A new chef is setting an exciting standard for fine cooking at this well established Old Port gastro-pub, In’Finiti Fermentation and Distillation.
In’finiti’s new chef, Kate Squibb, is a bonafide food celebrity. She gained national attention when she was a finalist on Chopped in 2012 and when she competed on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods preparing an inimitable, show-stopper dish of June bugs three ways. Fret not, it won’t be on her menu. In fact, the present menu from which I ordered dinner on Wednesday night is being replaced, and the new one debuts next week.
When In’finiti Fermentation and Distillation opened in the spring of 2013 I wrote in my review, “That it should be named In’finiti is neither a stroke of infinite wisdom nor affectation but, perhaps, a rather high-born notion of itself.” I went on to praise the food and to marvel at the unique interior of the space with its full-blown distillery operation visible through glass partitions behind the bar.
Their distillery is in full bloom now, offering house vodka, bierschnaps, rum and white-oak whiskey—with gin on the way. For cocktails with a local bias, you can’t get more genuine than this.
My dinner there on Wednesday evening did not, however, show the polish of its early days or examples, except for one dish, of Squibb’s forthcoming changes. Gone was former chef Noly Lopez’s brilliant dish of chorizo topped with quail eggs and shoestring potatoes. And the evening’s signature dessert of gingerbread with candied bacon was a mere ghost of the stunning pastry that I had in the past.
What I did love was the pumpkin and hazelnut hummus served with their house-made grilled flatbread topped with Parmesan. This, I learned when I spoke to Squibb after my meal, is part of the new menu and definitely shows what she can do. My main course was basically a boring salmon burger. It came with French fries, done in the Belgian style emerging, however, crisp on the outside and creamy within and one of the best in Portland.
Still, I needed to know more before I could draw an opinion of In’finiti’s new chef. The hummus, though superb, was just one dish. So I called up the next day and spoke to Squibb, asking if I could try one of her new preparations at lunch. Most, like the Statler chicken baked in wine and pears, the crispy ravioli with shallots and cranberries, the appetizer of chunks of deep-fried stuffing with duck confit and the host of small plates, were still in the prep stage. Then she suggested, “But the short ribs are ready to roll.”
Short ribs for lunch is a big, hearty meal at midday, but I trooped in anyway.
The bar, where I sat for lunch, was quiet, though the upstairs mezzanine was busy with noontime diners, and I watched as great big platters of burgers, fried fish sandwiches and pizzas came rolling out of the kitchen.
Then Kate herself appeared from the kitchen and presented, like the Queen Bee — resplendent in tatted arms — her dish of braised short ribs.
What a sight it was: sitting tall on the plate with its burnish of brown sauce and complement of vegetable confit. At first bite the meat was, of course, fall off the bone tender. But then it happened: an explosion of flavor that was truly an umami moment. The meat was braised in a bath of maple syrup and wasabi, lending pungent punches of sweet and sharp against the velvety texture of the beef.
Hyperbole notwithstanding, this was one helluva a dish and one of the top 5 that I’ve had all year. The intensity of the maple and wasabi as one cohesive ingredient was a stroke of brilliance. And if this is precursor of more to come (which I think it is), then get yourself over to In’finiti ASAP.
Note: the new menu, starting on Monday, will still offer a full roster of pub grub from great burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, hearty main courses and the like, but with Squibb’s influence in everything that comes out from the kitchen.