If you step inside The Old Port Sea Grill on Commercial Street in Portland, you’ll find yourself staring at fish – tropical fish swimming in a large tank just inside the front door, etched profiles of fish in the glass panels that divide the dining room, framed prints of fish hanging above the bar and colorful cutouts of fish mounted on the back wall close to the kitchen. The designer of the restaurant obviously has a way with fish.

Unfortunately, the kitchen does not. Despite a dinner menu that features a variety of fish and shellfish, simply grilled and in more elaborate preparations, much of the food here is bland, overcooked and underwhelming. In a town filled with restaurants that offer superb seafood, this one falls short.

As a supplement to the standard menu, a raw-bar menu offers six different types of oysters, plus clams, shrimp and chilled lobster. Based on the comments from customers at nearby tables, a tray of oysters ($3 each) or a small sampler ($45) might have been a better bet than the appetizers we tried.

Three seared scallops ($17) were served atop rounds of fried plantains on a plate decorated with crème fraîche and a few tiny pearls of black caviar. The scallops looked nicely browned but tasted overcooked and unpleasantly salty. And while the dollops of crème fraîche – cool cream melting into the warm scallops – added richness and a bright, tart note, those plantains contributed little but crunch. In fact, they were so crunchy that they overwhelmed the delicate flesh of the shellfish. Sure, tostones can be good on their own – starchy and crisp with tender interiors – but paired with these scallops they were a molar-busting mistake.

Crab cakes ($15) were marginally better, neither over mixed nor packed too tightly, and the coating of breadcrumbs was crispy. But the crab itself was tasteless. Without a reminder from the waitress or a glance at the menu, I might have wondered what I’d ordered. The best thing on this plate was a spoonful of slaw made with jicama and shredded carrot. Served as a salad, solo, it would have made the evening’s best starter.

Service at the dinner hour was slow – very slow – and when our entrées arrived, both were problematic. While a large piece of simply grilled salmon ($26) was competently prepared – the skin was attractively charred and the flesh was flavorful – the accompanying mustard vinaigrette proved cloyingly sweet. The salmon was better on its own, particularly with a few bites of the grilled zucchini and squash offered alongside.


And what did flounder ever do to deserve such ignominy? The waitress described it as Atlantic flounder stuffed with seafood, but the fillet was overcooked and indistinguishable, and the stuffing so insipid it was impossible to identify. It might have contained shrimp, maybe scallops – or a mixture of different shellfish – but I couldn’t tell. And the texture? Spongy, springy, rubbery. The stuffing had the consistency of a Chinese shrimp dumpling that had spent far too much time in the bamboo steamer. This time, even the vegetables on the plate could do little to save the dish. Chopped spears of asparagus were oily and under-salted, and a handful of chanterelle mushrooms tasted watery rather than woodsy. This dish was a real letdown, and at $29 one of the more expensive disappointments in an already disappointing evening.

It’s damning with faint praise to say that the best part of dinner was the basket of bread and the small pot of salmon paté that the waitress set down on our table after we arrived – and refilled upon request. The paté (really more a spread) was intensely flavored – a combination of cream cheese, salmon, dill and lemon juice. Yes, it was simple, but at least it was satisfying.

Simplicity may be the key to enjoying a good meal at The Old Port Grill. Simplicity – and lunch instead of dinner. On a visit at midday I chose the simplest fish dish I could find: a fish sandwich ($12), made of fried pollock with tartar sauce, lettuce and tomato on a soft roll. To my surprise (and delight) the sandwich was moist and flaky with a lightly browned crust that added contrast and just the right amount of crunch. Unlike the fish sauce at dinner, this tartar was tasty and balanced – a combination of sweet and tangy that complemented the fish.

A friend joining me for lunch fled surf for turf and ordered a burger. The beef was cooked medium well, as requested, with a thick slab of bacon and a slice of melting cheddar cheese on top. “There’s no such thing as a non-messy burger,” my friend said, reaching for his napkin (this one wasn’t) “and a tasty $12 hamburger isn’t bad in this town.”

The Old Port Grill has at least three things going for it: a prime location in the shadow of the U.S. Custom House, a fine fish sandwich at lunchtime, and that delicious salmon spread at dinner. But walk into this seafood restaurant with high hopes of a great meal and you’re likely to head home with a sinking feeling.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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