By Chef Judi Gallagher –
A culinary revolution took place after I left New England for a warmer client and a new culinary career. The buildings of Portland, Maine have not changed; solid brick structures and time-worn wood beams support the bones of this working city. But clearly, not everything remains the same. The food scene has been transformed and the expectation of culinary diversity has been brilliantly realized. Portland is a foodie’s dream destination.
At first glance, Portland, Maine reminds me of a mini Portland Oregon – very few chain restaurants, mostly sustainable kitchens, authentic bakeries and trendy cafes, coffee bars and serious burger joints. Locally-grown ingredients preferred. Guests sit at high tops and couches and almost everyone is sipping local craft beers, a pride factor in this area of Maine. And yes, the tradition of lobster joints is still abundant and a lesson in how to preserve an honored New England tradition of lunch on the pier.
Where we ate:
Local 188 (our absolute favorite) presents an ambitious and original menu that’s highly creative yet respects the essence of local seasonal foods. The comfortable industrial-rustic space shines with plenty of local art and guests tend linger to have long conversations about food and the world. It’s a place so nice, you don’t want to leave. The restaurant takes its name from an old union hall that was the original home of this restaurant across the street. Menu changes daily. The wine list is impressive and the wait staff is knowledgeable (not precocious) about food/wine pairing.
What we ate: Wild Maine mussels with spicy bunker beer broth, (local brew made on premises) coffee butter and cilantro. Local smoked duck with house made ricotta. House made gnocchi with piquillo and almond puree, salad of scallion and mint. Lavender-brined chicken with milk and honey sauce, orange vanilla glazed turnip. Mayan chocolate panna cotta. As I type these words, I wish I were eating it all again.
J’s Oyster House. Ask any taxi driver and they will send you to J’s for the quintessential dive bar experience. Lobster rolls (without mayo) spilling over with chunks of lobster from the tail and claws served with drawn butter on the side. Also have the steamed clams (the best) onion rings and whole belly fried clams and New England clam chowder. It’s a hearty bowl, creamy but not overly thick.
Standard Baking Company. Don’t even think of missing this bakery. Most restaurants buy their breads and rolls and after a visit and chowing down on loaves in the parking lot, we know why. Brioche, baguette, raisin pecan and rosemary focaccia just to name a few with daily special breads, biscotti, cookies and petite galettes. A little hard to find but ask any local and they will get you there with a smile. Expect to wait in line. Breathe in the delicious yeasty fragrances. Why can’t every city have a bakery like this one?
Portland Lobster Company. Laid-back lobster shack on the docks of Commercial Street. Order at the counter and the plastic lobster buzzers light up when your meal is ready for pick up. Clam cakes, full lobster dinners, lobster stew will delight you. Their lobster roll is loaded with sweet lobster meat and nestled in a grilled butter roll (again with butter instead of mayo). Fried clams were good they could have been a little bigger.
Two Fat Cats Bakery. While ALWAYS in search of the best pie, a stop at Two Fat Cats was fun and unusual. Crust is more like a croissant and they are best known for their Whoopie Pies. Legend has it that Maine and Pennsylvania are in a tiff on who owns the state title for best authentic Whoopee Pie but they’re not going to war over it. We say, have a pie in each state and judge for yourself. Sip coffee outside on the bakery’s brick patio and sit at tables to tuck into thick-crusted sour cherry pie.
The Lobster Shack at Twin Lights. Here, just outside of Portland, resides the best lobster roll. A touch of mayo is used to toss the sweet lobster meat. This was my favorite lobster roll of the trip to Portland. A bonus to eating here is a view to die for and a pretty good slice of blueberry pie.
Eve’s at the Garden. A comfortable hotel restaurant that has overtones of a traditional men’s club with big comfortable chairs that pull up to generous tables. Gracious spaces and the circular dining room overlooks the garden.
Good craft beer selection and a welcome riff on a soup/sandwich combination using Standard Bakery bread, Berkshire pork belly and pea soup. It’s the perfect light-bite on a chilly Portland night.
Where do we want to go next time we fly into Portland to eat? Duck Fat, Hugo’s and Sonny’s because Portland, Maine is a genuine foodie town. You want to eat there too! Let us know when you do. We want to know your favorite places.