Restaurants

The $15 hamburger has become standard fare in Portland at some of our finer restaurants.  That price  gets you rarefied beef blends (short-rib and brisket are a favorite) molded into the shape of a typical hamburger and sandwiched on a hand-made roll like brioche.  Add hand-cut fries made from heritage potatoes and slices of heirloom tomato and local lettuce and the picture is burger heaven.  But where oh where are those less costly burgers that are as good as their pricier counterparts?

Ruski’s dive bar vibe

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The new, much awaited endeavor, Toast Bar from Scratch Baking is, among other attributes, a luxurious use of dining options in our region.  I mean, a toast bar?  What is it exactly?  I pictured rows of toasters lined up on a counter in various stages popping out puffy browned breads.

The Toast Bar carries on the bakery’s high standards to bring some of the best baked styles of bread- making around.  Of course, there are their famous flakey-crusted croissant-like lightly sour-dough bagels along with their great breads.  If, for instance, you haven’t picked up a baguette from Scratch baking, it’s one of the best baguettes around. And it’s a marvel of bread making. Their starter has a slight zing of sourdough from long fermentation, and added shelf life, exhibiting a crunchy outer crust and intense bread flavor.  There are 12 to 13 breads made at the bread shop, the selection of which changes daily.

the Toast Bar for breads and bagels and spreads

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Island Creek Oyster Farm, otherwise known as The Shop, is the newest aspirant along the Washington Avenue restaurant strip. The oyster bar is part of a chain of oyster shops in Boston, Burlington, Portsmouth and now Portland.

The dining area and bar; tinned fish for take out

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I have new respect for Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster in South Freeport.  The change in heart is that  we enjoyed some terrific fried clams and a very good and well-priced ($15.95 including fries) lobster roll at our lunch over Labor Day.  I stopped going there for the usual meal of fried clams or steamed lobster because the clams just weren’t up to snuff.  This otherwise popular lobster pound served only strips rather than full belly whole clams.

The menu at the ordering window and on their online menu lists jumbo clam strips.  What are those exactly?  In the past, they’ve never offered whole clams in their fried clam offering.

Pretty working waterfront setting; the covered dining porch

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I wonder who really misses Joe’s Boathouse, the rough and tumble waterfront restaurant that was so popular for years at South Portland’s Spring Point Drive, at Port Harbor Marine.  Maybe at one time, when Greater Portland’s dining public was not so discerning, it passed for a decent meal out.  But now  North 43 Bistro is in its place—a remake so remarkable that you wonder if are you still in South Portland.  Housed in a 2-story boxy building, the contemporary space is right out of an Elle Décor spread of  modern cool.  Its grays and browns only seem to accentuate the water views through the large plate glass windows on the water.

While under construction in early June, North 43 was taking shape (photo courtesy of The Forecaster).

In fact, the entire dining experience is so pleasing that you wonder why there aren’t more restaurants like this dotting Maine’s 3,000 miles of coastline.

The chef and co-owner is Stephanie Brown with restaurateur Laura Argitis (Old Port Sea Grill).  Brown came on the dining scene many years ago with her restaurant Sea Grass, which operated in Yarmouth for 8 years.  Then she moved on to become the executive chef of the Woodland’s dining room for some years until this opportunity came along.

First floor dining room

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It’s a long time coming for the Roma Café to be resurrected  to full glory since its glorious past and ignominious decline (circa 1920s to 1980s).  Its latest iteration (and one hopes it lasts for generations) is led by chef Anders Tallberg (formerly chef and co-owner, Roustabout), Mike Fraser (Bramhall Pub below the restaurant) and Guy Streitburger (also of Bramhall).  The latter has had a long, steady rise from bus-boy/waiter at the original Cinque Terre where he often left you with the refrain “excellent.”  I think he still  expresses that lilting phrase, but, in any case, he’s a delightful young man whose restaurant visions have brought him here flawlessly.

The building, 767 Congress, is owned by Burt’s Bee’s founder and woman of consequence, Roxanne Quimby who might also be the wealthiest woman in Maine from her savvy maneuverings of making lip balm into a mega industry.  When she bought the building, she gave it her gold-plated touch.  She turned the old Roma kitchen into a masterpiece that could easily have served the fabled kitchens of wordly-wise gloire.

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This is a brief note on one of most intriguing, finely tuned food establishments that’s just begun its orbit around Portland’s daring-do dining circles.  Rose Foods at the site of the former BreaLu Café space on Forest Avenue strives to be both a bagel shop and Jewish deli, a surprising creation from the white- bread hands of noted chef Chad Conley who’s cooked in some of the top restaurants in New York and Portland and has created the inimitable Palace Diner where his tuna melts and flapjacks are legendary.

The ordering line at Rose Foods

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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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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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