A friend suggested that I go to Sonny’s because, she said, “The new menu is terrific.” My first reaction was how different could it be if the restaurant has remained a basic haunt for Latin-inspired cooking?  Was there an invigoration of Cal- España -Latin fusion fresh off the plains?

So we went there for dinner earlier this week—the first time in at least a year.  I used to go  for lunch often, but the restaurant stopped serving during the day.

Sonny’s is prominenly figured along the Old Port’s restaurant row

The room is basically the same: darkened nooks and crannies with banquettes and tables in this historic space, which 150 years ago was the ornately designed Portland Savings Bank that was built after the fire of  1866.  The rear dining room is more spacious and brighter. And the bar, as always, was packed–a popular watering hole for the after-5 office crowd. Millennial Central?  To a degree.

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If there’s one dessert to make with strawberries, it’s this silken strawberry-rich pie with its distinctive addition of cream that lines the bottom of the pastry case before putting in the cooked jam-like strawberry filling.

I found the recipe in the excellent cookbook “The Farm” by Ian Knauer.  The recipes are a mix of the author’s old-family recipes and Knauer’s many years as food editor of Gourmet Magazine.

There are many versions of no-bake strawberry pie.  It generally employs the technique of crushing a portion of the berries and mixing in fresh strawberries enriched with sugar and cornstarch that cook until the mixture is clear and thick.

Cream Cheese Strawberry Pie

For the cream cheese filling (the cream cheese must be at room temperature) I used Casco Bay Butter company’s cream cheese, which is wonderfully rich and creamy.  I haven’t seen it at stores but found it at the Brunswick Farmer’s Market at Crystal Springs.

 

Strrawberries from Fairwinds Farm

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Rarely does a new restaurant get it so right at the gate.  But then when you have two pros—a highly acclaimed chef and pastry chef, in this case husband and wife who are the owners of the new establishment, Chaval, then the level of success is nearly assured. With Chaval’s opening this week after a renovation of the former Caiola’s in which it’s housed, this duo has brought to Portland one of the most exciting restaurants in the city set to pamper those who cross its threshold.

Devotees of Caiola’s were mostly West Enders who called this place their own like a private dining club when it opened  in 2005. It fit into the fabric of the West End like a a brick townhouse wrapped up in an  old comfy sweater.  The interiors were plain and woody; the food from chef Abby Harmon was deliciously inventive—always something unusually devised with ingredients that you’d never dream of pairing.  Who could not love her savory puddings filled with lobster or crab meat swathed in an elegant cream sauce, for instance, or grilled pork chops with caramelized onions; Johnny cakes with fried chicken and maple syrup or crab cakes under a dome of beet puree–homespun but inventive fare highly tasteful and bathed with flavor.

The space at Chaval is open,, larger and very comfortable

So, when Damian Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez bought Caiola’s—both the real estate and the restaurant–we all kind of rolled our eyes that seemed to say, Wow this will be a hard act to follow to please die-hard Harmon fans stumbling out of their brick manses to revel in her cooking.

When they took over the restaurant they kept the Caiola’s menu.  Though many of us thought, it’s not the same.  Good but not remarkable.  Hmmm.  Where is that famous Sansonetti touch who installed himself fresh from New York of Daniel Boulud fame where he was executive chef at Bar Boulud into his divine Piccolo, their heavenly dining aerie in the footsteps of Bresca and its former owner, Kristen Dejarlais, another star chef?

Bar dining is already in high demand

Fast forward: After a few months Sansonetti and Lopez closed the Caiola space and the undertaking of a total rehab ensued:  not just the space but the kitchen, menu and staff.

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By any other standards, Portland is growing by leaps and bounds.  Though the leaps don’t generally go above heights of six stories and the level of architecture remains woefully uninspired in urban rebirth.  Yet, long the holdout, the waterfront is slowly being rebuilt, especially “Foreside,” the marketing name for the 58 Fore St. complex formerly known as the Sprague Company.  And our restaurants have joined the ascent of progress with the rabble of new ones braking ranks with good taste from creative chefs.  It seems like nearly every day there’s some new dining establishment that excites and beckons.  But one (among a few others) remains as vital as ever, delivering on its aim of fine dining to the hilt like a convivial club serving its huddle of dedicated gourmands.  That is, my friends, Back Bay Grill. Now nearly 30 years running, it remains one of Portland’s premiere restaurants. In all the years, I’ve been dining there – at least 15 – it has never once disappointed.

