When I arrived in Portland in the early ‘80s, the culinary landscape was bleak. We had Valle’s for steak and Boone’s for seafood. For variety, there was Hollow Reed, Hungry Hunza and Hu Shang. Then, slowly but surely, talented chefs and taste-shapers – both native and from away – began to open bistros, bars, and breweries along our cobblestone streets and in rural retreats and farms. These innovators welcomed Mainers to savor the indefinable appeal of the next new thing.
I trace the rise of dining out as a personal phenomenon to Jim Ledue’s Alberta’s restaurant in the ‘90s. Ledue added a sophisticated indulgence to our inbred Moosewood food culture of exposed brick and spider plants. Since then, my list of local go-tos has expanded, along with my palate.
Flavors of Maine
So what are the flavors of Maine? The tang of a foggy day on the ocean? A fried clam? Allen’s Coffee Brandy? I’m convinced it starts with wildly creative chefs who are inspired by the local catch and fresh produce, and who have a burning desire to blow people’s minds. In search of this restless concept, I went exploring in ever-widening circles in my adopted hometown of Portland, Maine.
A perfect place to start is Harbor Fish, the trusty Maine fish market where everything scaly, shiny, clawed, and wriggly is sold at fair prices in stunning abundance. Walk up Commercial Street to Rosemont Market, one of Portland’s greenest additions, with its eye-popping array of fresh organic vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers where you can buy everything from kohlrabi to rutabaga.
Or stroll to Maine Mead Works and sample the seasonal Ram Island iced tea mead, sweet and minty, or the summer mead brewed with strawberries from Maxwell’s Farm. I love the rose-colored blueberry mead – it doesn’t get more local than Maine blues. LFK in Longfellow Square makes a heavenly herbaceous local cocktail of Prosecco and lavender mead, with lavender sourced at Glendarrah Farms in Lincolnville.
Breakfast is a great time to explore Maine flavor, starting with the Holy Donut – the genuine Maine potato donut. I’d try to describe the experience, but some things are too exquisite for words. Taste for yourself, starting with the sweet-potato-ginger, my latest food crush – I am happily obsessed.
Coffee certainly has the aroma of Maine, as roasters and indie shops like Bard Coffee move in alongside city stalwarts. If you like a little do-gooder essence with your joe, visit Coffee by Design, poised once more to define what “doing well by doing good” really means. Or rub elbows with hipsters and urban professionals at Arabica on Commercial Street.
My Little Town
We lived in Portland’s West End for a year, during which time I developed a stalker’s attachment to the Cinnamon Toast Balls at Aurora Provisions. I sat in the café each morning eavesdropping on the ladies’ Book Club behind a frothy cappuccino, until the fragrant Cinnamon Toast Balls captured my attention and eclipsed poor Malcolm Gladwell.
After a week of rain, snow, or hostile deadlines, I crave comfort food. Nothing quite does it for me like Harding Lee Smith’s breakfast gnocchi plate. Smith, owner and mastermind of The Rooms restaurants, combines house-made gnocchi, poached eggs, and garlic spinach under a generous gloss of Hollandaise, sprinkled with house-smoked pancetta. This decadent bite combines the best of salty and unctuous – plus a solid hit of protein – resting daintily on soft pillows of pasta. It even has a bit of green for the vegetable-challenged. Okay, it’s not your Mom’s idea of a healthy breakfast, but it does reach a certain comforting maternal high note.
Don’t miss the handmade pizza at Slab created by Steven Lanzalotta, the dreamy pastry chef who hides out in the kitchen. Billed as Sicilian street food, this stuff is addictive — I don’t know if it’s the sauce, spicy and sweet, or the “luna bread” dough, puffed and bubbled, or layer of mozzarella and provolone cheeses, neither too heavy nor too light. The aptly named slabs may seem enormous, but I guarantee you’ll eat the whole thing and probably go back for more.
The meatball sandwich is the best in Portland, perfect for sharing … or not.
As Portland has grown from wannabe to world-class, a bar menu is a great way to sample the big flavors of this little city. For the commitment-phobic, a bar menu also is great way to try a restaurant’s best without having to make any life-altering decisions.
Good news: Brewpubs and resto bars are a growing part of Portland’s restaurant scene. Bad news: Sometimes the food is an afterthought. This is not the case at Liquid Riot, where you will find both tasty house-crafted beers and spirits, and an adventurous menu.
Although I am not a fan of what I call “novelty foods,” Liquid Riot makes an award-winning chicken skin slider, an oddball inspiration that layers crunchy fried chicken skin, brown-ale jam, fresh oranges, and a touch of mayo on signature pretzel buns. The wet ingredients balance the flavorful, crunchy, salty chicken skin — unexpected genius.
A perfect pairing with the sliders is flight of house beers or creative cocktail. Try a Clementini, with clementine and Liquid Riot’s own bourbon — small ‘tini, big flavor. And I can’t make it through the winter without my bottle of Fernet Michaud. Seriously.
Sonny’s Lounge has a great bar menu – I love the fried calamari with black sesame, Meyer lemon, and Serrano chili. And their Cuban sandwich is a stellar combination of pork cooked three ways, served Cuban style with pickles and mustard. I like it paired with a Chickadee cocktail, named for the Maine State bird, featuring infused vodka, Aperol, and cranberries. I hear the birdie angels singing whenever I taste it, and have repeated the experience many times with identical results.
To me, Wine Time at the Blue Spoon means the bleu cheese toast —a robust ladle of creamy, warm bleu cheese sauce under a mound of spinach sautéed in olive oil and garlic, served on Tuscan toast with maybe a little gloss of butter. As ultimate comfort food, richly flavored mighty bleu rules. This small but intense dish pulled me through the endless drear of 2016, ‘nuf said.
I love oysters “highbrow” at Eventide Oyster Co., savoring Maine beauties like Winter Point and Pemaquids, and my new favorite, the Wild Belon from Damariscotta. Throw in a few “from away” for an even dozen – they’ll knock your socks off – straight up, or with pickled red onion ice. Pair with a Bubbly Mary (“don’t knock it ’til you try it”), or my fave, dry rosé.
Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor, chef/co-owners of Eventide, neighboring Hugo’s and The Honey Paw, recently won a James Beard award in the Best Chef: Northeast category. Don’t miss the uni butter at Honey Paw, I’m sure that’s what put them over the top.
Satisfying, lowbrow and proud of it, is J’s Oyster on Portland Pier. J’s has heaps of bivalves and the best Bloody ever. How do they do it? Who cares? Don’t miss the buckets of steamers, scallops “raw and nude,” and leave the oyster shucking to Eventide. Let’s face it, sometimes you want your Maine flavor served straight-up by somebody with a ball-point pen in her hair who calls you “dear.”
My all-time go-to are Fore Street’s Bangs Island mussels roasted over apple wood, swimming in butter, vermouth and crushed almonds, served with Standard Baking bread. Hats off to Sam Hayward, Maine’s godfather of slow food, for this inspired dish. Paired with a Cold River martini or two, up with a twist, it is perfect lingering food.
Standard Baking Co.
In the 1990s, baker Allison Pray developed a croissant method that her company, Standard Baking, would use for years. These flaky beauties are hand-rolled with excellent, no, exquisite European butter. They bake them daily along with my favorite, almond croissants, and a bevy of other locally sourced, treats like their addictive chocolate “corks.”
All this mad Maine flavor is changing the character of an area that had once looked elsewhere for guidance. Now we are at last, happily, doing our own thing. — by Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo, RFT East Coast Editor
Earlier version and portions of this story were originally printed © Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.