Is South Portland’s beloved David’s 388 mere hoodoo compared to the hocus-pocus of strivers across the bridge? It’s a straight shot over the span that connects these two disparate cities, but once you arrive at this funny little outpost, you wonder why you’re not here more often. After two visits I’m totally hooked.
Proprietor/chef David Turin is becoming quite the entrepeneur—to wit, his eponymous David’s on Monument Square, which also houses his hiccup of Opus 10 within, and the aforementioned South Portland place. This is followed by two venues coming soon to Kennebunkport’s Boathouse Hotel and Marina where a second version of Opus 10 will open this summer and a 200-seat waterside extravaganza as well.
Back to 388: Years ago this literal hole in the wall dining room was Barbara’s Kitchen, a popular boite with about 10 tables cherished by locals in the days when Greater Portland loved its little funky dining establishments.
When David’s took over it remained in these tight quarters until recently when it was able to break through next door. Now serving about 40 diners with space to spare, it’s an entirely different operation.
What I didn’t expect to find was such incredible food managed by a service staff that makes you feel like you’re part of its larger family. That and the daring duo of chefs in the kitchen makes this place formidable.
That it’s somewhat off the beaten path is also part of its charm. If I had to criticize anything, the décor of Turin’s various establishments is not great eye candy. Who, for instance, selected 388’s fabric that covers the banquettes and booths? At best it’s a mottled inkblot of colors.
The rest is pure revelation. My first nibble there started with the duck canapés—a small plate at $5 that packs $100 worth of flavor and finesse. Croutons are made on the spot, layered with a powerfully rich dollop of foie gras butter to hold the pan-seared bits of duck breast topped with a riotous touch of apricot conserve.
Send me to the mission, I thought, to rest up for the next course. I’ve tried the crispy goat cheese fritters—two fathomless balls of fried cheese touched with truffles. They’re nice, but what I loved the second time around were the pot stickers. These are different from those at the Portland eatery. They’re crispy little devils filled with minced vegetables and grilled Asian-style beef fillet in Peking sauce. The portion is large and I could have made it a meal in itself. But there’s no stopping now.
Earlier in the week my main course was crispy skinned duck breast, so buttery soft and delicious stationed on a bed of olive oil potato puree and an enduring sauce of Sauterne laced with rosemary. That in itself was a dish worth bolting behind locked doors.
This time I opted for a special of the evening–a fillet of beef, quickly pan seared, also set over potato puree and topped with a blue cheese sour cream sauce. It was too fussy for my liking, with its double rich cheese sauce making me feel unduly stuffed. It didn’t have the finesse of the other tenderloin offering on the menu: herb-crusted beef fillet topped by a vegetable bundle and a simple glaze of rosemary jus.
My partner in culinary crime had no less of an outstanding meal. He proclaimed his starter of beef tenderloin carpaccio with crispy capers the best he’s had.
Opting for a simple main course he chose the one pasta dish on the menu. Here was house-made pappardelle with porcini mushrooms, sautéed arugula, oven-dried tomatoes, goat cheese and Parmesan skimmed by just enough truffle oil that didn’t overwhelm.
That night we sat at what’s called the chef’s counter because the restaurant was totally booked. This is bar seating with 4 chairs (there’s another counter in front of the actual bar with about 8 stools) that front right on the open kitchen.
It was fascinating to watch the two young chefs, barely out of training toques, whip up one magical moment after the other. Carlos Tirado, 27, is the chef de cuisine and Dylan Leddy, 23, his sous chef–two local guys who’ve been with David and his executive chef Bo Byrne (who now oversees Opus 10) for quite a few years. They’ve manned this kitchen for about six months.
They work like agile jugglers at the stove top, maneuvering dish after dish seamlessly with beautiful results.
And it didn’t stop when we ordered dessert. The brownie Napoleon was no sweet cliché by any means but rather two wafer-like wedges of brownies sandwiching silky house-made ice cream sitting in a wildly sweet caramel sauce. My friend’s house-made strawberry ice cream with the most delicate tuile was no minion either in the dessert lineup. With our last bites down the hatch, I thought I can’t wait to come back.