Expansive space, beautiful design, and a bit of exotica coming from its pan-Mediterranean-inspired kitchen add up to Tiqa being one of the most unique establishments to grace the city in recent memory.
We’ve gone through our fixations on New American Bistro phase, the wonders of small plates and the ongoing penchant for Asian fare. Now we have Mediterranean cuisine to tickle our culinary psyches with two formidable entries into Portland’s peripatetic dining galaxy. Ebb and Flow entered our dining-scape with a rousing start — reviewed very favorably here last month in a First Look critique.
And now Tiqa — the sprawling and glamorous new restaurant at ground level in the Courtyard Marriot at 327 Commercial St., Portland — has already made a splash among the city’s dining cognoscenti. From the spires of the Middle East to the coastal communities of Spain, Portugal, North Africa and Italy, Tiqa covers its culinary bases in a diaspora of pan-Mediterranean cooking. Think small plates like babba ganoush (Levant), chorizo cured pork belly (North Africa), bacalao (Portugal), and chick-pea fritters (Egypt).
The rest of the menu is a lavish tour through this region’s cooking styles, and noted on the menu is the country of origin from which each dish is inspired.
Some dining gurus are already describing Tiqa’s interior as glitzy. Maybe to conservative New Englanders it is. But a more universal eye can see it’s rather tasteful and dramatic, with an interior face that has great spirit and style. Seating nearly 300, the space is massive, but the design flow mitigates this with five rather intimate rooms in which to dine. These include the main dining room, which puts you in the center of all the activity spread over about 30 tables. Facing it is the chef’s bar that seats 15 and overlooks the gleaming open kitchen. Off the entry way is a large dining room reserved for conferences and private parties. At the other end of the restaurant is the bar with leather banquette seating at rows of high tops. Finally the lounge takes up the back half of the layout — an urbane space outlined with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street. It’s furnished with comfortable leather sofas and chairs around coffee tables, a perfect spot for cocktails and small-plate fare.
Tiqa’s kitchen didn’t develop from the efforts of a master chef imported to Portland, Maine from an exotic Mediterranean locale. Rather, after months of testing and recipe development, executive chef Bryan Dame (formerly of Gather, Miyake and Duckfat) and executive sous chef Bob Krajewski (who hails from Boston) stirred the exotic fires of Southern Europe, the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines into a hot pot of a menu that is beautifully devised. Owners Carol Mitchell and Deen Haleem, who are both from the financial fields and married just over a year ago, were instrumental in working with their chefs to create the flavors that are now Tiqa’s domain.
Over three dinners hence I’ve sampled many dishes, small and large, and, with a few exceptions, they were very well executed. What’s becomes eminently clear is that the highly touted healthiness of Mediterranean fare is so true in the lightness of the cooking here where olive oil, whole grains and spices predominate.
Just about everything out of the kitchen is made from scratch, including the excellent plate of pitas, lightly toasted, that are served at the beginning of the meal. The bread is presented with a double dipping of extra virgin olive oil and a little dish of za’atar, which is a spice blend based on ground sumac, thyme, oregano, marjoram, sea salt and toasted sesame seeds.
One of the best of the small plates is the kibbeh nayyeh (Lebanon and Palestine), a heady tartare of beef and lamb spiced with picked onions and served with toasted za’atar crisps.
The fattoush (Levant) is a very pleasant bread salad of local greens studded with toasted pita and mixed with bits of chopped cucumber, tomato sauce and sumac vinaigrette.
I was intrigued by another small plate preparation of tzimmes — a staple of Jewish holiday menus. Typically it’s a sweet stew of root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots and often mixed with flanken (short ribs) or braised brisket. Tiqa’s version captures the same sweet essence with a glaze of eggplant, tomato and green onion slathered over marinated, skewered grilled beef. The flavors and textures are very appealing.
Another captivating small plate was something called chicharon (Portugal and North Africa). This was grilled pork belly cut into lardons, and were cured with chorizo and served seared with little strips of fried green peppers (some hot, some sweet). This was, as my waiter described it, “like candy.” Don’t miss this tantalizing tidbit.
Main courses that I tried offered a romp through the region’s spice trade as applied to preparations of beef, lamb and chicken. On one occasion my sampling of the roasted half chicken (Levant) was less successful because it was dry. At another time it was beautifully done and I loved the accompaniments of ancient grains (pilaf), seasoned with za’atar, braised greens and garlic. Interestingly none of the food was garlicky, but, rather, just the right touch of this salient bulb delivered judicious pungency of flavor.
Of course a Middle Eastern meal must include lamb and this was admirably done with marouzia (Morocco), a honey-braised lamb with eggplant puree, toasted almonds and leeks.
On my most recent visit I enjoyed a spectacular dish of sayadeya (Egypt). This was pan-seared local hake done to perfection — flaky and beautifully moist. The fish had a glaze of tomato vinaigrette and served with basmati rice, almonds and nut-like nuggets of fried chickpeas.
I paired the fish with a glass of a Lebanese wine called IXSIR, which is a blend of viognier, muscat, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and semillon grapes, from the region of Batroun, which is increasingly noted for its fine wine production. Served well chilled its flavors didn’t develop until it had some bloom time in the glass, which is when its light texture turned weighty and exhibited a fine, fruity buttery-ness. This was a thoroughly delightful wine ($10 per glass) that complemented the fish so well.
Tiqa’s desserts are well worth the indulgence. Roasted apple and sweet seffa (pan-Mediterranean) is similar to a Napoleon with phyllo dough sandwiching a filling of apples wrapped in a cous-cous-flecked pastry cream (seffa) enhanced with mascarpone. It’s very sweet and I found myself lapping up each last morsel of this texturally interesting dessert.
Another sweet is the data crostada (Corsica) — a brioche-crust tart filled with dates, rum and candied walnuts. The dough is by its very nature a bit bready and I think I would have preferred a traditional phyllo dough. Still, the filling was beautifully sweet and creamy and the brioche dough had substance to hold it all together.
I came across a comment recently on one of the social media food sites in which a reader remarked about a news item of yet another bistro-style restaurant opening soon in Portland. And the comment went something like this, which I’ve paraphrased: “Haven’t we had enough of these restaurants? Let’s have something new for a change.”
Dear reader, your prayers have been answered. Check out Tiqa.