Restaurants

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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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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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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