Category Archives: Restaurants

Maine’s Foodie Capital: Portland

Portland, Maine is an up and coming food city that, despite it’s size, has some of the most exciting new restaurants on the East Coast. Whether you’re in the mood to gorge on a sinfully decadent lunch, pass around a profusion of small plates, warm up against a massive wood-fired grill, sip coffee in a trendy atmosphere, or commit to a five-course extravaganza, there’s something for everyone. After spending a day in the blossoming foodie capital of Maine, here’s my take on a few incredible restaurants.

For lunch, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than Duckfat, where Rob Evan’s lunch (and dinner) spot spreads the gospel of one particular animal’s fat. Evans uses the duck fat to crisp paninis, to fry doughnuts holes which he scents with citrus, and to whiz into vanilla milkshakes. Their panini with “overnight” duck confit, kimchi, and cilantro-lime mayo was good, but not incredible. There’s really only one thing you simply must have at Duckf2at, and probably even in all of Portland: the fries. And if you want to go all the way, as I did, order the poutine which includes those crispy, salty wedges of wonder blanketed by a layer of duck gravy and cheese curds (y’know, to cut through the richness). The dish is truly phenomenal, albeit something you’ll only want to eat about once a year.

For an afternoon snack, we sampled Standard Baking Co. which Travel+Leisure called “Maine’s best bakery”. The pastries we sampled were good, but not mind-blowing. The blueberry-oatmeal scones lacked any strong blueberry flavor and the madeleines paled in comparison to Dominique Ansel’s baked-to-order variety. I didn’t get to sample any of the breads however, which seem to be the star of the show, ranging from German Rye to Flax Batard, Cracked Wheat Potato to Hominy Whole Wheat. However, when we returned back to Portland we took home two breads: the sweet and comforting Raisin-Pecan and the other sourdough-like bread we sampled (can’t remember the name).

For dinner, I had my eye on two restaurants. The first, Central Provisions, serving small-plates (Smoked Carrots, Ramen Carbonara, Suckling Pig, etc.), which Bon Appetit named the 6th “Best New Restaurant” in the country as of last year. The second being The Honey Paw, owned by three of the most powerful players in Portland, Maine (Andrew Taylor, Mike Wiley, and Arlin Smith) who also own the massively popular bubbly, casual Eventide Oyster Co. and the darker, more refined Hugo’s. All three of these restaurants are on the same block which makes for an unique setting: guests can pop into each eatery and select whether they want an oyster bar, tasting menu, or now a noodle bar for dinner.

photo 4We settled on the latter (self-described as a “non-denominational noodle bar) which turned out to be a very good decision. The vibe of the restaurant is the kind of casual, yet refined feel that hipster spots have instituted as the new norm. There’s a record player spinning everything from Outkast to The Doors. There’s a counter stretching along the perimeter, a bar in the corner, and a large rectangular table in the center. The menu features small snacks, thoughtful appetizers, house-made noodles, large-format entrees meant for sharing, a few desserts, and some specials for good measure.

photo 1The lobster tartine should be how you start your meal: a slice of house-made Pullman loaf is deep-fried before being topped with a lobster-scallop mousse, paper-thin radishes, and cilantro emulsion. It’s like the lobster roll you’ve always remembered except infinitely better. You like that buttery crispy edge of the bun? Deep-frying the bread makes the whole thing that crispy. The lobster-scallop mousse scales up the decadence factor and the radishes and herbs brighten the whole affair. In short, don’t miss this dish.

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The Vietnamese Chili Lobster was less of a noodle dish, more of a pasta with an Asian flair (there’s the non-denominational part for you). The Wok-Fried Yaki Soba tasted like an okonmiyaki in noodle form. The cabbage, mayo, gochujang, and bonito was all there. But instead of on  a pancake it was placed atop noodles. Onto of all that there are fatty bits of bbq pork shoulder,  both soft and rich all at once.

photo 3And to end the meal, the soft-serve honey ice cream is a must. The chocolate magic shell and caramelized honeycomb add an addictive crunch all adding up to the most perfect end to a fantastic meal.

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On our way out of Maine, we found ourselves back in Portland. First stop? Tandem Coffee & Bakery which had been nominated by Bon Appétit as one of the 50 Best New Restaurants in the Country. The ginger cookie with white chocolate had the sort of  intense gingerness that hints at spice, tempered by the chewy texture of the chocolate. The hot chocolate made with Mast Brothers tasted like coffee made with cacao beans instead of coffee beans; it had virtually no sweetness whatsoever. The blueberry pie, however, was incredible, the perfectly soft crumble melding with the thick blueberries that made up most of the pie. While almost everything was delicious, I’m not sure if this is the best new coffee shop/bakery in the country. Then again, I haven’t scoured America in search.

