Sometimes it takes a trip out of town to dine in another city to appreciate the goodness of our restaurants in Portland and throughout Maine.
Some restaurants get better with age while others coast on their reputations. This week showed that trend remarkably well–from disappointing to great when I visited three restaurants including an old favorite in Boston.
I’ve always liked Boone’s—big, varied menu: plenty of classic seafood and savory dishes. I haven’t been there in nearly a year and was curious how it was holding up. I stopped in for lunch last weekend and enjoyed a thoroughly delicious salad, with a hubcap size helping of lobster. Chunks of meat were nestled in some of the freshest, well-chilled leaves of butter lettuce mixed with shaved radish, fennel and goat cheese and lapped with a honey vinaigrette. At $18 it was a great lobster salad and since it was such a good-looking plate I launched it into the cyber world of Instagram followers.
A few days later I returned to have lunch with a friend and we both ordered, at my suggestion, from the wok menu. Chef Sean Dougherty used to man the wok station with great results, but he’s no longer there. We ordered the lobster egg foo young–that thoroughly American-Chinese dish that should have died with the hula hoop. This relic (I thought it would be fun to have) was basically a frittata with bean sprouts and bits of lobster meat.
Several days later I joined friends for dinner at Boone’s and nearly every dish we had seemed like a scripted storyboard delivering fault lines to the unsuspecting. There were, however, two standouts: the tuna tartare and the clam chowder. A Caesar salad, however, was dry and needed more dressing. But the three main events—baked stuffed lobster, steak frites and a special marlin a la plancha skidded to a screeching halt in flavor and execution. A `1 ½ pound lobster seemed desperately stuffed into the shell and wound up having the consistency of mashed potatoes. And at $77, this was an outrage. Our waiter said it was really two lobsters in one. One lobster to put on top of the meat still in the shell? I don’t think so.
We swallowed the high price by sharing. The marlin was like an old sea dog left too long to cook. It was exceedingly dry and flavorless and you needed a hack saw to cut through it. The steak was the better of the three entrees but not terrific; the French fries were classic and wonderful.
Maybe Boone’s menu is too large for the kitchen to execute well. There must be 100 dishes on the list. When I sat at the bar for lunch I watched all the great looking food come storming out of the kitchen. Fried clams, lobster rolls, burgers and the like have always been well done there. And any of fish specials that are grilled, baked or pan seared are often good. But in these recent visits I missed the proverbial catch of the sea.
Not so the case when I went to Fore Street just by chance the other night. I inquired whether there was a seat available; there was, and I raced over. What followed was one of the best dinners I’ve had at this venerable establishment.
The dining room is still one of the most striking in Portland. There’s just something about it—aglow with copper topped tables, the beat of activity from the chefs in the open kitchen and the fine waitstaff–many of whom have been there for years. For any waiter to get a job there is like landing a berth on Madison Avenue or a seat on the stock exchange.
My meal was memorable. So simple, pure and elemental. How can you go wrong with the chilled smoked seafood platter to start, especially when every component is fresh from mostly local waters? Smoked bluefish with leek mayonnaise; little rows of Jersey shoals; Maine sea scallop ceviche with citrus and Mezcal; cured Atlantic Icelandic char with lemon scalloped cultured cream; Atlantic flounder Tartine with radish herb salad and Bangs Island smoked mussels with crispy parsnips. At $22 it’s an indulgence. But the luxurious selection of fish and how it’s prepared is worth the splurge.
My entrée was an old standby on the menu, summer flounder, another name for fluke. It was pan seared and set over a puree of parsnips and topped with a nutty herb sauce that had wonderful depth of flavor and texture. The fish had a crisp outer skin that shielded the flakiest moist flesh underneath.
I’ve been staying away from desserts lately but the menu offers a small selection of bite-size sweets for $5. All of pastry chef Brant Dadaleares creations are masterfully intriguing, and this little mini log of cheese cake with a black cherry sauce was pure magic.
A shopping trip to Boston on Thursday was also my excuse to enjoy a good lunch. A long-time favorite is B&G Oysters, chef Barbara Lynch’s South End aerie. When Dana Street had his Scales restaurant up and running in the old Public Market, Lynch’s Massachusetts’s version was a good counterpoint to Street’s classic (which will reopen sometime this summer on Maine Wharf).
Barbara Lynch is a great chef and I particularly adore her No. 9 Park at the head of the Commons and miss that it’s no longer open for lunch, which made it easy to get to for a day trip to have a fine midday meal.
But B&G has always been a treat. This visit, however, wasn’t so noteworthy. I ordered the $35 prix fixe 3-course lunch: 3 oysters (Connecticut) mignonette; a salad of shredded sugar-snaps with goat cheese and what should have been classic fish and chips. The first two courses were fine, not extraordinary. But I would have enjoyed a Maine road-side shack version of fish and chips better than the expensive one here. It was all greasy batter with very little fish inside; the Cole slaw was a sloppy, runny mess without much flavor, but the French fries were excellent, crisp, well-seasoned and perfect. The list of wines by the glass is fairly extensive (all the wine lists at her other restaurants are outstanding) and I ordered a flinty, bone dry Petite Chablis ($14) that was memorable.
With tax, tip and a heavy heart I paid a whopping $60. It made me realize how lucky we are to have so many wonderful restaurants in Maine where even our most expensive is a veritable bargain compared to big city counterparts. Ah, the way life should be still prevails in Maine.