Posts Tagged ‘restaurants’

Newport, Rhode Island is a great old town to explore…and we’re lucky that we live just a half-hour away. But Newport gets ridiculously crowded in the summertime, so we visit before the season starts or wait until the season is over before we even dare to set foot anywhere near its historic waterfront. But when we heard that one of our favorite restaurants, Fluke, hired a new chef, we broke our own rules and made a special trip to check things out.

The first change is the name: formerly Fluke Wine Bar & Kitchen…now Fluke Newport. Straight to the point, emphasizing its location: one of the oldest cities in the country, founded in 1639. Their philosophy is simple: the freshest locally caught fish and seafood when possible.

Jeff and Geremie Callaghan, owners of Fluke, have been in the biz for a long time, and we’ve been fortunate to know them for over a decade. We met one cold winter night, when my radio station Christmas party, being held at one of the mansions on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, went horribly wrong when they insisted on playing that lame “murder mystery theater” thing in the middle of dinner. My wife and I, being new parents at the time, and cherishing our very rare date night alone, ditched the Christmas party the moment we saw what was going on and made our way quite randomly to the bar on the third floor of Fluke, where Jeff introduced us to many wonderful sipping rums. I consider Jeff my mentor in this area, showing me there was far more to rum than a Captain and Coke.

 

The bar at Fluke Newport.

The bar has changed a little bit at Fluke Newport…where rums used to dominate, now there are bourbons…a sign of the times. But the creative bartenders use top quality spirits and hand-pressed juices in their cocktails.

 

Chef Eddie Montalvo, hands-on in the kitchen.

 

The new chef at Fluke is Eddie Montalvo, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University in Providence. He worked at the highly respected Al Forno in Providence before moving to New York City, where he worked for many years for restaurant legends like David Bouley, Daniel Boulud, Danny Meyer and others. Once Eddie became a family man, and he realized he didn’t want to raise a child in the city, it was obvious that a change of venue was needed, and he left New York for Newport. It’s clear that the move was not only great for him, but for Fluke as well (it was due for an injection of fresh ideas) and even the Fluke owners and staff, who seem re-energized by a talented new chef at the helm.

Eddie came to our table and we talked at length about food and life, and how the two play a crucial role in our existence. We instantly realized this was not only a talented chef, but a nice guy, not something you always find in one person!

 

Foie gras Paris-brest.

 

He started us off with an appetizer of foie gras Paris-brest. Paris-rest is a popular sweet pastry. They add local strawberry jam and foie gras to make little sandwiches that are sweet and so rich and satisfying. So good as an appetizer, I was already planning to have it again as dessert!

 

Striped bass crudo.

 

Next came an experimental plate. Chef Montalvo had some fresh-caught striped bass, and made a beautiful plate that was not yet on the menu. I’m not usually a fan of striped bass, but cutting it super-thin, and serving it crudo-style was brilliant. We told him he shouldn’t change a thing. Perhaps it’s on the menu by now.

 

Lobster with spinach angel hair pasta.

We don’t usually order chicken at a restaurant, but my wife’s local Baffoni farm chicken, cooked in a cast iron pan and served with morels and an artichoke puree, was perfect. Chef Eddie told me he prides himself in his pasta making, so I went with the poached lobster on pillowy-soft spinach angel hair pasta with mushrooms. Both of our selections were delicious, and the plates were beautiful. And I was too stuffed to have another order of the foie gras Paris-brest! Maybe next time…

 

An after dinner sip of Blanton’s made the meal complete.

 

Every bit of seafood at Fluke Newport is right off the boat. Produce and meats are from farms just up the road. And now, a chef that excels in putting them together for a fabulous meal.

Like any major city, our nation’s capital has no shortage of restaurants. It’s always a challenge to go through a variety of lists, from Trip Advisor to Open Table to Yelp, trying to find the handful of restaurants that will take our vacation to the next level.

In my experience, I’ve found that many websites with reviews can really be tricky. A person that gets one bad dish may give a restaurant 1 star. Someone who loves Burger King can give it 5 stars. So how do you know which reviews are real and which ones have an agenda? You don’t. You have to read…and sometimes read a lot of them…before you can make a decision.

Of course, when I’m talking about restaurants, I’m not talking about where to get a breakfast sandwich–although I will have that for you in this blog as well. I’m talking about a true dining experience, something that might cost you a lot of bucks but will give you happy, lasting memories.

We had 8 dinners in Washington DC, and because we arrived late on a Friday night, we decided to go to the restaurant located at our own hotel, the Westin in Georgetown. The house restaurant is called the Caucus Room, and being a hotel restaurant, we weren’t expecting amazing food, but we were expecting some food. A week earlier, we made a reservation for dinner at 8:15PM, and when we arrived, the place was empty except for one server who was cleaning up, the strong smell of ammonia in the air. We never got a call that our reservation was cancelled. Just an empty “sorry” from the server before he went back to wiping tables.