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For dinner, we hit up Central Provisions. One of the most popular spots in town, we arrived twenty minutes before they opened for dinner only to find around twenty people standing around the bar and lined up outside. At 5, we entered the dining room and were seated at the chef’s bar where you can watch everything that goes on.

The waitress recommended we order three to four dishes per person. If you do so, I’m sure you would go away pleasantly full. But to do so, you’ll spend an average of $34-$46 per person. 

We ordered six dishes and every one was delicious. They’re known for their crudo (raw fish), so we started out with the Bluefin Tuna Crudo and Bluefin Tuna O-Toro. The former was beautifully plated with a julienne of radish, perfectly pungent mustard, and sesame. The latter was plated like a sushi plate, but infinitely better. Rice? Forget about it: it’s all about the fish. Thick slices of tuna are served with freshly grated wasabi that looks like parmesan and tastes like fresh radish, as well as some (unnecessary) soy sauce for dipping the fish.

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Next up, the Caramelized Sheep’s Cheese. The chefs take a small round of sheep’s cheese and crisp it up on the plancha, pressing Maine blueberries into it, and cooking it until it dissolves into a thin layer of wonderful crispiness. It’s drizzled with very good balsamic vinegar to add both acid and sweetness. The Roasted Cauliflower comes served with some chickpeas spiced with ras el hanout and feta cheese which was all delicious, but perhaps the least interesting dish of the meal.

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That’s not to worry, however, because the three dishes that came next were simply stunning. Their famous Suckling Pig dish is a pressed cube of pork cooked until the top is a crisp layer of skin and the rest falls apart when you cut into it. It’s served with an apple sauce, crunchy marcona almonds, and drizzled with brown butter.

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You can order foie gras four different ways: cured, parfait, the whole lobe (1 lb+ for $100), or how we opted: a small slice of the duck’s liver pan-seared and served with millet granola and a blackberry sauce. It melts in your mouth like meat pudding, tempered by the crunch of the granola and the sweetness of the blackberry sauce  Finally, a small filet of black sea bass is served with fig agrodolce and marinated wood ear mushrooms.

The only complaint I have is the size of the dishes. I understand the “small plates” movement: order a lot, share everything and I think it’s a great idea. You’re able to taste way more than you would be able to with 3-courses and it’s a fun way to eat. But when you’re left leaving hungry, it’s a bit of a problem. Yet when the food is so good, the atmosphere so fun, and the kitchen so close, it’s hard to complain.

Nice job, Portland. Nice job.

Classic Bakery, Hipster Spin, Delicious Food

The wonderful restaurant, north, has a new addition just around the corner at 70 Battey Street. With the feel of Momofuku Milk Bar and passionate, delicious food that rivals Providence’s own longstanding favorite  Seven Stars Bakery, north bakery is a new kind of bakery. With no seats, no loaves of bread, but plenty of creative treats this is one heck of a bakery.

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I had one of the two hand-pies, a very original dish: a piece of crisp dough baked with  a large pocket of delicious savory ingredients inside. There was a Dan Dan hand-pie, a twist on the noodle dish I loved at the restaurant, but I went for the Potato Gratin hand-pie with thyme and swiss (both unfortunately unidentifiable) and caramelized onions which added a very nice, light sweetness to the heavy potato. Samosa meets creative new idea turned out to be delicious and for $5 and the reasonable size, it could serve as lunch or even breakfast. I also tried one of the scone options, this one with basil, pine nut, and parmesan. It sounds like a strange combination, but man was it delicious. All three ingredients shone together, all with a subtlety not often found in the usually over-sweetened world of pastries. It was crisp on the edges, but pleasantly soft and doughy in the center.

If I had just tasted the hand-pie and scone, I would have been happy. But the chocolate chip cookie was what really blew my experience onto another level. It wasn’t listed in the description, but it was gently seasoned with what appeared to be Maldon salt (the highest quality sea salt) which complimented the delicious cookie that melted in your mouth (the chocolate chips were literally melting in the heat). The chocolate chip cookie is perhaps the most simple, straightforward of pastries. They’re taken for granted because a cookie can’t be more than a cookie, right? Wrong. And north bakery proves it with their delicious cookie and amazing bakery.

