December 16, 2017

I ate Portland, Maine

Steamed lobster and clams, classic Maine fare, from J's Oyster Bar on Portland's Historic Waterfront.

Steamed lobster and clams, classic Maine fare, from J’s Oyster Bar on Portland’s Historic Waterfront.

When I was a kid Alka-Seltzer coined the popular slogan, I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.  And my recent trip to Portland, Maine, leaves me with the same sentiment because I ate Portland.

A variety of Damariscotta oysters at Eventide Oyster Co., downtown Portland.

A variety of Damariscotta oysters at Eventide Oyster Co., downtown Portland.

Who knew that Portland was such a foodie town?  But when lobsters, clams, fish, and shrimp pulled freshly from the Atlantic are mixed with the plethora of New England grown produce and locally-raised dairy and livestock, it results in what Bon Appétit has called America’s Foodiest Small Town.

I have visited Portland before and ate myself silly.  But this last trip afforded me quite a different perspective.  I was fortunate to meet a young couple at a wedding in Vermont; one sunny afternoon Dylan Leddy and Sasha Brouillard became my Portland food guides.  I had no idea that I would be touring with foodie VIPs.

For days I heard about Eventide Oyster Co—unfortunately I thought that people were saying Evening Thai and I wondered what the Siamese knew about Maine oysters that the locals did not.  Dylan and I put our names on a list for this tiny and bright revival of the great American oyster bar.  And as we waited for the hostess at Eventide to page Dylan we tried other eateries around the vibrant downtown area.

Dylan’s girlfriend Sasha is a manager of Central Provisions—we did not mind having to wait as she was nearing the end of her busy brunch shift.  We stopped into Central Provisions, a hip and earthy establishment in a historic building featuring locally sourced food creations organized into three categories:  raw, cold, and hot.  The place was packed but we managed to secure a spot at the busy bar.

Eventide Brown Butter Lobster Roll at Eventide Oyster Co., Portland, Maine.

Eventide Brown Butter Lobster Roll at Eventide Oyster Co., Portland, Maine.

Our seats at Eventide came available just as Sasha finished her workday.  The concrete bar holds a massive block of Maine granite at the corner that is used to display the oysters with little wooden signs distinguishing each type.

I wanted to select the oysters by what the shells looked like but Dylan laughed at me and told me what to pick, that the best Maine oysters are from Damariscotta.  I love New England oysters—they are smaller and have a sweeter brine than Gulf oysters.  Served with shaved horseradish ice, the Norumbegas, the Wild Dams, and the Otter Coves were my personal favorites.  The horseradish ice is like horseradish flavored snow; you can pick the flavor of ice to sprinkle on the oysters–I’ve never seen that before.

And of course, everyone raves about the Eventide Brown Butter Lobster Roll.  I heard so much about it that I could not resist having one.  The bread is soft and airy while the brown butter is substituted for what is usually mayonnaise.   The wine list is specifically selected to complement shellfish and the Gin Celery Gimlet was one of the best craft cocktails I had ever tasted.

Project Runway's Rik Villa at Eventide Oyster Co., Portland, Maine.

Project Runway’s Rik Villa at Eventide Oyster Co., Portland, Maine.

So hip was this popular little eatery, I was four feet away from Project Runway contestant Rik Villa in what looked to be a full length Wookie fur coat.  The two hour wait for a table was worth it.

Downtown Portland is vibrant and while walking from eatery and bar to eatery and bar we stopped into various art galleries, specialty clothing shops, and jewelry shops.  I bought a pair of cufflinks and a tied fly lapel pin at Market Square Jewelers; Dylon found a pair of grey sweat pants for $185 at David Wood, which of course he did not buy!  We also toured a gallery specializing in art bongs, The Blazin’ Ace.  I commented, “There sure must be a lot of rich potheads in Portland.”

A few blocks away we stopped into one of Sasha’s suggested haunts, the Hunt and Alpine Club.  This James Beard Award nominated bar offers small Scandinavian-inspired dishes and classic cocktails.  One of the simple combinations on the menu that caught my eye was Popcorn & Champagne but soon Sasha’s friends in the kitchen sent out a complimentary board of hors d’oeuvres featuring blue cheese and honeycomb.  It sounds like something I have said before but it was one of the best flavor combinations that I have ever experienced.

A special blue cheese & honeycomb sample at the Hunt & Alpine Club, Portland, Maine.

