Old School, New Ageby Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo © Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram
When I arrived in Portland in 1980, the culinary landscape was pretty bleak. We had Valle’s for steak and Boone’s for seafood; for variety, we had Hollow Reed, Hungry Hunza and Hu Shang. Then, slowly but surely, talented chefs and taste-shapers – both native and from away – began to open bistros, bars and breweries in brick warehouses, on historic main streets and rural retreats and farms. These innovators welcomed savvy Mainers to savor the indefinable appeal of the next new thing.
I trace the rise of dining out as a personal phenomenon to Jim Ledue and Alberta’s restaurant in the 90s. Ledue added a sophisticated indulgence to our inbred Moosewood food culture of exposed brick and spider plants. Since then, my local go-tos have expanded with along with my palate.
So what are the flavors of Maine? The tang of a foggy day on the ocean? A fried clam? Allen’s Coffee Brandy? I’m convinced it starts with wildly creative chefs inspired by the local catch and produce with an overall desire to blow people’s minds. In search of this restless concept, I went searching in ever-widening circles starting with my hometown of Portland.
A perfect place to start is Harbor Fish, the trusty Maine fish market where everything scaly, shiny, clawed, and wriggly is sold at fair prices and in stunning abundance. Walk to Rosemont Produce, one of Portland’s greenest additions, with its eye-popping array of fresh organic vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers where you can buy everything from kohlrabi to rutabaga.
Or stroll to Maine Mead Works and sample the seasonal Ram Island iced tea mead, sweet and minty, or the summer mead brewed with strawberries from Maxwell’s Farm. I love the rose-colored blueberry mead – it doesn’t get more local than Maine blues. LFK in Longfellow Square makes a heavenly herbaceous cocktail of Prosecco and the lavender mead, sourced at Glendarrah Farms in Lincolnville.
Breakfast is a great time to explore Maine flavor, starting with the glorious Holy Donut – the genuine Maine potato donut. I’d describe the experience, but some things are too exquisite for words. Taste for yourself, starting with the sweet-potato-ginger, my latest food crush (I can’t stop thinking about it).
Coffee certainly possesses the aroma of Maine, as roasters and indie shops like Bard move in alongside city stalwarts. If you like a little do-gooder essence with your joe, visit Coffee by Design, poised once more to expand and define what “doing well by doing good” really means. Or rub elbows with hipsters and urban professionals at Arabica and its sister-roaster, Crema, on Commercial Street.
We lived on the West End for a year, during which I developed an attachment to the Cinnamon Toast Balls at Aurora Provisions. I sat in Aurora each morning eavesdropping on the ladies’ Book Club behind a frothy cappuccino until the Cinnamon Toast Balls captured my attention and eclipsed poor Malcolm Gladwell.
Harding Lee Smith of The Rooms has me addicted to his gnocchi, poached eggs and spinach under a gloss of Hollandaise, sprinkled with pancetta. This decadent bite combines the best of salty and unctuous with a solid hit of protein, resting daintily on soft pillows of pasta. It even has a bit of green for the vegetable-challenged. It’s not health food, but I honestly think it’s a perfect dish.
After a week of rain, snow or hostile deadlines, I crave comfort food. And nothing quite does it for me like the East Ender’s humble egg-salad sliders. These eggs of course descend from genuine Maine chickens, with bits of bacon, shallots and a few salty capers for good luck. This is not your Mom’s egg salad, okay, but served on soft buttered brioche it does reach a certain comforting maternal high note. For the perfect accompaniment, I like the Mule, made with local Cold River vodka, blood orange, and ginger beer – Maine flavor with a kick.
Don’t miss the Sicilian pizza at Micucci’s on India Street, handmade by Steven Lanzalotta, the dreamy pastry chef who hides out in the bakery at the back of the store. I don’t know if it’s the sauce, spicy and sweet, or the dough, puffed and bubbled, or the mozzarella, neither too heavy nor too light. Each slab seems enormous but I guarantee you’ll eat the whole thing.
As Portland has grown from wannabe to world-class, a bar menu is a great way to sample the big flavors of this little city. For the commitment-phobic, a bar menu also is great way to try a restaurant’s best without having to make any life-altering decisions.
The Sonny’s Cuban sandwich, a stellar combination of pork three ways served in true Cuban style with pickles and mustard. I like it paired with a Chickadee cocktail, named for the Maine State bird, featuring infused vodka, Aperol, and a few cranberries. I hear a choir of angels and chickadees singing whenever I taste it, and have repeated the experience many times with identical results.
