Street and and Company is still very much Portland’s iconic seafood restaurant, set in a vintage building on Wharf Street in the Old Port. The fare is gutsy, the service is impeccable — reasons why it remains one of the most popular restuarnts in the city.
After a quarter century Street and Co. is still one of Portland’s longest-running restaurants. The nightly burst of tourists and locals convene to savor the simplicity of its Mediterranean-style menu, which offers some of the best seafood in town at one of the most charming restaurants in the Old Port. Yet every time I go I ask myself: Why don’t I come here more often? The cooking is the gospel of comfort food. Those sizzling copper skillets are veritable show-stoppers holding, for example, two of their most famous preparations – scallops in Pernod and cream and sole Francaise sparkling with citrus butter. It’s a bit of Marseilles on the coast of Maine in the most food-centric city of northern New England.
The wait staff are veteran servers, many of whom have been there for years. When you ask about a dish, they don’t stutter or mispronounce a cooking term as though it were from a lost language; instead they know precisely what’s coming out of the kitchen.
I have a few qualms, though, which, I admit, are petty. I don’t like dining in this part of the Old Port, especially on weekends. But Street and Co., among a few other establishments, is the rare dove of civility in a part of town that can be hectic.
The layout of the restaurant – at first glance, it’s charm incarnate – has some issues. Of the three dining areas, I always request the back room. (The low-ceilinged middle room facing the open kitchen is fairly claustrophobic, with small tables placed too close together.) The tables aren’t larger in the back room, but it feels roomier, with less noise and bustle. Then I rediscovered the bar room on one of my visits last month. It resembles the energy and style of Fore Street, its sister restaurant that restaurateur Dana Street has co-owned for nearly as long.
Did you know that Street used to cook at his eponymous restaurant in its early days, according to friends of mine born and bred in Portland who accompanied me on my most recent dinner there just before Christmas? Twenty-five years ago, they said, it was (and still is) one of the most compelling restaurants in the city. The fare is not ground-breaking and the scene is not a barrage of trendies catered to by striving chefs, but it is honest, very well prepared fare that scintillates with gusty flavors.
But it was chef Abby Harmon – in the years before she opened her West End boite, Caiola’s, in 2003 – who presided in the kitchen for years. I believe it was she who developed those luscious savory bread puddings that are still on the menu today, as well as on her own menu now. Think lobster or crab meat curled around a creamy-crunchy bread-cube filling that would send the most persnickety gastronaut into sensory glee.
I don’t remember when they first appeared on the menu – at least 10 years ago – but the “tastes” are some of the most inventive tidbits in town, divine little amuse bouche that are hardly incidental. The pate of liver of lotte (monkfish) showcased a brilliant use of this divine liver, served in a pan sauce with crostini. The three of us literally devoured it, fighting over every last luscious morsel. And the arancini, those delectable bread crumbed fried rice balls, are filled with tuna and set in a vibrant tomato sauce. These tastes change all the time and they’re not to be missed at $4 to $5 per plate. Another must-have taste that appears on the menu frequently is the smoked Arctic char pate with marinated turnips – an utterly earthy dish.
The sizzling skillets might seem passé now, but they’re an homage to a booming style of presentation, which is reason enough to enjoy them – the spot-on version of sole Francaise in its sizzling hot vessel, the fish cooked perfectly, emerging flaky and moist in a rich lemon butter sauce with a drizzling of spices; linguini folded around sautéed shrimp laced in garlic, tomatoes and capers. Another high point was a whole branzino, set in a gutsy sauce of eggplant, tomatoes and onions. The fish was expertly filleted at table by our waitress who did the job with surgical precision. Despite any hint to the contrary, the service here is always first rate.
Desserts have never been a focus at Street and Co., but the bourbon pecan pie that concluded our meal couldn’t have been better or sweeter with its creamy nut filling in a buttery short crust. As an old standby, this dessert still has lots of appeal.
Several days later I returned to dine solo at the bar. In the past, the bar room never seemed that interesting, but this room, just like the space at its sister restaurant, Fore Street, is the soul of the restaurant now, filled with a pulchritudinous patronage who covet the spaces at its L-shaped dining bar counters, nearby club chair, sofas and coffee tables to enjoy drinks and first courses. It’s one of the most convivial rooms in town.
On either side of me that evening were visitors from Boston up for a few days to enjoy Portland dining. Bostonians love Portland restaurants – and why shouldn’t they? Thirty or so fine dining establishments in close proximity offer a unique palette of options.
The bar holds the oyster station, generally three or four offerings of local oysters including those from North Haven, one of my favorites for their brininess.
My meal began with a crab stuffed pequillo pepper, one of the tastes that evening. It arrived in mere minutes and was the least interesting – lukewarm and flavorless – of my three courses. But executive chef King Bishop (you’ve got to love his name), who’s been there for years, wasn’t cooking that night and one of his sous chefs filled in less successfully. Everything was tasty, but the food was barely warm. The lobster bread pudding was well put together but tepid. The sole Francaise, however, was utterly sprightly with lemon and cream, but it should have been hotter, considering that it arrived in its red-hot skillet. But the vegetable medley was delicious and included roasted broccoli that was al dente and fresh, and the red potatoes were creamy and perfectly cooked (so many restaurants are undercooking potatoes these days).
There are nightly specials in addition to the classic items on the menu such as grilled or blackened tuna, Arctic char and swordfish. Other dishes with linguini include mussels marinara, clams in red or white sauce, shrimp with tomato and capers, as well as classic Alfredo and primavera sauces over the pasta.
Just as the menus of steak houses never go out of style, the seafood mantra at Street and Co. is as vital as ever, showing that archetypes of such definitive cuisine are ageless.