Portland, Maine has always been a foodie destination, but the number of consistently amazing food experiences you can have in this waterfront town has just recently exploded. When my wife and I get a chance to have a date weekend, we avoid expensive New York, by-pass the Boston traffic, and head right to Portland.
Bar Lola, a small, out-of-the-way bistro, raises the bar on fabulous food in Portland. Our best food experience in Portland to date, and that includes the landmark Fore Street.
Sure, it was a hot night and they didn’t have air conditioning. But the ceiling fans and window fans were on, the wonderfully inventive cocktails (“Atlantic & Congress” a personal favorite) were flowing, and the food was fantastic. Small bites, and lots of them…the kitchen cranked them out and we devoured them with pleasure.
Radishes with marrow butter on a baguette…Spanish sardines…rabbit confit with frisee and tomato mostarda (I told the chef I wanted that one to be super-sized so I could just shovel it into my mouth)…a wonderful pulled pork taco special…seared steak with wheatberries and dried fruit…a delightfully tender roasted half poussin with farro, pea shoots and garlic jus. We savored it all.
An not-on-the-menu bowl of pasta with butter for our daughter was not a problem for this busy kitchen. And a unique wine list was assisted by a knowledgeable staff to help with the selections.
Bar Lola is a small, cool, funky out-of-the-way neighborhood restaurant.
If you really are all about the food in Portland, this is where you go.
Eventide Oyster Company is a great little space around the corner from the waterfront, located next door to Hugo’s, which now shares a the kitchen with Eventide after renovations. (A visit to Hugo’s is tops on our list for our next visit.)
At Eventide: fresh oysters from all over the country, and fabulous small plates to go with them. Razor clams are tough to prepare properly, but they slice them and grill them to create a wonderful small plate. The fried oysters…the crudos (raw fish plates)…beautifully presented. The tuna deviled eggs: a home run. This is what an oyster bar should be. The staff is friendly and not jaded, despite the fact that it can get very crowded, spilling out into the street in the summertime. A good bar with interesting drinks and a nice choice of wines.
Probably the most amazing discovery for us was Eventide’s shaved ice accompaniments for their oysters, especially the red onion, horseradish and kimche shaved ice: intense flavors that just melt in your mouth. The red onion shaved ice was so good, I asked for a martini with a small bowl of it on the side. My wife and I came up with an oyster shooter: shot glass, small oyster of their choice, chilled Belvedere vodka, topped with the red onion shaved ice. WOW! You can thank me later!!!
We were in Portland for 48 hours and stopped by Eventide twice.
555 (Five Fifty-Five) served an excellent Sunday brunch…this coming from a guy that hates brunch. Going to a restaurant to eat eggs and drink bad champagne drinks is not my speed. But the lobster eggs Benedict was killer. Steak and eggs featured some of the tastiest, tenderest steak I’ve had anywhere. Fresh salads with local greens. A wonderfully satisfying creamy parsnip soup. Inventive cocktails. Live music. If I’m gonna have brunch, this is where I’m gonna have it! Can’t wait to come back to try 555 out for dinner. A great find, recommended to us by several servers from other restaurants. Always a good sign.
Fore Street: In some ways, this can still be considered the best restaurant in Portland. Earning great reviews and national attention year after year is not an easy accomplishment. And for the most part, Fore Street is really special. Tell anyone in the food business in Portland that you’ve got reservations at Fore Street, and they all swoon.
Unusual charcuterie plates with lamb hearts, foie gras stuffed pork trotters and beef tongue: a fun trip for the adventurous, but not particularly flavorful or inspired on our visit. However, roasted quail…roasted chicken…fabulous salads with seasonal greens…ravioli with pesto…all beautifully prepared in their open kitchen.
Fore Street keeps their produce local and seasonal, so I ordered an English pea and carrot salad that was at its seasonal peak. Then we ordered the ravioli: covered in English peas. Then the chicken: covered in English peas. Really? In this case, I wouldn’t mind if they brought in some veggies from out-of-town. I love peas. But I don’t need them in three separate dishes on the same night. Dropped the ball there.
We stayed away from any seafood because we had gorged on it the entire weekend at Eventide!