The fact that the Caucus Room, and its sister restaurant on the premises, Boveda, were dead–and I mean dead–the entire weekend we arrived, we pretty much decided our hotel was not a food destination. (And when we tried room service, not only was the food overcooked and dry, but it came in a large paper take-out bag. No real plates or utensils. This was the Westin’s new idea of “room service.” They called it  “Fork, Knife, Spoon,” or something dumb like that.)

 

Room service at the Westin Georgetown.

 

So with the Caucus Room closed, we started to walk the neighborhood and soon found the West End Bistro a couple of blocks away. If you “check in” on Facebook, you’ll see they call themselves West End Bistro by Eric Ripert…and although it is connected to the Ritz-Carlton hotel, clearly chef Ripert (of NYC’s Le Bernardin fame) scooted outa there a long time ago. However, we were hungry and we left somewhat satisfied. (I gave it a 3 out of 5.)

Saving ourselves for a Saturday morning brunch our first morning, we were off to explore the city, with a stop at the Navy Yard, where the huge amount of new construction reminded us of Boston’s waterfront: massive apartment complexes, beautiful walkways by the water, and many restaurants to feed those moving into a very dog-friendly neighborhood.

Recommended by our friend, Sal Liotta, the owner of the Back Eddy restaurant in Westport, Massachusetts, we made reservations for brunch at Waley’s in the Yard, as they call it, and we were not disappointed. My daughter went for the straightforward order of pancakes (though she said they were the best she ever had), but my wife and I shared a beautiful seafood tower (with cocktails, of course.) Excellent food, excellent service, friendly staff, excellent first meal of the day: a solid 5 out of 5.

The fabulous seafood tower for 2 at Waley’s.

 

Fiola Mare: Chef Fabio Trabocchi is a big player in the DC restaurant scene, owner of a half a dozen restaurants. We chose Fiola Mare because of its location on the water in Georgetown, and its seafood menu. The food didn’t disappoint, but the service was something out of a bad comedy. To our waiter, Miguel (who looked more like a Mikey), every dish we asked about was “fabulous” or “dazzling.” My wife was handed the wine list and three separate sommeliers swooped down on her within five minutes, asking if she needed help. She barely had time to turn the first page. I saw my favorite vodka, Stoli elit, on the menu, but at $26 for a martini (in a very small glass, I might add) I settled for Belvedere at $16. I also ordered 2 Manhattans. The first one arrived perfectly poured. The second one looked and tasted like they left out the vermouth. The lack of consistency with bar drinks would become my number one pet peeve on this trip.

A rich and delicious half-portion of the lobster ravioli at Fiola Mare.

So the food was excellent, but the service a laugh. And they did everything they could to rush us through our meal. We spotted that nonsense a mile away and let them know we’d be sticking around for a while. A very noisy atmosphere, but the food made us happy. Expensive. I give this Trabocchi cash cow 3 out of 5.

 

We had our disastrous room service food the next morning (as mentioned above), so after that we searched the neighborhood for local breakfast joints. There were three: the Uptowner Cafe, located directly across the street from the Westin hotel (meh)…the Fabulous Market and Cafe walking toward the Foggy Bottom Metro station (also meh)…and Aroma Cafe, a small sandwich shop on 24th between the other two, run by a lovely Asian couple that became our buddies for a few days. Fresh sandwiches, good coffee. Nothing crazy, but just what you want: a fresh bite of food before you get on the train and start your day. Thumbs up to Aroma Cafe.

 

Sunday night’s dinner was a fun challenge. I had read good things about Tail Up Goat and simply made the reservation. (The name comes from islands where the goat and sheep populations are huge. As the saying goes: “Tail down, sheep. Tail up, goat.”)

Crudo and lamb ribs at Tail Up Goat.

 

A small, neighborhood eatery with loyal local customers, Tail Up Goat was fun, bright, and eclectic. Cocktails were again served in tiny glasses, but the food was interesting and challenging in a good way: bold flavors and spices on our lamb ribs with yogurt-za’atar onions on the side. The biggest negative was an extremely small menu. Two of the three main courses offered were for two people, so if you were dining alone, that gave you only one choice. 3 out of 5.

They put the “tini” in martini at Tail Up Goat.

 

We decided to go old school for dinner the next night, and by the recommendations of several friends, we dined at the very crowded, loud, and tourist-trappy Old Ebbitt Grill. Although the website talks a lot about the restaurant’s history dating back to 1856, and although the interior looks like a very cool old historic saloon, the fact of the matter is the Old Ebbitt Grill has only been in its current location since the 1980’s. So much for history!

But…the food was solid…straightforward roasted chicken, beef, pasta and sides. (Sadly, though, not one really good steak is offered on the menu.) However, I did finally get my first REAL martini of our trip!

A real martini filled to the brim at the Old Ebbitt Grill.

 

The Old Ebbitt Grill

I give the Old Ebbitt Grill a 3.5 out of 5.

We had our most disastrous dining experience the following night. Originally reserving a table at Le Diplomate, we made a last-minute change to dine at the highly rated Marcel’s by Robert Weidmaier. Expensive, snooty, and dripping with attitude.

