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The success of Harding Lee Smith’s fourth room, Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room, holds its own as one of Portland’s great dining establishments. That it’s on the harbor and enjoys a waterside setting doesn’t hurt either. And after a few recent visits I found the food better than ever.
But what you don’t expect to find there is some of the best Chinese food in Portland. It’s certainly on a par with the much larger Chinese menu offered by Empire Chinese. But here — amongst all the American staples of exceedingly well prepared seafood and shellfish, and the favorites like fried clams, lobster rolls, burgers, chowders — is a very brief list of four wok dishes prepared by Smith’s sous chef, Sean Doherty, a long-time member of his team.
Apparently the kitchen’s fling with Asian cooking happened by chance. Sean, according to Harding, would prepare the staff meals and put his training in wok cookery to good use — and the wok dishes he prepared were a hit with the kitchen and restaurant staff.
I went there the other night specifically to have Kung Pao Phoenix and Dragon, a wonderful rendition made with crispy chicken and shell-on shrimp stir fried in a luscious soy, chili and hoisin sauce with hot peppers for extra heat.
I did mix my food metaphors somewhat and lusted after the popovers that I spied on top of the ovens. Popovers seem to go in and out of favor. At Boone’s they’re a mainstay as though Martha Stewart herself were in the kitchen whipping up a batch. When made well they’re as good as the best buttermilk biscuit or crusty baguette.
Boone’s popovers are world class. They stand tall in their popover pans and are served slightly warm, with its buttery, crispy exterior heavenly delicious. With just a little soft butter to smear onto its flaky folds, it’s a great indulgence worth every bit of the calories and carbs.
I went back for lunch a few days later and had a little dish of local beets in a goat cheese cream to start before digging into another wok special. This time it was a whole fish (branzino) wok fried. It’s coated in corn starch and rice flour and set into the wok where it cooks by the chef spooning the hot oil over the fish. It’s moistened with a black bean sauce and served over a bed of sake-braised red cabbage.
My friend George joined me for lunch and he ordered it as well and proclaimed, “This is the best fish dish I’ve ever had in Portland.”
The other two wok dishes on the menu include Mushroom Yakisoba, a vegetarian dish with wide noodles, eggs, bean sprouts, edamame and mushroom soy. The fourth offering is fried rice with a choice of chicken or shrimp
It’s interesting that a restaurant like Boone’s offers these one-off dishes. Yet I’m still hankering for some good old-fashioned preparations that this kitchen does so well like grilled, baked or seared fish; mounds of fried clams, lobster dinners and rolls and maybe a slice of blueberry pie with Harding’s signature butter and lard crust, the way pie should be.