To me, Wine Time at the Blue Spoon means the Maine shrimp starter —a delicate mound of tiny garlicky Maine shrimp under a veil of olive oil and maybe a little gloss of butter. Maine shrimp as comfort food makes all the sense in the world. This small but mighty flavor pulled me through the endless drear of Winter 2012. In summer, the Spoon’s loamy garden flavored roasted eggplant rules.
My friend Joe is a precocious foodie who can’t resist mentioning the Next New Thing. And I love nothing more than to beat him to it.
At In’finiti, we nailed another delicious Maine combo, the Ferry Ride cocktail with Urban Farm Fermentory ginger kombucha, Aperol and lime, and Maine potato fries prepared Belgian-style with mad spicy ketchup and smoked aoli. My husband enjoyed a “haus” brewed beer called “Sir Halcyon Mild.”
At Outliers, an even newer newcomer, we enjoyed an inspired pairing of the Outlier 75 of Cold River gin and champagne, and a duck pate as silky as the edge of a baby’s blanket.
Sip, Savor, Repeat
I love oysters “highbrow” at Eventide with Maine beauties like Winter Point, Norumbega, Pemaquid, and new favorite, Wild Belon from Damariscotta. Throw in a few “from away” for an even dozen. They’ll knock your socks off – straight up, or with pickled red onion ice. Pair with the Bubbly Mary (“Don’t knock it ’til you try it”), or house-favorite dry rosé. Amazing.
Equally satisfying, wonderfully lowbrow and proud of it is J’s Oyster on Portland Pier. J’s has heaps of bivalves and the best Bloody ever. How do they do it? Who cares. Don’t miss the buckets of steamers, scallops “raw and nude,” and leave the oyster shucking to Eventide. Let’s face it, sometimes you want your Maine flavor served straight-up by somebody with a ball-point pen in her hair who calls you “dear.”
My all-time go-to is Fore Street’s applewood roasted Bangs Island mussels swimming in butter, vermouth and crushed almonds, served with Standard Baking bread. Hats off to Sam Hayward, Maine’s godfather of slow food, for this inspired dish. Paired with a Cold River martini, up, with a twist, it is perfect lingering food.
The earth moved the day I stopped into Cranberry Island Kitchen and tasted whoopie pies flavored with Champagne, Cointreau, and Chambord. Equally wonderful is Cranberry Island Gingerbread, colloquially known as “Crazy Island Clams.” The clam-shaped, glazed buttermilk treats have absolutely nothing to do with gingerbread, okay, but they are scrumptious. I gobble the Maine blueberry and raspberry studded “clams” indiscriminately. The actual kitchen recently relocated to Freeport, but I have them on speed dial and in my GPS.
All this mad Maine flavor is changing the character of an area that had once looked elsewhere for guidance. Now we are at last, happily, doing our own thing. •– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Perfect Prouts NeckBy Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo © Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram
Transitions sometimes lead to new traditions. My daughter Jessica and I decided that a mother-daughter weekend was in order – in fact, long overdue. For this intrepid intergenerational team, only the best would do. Of course, we chose the Black Point Inn. Read on…
Lincolnville: Mid-Coast Magic
We sold our home surprisingly quickly and had a huge case of seller’s remorse. Friends recommended a getaway to the Inn at Ocean’s Edge in Lincolnville, a serene, secluded 22-acre compound set on beautiful Penobscot Bay about a mile from the Camden border. The luxurious cottage-chic rooms and suites with ocean views, granite-edged infinity pool, woodland setting and award-winning restaurant sounded like a perfect setting to recover from our real-estate blues. Read on…
Ogunquit – Romantic Retreat by the Sea
Travel fuels romance, it’s true. But as Maine “recession busters,” we decided to explore the romantic possibilities closer to home this year. Artists discovered Ogunquit’s rugged cliffs and sandy beaches a century ago. Now a seaside mecca of fine dining, elegant resorts and Down East charm, this cliffside paradise stretches from the tidal Ogunquit River along three miles of wind-swept white sand … Read on
Camden Harbour Inn
At the end of a messy Maine winter on the threshold of mud season, my husband and I were in need of a relaxing trip within a few hours drive. When we heard that the Camden Harbour Inn was offering spring specials, we leapt at the chance. Read on…
Phippsburg / Brunswick – Town & Country
I arrive at Sebasco Harbor Resort a jangled wreck after a flat tire and several small professional crises. The legendary mid-coast resort occupies 550 acres of gorgeous Phippsburg peninsula. Family-friendly and with impeccable service, Sebasco offers a range of comfortable rooms, cottages and suites — some in a unique octagonal lighthouse. Our was nestled in a quiet inlet under tall pines. Read on…
Portland is high on my list of New England destinations! Hoping to get there soon. Your photos and blog are lovely!