There are very few restaurants where we’ve actually felt compelled to return a dish because it was so badly prepared. But my boneless quail didn’t look or taste like quail. In fact, the sausage-like roll they plated could have been any meat. And it was extremely salty. So…we had to say something and return the dish. Once we did that, our server took the plate away and didn’t come back–not to see if perhaps we’d like to try another dish, or if there was anything else he could do to make our experience better. No…he didn’t come back at all. Once we complained about the food, we were put on the proverbial sh*# list, and no one returned to our table until dessert was served. (We had ordered that in the beginning, so no contact needed to be made.) Only when my wife asked is she could have some tea did our server turn to me and ask if I’d like something to drink as well.

From the sommelier that kept telling my wife all of her wine choices were “dead,” to an expensive and very tough veal chop, to a fishy scallop plate and a disappointing foie gras appetizer, we stared at each other in total disbelief. How could this restaurant get such great reviews? If they were having a bad night, they were having a really bad night. And sadly, that meant so were we. A very expensive bad night. I really want to give zero out of 5.

 

On the menu at the Blue Duck Tavern.

 

Thank goodness we had what was probably our best dining experience the next night, at Michelin-star rated Blue Duck Tavern. Located in the Hyatt hotel that is literally across the street from our Westin hotel, the Blue Duck Tavern is huge, gorgeous, full of space and light, with a professional staff and knock-your-socks-off food.

 

 

The place was packed on a Wednesday night, and we were given a table right in the center of the party. Unfortunately, we struggled to hear each other and asked to be moved to a quieter table. They did so without hesitation and without attitude. Our server, Frank, was the pro you hope for when you come to a restaurant like this: knowledgeable about the entire menu, eager to recommend when asked, and offering tons of useful information to food fanatics like ourselves. He even gave us a tour of the restaurant and kitchen after we placed our order. This dude knew what we wanted!

 

Bone marrow with a pretzel crumble. OMG.

 

The foie gras creme brulee was an absolute knockout. The bone marrow with pretzel crumble was without a doubt the best I’ve ever had, and I’m a bone marrow freak. I have been spoiled for life. Of course, if you come to a place called the Blue Duck Tavern, you must have the Moulard duck breast…fabulous. And my wood oven roasted whole branzino in a sunchoke romesco sauce, all 1 1/2 pounds of it, was devoured by yours truly with only bones to show for it. My usually picky daughter had a feast with the charcuterie and cheese plate followed by a plate of rich ricotta gnudi.

 

Wood fire roasted whole branzino.

A great wine selection, wonderful house cocktails, assistance without attitude…it’s everything you want in a fine dining experience. I can’t give them another Michelin star, but I give the Blue Duck Tavern a solid 5 out of 5.

 

 

Washington DC is chef Jose Andres’ playground. Sure, he’s got restaurants all over the country, but he’s got a dozen of them in DC, all very different from one another. There’s his Michelin-star rated Mini-Bar, Peruvian with Asian and Spanish accents at China Chilcano, heavy-duty Eastern Mediterranean at Zaytinya, and more. I opted for his straightforward Spanish tapas restaurant called Jaleo. We were in Madrid just a few years ago and we loved everything we ate. We were hoping to rekindle some of that “foodie love” and Chef Andres did not disappoint!

 

 

Jaleo is a lot of fun. It’s loud in many ways: the crowd, the crazy, bright colors and architecture, and the bold flavors on the menu. This is a place you bring your friends. Small plates mean you can share or not…but you can try many, many dishes and flavors all night long. We devoured plates of jamon Iberico with Manchego cheese, as well as a salami made with the same jamon. Two types of calamari: fried in olive oil and garlic, and sauteed with white beans. Crazy “liquid olives” inspired by legendary chef Ferran Adria. Grilled asparagus. Chicken fritters. Shrimp fried in olive oil and garlic. Grilled quail with a rosemary sauce (done perfectly–are you listening, Marcel’s?) And an Iberico tenderloin with blue cheese sauce. Yes…we ate it ALL.

 

The Iberico ham, salami, and manchego cheese.

 

The mind-boggling “liquid olives.”

 

We love Spanish wines from Rioja, which made it an easy choice at Jaleo. And I went over the top with the best gin and tonics I’ve ever had. I will never drink it any other way than Jose’s Choice: Hendrick’s Gin, Fever Tree tonic, lime and lemon, juniper berries, and a verbena leaf.

Jaleo gets a 5 out of 5 for sheer fun, great food and atmosphere, super-casual.

 

Out last dinner was right before we hopped on our plane homeward. We had a late flight, so we stopped by Nobu, which happened to be just a block from our hotel, for their Friday happy hour.  This location was the newest in the vast Nobu empire, and the space was huge, clean, modern, classy. It was a good time to go: though the menu was small, there were plenty of tasty bites to choose from, including a Wagyu beef dumpling with foie gras. We were even able to choose a dish or two from the main menu. Tasty food beautifully prepared, and a perfect non-bloating dinner before getting on a plane.

The bar at Nobu.