Brunch Done Right

For their fun, nostalgia, and familiar food, diners are a classic way to start a weekend morning. But for a truly delicious breakfast, a leap above greasy fried eggs and undercooked pancakes, head to the West Side of town. There you’ll find Julian’s, a hip restaurant with something for everyone. You’ll also find Nick’s on Broadway, which I’d never been to until a few weeks ago. Julian’s has a great atmosphere and delicious food, plus is a great place for families. (Check out the bathroom!) While less obviously family friendly, a brunch at Nick’s was a nice treat on the last day of spring vacation. I had a perfectly crispy frittata with mushrooms, feta and onions along with some pesto-grilled focaccia, a nice departure from white, wheat, or rye. My mom’s order was quite unique: black beans stewed in a hearty broth with avocado-cilantro creme and pico de gallo along with perfectly charred tortilla. My brother’s poached eggs over polenta were perfectly cooked and complimented by what seemed like beet juice. To top it off, homefries were given a nice twist with the addition of sweet potatoes and onions, as well as standard white potatoes.

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Out of all of the meals of the day, breakfast seems like the one least likely to beckon eating out. At lunch and, especially, dinner, a nice time spent at a restaurant is enjoyable. But to roll out of bed early on a weekend morning to spend money on breakfast may not seem worth it. At Nick’s however, it is.

Nick’s on Broadway: www.nicksonbroadway.com

Menu Changes Daily, Creativity Stays the Same

Tucked away on Luongo Square, it would be easy to miss north. With only twenty seats, plus a few at the bar, the restaurant is undoubtedly small and with the buzz that surrounds it, getting seated might take a while. Whether you choose to brave the wait, eat to the sounds of a perfectly curated mixed bag of music, sit against a backdrop of murals and boat ropes, and eat some darn good food is completely up to you. But, I highly recommend it.

IMG_6401 copyAfter a beautifully sunny day spent out and about, I’d worked up an appetite. As my family and I discussed dinner options, north bubbled to the top of the list because a) I’d never been there, b) my parents recommended it, and c) after being in a Momofuku craze, I was interested to see what James Mark, former chef at Momofuku Ko and bread baker at Momofuku Milk Bar, had in store.  Although I was prepared to have to wait for half an hour (longer than that and it would be time to hit up Ken’s Ramen again), I was pleasantly surprised by only a ten minute wait.

IMG_6424 copyThe menu changes every day or two, with slight shifts. There is always a type of ramen available, usually seasonal, along with other noodle dishes. The menu is divided into five categories: Country Ham and Oysters (just what it says), Veg (vegetable plates with varying sizes), Bowls and Plates to Share (nicely sized entrees that can, but don’t have to, be shared), Feast (a large plate for multiple people to share), and Sweet (one or two creative treats). The menu isn’t large, but with the constant change, there is room for Mark and his cooks to have some freedom.

So…The food! After positive reviews of multiple Toronto restaurants and Ken’s Ramen, I might sound overly positive. But, I can’t help but telling the truth; north’s food was incredibly good. Everything I had was carefully done with precision and craft. There was no better way to start the night than with the Tiny Ham Biscuits. A now staple on the menu, these delicious little biscuits filled with ham, have only one other ingredient: mustard. But the mustard has, or so it seems in the online menu archives, been what’s keeping them interesting. Coffee mustard, horseradish mustard, lime leaf mustard, burnt honey mustard, orange dragon mustard, and more have made their way between the biscuit. When I was there tonight, the mustard was red miso and added some nice flavor to balance out the meat. I also tried some Roasted Beech Mushrooms as an appetizer. With a punch of protein from some buttermilk and egg yolk, plus some crunch from walnuts and a hint of thai basil, these meaty mushrooms were not a dish to be missed.

IMG_6404 copyFor an entree, I was torn. I am a ramen fan, but I wanted to try something new, something different. I decided to go with north’s take on Dan Dan Noodles, which I’d never had before. And even if I had, I doubt they’d be like this. An incredible amount of cilantro was placed at the top of the bowl blocking the view of pretty much anything else. The noodles themselves, while good, were probably the least memorable component of the dish, surprisingly only a few small noodley circles. Very flavorful goat and squid added the heft to the dish as the main ingredients and a bit of delicious broth at the bottom of the bowl tipped it off. The waitress had warned me that it was very spicy, but, despite the fact that there were fermented chiles in full form, it was somewhat tame. The dish would have been great just as I’ve described it, but there was one more ingredient that wasn’t listed on the menu: rice cakes. Not the large circles you find at a grocery store, but instead small cylinder shaped cakes of rice with a gnochi-like feel. Having tried Momofuku Noodle Bar’s delicious sweet/spicy take on them and then making them at home, I thought this take on the rice cakes was also quite good. The cakes, having souped up the broth and the flavors of cilantro and goat, were crisp on the outside and chewy on the inside, just like a good rice cake should be.

