All photos by Tyler Aldrich/Machigonne
On a recent Tuesday evening, customers at The Corner Room may have been surprised to see chef Harding Lee Smith himself slicing cured meats and assembling antipasto boards as he chatted with a group at the bar. The 12 of us listening to the well-known restaurateur talk about Italian meats and cheeses were participants on the inaugural event for Portland Taste Tours — newly launched by Mary Soule — which included stops at all four of Smith’s restaurants.
After spending nearly two years in Asia, teaching English and traveling, Soule returned to her native Portland to chart her next career move. She established a local franchise of the California-based Dishcrawl tours, before forming her own company, and managed to snag Smith’s “Rooms” for her sold-out first event.
The chef said he agreed to host the tour in part to “keep that buzz going” after the busy tourist season.
“I told her, as long as you can find a night when there’s no shows, no baseball games and no cruise ships, I’ll do it,” he said. “It’s fun because the cooks enjoy it and it’s a way to engage people.”
Following antipasto at The Corner Room, the group, with Smith in the lead, walked down Exchange Street to The Grill Room, where we were seated at a long table in front of the open kitchen. Smith explained that we would be served three, appetizer-sized plates, with optional drink pairings. Once again, he did much of the serving himself, describing each plate as he set it down. “Steak and Cheese,” a signature dish with fried local goat cheese and beef carpaccio; fried oyster “BLTs” with sauce gribiche; and wood-grilled foie gras with smoked tomato vinaigrette in a Parmesan crisp made a substantial feast in themselves.
But then we were off again, down the hill to Smith’s newest restaurant, Boone’s Fish House and Oyster Room.
Soule said the tour, priced at $95 a head, sold out quickly. In the group were three couples celebrating anniversaries and a majority seemed familiar with Smith’s Corner, Grill and Front Rooms. Boone’s, which opened this summer, was a new experience for most, however. Here, the long table sported plastic bibs and claw crackers at each place, clues for what was to come, but no one expected what the chef has dubbed his “Extreme Lobster Bake.” Following a cup of clam chowder, the dramatic presentation began as metal trays piled with steamers, mussels, potatoes, sausage and hard-boiled eggs were lined up in the center of the table. A slab of driftwood placed on top of the trays held a row of lobsters.
For the final stop, a bus took the group up Munjoy Hill to The Front Room and dessert — appropriately bite-sized cheesecakes in several flavors. I left at that point, but Smith surprised remaining guests with a return to Boone’s and the Oyster Room for another dessert sampling and mulled apple cider.
The entire evening was both over-the-top and engagingly intimate. “You know me,” Smith said as he lined up the lobsters at Boone’s. “I don’t do anything small.”