 

Of course, we had more than just dinners in Washington, DC. Twice we dined in museum cafeterias. Both times, the food was mediocre at best…but we weren’t expecting much more than that at a museum anyway. Once we dined from a food truck. OK food, too.

We were craving Chinese food, so I did a little research and found a place called Chinatown Express. Although the name wasn’t inspiring (think Panda Express–gack!) the food was excellent. When we saw the lovely ladies making dumplings by hand in the front window (“on the spot,” as the sign says), we knew it was the perfect authentic Chinese restaurant we were looking for.

We feasted on roasted duck, fried and steamed dumplings, chicken fried rice, wonton soup, and lots more. 4 out of 5 for authenticity.

 

Just a few doors down, on a day when my daughter and I had lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, my wife returned to 6th Street to slurp down ramen noodles at Daikaya. She said it was so good, she’s been spoiled for life. Walk in for the ramen, or go to their restaurant for everything but the ramen. And yes, they fly in their noodles from Japan every day! 5 out of 5 for the ramen.

Daikaya.

 

And speaking of the Hard Rock Cafe, I’ve created a monster. I took my daughter to her first Hard Rock last year, when we went to Universal Studios in Orlando. Since then, the big question wherever we went was: “Is there a Hard Rock here, Dad?” So this one was her fourth.

She’s also been to the Hard Rock in the Cayman Islands and the one in New York City, which is located in Times Square (but the original was on West 57th.) The food at every Hard Rock is the same, so no review for that. It’s what you’d expect. But we always tour the entire restaurant after our meal, talking about music, bands and videos. It’s one of the few times that Dad, being the rock jock full of information for almost 4 decades, is actually cool.

 

One last note on inconsistent drinks: I mentioned earlier that it’s a pet peeve of mine that was tested several times during our vacation. Our Westin hotel didn’t even have a lobby big enough for a bar, so a couple of nights we went across the street to the Fairmont hotel, which had a large, spacious lobby and plenty of seating around the bar to sit, relax, grab a bite or have a cocktail. I kept it simple both nights, requesting a Blanton’s on the rocks. The first night, my drink was properly served in a rocks glass with a nice, large cube…a good pour for the money.

The second night, I literally received 1/3 of the drink I got the night before. When I posted my complaint on Twitter, Fairmont Hotels quickly replied, offering me a free drink if I returned. Sadly, I was home by then.

 

 

All in all, a great trip to Washington DC, with some wonderful experiences and some disappointment. But like with any trip, you’ll always increase your chances for success with a little research!

 

For me, no dining experience is complete without a great cocktail. If all they’ve got to offer is a martini straight-up with olives, I’ll drink it alright–but I’ll be disappointed there’s nothing more.

Coppa is a wonderful small enoteca in Boston’s South End, featuring small plates by award-winning chefs Ken Oringer and Jamie Bissonette. (They’re also the 2 creative forces behind Toro in Boston and NYC.)

The food was incredible, and this drink, called “Hey, Neon,” was inspired. The glass was rimmed with dehydrated and finely chopped kalamata olives. I tried to recreate that at home, and couldn’t get the texture or the size right. And I could never get it to stick to the glass, either! Ultimately, I simply skewered a few kalamatas and placed them on the glass!

The original “Hey Neon” at Coppa.

 

 

“HEY NEON”

1 1/2 oz. Aalborg aquavit
3/4 oz. Punt e Mes
1/2 oz. Cynar
1/2 oz. Green Chartreuse

Add ice to a cocktail shaker and then add the ingredients. Stir well, until very cold. Strain into a martini glass. Add the skewer of kalamata olives.

 

Aalborg is a brand of aquavit (or akvavit), a clear alcohol similar to vodka but usually infused with other flavors, mainly caraway or dill, popular in Scandinavia.

Punt e Mes is a sweet vermouth, the so-called “little brother” of the granddaddy of all sweet vermouths: Carpano Antica Formula.

Cynar is an Italian bitter and digestif made from herbs, plants and artichokes. Strong in flavor, but delicious!

Chartruese is a French liqueur made by Carthusian monks since 1737, using a recipe that dates back to 1605. It contains 130 herbs and plants. It’s also one of the few liqueurs that ages in the bottle, changing over time. Green Chartreuse is 110 proof, and naturally colored from the maceration of its ingredients. Yellow Chartreuse, at 80 proof, is a milder and sweeter version.

My version of the “Hey Neon.”

 

 

Every major city in the United states has a Capital Grille, and it’s a great place to grab a solid dinner if you’re traveling. Although the Capital Grille in my town of Providence, RI has recently moved from its original location, we can still boast that we had the very first one in the USA.

They don’t do crazy-fancy drinks at the Capital Grille. They keep a very well-stocked bar with high-end booze and make solid cocktails. But there is one signature drink you can find there, and that’s the Stoli Doli. A Stoli Doli is simply Stoli vodka that has been infused with fresh pineapple. If you sit at the bar at the Capital Grille, you won’t be able to miss the very large jar of freshly-cut pineapple pieces swimming in vodka. They literally pour it “from the tap,” and serve it straight up, like a martini, or on the rocks. It’s delicious, and I’ve certainly had my share of them over time.

