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.
We 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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.