In our town, filled with bounteous brunch menus—some offered on weekends and others just on Sundays—the vagaries of the star brunch dish, Eggs Benedict, rarely surprise.  But then consider Chaval, commandeered by the highly effective husband and wife chef duo and co-owners, Damián Sansonetti and Ilma Lopez. The latter’s focus is her art of refined pastries and Sansonetti wielding his firm hand in the kitchen—really a co-conspiratorial affair—giving Portlanders a fine fusion of American-European fare.

The dining room and bar at Chaval

Chaval’s brunch menu is part of a new wave of offerings that typify the meal from some of our newest, highly regarded restaurants—namely, in addition to Chaval, Little Giant and Bolster, Snow, all of whom offer highly evolved brunch menus with twists and turns that elevate this strange thing called weekend brunch.

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By special request my need for a true New York style onion bagel arrived at Rose Foods  this past Sunday.  Studded with onions and salt these were the true bagels of my youth growing up in New York.

A basket of onion bagels fresh out of the oven at Rose Foods

To me the onion bagel is iconic beyond all others.  Though the most universally popular is still the everything bagel, which I find too overwhelming, an ersatz plotz of disparate spices coating the most common bagel.

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Onion bagels  epitomize the New York bagel more than any other variety in the city known for its water-bath wonders.  Indeed growing up in New York Sunday mornings meant bagels for breakfast, with lox and cream cheese and sometimes white-fish salad or a whole fish of smoked sable.  We had the proverbial baker’s dozen, which included plain, sesame seed and onion.  Occasionally an egg bagel (with onions) was included in the mix and a few bialies, too.

Union’s basket of onion bagels

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In other cities—from, let’s say, Cleveland to Minneapolis, Birmingham to Chapel Hill or  to the four corners of the continental United States, including Portland, Maine—the progressive dining-out reawakening that has evolved over many decades, beyond American chop suey and veal- parm Italian American style—brings us to a present-day Disneyland of trendy dining. This has  gone beyond the locavorism of American bistro, small-plate kickshaws and fusion fare  so that a restaurant such as Bolster, Snow typifies the new breed of chefs and restauranteurs who create dishes that defy hyperbolic categorization.  That is, namely, it’s the delicious food prepared with an American touch of freshness and local ingredients defining the bold fare served at Bolster, Snow.

The streetside facade of The Francis; the bar and the reception rooms

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Dishes that were popular and now out of favor are finding their way back into my kitchen.  For a while I was nuts over savory soufflés (never much liked the sweet variety) and for a short time several summers ago I revived the classic quiche to serve to lunch guests on  North Haven.  But most recently my attention has turned to popovers.

Popovers fresh out of the oven.

It’s a bread that’s in a class of its own. They’re really the American version of Yorkshire pudding that relies on an egg and milk batter that rises magically in the oven without any leavening whatsoever.

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Rarely have I seen Portland’s rabble of dining denizens run so fast and so furiously to a brand-new restaurant as they have to the Tuscan Table in South Portland at the Maine Mall.  The Mall?  Yes, you read right—smack dab in the anonymous canyons of retail melancholia with throngs of perambulating polyester-clad regulars hugging the promenades of this far-flung haven for shopaholics.  In fact, on a recent evening late in the dinner hour I witnessed the crowd still cramming the entry way as though the adjacent chain restaurants were all forsaken to be seduced by this newcomer.

The Tuscan Table

To explain this phenomenon, you just must take in this gorgeous place, which moved into the former Pizza Hut space next to Books a Million and Macy’s.  It wasn’t merely renovated but went through a makeover so extreme as to make a sow’s ear into the proverbial silk purse wrapped in ermine.

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Wine dinners—and nowadays craft-beer pairing extravaganzas — that most restaurants host for visiting vineyards or local breweries showcase both the restaurant’s cooking and the winemaker’s wares. For me it’s generally too much food and wine in a progression of courses that often yields a reach for Gelusil, the iconic antacid from the last century. Yet after seeing the menu for the Wild Game Dinner with wine pairings held at Little Giant last month I learned that there was nothing diminutive coming from their kitchen.

The bar room and main dining room

The revelation was this:  Little Giant’s chef Rian Wyllie—where until now have you been hiding? He came from Boston where he cooked at two restaurants that had elevated casual menus––what I call guilty of sloshing around the world cuisine orbit. His alma maters, Lone Star Taco Bar and Deep Ellum, in no way indicated the depth of this chef’s abilities that he presented at Little Giant’s recent special dinner.  All six courses featured sophisticated renditions perfectly executed and paired by an unusual spectrum of esoteric wines, cordials and cocktails from Haus Alpenz distributors.

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Cookbooks by restaurant celebrity chefs can be exciting, even revelatory.  Yet sometimes they should be taken with a grain of salt.  Generally, their recipes are overly complex and time-consuming, loaded  with steps that are best accomplished by professionals in a restaurant kitchen.

The Lost Kitchen cover photo

But Erin French’s new cookbook, “The Lost Kitchen” by the chef/owner at the highly acclaimed restaurant, The Lost Kitchen, in the far reaches of Friendship, Maine, is a case in point that’s an exception. Her book is the essence of simplicity.  Which doesn’t mean that all the recipes are a cinch to make.  Rather they are built on flavor profiles that are exacting. Given her location in the farm-rich fields of Freedom, Maine, and its environs, there’s an assumed locality in her ingredients that are so readily accessible in her neck of the woods.  She’s not apt, therefore–nor should you–to go to the supermarket to get a plastic wrapped chicken for her cast-iron roasted chicken with lemon and rosemary.

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Certain dishes remain locked up as seasonal holiday preparations when they could easily be unleashed to enjoy any time of the year.  Some examples include goose or prime rib for Christmas, lamb or ham for Easter and corned beef, the centerpiece of a New England boiled dinner, traditionally served on St. Patrick’s Day. But these are wonderful whenever you want to have them.

That’s what I thought when on a recent weekend I was at Bisson’s, the Topsham butcher, and spied their corned beef, which is in the meat case year-round.  It’s a great cut of beef, prepared traditionally–with the dividend of leftovers in sandwiches or corned beef hash.

Bisson’s corned beef wrapped and ready brined with salt, sugar, and pickling spices

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Opening day, this past Saturday,  at Portland’s new location for its indoor winter farmers’ market was a hallmark event.  If you haven’t been yet, then get yourself there next Saturday at 9:00 AM when the market opens at the Maine Girl’s Academy in the far-flung reaches of Stevens Avenue.

Entry way to the Maine Girl’s Academy and the farmers’ market inside

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