A special blue cheese & honeycomb sample at the Hunt & Alpine Club, Portland, Maine.

And come to think of it, the kitchen sent out complimentary bites for Sasha everywhere we stopped.  This was not a free food grab, some kind of foodie quid pro quo, but rather off-the-menu items that the chef was trying out; “The chef is working on a new dish and we need your opinion.”  Well, that’s the advantage of touring with foodie VIPs.

But not all food perfection happens in the bustling, trendy, hip downtown area.  Sometimes a good old fashioned diner is needed, especially in the mornings when hair is mussed and hangovers are nursed.  Eight of us took the recommendation of a local, found landmark diner Uncle Andy’s Café in South Portland, and all piled into a large booth in the back of the restaurant.

Uncle Andy’s was once known for making pancakes in the shape of anything a child requested—a race car, a teddy bear, a Christmas tree.  And indeed, I saw a kid at one of the booths chomping on shaped pancakes.  But they are now more known for their recent feature on Food Network’s Restaurant ImpossibleThe coffee was fresh and hot and the corned beef hash made me smile.

In celebration of renewed nuptials my dear friends Shannon Schrader and Charles Leigh III closed the celebrated David’s 388 on a Saturday night—an apparently unheard-of feat that only they could manage.  David’s 388 is a quaint neighborhood bistro in South Portland, part of Chef David Turin’s collection of upscale Maine eateries.  (And as a side note, my favorite new foodie friend Dylan is the former chef here; if he created any of the dishes that I had under his watch then he is very talented, indeed.)  David’s 388 is known for smaller portions and seasonal menus.  And my oh my, the food is delicious.

This was my second visit to David’s 388 but undoubtedly my favorite.  My meal started with Bacon & Scallops (pan seared scallops, crspy bacon, figs, foie gras butter, and apricot glaze) and the Cider Pickled Beets (crumbled blue cheese, spicy bourbon pecans, pea shoots, and cider vinaigrette); for my entrée, I selected a rare Grilled Filet Mignon (grass fed beef, buttermilk-garlic mashed potato, asparagus, and port wine jus); and of course I finished the meal with the Vanilla Bean Crème Brulee.  The flavor profiles moved perfectly from one to the next; the small portions left me eagerly anticipating the next course.

Clam chowder is a Maine specialty, J's Oyster Bar, Portland.

Clam chowder is a Maine specialty, J’s Oyster Bar, Portland.

The next day I was speaking with another wedding guest Rolando Anzaldua who had not had the opportunity to experience authentic dockside seafood–which I also craved.  So, on my last day in Portland we asked a local for recommendations.  We soon found ourselves J’s Oyster Bar in the Portland Historical Waterfront District.  J’s is a dark and cramped hide-away with a rough, old school clientele and an aroma of raw seafood.  Libations are served in plastic cups and the paper menus have lobster cartoons.

Here are a few lobster facts that I learned from the menu: lobsters were so plentiful in colonial days that they were food for poor people, 3 ½ ounces of lobster has 96 calories, lobsters are a source of heart-healthy omega-3 acids, and a lobster’s brain is in its throat and they taste with their feet.

I took the opportunity to order two main Maine classics:  Clam chowder and a steamed lobster.  And both were amazing.  The lobster, covered in steamed clams, was served whole.  And our waitress Jackie patiently demonstrated to me how to clean and eat both types of shellfish.  Steamers (the clams) are served with clam broth and butter; the proper way to eat them is to use your fingers to separate the disgusting black neck and wash it in the broth.  Delicious, yes, but no amount of soap can wash the smell of your fingers for the rest of the day.

Rolando was so excited about the fresh catch he had two appetizers and two entrees—we were in no hurry with nowhere go on such a blustery day.

I consider myself a foodie—not because I know anything about food preparation or techniques but because I love restaurants so darned much!  And it is such a thrill for me explore faraway and different places, sampling the indigenous cuisines, ingredients, and customs.  Who doesn’t?  I certainly feel as though I checked off the main Maine boxes on my culinary tour:  lobster, clams, oysters, fish, chowder.  I send special thanks to Shannon & Charles for their gracious hospitality, thanks to Dylan & Sasha for showing me the hipper side of Portland, and to Rolando for being willing to venture dockside.

I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!  It is definitely time to start a diet.

Link to Central Provisions

Link to Eventide Oyster Co.

Link to David’s 388

Link to Hunt & Alpine Club

Link to Portland, Maine