I decided to make my own at home one day, to serve to my friends at an upcoming party. But to my disappointment, I didn’t have any Stoli vodka in the house. I found a bottle of Stoli Vanil, the vanilla-flavored vodka, and it was a real game-changer! I used that instead of regular Stoli and I came up with a sweeter, smoother drink that is legendary among my friends to this day. I called it…

VELVET ELVIS

2 pineapples, peeled, cored, and sliced
1.75ml Stoli Vanil

Find a gallon-sized glass jar with a lid. Peel, core and slice the pineapples and drop the pieces in the jar. Pour the vodka in, mix well, and seal the jar. Keep it at room temperature for a week, giving it a gentle shake every day.

After one week, strain it, squeezing the pineapple pieces to get every bit of liquid out. Keep the Velvet Elvis refrigerated. Serve over ice.

Mystic, Connecticut has been a favorite day trip here in New England for years, with its charm as a historic seaport with an impressive aquarium. But over the past decade or so, food, which has never been a strong suit of this small community, has taken the forefront. There have always been the pizza joints and the fish shacks, and staples like the generic Steak Loft, but in recent years, food lovers have found Mystic to be a destination for dining alone. It’s no surprise, then, that this community, which would be busy for only 2 summer months out of the year, is now teaming with visitors year-round.

One of the best dining destinations in Mystic is The Oyster Club, (www.oysterclubct.com), a farm-and-sea-to-table establishment that features ever-changing menus based one what is truly in season at the moment. Add that to genuine creativity in the kitchen and bar, and you get a really fun and delicious dining and drinking experience often found only in larger cities.

We recently had dinner at The Oyster Club on a Saturday night, and loved it so much, we returned the next day for Sunday brunch. Neither meal disappointed.

Our friends at FireFly Farms, a certified humane farm that raises pigs, cows, chicken and ducks in nearby Stonington, Connecticut have contributed to The Oyster Club menu on occasion, including a pig roast next month. Despite that the duck wasn’t from their farm this time, it was a dish that 3 of us just couldn’t resist. Only I veered from the meat and went for a beautifully pan-sauteed black bass. And my daughter was perfectly happy with house-made tagliatelle with Bolognese. Appetizers included fresh local oysters (of course).

House-made everything bagel, cream cheese, red onion, fried capers, parsley, and smoked conger eel.

For brunch the next morning, my wife and returned to enjoy food and a few cocktails. My wife ordered a delicious frittata, while I just had to order the eyebrow-raising house-made everything bagel with cream cheese, sliced red onion, fried capers, parsley, and smoked conger eel! Yes, eel! It was fantastic! A delicious salad of apple and blue cheese rounded out our brunch.

The bar at The Oyster Club. Wish I lived closer to this place…

For drinks, I sipped on a mushroom infused bourbon cocktail called the Fun Guy…and my wife enjoyed the Downward Dog, featuring cold-brewed coffee.

Fun Guy (left) and Downward Dog (right.)

With an exterior raised deck area they call “The Treehouse” in the back, open in warmer weather, The Oyster Club is a place we will gladly return to!

 

If you’re craving sushi, ironically, the best sushi can be found across the street from the Mystic Aquarium at Johnny’s Peking Tokyo. (www.pekingtokyomystic.com) As its name implies, you’ll find Chinese and Japanese cuisine here, and everything is top-notch. It’s the best sushi between New York City and Boston.

 

And what visit to Mystic would be complete without hob-knobbing with the rich folks? The Spicer Mansion (www.spicermansion.com) is a beautifully refurbished Relais and Chateaux property, where you can dress up and sip cocktails by the fire. Join the special club here and you’ll have access to a “secret” speakeasy located in the basement! Excellent pampering service, as you’d expect.

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve known Plum Pt. Bistro owner Ralph Conte for about 20 years now. Back in the day, Ralph owned Raphael Bar Risto in Providence. At that time, it was not only the best restaurant in town, but The Tunnel Bar at Raphael’s was also the hottest singles bar in town.

My buddy, Charles, and I would spend every Friday and Saturday night there, from dinner until closing, chatting with the ladies, sipping cocktails, and enjoying incredible food. As much as that kind of lifestyle can take its toll on your health, so can running a restaurant like that. And after a number of years, Ralph decided to close the doors on our beloved restaurant.

I was heartbroken, not only because it was a favorite hang out of mine, but it was also where I met my wife!

Fast forward a half a dozen years later.

Restaurants are in Ralph’s blood, so it was no surprise that he opened a smaller, family-run establishment, this time far away from the noise of Providence. Plum Pt. Bistro in Saunderstown became an instant hit with the locals and there’s rarely any empty seat in the house no matter what day you go.

Plum Pt. Bistro is smaller and more manageable than the old Raphael’s, and Ralph has his family to help him. His wife, Alyssa, daughter Zoe, and son Raphael, all work at the restaurant. The result is a comfortable atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re home. Ralph’s skills with Mediterranean flavors has not diminished in the least.