Although our Fore Street server tried to move the meal along a little faster than we were comfortable with, she got the message after a while and let us be. (It was an 8PM reservation on a Sunday night…she wasn’t going to have another seating at that table anyway.) Wine suggestions and selections were excellent, and though we took home a box of house-made chocolates, we really didn’t have room for dessert, with the exception of a refreshing espresso shaved ice.
Vignola Cinque Terre was intended to be a quick stop for just a glass of wine. Several cheese plates and many cocktails later, we realized we’ve got to come back to this place to enjoy some of their authentic Italian cuisine. Some places feel sterile…this place has loads of good ju-ju. And a great selection of cheeses, by the way.
The Porthole Restaurant is a Portland classic: off the main drag, down and dirty on the dock, serving great drinks and fun food. Featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” And just when you think they’re shutting down for the night, they get ready to re-open for breakfast! Shrimp and grits, lobster benedict…and a great Bloody Mary. What else do you need?
Becky’s Diner: a classic, tight-spaced breakfast joint, extremely popular, no doubt due to a very loyal following and constant rave reviews from magazines like Esquire and Gourmet. Get ready to wait in line!
J’s Oyster: the quintessential seafood dive. J’s is a Portland legend. Great oysters, lobster rolls, strong drinks, sassy bartenders, crotchety locals. If you haven’t been to J’s, you haven’t been to Portland, Maine. Plain and simple.
Infiniti, a brand spankin’ new and beautiful brew pub, serves atypically creative dishes, and they are just steps away from starting up their own distillery. It should be ready to rock on our next visit to Portland. We just popped in for a peek at the menu and the young, hip crowd that packed the place on a Saturday night.
Other FOOD FINDS…
Standard Baking Co: Some of the most delicious breads in town, just steps away from the Hilton Garden Inn, where we stayed…and just under Fore Street. (They bake the bread for the restaurant.) Not a lot of pastries and cakes…more of a rustic bakery. But what they’ve got is wonderful.
Harbor Fish Market: Bring a cooler and load up on the freshest seafood that Portland has to offer. This fish market is the real deal: Maine shrimp, Maine crab meat, lobsters, clams, oysters and a huge selection of fresh fish. We always stop here on the way home after our long Portland weekend. Order your breakfast to go right across the way at the Porthole, then come here for the seafood, and your breakfast will be ready to go by the time you’re done shopping.
Otto has good pizza, perhaps, for Maine, but definitely not great. I give them credit for some not-so-simple toppings: potato, bacon and scallion on a pizza…pretty cool. But I really didn’t like that they had a shelf with a huge stack of already-made pizzas just sitting there, so nothing was fresh out of the oven. Everything had to be re-heated. As a Brooklyn boy raised on arguably the best pizza in the USA, and as a serious home pizza maker, I was not impressed.
Some personal favorites, like The Salt Exchange, have fallen from grace in recent years. A change of ownership can do that. Foodie magazines love to chatter about Duck Fat, a small establishment that became famous for serving up french fries cooked in duck fat. The fries are good, not great, and the other dishes I’ve had there didn’t impress me. Same goes for anything with the name David’s in the title. Chef David Turin is a local legend, and quite frankly, I don’t know why. David’s was the most hyped and most disappointing dining experience we’ve had in Portland.
We don’t look for 5-star accommodations when we’re in Portland. We look for clean and close to the water.
Hilton Garden Inn: If we have a choice of where to stay in Portland, this is without a doubt our #1 pick. You cannot beat its location right on the Portland waterfront. Doesn’t hurt that the rooms are clean and the staff is friendly.
Hampton Inn Portland Downtown Waterfront: not really waterfront…a couple of blocks away. But it’s close enough, it’s relatively new and clean, and it’s another good option.
Holiday Inn Portland By the Bay: It’s easy to walk anywhere in downtown Portland, so this hotel, though not on the waterfront, is fine. The rooms are clean–though we did have to call housekeeping to change the sheets on the fold-out couch–they were pretty nasty. But we don’t come to Portland to live in our hotel room.
Beds are comfortable, there’s room service for breakfast, and most importantly: a hotel shuttle that means you can drink without driving.
I could be wrong, but it looks like a new Holiday Inn is being built along the waterfront at this moment. Worth keeping an eye on.