June 2017

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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