Although I love many of the standards that are on their menu, I always look to the blackboard first for the night’s specials. On a recent trip, there was fresh locally caught striped bass, tuna, and black bass. The tuna tartare was sensational. The whole fried black bass, served in a lemon butter caper sauce, with fresh seasonal vegetables and potatoes on the side, was the best whole fish I’ve had in many years. My daughter devoured the fried zucchini blossoms stuffed with ricotta cheese, sitting on a bed of beautiful marinara sauce. And her favorite regular dish on the menu is the potato gnocchi with pesto. My wife had the lettuce wraps, which were surprisingly fresh and tasty, dipping them in the Asian-style peanut sauce on the side. And a beet salad was raised to the next level by adding a perfectly cooked marinated steak to it.

My whole fried black bass, before I devoured it.

 

Plum Pt. Bistro has great bartenders that will make you your favorite cocktail, or create a new favorite for you. My buddy, Skip, from the Raphael days, still works for Ralph behind the bar. And they have a decent wine selection, too. Reservations are highly recommended. You need to call them since they don’t offer reservations online.

Plum Pt. Bistro is on the mainland of Rhode Island, right at the end of the Jamestown Bridge…just a stone’s throw from Wickford. Absolutely worth the trip if you’re spending any time in Newport. Cross the bridges and get some amazing food! Hey…I live on the other side of the state and it’s worth the trip for me!

 

Despite working in a pretty decent food town (Providence, Rhode Island), and despite being just an hour away from another decent food town (Boston, Massachusetts), when we want to go to a place where we park our car once and can easily walk to dozens of great eateries and bars, where each place is more creative than the next, and where genuine friendliness and enthusiasm for what they’re doing shows in every dish, the answer is Portland, Maine.

My wife and I visit Portland at least once a year and it’s amazing to see how many new restaurants have opened since our last visit. Every time we think we’ve crossed a few off our list, a half-dozen new ones show up! Last year, we hit 10 restaurants in 48 hours. This last visit, it was a mere 6 restaurants in 48 hours. I guess we’re getting older…!

solo2

Our weekend started on a Friday afternoon with a quick bite at Solo Italiano, near the water on Commercial Street. We really enjoyed a light-as-air Carpaccio di Tonno: thinly sliced yellow fin tuna with stracciatella cream, herb oil, and crispy onions. And after we were told that the chef at Solo won the World Pesto Championship, we had to have the Mandilli di Seta al Vero Pesto Genovese: house made silk handkerchief pasta in a traditional Genovese basil pesto…amazing! Solo has some great house cocktails to choose from, too. Definitely worth a return visit.

The bar at Solo.

The bar at Solo.

Our Friday evening dinner was at Hugo’s. Originally owned by chef Rob Evans, a three-time Food Network “Chopped” champion, Rob sold it a few years ago and now runs Duckfat, a small sandwich shop famous for its Belgian-style fries that are fried in duck fat. (Though it gets write-ups all the time, my experience at Duckfat was disappointing.)

hugosign

 

The folks that own the nationally acclaimed Eventide Oyster Bar now own Hugo’s (it’s next door) as well as The Honey Paw (next door on the other side.) For us, every visit to Portland must include this amazing restaurant trifecta on Middle Street, that, in fact, have connecting kitchens.

The connecting kitchens at Hugo's, Eventide, and the Honey Paw.

The connecting kitchens at Hugo’s, Eventide, and The Honey Paw.

 

Hugo’s is fine dining at its creative best. Though we hadn’t been there in over a year, Brian, a manager and our wine guru, immediately remembered us and greeted us with a hug, showing us to our seats and treating us to a glass of bubbly. He guided us through the wine list and offered us a bottles that were simply out of this world. Though we’ve done the tasting menu in the past, we decided to go a la carte when a beautiful fried whole black bass, with roasted mushrooms, cabbage and hoisin vinaigrette, was calling our name. After a few wonderful appetizers that included peekytoe crab, reblochon (a local cheese), and lamb tartare, we were ready for the black bass. Even our server, Patrick, was impressed with how well we devoured that fish right down to the bone.

Fried black bass at Hugo's.

Fried black bass at Hugo’s.

 

Polishing off that amazing black bass!

Polishing off that amazing black bass!

 

Paul, the bartender at Hugo's.

Paul, the bartender at Hugo’s.

 

Dinner at Hugo’s wouldn’t be complete without a discussion about bourbons with bartender, Paul, and he let me sample a couple of special bottles he had behind the bar. A great way to end a wonderful dining experience on our first night in Portland.

Bourbon tastings.

Bourbon tastings.

 

The next day, Saturday, our food adventures began with lunch. Don’t get me wrong: there are some great breakfast choices in Portland, like the Porthole (featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”) and Becky’s Diner. But when you’re in town to feast, you bypass the bacon and eggs.

Lunch was at Eventide, which shows up on every “best oyster bar” list, and the reason is simple: a nice selection of fresh oysters, a great bar, and creative side dishes that change all the time.

Oysters at Eventide.