IMG_6410 copyMy family’s choices were all good too, so I decided to steal some bites. The Roasted Chicken Ramen was good, not great, but did benefit from some neat additions not always common in ramen, including a soy egg and mushrooms. The Roasted Monkfish was tender and delicious, but was nothing compared to the divine mushroom dashi that swam along with kimchi grilled onions and pickled ginger. Last, the Hot Flavor Sesame Noodles were quite outstanding with the best broccoli I’ve ever had. Forget boiled, watery broccoli, the tops of these green monsters were oh-so crisp and the bottoms perfectly chewy. Accompanied with very long, very delicious noodles and garlic, chile, plus some pickled greens, room in my stomach was made for this lip-smacker of a noodle plate.

IMG_6408 copyIt’s hard to describe north on a whole. Is it Asian? Is it authentic? Is it all buzz? With various noodle dishes on the menu and multiple Asian ingredients reoccurring, it is certainly partially influenced by the culture. But, despite some similarities to Momofuku, Mark is undeniably doing his own thing. And he’s doing it with passion and creativity. Ask me what new restaurant I’d like to try out next and you might find me hiding away beneath the walls of this little wonder.

A Culinary Walk Through Toronto

During a vacation in Toronto watching films at TIFF Kids, I got a peek into the culinary scene of the hip city. From the chew of chicken dumplings to the crack of homemade tortilla chips, I got to sample a wide array of flavors in the city. Here’s a quick walk-through of the restaurants I sampled.

Mother’s Dumplings

IMG_5480 copyThis house of dumplings located on Spadina Ave was packed when we arrived, but we were quickly seated. The menu is divided between boiled, steamed, pan-fried, pan-cakes, steamed buns, and some other noodle and side dishes. I tried the boiled chicken and mushroom dumplings which were by far my favorite with the soft pop of the mushrooms contrasting nicely with the tender chicken. I ordered the chives and eggs pancakes which were unimaginably hot, burning my mouth. When I bit into them at a reasonable temperature, I wasn’t as impressed as the dumplings. The eggs were done in a scrambled style but, combined with the chives, didn’t amount to much of a flavor. Where as the chicken and mushroom came together nicely, here the egg and chive didn’t result with much of a taste. The steamed bak choy, mushroom, and tofu dumplings, meanwhile, were quite good with a soft vegetable flavor. I wasn’t as big a fan of the shrimp, egg and chives, but that being said, I’m not a shrimp fan.

IMG_5437 copyEven if I didn’t love all of the dumplings, the cooking and craft that went into these dumplings is evident, especially as I watched the chefs carefully roll dumplings behind the counter. They know what they’re doing: traditional dumplings the same way members of their family made before them. And as you sit in the bustling restaurant, with your chopsticks at the ready, all you have to do is eat.

Milagro Cantina

IMG_5888 copyTraditional Mexiacan food served with care and quality. As I bit into the Trio Botanero, a trio of guacamole, refried beans, and salsa accompanied by tortilla chips, it was clear that Tostitos chips and mashed tomato puree trying to pass as salsa was not what was being served. Instead, the salsa was more of a pico de gallo with a refreshingly sharp kick to it. The chips had a salty and almost sweet flavor that could obviously only be achieved when made in house. They were so good I almost wanted to munch on them alone to soak up their deliciousness. But with the guacamole being so fresh and chunky and the refried beans being so dark and textured, I couldn’t resist a hearty dip.

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IMG_5886 copyFor an entree, I ordered the Carnitas Los Panchos tacos. Three small tortillas were propped together with a large, but not overflowing amount of pork confit. They were topped off with chopped white onions and some cilantro and served with salsa de chile cascabel on the side. Refried beans and brown rice also came on the side. The tacos themselves were good and simple. Today’s average burritos are overstuffed with fillings ranging in flavors, adding up to an all-over-the-place result. But, these tacos were filled with just enough simple, meaty, flavorful pork, a little bit of onion to cut the fat, and some refreshing cilantro and mildly spicy salsa to top it off. I also stole bites of my family’s dishes too including the Rosarito tacos. Filled with sautéed shrimp, refried beans, crema, some avocado, and rosarito salsa. The flavors came together nicely and, even though I don’t love shrimp, it still impressed me. I also sampled the Mole Poblano: grilled chicken, topped with rich, dark homemade mole dripping onto rice and seeping it’s flavor into everything it touched. Downright traditional, downright delicious.

