Eating Through the Northeast
The pleasures of these five cities are in what you can eat and drink, as well as what you can see.
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Portland: No Pretentions
Portland is an endearingly unpretentious town blessed with comely harbor views, gentle ocean breezes—and great shopping (with nary a chain in sight). With a population of just 64,000, it manages to retain its small-town feel while offering the sophisticated pleasures of a much larger city. And that goes double when it comes to food. There’s lots of great seafood, sure, but Portland offers so much more. After many visits over the years, I continue to be amazed at the depth and breadth of its culinary offerings. Portland is foodie heaven!
Take Walter’s, for example, a two-story space with lots of brick, pressed-tin ceilings and an open kitchen right in the downstairs dining room. We sampled Crispy Asian Raviolis stuffed with lemongrass chicken, potato-crusted haddock and pan-roasted sea scallops with hand-rolled couscous, spinach, shallot and tomato sauté in a pool of butternut squash purée. There’s plenty of seafood on offer (rope-grown mussels, Peeky-Toe crab cake, lobster in Marsala cream sauce), but they also do creative spins on lamb, pork and beef. Every dish comes with its own interesting sides and drizzles, which can be a challenge in a restaurant as busy as this one.
We had breakfast one morning at The Good Egg, an adorably scruffy (overstuffed sofa, newspapers, artist-painted fish-motif walls) little eatery on Middle Street on the upper edge of the Old Port. I’d go back for the Eggs from Hell (two eggs with spicy black beans, salsa, sour cream, flour tortilla and chipotle hot sauce), and the tasty vegetarian hash, made with potato, minced onion, carrot, spinach, broccoli, and browned tempeh. We kind of wished we’d gone for dinner (by night it’s The Pepper Club), for entrées such as Moroccan lamb-and-apricot tagine and spinach-eggplant-and-pepper lasagne.
One of Portland’s best chefs, Rob Evans, and his wife, Nancy, preside at Hugo’s on Middle Street. Evans, who never went to cooking school and actually trained to be an electrician, has done stints at The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia and the French Laundry in Napa. Now making magic at Hugo’s, he is turning out some of the most creative and beautiful food we’ve seen in a while, with an emphasis on ingredients fished, farmed and foraged locally. When we visited, the prix fixe menu of four small plates (for $68) included such imaginative dishes as Soy Glazed Casco Bay Cod with shiitake gnocchi, shaved white turnip and white miso emulsion and Crispy Skin Arctic Char with leek & fennel hash, Meyer lemon and potato croutons.
Guilty Pleasures Dept.: Just down the street is the don’t-miss Duckfat. Lauded in Travel & Leisure and Bon Appétit, this cute spot serves delicious panini and soups (“from scratch and full of lov’n”), but the real draw is the Belgian fries, deep-fried to crispy perfection (the secret ingredient: duck fat), and served in a small or large cone with your choice of eight dipping sauces (including truffle ketchup, horseradish mayo, even homemade duck gravy). Take them on the road or enjoy them right here with a Red Stripe or the yummy mocha milkshake. Trust me, they’re not to be missed!
Our one foray out of the Old Port took us to Local 188 in the West End, a ballroom-sized space with persimmon-colored walls, 18-foot pressed-tin ceilings with exposed heating ducts and many dangling, mismatched chandeliers, and loads of offbeat charm. There’s a bar at one end, an old-fashioned lunch counter and several arrangements of sofas and overstuffed chairs for eating or chatting. The rest of the space is taken up with dining tables, most of which were occupied when we showed up. The brunch menu runs to sandwiches, salads and egg dishes like Mushroom, Pea Shoots & Goat Cheese Scramble and the tasty Cuban Hash Picadillo with poached eggs. At night, it’s tapas, pastas and paella.
Portland has several Irish pubs and a thriving brew pub scene. Of the former, our pick is Bull Feeney’s on Fore Street, a family-friendly two-story pub with two bars, water views, and a mile-long list of single-malt scotches (64 in all!). The extensive menu here features fresh local seafood (try the Classic Maine Lobster Roll) and a host of Irish specialties, including shepherd’s pie, bangers & colcannon and Irish stew. Just down the street is the ever-popular Gritty MacDuff’s Brew Pub, with its high wood-beamed ceilings, copper-topped bar and myriad numbered customer mugs hanging just above the bartender’s head. Stop in for a heady Best Bitter or a Black Fly Stout and grab some Grittygear and ales to go at the “Brewtique” next door.
Last but not least was dinner at Vignola, an engagingly untraditional Italian place in a beautiful old building down near the water. Big windows, chandeliers made from multiple wine bottles and a busy bar front and center set the scene for small plates and large, personal pizzas, pasta, and a cheese list numbering 22 formaggio choices served with house-made chutneys and dried nuts. There’s an impressive wine list, and an exhaustive beer list, which includes many Big Beers (750 ml.) and even Really Big Beers (1.5 to 9 liters).
Believe it or not, we visited all these places over one three-day weekend. Really. Fortunately, we were ideally situated at the Portland Regency Hotel, smack in the heart of the Old Port, so every destination (except Local 188) was just a few blocks’ very pleasant walk away. We’re already making plans for our next visit.