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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: February 20, 2015

Congress Squared, Portland: New chef, new menu and new energy

With chef Tim Labonte heading up the Westin Portland Harborview Hotel’s main dining room, great food is on the menu in spades.

Written by: John Golden

Portland doesn’t fawn over big-city foodie fashionistas (those people who might otherwise tumble into New York or LA restaurants like locusts breaking through a Prada shopping bag). What brings us out is great food, of which there’s plenty here. On Friday nights loyalists flock to Lolita, Central Provisions, Tiqa, Ebb and Flow, Fore Street, Back Bay Grill, Five Fifty-Five, Petite Jacqueline, Miyake, Empire, Sur Lie – the current stars of our dining galaxy. So it’s all the more significant when you rediscover a less illustrious local restaurant making its mark anew. And that is what I found at Congress Squared. Here is the proverbial forum for hotel – modern dining housed in the corporate predictability of the Westin Portland Harbor View Hotel. In many larger cities, hotel dining rooms are often the hotspots. That hasn’t happened here yet, though this will change when places like the Press Hotel and the Danforth Inn open their restaurants with five-star chefs holding court in uber stylish dining rooms.

The stylish bar integrates with the dining room

The stylish bar integrates well with the dining room

My last visit to C2 occurred nearly a year ago when I was the dining critic at the Portland Press Herald. In my March 30, 2014 review, I wrote, “. . . This lustrously outfitted dining venue could become a pivotal member of Portland’s restaurant hierarchy.” The food was good, though not ground breaking; still I gave it four stars for effort under then-chef Michael Bates-Walsh and his sous chef Michelle Stone. Bates-Walsh has since left, Stone has remained and veteran executive chef Tim Labonte, formerly of Eve’s at the Garden at the Portland Harbor Hotel, has taken over the kitchen. At his old post I wasn’t impressed. But apparently geography has made a big difference. Labonte is in his zone.

The luxuriously outfitted dining room is bright and comfortable

The luxuriously outfitted dining room is bright and comfortable

What tipped me off about the goings on at C2 was a friend’s comment about her recent lunch at the Westin’s restaurant where, she said, the hamburger was incredible. Such praise is not enough to set a restaurant up for stardom, but I went with a few friends to investigate dinner.

Bread service includes a Standard Baking baquette with housemade lemon ricotta spread, salt and pepper

Bread service includes a Standard Baking baguette with housemade lemon ricotta spread, freshly ground salt and pepper

We arrived at 6:30 p.m. and realized that we still qualified to take advantage of the half-off priced happy hour menu (4 to 7 p.m.) of food and drink. That meant cocktails- such as the $14 Shotgun Manhattan or $13 Old Fashioned – were half off. We didn’t order any of these but stayed with premium vodkas on the rocks at cut-rate pricing.

One member of our group who joins me frequently always orders clam chowder. It had just the right creaminess, not overwhelmed with bacon or herbs and chock-full of meaty clams. It passed his chowder test easily.

Mussels with fries; clam chowder

Mussels with fries; clam chowder

Steamed Maine mussels with fries was another easy dish for three to share, especially half off at $8. These were infused in a delicious smoked tomato broth, mingling with chorizo and served with grilled bread and sea salt herbed fries. About those fries: These are not to be missed. They’re big hand-cut specimens of Maine potatoes cut into thick spears- creamy within, crisp on the outside and generously seasoned with sea salt and herbs. The whole dish could be a great light supper on its own.

The grilled flatbread ($12/$6) was a huge serving of twin crispy flatbreads holding chunks of luscious apple wedges under a scrim of sage hazelnut pesto, caramelized onions and smoked Cheddar. The whole preparation was luminous with a creamy translucence ingeniously devised.

Flatbread with apples in sage-hazelnut pesto

Flatbread with apples in sage-hazelnut pesto and smoked Cheddar

So far this was a lot of food, but we sprung for an entrée off the regular dinner menu. Here were tournedos of pan-seared pork tenderloin, indelibly butter soft, set in a local kabocha squash puree and accompanied by glazed Brussels sprouts that were nearly tropical in their sweetness. Everything we had was so satisfyingly good.

Pan-seared tenderloin of pork in a bourbon glaze with squash puree and glazed Brussellsprougs

Pan-seared tenderloin of pork in a bourbon glaze with squash puree and glazed Brussel sprouts

For dessert we shared a slice of cheesecake. It’s not on the regular menu but had been a special leftover from Valentine’s Day. It had a distinctive texture, made with cream cheese and melted white chocolate, which added a fine richness to the cake.

Excellent espresso and cheesecake with white chocolate

Excellent espresso and cheesecake with white chocolate

I returned the next day for lunch to see if the hamburger lived up to its top billing. A hearty half-pound wedge of sirloin was topped with a smoky bacon jam, pickled crispy fried onions, a thin veil of Cheddar and served on a delicious house-made brioche bun that held up well to the formidable burger. Since we love to rate burgers as good, better and best, this one ranked extremely high. The burger had the requisite outer char from perfect grilling and was beautifully seasoned with salt and pepper. It was well worth the $14 price tag. Especially so because with it were those fabulous house fries, homemade pickles and a condiment tray of homemade ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise.

C2's perfect burger and house fries

C2’s perfect burger and house fries

The dining room alit with big modern canvases is inviting and extremely comfortable.At the noon hour, the room sparkles with daylight coming in through the big picture windows setting off the white Corian topped bar and stylish leather faced chairs. At night the soft lighting picks up on the coffee-cream beige leather banquettes and is truly one of the more stylish dining rooms in the city.

The dining room at night has a subdued glow

The dining room at night has a subdued glow

Service is excellent and prices at dinner huddle around the $25 range for entrees. With restaurant week starting next month, this is prime time to reacquaint yourself with Congress Squared’s new chef and its impressive menu of contemporary American fare. All of which makes C2  eminently qualified as a pivotal member of Portland’s Arts District dining.

Congress Squared

157 High Street, Portland | | 207-517-8831

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