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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: September 12, 2014

Timber Steakhouse: Prime cuts for a cosmoplitan crowd

Yes, Timber is expensive but worth every bit for its prime beef, chicken, seafood, glorious side dishes and expertly mixed cocktails.

Written by: John Golden

Timber Steakhouse and Rotisserie has nudged itself smartly into the Exchange Street restaurant row. That Portland is a town with so many fiercely good restaurants hasn’t prevented the parade of new ones, like Timber, from coming here to prosper.  If anything this pace continues to sate the city’s nimble group of serial diners who hit each and every one as frequently as an envelope is opened.

Timber Steak House and Rotisserie on Upper Exchange Street , Photo by Ted Axelrod

Timber Steak House and Rotisserie on Upper Exchange Street. Photo by Ted Axelrod

Timber is one of a trio of steak houses in Portland.  But somehow it has cleverly positioned itself above the rest. Yes, The Grill Room, just a few doors away, does indeed offer excellent steak-house fare; others like Lolita grill serious slabs of beef over wood flames as part of a broader menu and notably 20 Milk Street serves heirloom beef raised on their own farm.

Timber opened to great fanfare in late May but not without a few initial squeaks and shrieks.  Some sneered over the fake vines hanging down from the light fixtures, and the tree-trunk-backed bar chairs were just too cutesy.

Flush with patrons at the bar

Flush with patrons at the bar. Photos by John Golden

And what about those $50 steaks and double-digit-priced cocktails?  Nothing short of scandalous–a big megillah for the penurious mindset of Mainers averse to throwing big money around for anything.

Well, folks, if you want steak of the highest quality that’s what it costs. Timber’s pricing is on a par with New York, Chicago and Boston steak houses.

Therein lies the rub for some.  We expect food to be just a bit cheaper here.  But why should it be?  We’ve become such the flocking herd over the gobbledygook of locally-sourced-sustained-artisanal grass-fed-pastured folderol that shouldn’t we expect to pay dearly for it?

I enjoy a good steak now and then. But what caught my attention–and the reason for my visit–was a recent Facebook post announcing Timber’s $29 prime rib dinner served on Sundays and Wednesdays, as though haute had gone ever so humble.

Wow, such a deal!

Generally I don’t give a hoot about prime rib except as a holiday dinner centerpiece.  I much prefer a regal cut of porterhouse or the newfangled culotte steak (tip of the top sirloin).

So I arrived last Sunday at 7 p.m. sharp.  I tried to interest friends to join me, but no one I knew wanted to give up their day of rest for dinner out.

Still, Timber was packed at the dinner hour, and I got the last seat at the bar. As I looked around I thought it’s really a great looking room.  The bar sparkles with the richness of burnished wood, rows of gleaming liquor bottles and glassware and the bonhomie of the dining room that’s so urbane.  In fact, Timber may be one of the more decorous restaurants in town, attracting the tribunals of trendy foodies to its core on a par with Hugo’s, Central Provisions and Lolita.

At an earlier visit, the packed dining room

At an earlier visit, the packed dining room. Photo by John Golden

Henry, the bartender, is a master mixologist (OK I used that dreaded word).  The last time I was at Timber was when it opened months ago.  But Henry remembered that I enjoy a good Negroni.

Henry's perfect Negroni

Henry’s perfect Negroni. Photo by John Golden

“Should I make it the way you liked it last time?” he asked as I scratched my head, thinking, what had I asked for then?

Henry, the master bartender

Henry, the master bartender. Photo by John Golden

He made the drink in perfect proportion with equal amounts of Campari, sweet Vermouth (Carpano Antiqua) and Stoli vodka (traditionally it’s made with gin, which I don’t drink).  He stirred it carefully over ice to get it real cold before pouring it into a chilled stem glass straight up.

I also discovered why the restaurant was so crowded.  Most everyone was dining there before the 8 o’clock curtain to hear Bill Maher at Merrill Auditorium.  I’ll be damned, cosmopolites on the prowl in goofy Portland, Maine!

Next to me was an attractive, well-dressed woman (of a certain age) and I immediately noticed her gorgeous gold watch wrapped around her wrist like a wreath of doubloons.  Soon a handsome 20-something man joined her and she turned to me and said, “My son.”

They each proceeded to enjoy two very large martinis and had a grand old time having a light pre-theatre supper, dips and soup that looked so amazing.

With a menu in hand I told Henry that I really didn’t need to study it. I’m here for the $29 prime rib dinner and would like to start with the wedge (salad).  This, I thought, was the perfect steak-house pairing.

Don't miss these great crusty dinner rolls

Don’t miss these great crusty dinner rolls, photo by John Golden

Henry then asked at what temperature I wanted my meat cooked.  Temperature?  Wouldn’t medium-rare be enough direction for the kitchen?

He said the kitchen cooks it according to temperature.

“OK.  Make it 130 degrees, “I said somewhat absently.

The wedge looked as impressive as a crown roast, accounting perhaps for its $13 price tag.    But it was a huge portion of perfect iceberg with massive amounts of Stilton and blue cheese dressing, thick lardoons of bacon and local tomatoes from Backyard Farms in Madison.  I wasn’t crazy about the tomatoes, however—a bit mealy and not nearly as sweet as they should be this time of year.  Noah Talmatch (co-owner with brother Dan) came over to ask how I was enjoying my meal.  I told him so far so good, but I wasn’t crazy about the tomatoes in the salad.

The colossal wedge

The colossal wedge

“Try Olivia’s Garden, consistently good,” I offered, as we chatted a bit about the exigencies of restaurants getting reliably good local produce.

Then the main event arrived.  A regal looking piece of meat (14 ounces) lolled under a shimmering, luxurious sauce the color of light mahogany flanked by luscious candied carrots and a monster-sized baked potato. The grass-fed beef is local from Archer Angus Farms in Chesterville, Maine, in Franklin County.

Voila! The glorious prime rib

Voila! The glorious prime rib

The meat was very well seasoned but a tad too much gristle.   It wasn’t until I got to the eye of the meat that it cut like butter.  The undercooking at 130 degrees probably accounted for this–too rare for me.  Cooked to 140 degrees—medium rare—would have rendered a tenderer cut of beef. My mistake.

The carrots, cut as thin as quarters, were incredible. Cooked carefully these luscious disks were as sweet as candy cane, sauteed in olive oil and butter and seasoned with garlic,  thyme salt, pepper and a final glazing of Maine maple syrup.

With two drinks, tax and tip–and no dessert—this meal was hardly a bargain at $90, but it was awfully good.  My next “budget” meal there will be the rotisserie chicken—half a bird for $19.  Add in all the sides, cocktails and more, well, Timber is a steak house extraordinaire and you have to pay accordingly.

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