Momofuku

IMG_5561 copyHaving taken over all of New York with four restaurants, and a Milk Bar bakery, chef David Chang headed to Toronto a couple of years ago with hopes of taking down the city. And he has done just that with a three floor empire of a restaurant. Three restaurants, one bar/lounge, one walk-in fridge: the restaurant was massively hyped. It had trouble in it’s opening months, despite ridiculously long lines, but got good reviews. I went twice during my time in Toronto and my verdict? There’s so much to discuss that I decided to write a separate review. You can expect the review soon.

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One Last Note

What did I find in common with a hip Korean-Asian-American fusion empire, an old-fashioned dumpling house, and a traditional mexican cantina? Open kitchens. If you’re not familiar with the concept, the idea’s pretty simple: an open kitchen. Gone are the days of chefs hiding away in the back, hunching over the dishes, and stressing over your food between arguments with co-chefs. With an open kitchen setup, chefs and cooks have to be constantly aware that they have an audience that will witness every step of the cooking process and will also eat the food and judge it. While the exact details of the setup ranged, the idea that these chefs must now tackle with a performance element was still there.

A Verdict

Creative, unique, diverse, and challenging, the food I ate in Toronto resembled a city that is embracing new techniques with old cushines. From pork buns to tofu dumplings, rich mole to ginormous bowls of ramen, Toronto is at it’s culinary high.

Ramen Takes Over Downtown

3 out of 4 stars

Ken’s Ramen, the new restaurant located in the heart of downtown’s culinary scene, opened early February of this year and has been much hyped since. Despite the fact that the restaurant only has a few tables and a small noodle bar, the restaurant’s vibe is evident the moment you step inside. Loud hip-hop music blasts over the speakers, chefs busily strain noodles in an open kitchen setting, and waiters and waitresses hurry between taking orders and telling hungry onlookers that the wait will be half an hour.IMG_4487But is the food worth the strain of shouting over the noise, waiting for the table, and feeling deadly full after you’re finished eating? The answer is whole-heartedly yes. I ordered the Tsukemen ramen, a modern version of the ramen dish that involves two bowls. In one, you receive a sheet of nori (a delicious sheet of dried seaweed) placed atop the noodles (sourced from Sun Noodles) . A lime wedge is hooked onto the side of the bowl along a smear of spicy Yuzu pepper. In the other bowl is a deeply rich Katsuo broth made using bonito and a whole chicken. Swimming within the depths of the slurp-worthy broth is menma (bamboo shoots), scallions, kikurage mushrooms, and your choice of either two pieces of char-siu pork belly or 100g of “soy-braised” chicken.

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The wide range of flavors, from the chew of the noodles to the depth of the broth to the texture of the meat blend, somewhat surprisingly, well together. There are a total of ten extra toppings that you can add on to any of the four bowls of ramen, most of which are included in at least one of the ramen bowls already. They range from corn to homemade chili oil. I added ajitama to mine, which is a soft boiled egg that is, so says the menu, “soy sauce injected”. I expected to be able to see it with one look at my broth, but it was actually hidden, having sunk to the bottom of the bowl. This at first led me to believe I had been deprived my egg, but was made up for by the fun of finding it in the bottom of my bowl—especially one so perfectly soft and runny—a soft boiled delight.
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Other than ramen, there’s not much here. There are seven alcoholic drinks to choose from, sake being one, plus eight different sides, one of which is plain rice. I split a Hirata Pork Bun with my brother that was divine. The bun melted in my mouth with it’s perfectly soft chewiness that makes you want to leave it in your mouth forever. The pork itself is seared through with a blowtorch (right in front of your eyes if you’re as lucky as me to sit at the noodle bar). A small handful of greens add some lightness to the dish and it is all topped off with Ken’s spread sauce.
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On a whole, Ken’s Ramen is certainly worth the long wait you’ll have to go through. Having just opened and being the talk of the town with a star menu item as trendy as ramen has filled their doors the couple times I’ve peeked inside, but I insist that shouldn’t turn you off. In fact, it should only build your interest. With so many other good choices for food downtown (Coal Fired Pizza, Viva Mexico, and even Figidini right next door), Ken’s could easily be lost. But with such creative chefs who obviously care about the food, Ken’s seems to be bubbling up to the top of the city’s bowl.

For more info, visit www.kenramenpvd.com

Photography: Bro D