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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: October 31, 2014

The buzz is all Bramhall: down-low cool on Congress with cheap drinks and a small menu

Starting at 5 p.m. a steady stream of devotees flock to the Bramhall for good cheer and food because it’s the quintessential neighborhood pub.

Written by: John Golden

The latest blogger blurb extolling Bramhall as the end all in pub culture also cites how reasonably priced it is and how “nice” to be there. Yes, indeedy. Bramhall is Portland’s new — neatly packaged — “it” place in its fourth week of business and packed nightly as though they were giving it away.

The nonstop bar scene at Bramhall

The nonstop bar scene at Bramhall

But how does it differ from LFK, Top of the East, The Jewel Box, Hunt and Alpine, Glass, Blue and restaurant cocktail lounges that rely on raking in high mark-up liquor dollars?

I’m the type who doesn’t scrutinize the tab when it’s presented other than to see the bottom line. But have you noticed the price of a good cocktail lately — easily in the double digits? Yes you can still get a $5 drink here and there but not in places fit for your Aunt Tilly.

Let’s start from the beginning as though you’ve never heard of Bramhall until now: The old, practically historic Bramhall Pub existed way before the schlock of this part of Congress Street started taking on airs.  Now it’s like Bushwick in Brooklyn on the way to gentrification.

The thoroughfare is changing significantly. Just witness the lineup starting at the base of Congress with Salvage BBQ, Tandem Bakery, Bramhall and a new charcuterie that’s in the works for the building’s parlor floor.

Bramhall inhabits a space that’s pure starchitecture—a resplendently renovated lair with its brick facings, archways and vintage (Circa 1900) stone walls. It’s where you go to meet a hot date or mingle with friends, a haunt that’s both Cheers bonhomie and down-low naughty.

From the street an easy flight of stairs down to the Bramhall's inner sanctum

From the street an easy flight of stairs down to the Bramhall’s inner sanctum

Bramhall does have its requisite list of inventive cocktails, beers and wine, but they’re all moderately priced, in the $6 to $8 range, poured not from those dreaded thimbles calibrated in millimeters where the amount of liquor doesn’t even cover the rocks at $15 a shot. When I order a drink I want it to be generous — not the kind where after two sips the glass is empty.

The Bramhall crew, from left: Mike Fraser, partner;Jeff Hodenberg, partners; Guy Streitburger, partner; John Greening, partner and Liz Davis, server

The Bramhall crew, from left: Mike Fraser, partner;Jeff Hodenberg, partners; Guy Streitburger, partner; John Greening, partner and Liz Davis, server. Photo by Whitney Hayward/Press Herald file

You do get a generous pour from Guy Streitburger, a co-owner and bar manager, the guy who’s long been everyone’s favorite bartender ever since he made the scene back in the day at the old Cinque Terre. Fans have followed him from place to place glad that he’s behind the bar with his big smile and easy banter.

Guy Streitburger and staff

Guy Streitburger, managing the and staff

Most of the new bars and lounges that I mentioned have kitchens of sorts with limited menus. Hunt and Alpine doesn’t even have a stove, but their creative blend of bites and tidbits help you down drinks with the necessary fortification. LFK has a kitchen with an oven and no burners or flat top. But they’ve created an inventive menu where you can get some pretty good food from start to finish. The other places might as well be called canapé bars like some 1950s tribute to faux Triscuit cuisine.

First and foremost Bramhall is a watering hole. But you need to have food with your drinks, right? Even if it’s merely a nibble. I’m not saying that you’ll drop dead here from hunger. Food is, so far, not the focus. But the menu is changing slowly now that the restaurant is on solid ground after a harrowing renovation.

An expanded menu is in the works, though the kitchen’s output will always be somewhat limited because of the various zoning restrictions that didn’t allow them to have a full-fledged restaurant kitchen with such necessities as a fryolator, flat top and burners.

The Bramhall burger

The Bramhall burger

The chef is Chris Beaulieu, formerly a sous chef at Duckfat. There are signs that good, creative dishes will be forthcoming. I’ve had the burger — it’s works if you need a fix of beef but it’s no first-prize patty. Stick with such rib huggers as the Caribbean Jerky Wings with its bracingly spicy bleu cheese sauce. What’s called Garden Grazing is a hummus plate served with skewers of charred vegetables dipped into the heady spread. On a recent visit I had it as a starter course followed by fall-off-the-bone braised short ribs on a bed of root vegetable hash. The meat had good flavor, but the little cubes of rutabaga and potato were too crunchy instead of being soft and creamy.

Wings and the hummus plate

Wings and the hummus plate

Curried chicken salad on toasted pita and the braised short ribs

Curried chicken salad on toasted pita and the braised short ribs

Other snacks include the Loaded Crisps — house potato chips topped with cheese curds, applewood smoked bacon, scallions and crème fraiche. The ‘load” factor was light, so don’t expect a macho helping of nacho-style bluster.

Bramhall is also open for lunch and their sandwich menu is expanding. Consider Porky’s Revenge, shaved and seasoned pork loin with pickled jalapeno and greens on a hoagie or the Flip “em the Bird, a hearty roast turkey sandwich with Fontina and roasted corn and tomatillo salsa on a hoagie.

At lunch recently I enjoyed a curried chicken salad, which was a tasty take on this spread. It contained chunks of chicken, lightly dressed, with just a hint of curry, topped with sliced tomatoes and greens served on toasted pita. Served with chips it was a great sandwich.

Prices are moderate at lunch and dinner with most dishes (medium-size servings) in the $8 to $9 range, priced just right for a thoroughly engaging neighborhood pub. Bramhall also offers parking in back, a great convenience for a street littered with no-parking signs.

The Bramhall, 767 Congress St., Portland, ME


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