 

The Eventide brown butter lobster roll is elevated to new heights when it’s placed on an Asian-style steamed bun. Blackboard specials change every week, and always include what’s right off the boat: from fried squid to pickled lox. If you’re less adventurous, you can’t go wrong with the buttermilk fried chicken bun, the house pastrami bun or their impressive fish sandwich.

Pickled lox (left) and the lobster bun (right.)

 

If you go to Eventide during peak hours, you can expect a wait. The place isn’t huge and it’s wildly popular. Give them your name, tuck yourself into a corner with a drink, and wait, knowing that it will all be worth it!

Real women in Maine shuck oysters!

 

We skip the usual cocktail sauce when at Eventide. Our favorite accoutrements are the pickled red onion ice (great for an oyster shooter!) and the chilera ice.

Before…and after.

 

After our leisurely lunch, it was time to walk off a few calories. Heading down Fore Street, we tucked into several art galleries and shops, slowly making our way across the center of town to the newly redesigned Portland Art Museum. By the time we stepped out of the museum, it was time for more food. Just a few blocks, and we arrived at Boda.

 

Labeling themselves as a “Very Thai” kitchen and bar, Boda delivers. Though we only had a few apps, like the apple and shrimp salad and a plate of authentic pad thai, it earned two thumbs up. A plate of fried quail…not so much.

The bar at Boda offers the standards (like my Chopin martini) and some interesting Asian herb-infused cocktails. Definitely worth a return visit, especially when Boda is open until 12:45AM, serving tasty skewers for the bar crowd.

A short stop at our hotel, and it was time for our Saturday dinner. We headed to what many claim is the best sushi restaurant in Portland: Miyake. We soon discovered that the label “best sushi restaurant in Portland” didn’t necessarily set the standard very high.

 

Though we found a beautiful bottle of sake on the menu that we’ve had before, the food was a disappointment. Having had a few great sushi experiences in my life, I wanted this place to be among them. But after trying 2 different 4-course menus that featured tastings of salmon, tuna, uni, duck, and even Miyake’s own farm-raised mangalitsa pork–a rare heritage breed–which, though fatty, was very dry…it’s safe to say that we won’t be returning to Portland, Maine for its sushi.

The sake, at least, was amazing.

In a town with many creative restaurants, this one didn’t cut it. Some locals told us that Miyake used to be better when they were in a smaller space. The move to a larger space meant a beautiful room, but the food suffered.

Our weekend ended with Sunday brunch. If we wanted a more typical Sunday brunch, we would’ve gone to Five Fifty-Five, where we’ve enjoyed dishes like lobster eggs Benedict in the past. But when we heard that The Honey Paw was now serving brunch, there was no question where we needed to go!

 

My kind of Sunday brunch: Asian fried ribs, pork and fried oyster pot stickers, a bowl of beef shank pho, and a breakfast sandwich with house made scrapple and egg on a kimchi croissant.

Beef shank pho.

 

The Honey Paw breakfast sandwich.

 

My wife took advantage of a full bar with creative cocktails. Unfortunately, I had a 3-hour drive home behind the wheel, so I had to refrain from the alcohol.

The bar at The Honey Paw.

While we dined at The Honey Paw, I ran next door to Eventide and ordered 2 of their buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches to go. Our 10-year-old daughter was not happy that we went to Portland without her this time, and we knew that bringing her favorite sandwiches home would help ease the blow.

 

We’ll be back to Portland this summer. Already counting the days. For other great places to dine in this town, use my search engine under “Portland.” And feel free to drop me a line with any questions about where to stay, eat, visit, etc…

Cheers!

 

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the dining experiences I’ve had at Persimmon’s former location in Bristol, RI. But it was clear that the place was too small. The opportunity to buy the former Rue de L’Espoire at 99 Hope Street on the east side of Providence came up, and James Beard nominee (for best chef Northeast) Champ Speidel and his wife, Lisa, went for it. It’s just what they (we) needed!

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The space holds almost 3 times more people, and the vibe is upbeat and exciting. The dining experience rivals the best of New York City. But there’s no stuffiness here. This is fine dining they way it should be: small plates with incredible flavors, all while you enjoy the company of friends in a casual atmosphere. The suits are here…but no one feels out-of-place in a pair of jeans.

Oysters 3 ways.

Oysters 3 ways.

My wife and I sat at the chef’s table (a front-row view of the workings of the kitchen) and enjoyed small plate after small plate of incredible bites: from deviled quail eggs with sturgeon caviar to crispy chicken skin. Oysters 3 ways: fried, raw, and chips were mind-blowing. Pasta carbonara with earthy black truffles was the carbonara I’ve always dreamed about. Tempura rock shrimp weren’t heavily battered, but lightly crisp with a highly addictive sauce. Boneless stuffed chicken wings, deconstructed, re-constructed and filled with Asian flavors, was an unexpected hit out of the park.

