive.

But both steaks were too charred on the outside. While cooked precisely as ordered, and good, that bitter char dominated the flavor and kept the steak from tasting great.

Grilled duck breast ($23) needed salt and pepper not offered on the tables. The texture was soft and the meat pale, with a light-brown ribbon of skin without crispness. Beside it, a “gratin” of green beans and sweet potatoes was a disappointment, the plain vegetables stuck together with a slice or two of bland cheese.

But sound the trumpets for bacon and sweet potato hash! Orange-scented honey or some other syrup looped around the line of hash set with seared, tender scallops in a dish that came together perfectly. The sweet potato, salty bacon and orange scent combined for a lovely invention nicely showcasing the scallops’ mild sweetness.

An 8-ounce sirloin burger ($14) is a mainstay on the menu, along with Maine shrimp served during its season, possibly with pasta, on a pizzeta or in a fondue, and flounder, salmon or halibut are likely too. You can count on finding “Whatever is fresh,” according to Winnie Moody.

The generous wedge of flourless chocolate cake with liquid ganache made no compromise. This dessert is the pure chocolate powerhouse every menu needs, and is certainly big enough to share. The creamy ganache and velvet texture of the cake are articulate emissaries from the land of chocolate.

Two little chocolate profiteroles ($9) were daintier, filled up with vanilla ice cream and dabbed with a solidifying chocolate sauce I coveted more of.

Weak decaf was improved on in a second night’s serving of strong, full-bodied decaf. Served in ample white china cups, coffee ($3) comes on request with classy little carafes of cream.


N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s website,