As the food scene continues to grow in Greater Portland, where to shop now is an essential question: Hannaford, Shaws, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Rosemont or the two fledgling markets, The Farm Stand and the Portland Food Co-op–or all of the above and more?
The food shopping landscape has new meaning in Greater Portland with the arrival of the Portland Food Co-op, an undertaking long in the making from its grass roots days to its new brick and mortar facility. Time (and a lot of it) will tell how its story unfolds.
On a recent visit over the weekend to the Co-op, few shoppers roamed the aisles on Saturday; in fact, all the food stores were quiet after the Thanksgiving shopping binge. Even the normally jammed parking lots at Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and the Forest Avenue Hannaford were only half full at mid-morning. But after re-visiting all the stores on Sunday, parking lots were full again and aisle hopping was back in force.
All of which brings me back to the essential question, Where to shop now? Let’s take a look as I point out the highlights of each store.
Portland Food Co-op. It’s premature to comment on this new store as they go through their trials and tribulations. Though take note of this observation: The bread and baked goods selection is still heavy on gluten free as though traditional flour was verboten. But apparently this is a obsessive issue to some members. To wit: One shopper comment card posted on their bulletin board criticized the store for stocking GF products next to non-gluten varieties, fearing cross contamination. Well, imagine that. The store better be mindful of those creepy-crawly high-flying glutamines!
Whole Foods. This national chain added a great dimension to our shopping world when it opened in 2007 offering a complete line up of organic and natural foods. With bakery, meat and fish markets, dairy and cheese — some of it local — specialty foods, groceries and prepared food, it’s all under one roof. Its great success continues and remains the second highest-grossing store of the entire chain. That’s a remarkable feat in the penny-wise mindset of New England frugality. Still, in the depths of a Maine winter when even the local storage crops at indoor farmers’ markets are looking tired, Whole Foods is the best place to buy vegetables that look fresh and appealing. Essentially this is my default food market for daily shopping. Sorely missed, however, are several WF items no longer carried: raw milk and cream from Caldwell Farm; Straus Family Creamery (California) organic butter and, finally, why did the grill — which turned out the best burgers and fries in the city — have to close?
Hannaford. When I’m on the prowl for a specialty item, I’ll occasionally check first at Hannaford. You never know what lurks on those shelves. Sill I find the Forest Avenue store annoying. They don’t stock a lot of household items in multiple sizes (usually just jumbo), with many popular brands not on the shelves, and the crowds at check-out lines can be daunting. Still, I go for the essentials. And it remains one of the few supermarkets that sell beef ground at the store: But be warned, it’s only the 80 percent lean (best for meatloaf) that enjoys this privilege whereas other grades of meat (85 percent or better) are ground off premises with the likelihood of pink slime in the mix.
Trader Joe’s. I don’t have the same cult passion for this store that many TJ devotees have. The produce looks like it’s come from the underside of a truck, and I just don’t like shopping there, especially listening to the clang of cow bells at the checkout counter. However, there are several items that I do like: TJ’s mayonnaise; TJ brand Dijon and coarse grain mustards and their packaged nuts and dried fruits, which are well priced and good quality. Also, a friend swears by TJ’s French vanilla ice cream, and he recently brought me a half gallon to try. I thought it was unremarkable.
Shaw’s. This supermarket chain is trying in earnest to get in the game. The quality of the vegetables are getting better and the variety of choice in the grocery aisle is fantastic compared to Hannaford. And their superstore at the Kohl’s shopping plaza in Westbrook is pretty impressive. The stores carry all the sizes and name brands of cleaning products, which Hannaford does not. However, what drew me to the store on occasion was to buy Starbuck’s great tasting Java chip coffee ice cream. But, alas, they no longer carry it.
Aurora Provisions. This is the only gourmet food shop offering both prepared foods and gourmet groceries of the highest caliber. The café is great to visit for morning coffee or lunch, when it becomes a hub for West End matrons out for a soupcon of gossip over salad. Still no store comes close to offering the well-made prepared foods that Aurora does under the direction of their staff food maven, Leslie Oster, who also oversees their large catering business. Everything is made in their newly expanded kitchen: From superb cakes, pies, cookies and pastries to a full range of prepared dishes to take out. I’ll often buy their soups to serve at a dinner party when I don’t have the time to make my own. Hors’ d’oeuvres are another great take out item, and their newly expanded wine shop has some compelling labels.
Rosemont Market. Interestingly each of their four markets are distinctly different — either for better or worse. The Munjoy Hill branch is a small store that doesn’t have all of the specialty food items that the main Brighton Avenue branch carries — such as Bisson’s raw butter and cream or the house-rendered lard. That leaves the Brighton Avenue shop as the most complete. The breads, from their central bake shop down the road, arrive there first before the other stores. In addition to the aforementioned butter and cream, they stock many varieties of local dairy and cheese. The meat department practices nose to tail butchery from local farms and the choice of local produce is the best beyond going to an actual farmer’s market. I go there for all of the above plus the wine selection, overseen by Joe Appel, the Portland Press Herald wine columnist.
The Farm Stand. Finally South Portland has its very own specialty food retailer and is no longer the third cousin in the region’s culinary mix. In fact the store is more like an indoor farmer’s market than traditional food shop. Most of the vegetables are from Penny Jordan’s Jordans Farm in Cape Elizabeth as well as other area farms; master butcher Ben Slayton runs the meat department, which practices nose to tail butchery of locally raised meats and Joe Fournier, formerly a long-time Rosemont tastemaker, manages the store. All three are co-owners. I go there for Slayton’s excellent local meats, farm vegetables and the pasteurized milk and cream from Harris Farm in Dayton when the raw variety, my preference, is not available.
Browne Trading vs. Harbor Fish. Harbor fish has great variety, down-home ambiance right on the wharf and the best prices. But sometimes the cutting of the fish into fillets is a little sloppy and I’ve often had to take the pin bones out of a salmon fillet, a task akin to pulling teeth with pliers.
That’s why I often go to Browne Trading for fish. Fillets are cut carefully and the fish is extremely fresh. The choice too is fairly vast from John Dory to Dover sole and Mediterranean species, they are a true specialty fishmonger. I also go there for their smoked salmon, the occasional splurge on caviar and truffles, great choice of wines, especially French and California, and for their growing selection of specialty food items.