Bon Appetit Magazine recently named our little town of Portland, Maine, “Restaurant City of the Year 2018.” Suddenly, we’re a world-class destination for all things yummy and wondrous – a somewhat frenzied big deal.
Here is my humble townie perspective:
From the sublime to the ridiculous, Portland has it all. Enjoy an early morning jolt at Speckled Axe, where they’ll serve your pour-over with Fruity Pebbles milk. Bam-Bam.Here in Restaurant City, Washington Avenue is rapidly becoming Restaurant Row. I grab my epicurious pal, Theater Boy, and head for distinguished newcomer Forage and their already legendary wood-fired Montreal bagels. My salt bagel with caper-dill cream cheese is a savory, chewy masterpiece. Theater Boy’s everything bagel with silky cream cheese is abundantly seeded and scrumptious.We head for Munjoy Hill newcomer, Belleville pattisserie, to celebrate friendship and good fortune with an almond croissant – if we arrive early enough to snag one. The flaky, buttery beauties get glowing raves from Bon Appetit and devoted local fans like us. Say hi to Ten Ten Pié, a sweet little spot that straddles breakfast and all-day with creamy fruit tarts, Wiener-brød, twice-baked Matcha almond pastries, and savory hand-pies filled with butternut squash, cranberry and chèvre. Don’t miss their breakfast of champions, Khachapuri egg and cheese tart with Zaatar. Grab takeout hand-pies of kale, feta, and caramelized leeks to serve as warm hors d’oeuvres and you will wow your guests.
After several breakfasts, we contemplate lunch. West End newcomer Lazzari’s beehive-shaped pizza oven reminds us of an Italian forno, hot enough to sear and sizzle, yet cool to the touch. Lazzari’s wood-fired Panyol oven flaunts her voluptuous copper curves.Try the white clam pizza brightened with squeeze of lemon; we love the Naples-thin crust. Lazzari’s masterstroke is dense meatballs served with house-made ricotta. Sip Chianti while Thomas tends bar and you’ll meet some of the jazziest folks in town.Wash Ave newcomer Bob’s Clam Hut is a small bright space with modern mojo. The Hut offers clams two ways: “Bob’s” and “Lillian’s.” We devour baskets of both, but long for a bit more briny tang. Ocean breezes, crashing waves or maybe just a pinch of sea salt.
Maine Craft Distilling on Wash Ave has an expansive bar stocked with herbaceous botanical spirits. The Shop, Raw Bar & Shellfish Market in front features a gorgeous bounty of Maine oysters. Booze and bivalves are always a winning combination.
A hit of sangria with fresh salsa and chips can be perfect light recharge. Theater Boy and I hone our sipping and dipping skills at Terlingua on Wash Ave, whose house-smoked barbecue arrives daily at 5:00 p.m. and is sold out by 10:00. Townies arrive early.Portland’s 16 craft breweries include Wash Ave favorite, Oxbow Brewing. Cleverly tucked into Oxbow’s beer garden, DuckfatFriteShack serves Belgian frites, yes, cooked in duckfat. Seven dipping sauces include smoked mayo and Thai Chili. We devour their robust smoked-brisket chili with Vermont cheddar, duckfat frites and cilantro. Duckfat fare pairs perfectly with Oxbow’s bright and hoppy Farmhouse brews – proximity works.
Upscale Wash Ave standout is Bon Appetit’s top-ten fave, Drifters Wife. Simplicity and creativity reign in this astonishing farm-to-table restaurant that locals remember as the skinny wine shop next door. Drifter’s Wife has definitely found its groove and gravitas.I’m mildly astonished that there are no “Happy Hour” wines here. Owners Peter and Orenda Hale are eager to explain how this makes abundant sense with natural, organic wines. I appreciate the unstudied, cool vibe here. It feels hip and earnest, like the Hales.I sip a glass of crisp La Boutanche and chat with a bearded hipster at the bar. The former Nissen bakery space is relaxed and surprisingly elegant. Lucky me, I’m dining with local oenophile Chris Ziagos, who settles on a progression of white, rosé and red Knauss wines cleverly paired with choices from the petite, accessible and charming menu.
We dawdle over a bright corn and watermelon salad. We share a second salad of cucumber and feta, pistachios and mint. We marvel at Drifter’s thick sourdough with Maine seaweed butter. We split a juicy pork loin topped with slaw and two tiny silver fishies. We vanquish the menu’s seasonal bounty and alas, leave no room for dessert. Next time! Do not miss these talented upstarts and their exquisitely fresh ideas.
Munjoy Hill is convenient to recent and not-so-recent epicurean marvels. Our neighborhood go-to is Lolita, a rustic and convivial bistro where I am happily addicted to torchio pasta. Guy’s charcuterie plates are loaded with authentic Mediterranean flair. The wine list is smart and worldly. Don’t miss Tapas Monday – I’ll see you there.
Wash Ave also boasts Izakaya Minato, where JFC/Japanese Fried Chicken rules. Shichimi Tuna with creamy ponzu is unctuous heaven. Don’t miss the hot wriggling bacon (I swear) atop the cabbage pancake. Savor Minato’s Green Tea Negroni and bliss out.
Feeling tired, crabby and in need of an messy recharge, we head for the picnic tables at Salvage BBQ. Old friends Corey and Kristen meet us while visiting from Brooklyn NY. We devour several trays of ribs, mac ‘n’ cheese and pickles. Suck down a billion beers.
Corey is a cartoonist. Kristen designs cool socks. They love dogs and and are endlessly hip. They explain why smoked meat is a thing. We beg them to return to Portland, pretty please. They say they’ll consider it. Our Secret Weapon: The current issue of Bon Appetit!
The August issue of Bon Appetit has created monster queues in our little corner of paradise. Restaurant chefs and staff are stressed. Parking is impossible — and it was always pretty bad. Ordinary townie pleasures suddenly feel slightly out of reach.
Me, I’m optimistically hoping for that rising tide that lifts all boats. Come see what all the fuss is about here in Portland, Maine. We’re a lot more than lobsters and lighthouses.