This past Friday night it seemed like the entire Portland peninsula was packed into Timber, the steakhouse and rotisserie on Exchange Street, which opened only the day before. The bar was still jammed at 7:30 when I arrived — barely winding down from its rousing happy hour. This is when bar space should free up for the swarm of diners waiting to pull up for dinner. Banquettes and tables — and there are plenty of them — make up the rest of the seating (26 at the bar and about 50 in the restaurant) in this thoroughly cool, new hangout. The room dazzles in a quiet way: it’s all beige on beige and the touch of timber in a theme of tree cuts as backs for the chairs and hanging on the walls is amusing.
While waiting to nab my own perch at the bar I had a chance to speak with Noah Talmatch, who co-owns the restaurant with his brother Dan, about whether reservations will be taken for bar seating.
I proffered that this is where everyone wants to sit nowadays; and at our newest restaurants in town the bars are designed just for that — around open kitchens, creating a theater- in-the-round drama-packed scene. Just think Eventide, Central Provisions, et al, where a reservation policy extends to bar seating too.
That, according to Noah, is not exactly their philosophy. During happy hour, he explained, you can walk in and sit anywhere at tables and bar. There’s a menu of small plates and a piano player in the back of the room lending a cosmopolitan-lounge vibe. Come 6:30 the dining room tables are in effect reserved for diners. That leaves the bar as open territory no matter what you’re there for — dining, drinking or both. Yet it’s such a prominent space, the luck of the draw won’t appease the persnickety diner who doesn’t like to be kept waiting. Time will tell if this hybrid approach to seating works.
But one thing is clear, do it right and the crowds cometh. And what a scene it was.
Their master mixologist is Henry Yost, formerly from the now closed Cantina. He may look old school but could fit in at the snappiest “uptown” lounge or downtown haunt.
He made me a mean Negroni with sweet vermouth, Campari and my choice of vodka instead of the traditional gin version.
Timber’s chef is Casey Christensen who’s a native of New Hampshire and most recently cooked at Harrison’s in Stowe, Vermont, and prior stints at steakhouses out west.
As for the food, the servings are gargantuan. Dinner was delish, and I ordered a lot. A beautiful rendering of tuna tartare (sushi grade) was served with fried wontons. The fish was very fresh but needed more seasoning — arguably a heavier dose of sesame oil, lemon, scallions, wasabi and herbs.
Not to pass up is an audacious appetizer of fried bacon. Out came a paper-lined basket filled with a pile of smoked bacon wrapped in a delicious batter that was deep fried and served with Maine maple syrup. The health-conscious are forewarned — it’s a minefield of calories and fat. And it’s definitely a dish to share at the table. I happily nibbled away judiciously.
The double-thick (huge) pork chop had a wonderful glaze of Maine blueberry sauce, more pungent than sweet. It’s local pork, too, though not pastured but corn fed. It had great flavor and was exceedingly tender for such a thick cut. It’s flash-grilled at very high heat, the secret to making cuts like this buttery soft.
Entrées come bare on the plate, but there are plenty of side dishes to tempt. The potato gratin is big enough for two. It was rich, earthy and delicious with its layers of Gruyere, cream, potatoes and herbs, but some of the layers needed more time in the oven or the chef needs to cut the potatoes thinner so that they cook evenly.
Creamed baked spinach filled a ramekin and was covered with bread crumbs. My favorite steakhouse creamed spinach is from the Palm Restaurant. There it’s a scrumptious puree enriched with a creamy white sauce and Parmesan. None better. Timber’s was too thin, a bit watery and hardly “creamed”
These are minor points and I think that the kitchen will work out the kinks. Timber is expensive, but no more so than our best restaurants. What still amazes me is how Portland’s restaurant universe can easily support new establishments that become immediate successes without infringing on what’s already here.
I didn’t have dessert (New York style cheesecake, chocolate cake or house-made ice creams) and decided to head up to Portland’s next scene-stealer, Lolita, for a nightcap and something sweet. Alas they’re still not open. But any day now we’ll have the newest of the new — and the pleasure of even more fine dining.