Portland is Maine’s largest city whose sophisticated urban skyline overlooks beautiful Casco Bay. Brick wharf buildings and cobblestone streets characteristic of the 19th century line our working waterfront. The historic Old Port district is home to a vibrant community of museums, galleries, theaters and music and an incomparable dining scene. Even for a long-time resident like me, Portland still delights and astonishes.
A small town with a big appetite
Portland’s ever-changing array of great restaurants is second only to San Francisco’s, and reflects some of the nation’s hippest culinary trends. Over the years, Portland chefs have imagined my favorite dishes: Duckfat’s Belgian fries, El Rayo’s fish tacos, 555’s truffle mac ‘n’ cheese, The Corner Room’s warm octopus with potato, and Emilitsa’s succulent Greek chicken livers. Yum.
This small city’s many chefs, bakers, farmers and food enthusiasts amateur and professional collaborate and compete to create a rich food scene that is remarkably big for its New England britches. The farm-to-table movement has more than a toehold here, with people from around the world fascinated are by our brand of sustainable agriculture in an unforgiving climate.
This fall, we hosted Tuscan chef Nicola Bochicchio and his wife Chiara, who said, Abbiamo bisogno di pi tempo a Portland!” we need more time in Portland!
Pioneers and Purveyors
Years ago, friends visited from New York. I asked if they enjoyed the art museum. “That was okay,” they said, but they wanted to tell me about the duck frisee salad at Hugo’s restaurant. “Did you visit the Old Port and explore the galleries and boutiques?” I asked. “Yes, of course,” they said, but first they wanted to tell me about that pork belly at Fore Street restaurant. It then began to dawn on me that Portland was suddenly on the culinary map.
Early on, Fore Street Restaurant in the Old Port placed Portland among the culinary vanguard with a fresh take on local fare. Late nights with friends over big bowls of Chef Sam Hayward’s Bang’s Island mussels (applewood roasted with almonds, butter and vermouth) are treasured memories.
Hayward, Portland’s godfather of Slow Food, blazed an early trail using locally sourced, fresh seasonal ingredients. Good food travels the shortest distance, was his refrain well before it was fashionable. Fore Street’s menu still features Maine’s best fish, produce, meats and cheeses served at the peak of seasonal flavor.
In the 1980s, Alberta’s Cafe‘s Jim Ledue introduced Portland diners to sophisticated flavors in a groovy atmosphere. Bibo’s Madd Apple Cafe was famous both for chef James’s famous Bananas Foster and his wife Martha’s luminous blue eyes. Street and Company’s robust grilled seafood lives on, as does their mantra, “Less is more. Taste is essence.”
Once a year, Hugo’s restaurant celebrates the humble Maine potato with a sumptuous, high-end potato feast. Across the street at DuckFat, a Belgian-style panini shop, Rob Evans celebrates the potato daily by frying them in duck fat twice for incredible richness and flavor. Try the horseradish mayo, garlic aioli or truffle ketchup, my favorite.
Chefs Sam Hayward and Rob Evans are James Beard winners who have received countless kudos both locally and from away. Newcomer chef Demos Regas of Emilitsa (rustic Greek cuisine) was nominated for a James Beard award this year.
Market Scene: Portland, Maine, Bursts Its Buttons
Today, Rosemont Market, a local artisan market and bakery, enjoys three locations and stocks not only locally grown fruit, vegetables and herbs, but also locally produced yogurt, goat cheese, honey and meat. Fresh fish comes from Harbor Fish on Portlands mostly working waterfront.
Portland’s downtown Public Market House, is a collection of artisan food producers under one roof, created to “celebrate Maine people, food and agricultural traditions.” They offer Horton’s cheeses and smoked fish, Big Sky bakery, boutique peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Maine Beer and Beverage Company, Rock City Coffee Roasters and more. It’s a great place to pick up a picnic or sip a cappuccino, and a great resource for residents working or shopping downtown.
Micucci’s Grocery on India Street is a Portland institution. Italian specialty foods include pasta, extra-virgin olive oil, anchovies, sardines, olives and peppers and an extensive wine selection. Micucci’s onsite bakery serves seriously delicious Sicilian pizza. Portlanders know to get there early, because baker Stephen Lanzalotta often runs out of succulent slices by noon.
The India Street neighborhood is also home to Two Fat Cats Bakery, Coffee by Design, and Rabelais, an independent bookshop and wonderful culinary resource a few doors up from Hugo’s restaurant.
My Epicurious Portland
Portland is a delicious little town and each year brings unique tastes and culinary triumphs to celebrate. So if you haven’t yet discovered Portland, Maine’s food scene, plan to visit us soon and bring your appetite. I only have two more words of advice: make reservations.
— Photos and text by Libby Margolis-Pineo, RFT Contributor, Writer/Editor, www.EpicuriousTravelers.com