The ever popular bar at Back Bay Grill

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If there is one essential pair of late-spring early-summer vegetables to pair now it’s new potatoes and summer shelling peas.  I haven’t seen this duo in Portland’s farmers’ markets yet, but I encountered them at Beth’s Farm Market in Warren, the midcoast farm-store behemoth that always seems to be the first with the gems of summer produce.

Beth’s market in Warren–early strawberries, shell peas and new potatoes are plentiful now

At a recent trip there, the peas were just out, still somewhat small but bulging pods with sweet green peas.  Nearby were the basket of new red potatoes and those precious baby carrots that are just being pulled from the ground.

Baby carrots, peas and new potatoes

At the Portland Farmers’ Market today, English peas from Goranson Farm

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Finally, it’s high grilling season as the summer bounty trickles in to markets after our prolonged wet and chilly spring.  I was in the Mid-Coast yesterday for a day trip and my first stop was Beth’s Farm Market where early strawberries were on magnificent display as well as the farm’s just-dug crop of new potatoes—the red variety, small, velvety and sweet. We probably won’t see those two crops in Portland until July 4th weekend.

Beth’s market in Warren with early strawberries and new potatoes are plentiful now

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Something happened on the way to the forum of El Corazon the food truck to its new iteration of El Corazon the restaurant.  Its food truck still enjoys great popularity for good reason: the home-style comfort food is delicious, a fast bite of street fare from tostados to burritos.  But at the restaurant it was a lowly experience of the worst kind of kitschy preps that befall Americanized Mexican cooking.

The bar at El Corazon

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Enterprising bagel mavens in Maine should flock to flagels, a flattened version of a bagel that some connoisseurs consider the best in class. In fact, the New York Daily News proclaimed in an article last year that these were the best and tastiest of the bagel world.  I wonder why they’re not more popular here?  The name doesn’t roll off tongue and could be mistaken for a social faux pas that invariably happens in a packed room.

Montague Street (Brooklyn) flagels

The point is there’s a bit of bagel mania across the nation with major cities trying to earn top honors in comparison to the standard bearer of the greatness of New York bagels.  I’m from New York and indeed I miss those specimens , which are as easily available as a pack of chewing gum. What’ makes them so good?  The common conception is that it’s because of New York’s pure water (not so pure anymore) and boiled in so-called artesian pools.  I think they’re good because they’re made with chutzpah, the kind dredged from the old  Red Hook.

Excellent bagels sandwich at Cafe 158

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It’s as though we fell into a swamp of such culinary sludge in one of the nosiest establishments in Portland—our town with so many talented chefs at nearly every corner and intersection—that it was perfectly clear it wasn’t going to get any better. True, this is basically a lounge and bar with food.  But even the churlish claims of comfort food barely cut the mustard. And inside it was so dark to the point of dreariness, we still trudged through five dishes—sharables—and pitchers, vats and tall glasses filled with tropical drinks that were anchored in more crushed ice than the defining liquor.

A drink at Restaurant 1

It was then, after consuming buckets of chips, dips, shellfish and blockbuster drinks, we all felt so ill-fed we unanimously concluded that it was time to leave and have a real dinner somewhere else.  Our departure came after great expense since we drank more than we ate, and in a range of $6 to $14 per cocktail, the liquor tab can add up on top of the expensive platters of mushy food.  This place had been so good when it first opened, with chefs who commandeered the kitchen with authority and inventiveness rather than the meh it has become.

Anadama bread at Scales

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Put it in a larger city—say New York, Chicago, LA or even along the cobblestones of haute dining in Boston—Portland’s Cheevitdee  (which means “good life”) could easily qualify as a trophy-food restaurant. But in Portland, where such matters are (relatively speaking) more down to earth, ingrained as farm-to-table panache–seven of us descended upon this Old Port newbie unprepared for a lunch that was ineradicably memorable. This is Thai cooking that’s sensual and elegant.

Cheevitdee’s cool interiors overlooking Boothby Square in the Old Port

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