In the holding-tank of Portland restaurants, more Asian eateries continue to fill our culinary narrative in bold, declarative ways.  Consider the arrival of Sichuan Kitchen, which opened two weeks ago, in a prime Congress Street location.  I went with a friend shortly after its debut, and we had a few dishes from the concise menu.  The Zhong dumplings, for instance, filled with pork were amazing: the dumpling dough was rich and the concentrated soy sauce with Szechuan peppercorns and chili in which to roll around the dumplings, conspired to make these some of the tastiest in town. Our second dish, the twice cooked pork, however, was bland—barely any heat, and the tender pieces of meat could have benefited by  an assertive marinade before cooking. A third dish, this time white fish with pickled greens, which our waitress raved about, was disappointing: the swai fish–an Asian farmed catfish, which can be a problematic fish if it doesn’t have exemplary farming practices—was the blandest  white fish, helped a bit from the pickled vegetables.

Zhong pork dumplings

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Few, if any, of our restaurants in the Portland area could be called precious. But then walk into The Purple House in North Yarmouth and the Zeitgeist of this culinary Zen den dazzles discreetly.  You ponder, Am I in a place where I’ll have a spot of coffee, bagel, pastry or a sit-down meal in this exquisite little spot with its communal harvest table and open kitchen with aromas that tantalize?

The Purple House and the wood for the oven that gives the bagels their distinctive crispiness

From early morning until 11:00 AM you’ll literally join a crowd who are already jamming this charming café for the Montreal style bagels that owner/chef Krista Kerns Desjarlais has hand-rolled and baked in the brick wood oven, which imparts a very particular patina to America’s favorite breakfast bread.  (And, for now, don’t be surprised to see another star chef, Jason Williams, of The Well at Jordan’s Farm, giving a helping hand in the kitchen.)

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Lemon meringue pie is one of the hallmarks of the American dessert repertoire. It’s not that difficult to make, though its three elements require care of preparation. For starters, use a rich, flaky pastry dough (see link for my flaky pastry dough recipe). This needs to be baked blind. Second step is the lemon custard filling. It’s thickened with cornstarch and flour so that when you add egg yolks to cook, the yolks when simmered to thicken won’t curdle because the flour and cornstarch prevent this. Then there’s the meringue.

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It’s that predictable rite of passage when critics at various publications—local and national—compile their year-end lists of the best in film, theater, books, food and dining.  So herewith is my contribution to that formality: what impressed and what didn’t and a stab or two at coming trends in food and dining in Greater Portland.

Evo’s distinctive architectural look

That Portland dining hasn’t taken an evolutionary leap in the past year means that we’ve settled in with what’s here and now–and it all remains very good. The town didn’t get, for instance, a knock-you-down Korean restaurant, all the rage in other (larger) cities. But I’m looking forward to Sichuan Kitchen at 612 Congress St.,  which  is slated to open this weekend; it will be the first restaurant in many years that offers Portlanders the intricate flavors of Szechuan cooking. Though my favorite is still Empire Chinese for its terrific take on Cantonese cuisine.  When I stopped in for lunch the other day (hot and sour soup and spicy pork bao’s) the place had a noontime crush as though it were a Saturday night.

The lunchtime crush at Empire; hot and sour soup with spicy pork bao

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All those holiday roasts that we painstakingly prepare and from which we covet each luscious bite sometimes seem destined to be the prize at the end of the road: the leftovers.

The Christmas menu was roast prime rib, thrice baked potatoes and carrot souffle

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We wound up for dinner at The Front Room by default.  Our first pick was the convenience of Roustabout, a few minutes from home.  It was closed for a private party.  Second choice, up the hill to Lolita.  And that, too, was closed for a private party.  It was as though we had spiraled into a conspiracy to keep us from enjoying the dinner hour.   But it’s holiday time and many restaurants in Portland are enjoying increased dining traffic with seasonal fetes.

We found a parking space, however, near Lolita—a   near miracle since the arcane parking rules on Munjoy Hill, Portland’s most trendy neighborhood, defy urban ease, probably the most difficult place to park in the city with No Parking signs everywhere.

Then it occurred to us to repair to the Front Room, a few blocks away. As we approached the restaurant it looked dark.  Oh, no.  Closed too?  It was just the angle of light and darkness that gave that impression.  But as soon as we walked in we were so glad.  What a warm and welcoming room, with its beamed ceilings and open kitchen lauding over the room.

The dining room is warm and welcoming

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Franks and beans are as much of a tradition in New England as attending the Magic of Christmas celebration at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium. I’ve only gone once to that wonderful extravaganza, but baked beans have a much larger meaning for me.  For one I’ve not been a great baked-beans cook.  I usually add too much liquid and over- or under-cook the beans—basically it’s not my culinary métier.  Though I’ve found that the recipe on the back of the State of Maine beans package sold in local supermarkets is a classic, standard recipe that works well.    But this go round last Saturday night, I used a recipe that was one of those wonderful hand-me-down formulas–often the hallmark of great home cooking.  I found it in Linda Greenlaw’s wonderful book, Cooking on a Very Small Island–chockful of regional recipes that are so good.

Baked Bean Supper

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It’s about time that Eve’s, the dining room at the Portland Harbor Hotel, has joined the ranks of hotel and independent restaurants to contribute substantively to our dining scene.  Earlier this week I joined a small group put together by the hotel’s marketing team, Gillian and Jim Britt, for a tasting of the new menu that has debuted with some very fine dishes from chef Tim Labonte.

The dining room at Eve’s at the Garden

In the past, I’ve been critical of Eve’s, the dining room and the hotel itself.  But to stay competitive all lodging and dining operations must be top drawer in how they project themselves.  And Eve’s is stepping into the 21st century meaningfully.

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When the New York Times food pages ran an article (4/08/15) on the family recipes from poet Tracy K. Smith, it included one for pound cake and another for Alabama Lemon Cheese Cake. I was drawn to the pound cake recipe immediately because it sounded so good and I love pound cake.  The recipe was written with the Times‘ relatively new practice of giving both metric and traditional cup measures. I  made the cake  using the gram measurements.

The cake turned out to be one of the best versions of pound cake.  It was extremely buttery, dense and rich, improving in flavor the more it stayed in a covered cake dome on the counter. I published my version here last year, giving the ingredients in weight  as well as the cup measures.

My original pound cake adaptation using gram measurements

I made the cake many times since. Then I finally noticed a disparity in the Times’ calculation of equivalent measures of cups and grams.  Both the flour and sugar gram/cup equivalents were way wrong.

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In the dim old days of plain old pizza, the typical slice or pie was made with standard-issue canned tomato sauce topped with melted shreds of equally ordinary mozzarella, a few sprinklings of dried oregano and a touch of olive oil. And it was delicious comfort food that was doggedly good. We didn’t veer off that standard much. Perhaps we added sliced pepperoni, some mushrooms or even sausage or a meatball or two. And that was it.  The only other choice was to have it Neapolitan or Sicilian style.  In my dim old days, this slice cost about 95 cents (or less).  If we went to an Italian restaurant where veal parm or chicken cacciatore were standard fare, another choice was a freshly made pie.  Some restaurants did these very well, using their special sauce and cheese and baked in high-heat brick ovens. Nowadays all slices are special especially if you walk into the ubiquitous folds of Otto Pizza, the local chain that populates Greater Portland’s landscape with more stores than Wal-Mart.

The bar and booths at Otto

The bar and booths at Otto

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