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Watching chef Champ at work was a real treat. It was great to talk to him, his wife, Lisa, and their enthusiastic staff. We learned a lot.
I’ve always told my friends that Persimmon in Bristol was Rhode Island’s best restaurant. Now, in its new Providence location on Hope Street, just a stone’s throw from Brown University, it has truly arrived. http://www.persimmonbristol.com

It’s the peak of the summer season along the coast of the great state of Maine. My friend, Lee, recently bought a second home in Kennebunk, and it was all the excuse I needed to head up there and check out the town I visited with my parents during my childhood. My trip was less about the Lithuanian Franciscan monastery my parents would make a point to visit, and more about hitting every bar and restaurant we could in a 24-hour period.

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I arrived at lunch time and we went straight to David’s KPT, one of several restaurants owned by chef David Turin, who owns others in nearby Portland. I ate at the original David’s in Portland a few years ago and was not impressed, so it took a little coaxing to get me to come here. David’s KPT menu is simple, basic seafood, and for a restaurant on the water with great views, that’s about all you need. Nothing particularly creative here, just the basics, like fresh oysters but a rather bland lobster salad. Its key location also makes it a tourist trap and they jack the prices up, so some oysters go for $3.50 each! I don’t even pay that in New York City.

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After lunch, we took a ride along the beautiful rugged Maine coast, passing the Bush family compound and the line of cars parked on the road with people taking snaps of the house for their scrapbooks. We stopped In Cape Porpoise, still a part of Kennebunkport, at a funky joint called The Ramp.

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On the water, The Ramp is crowded and noisy, with old posters and souvenirs on the walls and ceiling, ranging from a NYC World Trade Center subway station sign to a “Vote for Marcos” campaign poster from the Philippines. We had to put our names on a list just to sit at the bar. But that was OK…we had a cocktail while waiting. By the time we finished our drinks and were ready to leave, our turn came up at the bar, so we handed our space off to the next person in line and moved on.

Our lovely server at The Ramp. Notice photos of former Presidents behind her.

Our lovely server at The Ramp. Notice photos of former Presidents behind her.

Back on the road, we drove into town, found a rare parking space on the street, and walked over to Tia’s Topside,with their signature giant lobster claws in the front yard.

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The menu was no great shakes, and it was clear the dude working the bar already had his fill of tourists for the season. No eye contact, just a “What do you guys want to drink?” That was a thumbs down in our book.

Walking back to the car, we popped into Ports of Italy for a pop. Looking at the plates of the people next to me at the bar, it seemed like we stumbled into a local version of the Olive Garden. The website makes everything we saw look much better. But we passed on the food. Generic drinks.

Clearly, the amount of drinks we had, and were still going to have, was going to be an issue, and Lee being the driver, was behaving to avoid any trouble with the law. Police are everywhere in Kennebunk, and they are notorious for pulling you over for even the slightest infraction. So we headed back to the condo to park the car and wait for the taxi we hired for the night to take us to dinner and beyond.

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The culinary focus of the trip (I made reservations two months earlier) was Earth at Hidden Pond, a Ken Oringer restaurant in the center of a luxury resort just a short drive out of the center of town, hidden in the woods, surrounded by ridiculously expensive cabins.

Outdoor seating, great atmosphere at night when they light the torches and the fires.

Outdoor seating, great atmosphere at night when they light the torches and the fires.

Oringer is a crazy-talented chef, a Food Network “Iron Chef America” winner with a half-dozen respected restaurants to his name: Toro in Boston (personal favorite) and NYC, Clio in Boston, Coppa (excellent!) in Boston, and Uni in Boston. I was very glad to see that Earth lived up to my expectations.

The well-stocked bar at Earth.

The well-stocked bar at Earth.

Our evening got off to a slow start. It was a Saturday night, yet the main bartenders were nowhere to be found. (We heard that one was out due to a leg injury.) The woman that served us was great to talk to, but she clearly did not have a grasp on the crafting of the more complicated cocktails that Earth was known for. Our first drinks were good, but she literally had to read the recipes off a card to make them. And when I asked for Antica Formula in my Manhattan, she didn’t know what that was.

Enter Josh, a young, energetic bar assistant, who saw this as an opportunity to show off his mixology skills. He jumped right in and offered us a cocktails he created, and we welcomed his refreshing enthusiasm. I can’t even remember the ingredients list he had for each cocktail, but we thoroughly enjoyed them, and he custom-crafted them if we didn’t like a particular ingredient.

Small plates: meatballs, chicken wings with sesame and squid ink, shishito peppers.

Snacks: meatballs, chicken wings with sesame and squid ink, shishito peppers.

We started with a few apps, or snacks as they called them. The meatballs were good, average meatballs. The shishito peppers, roasted and salted, are a Ken Oringer signature dish, also served at his Toro restaurants. Usually 1 out of 10 are hot, but we had more than a few spicy bites on our plate. The chicken wings with squid ink were incredible: sweet, salty, briny. Probably the best wings I’ve ever had, and I’m dying to figure out how I can make them at home. I had a chance to talk to executive chef Justin Walker, and after he explained the process in detail, it was obvious it wouldn’t be easy!

A luxurious plate of seared foie gras followed. Couldn’t have been more perfect.

But after the foie, we had a dilemma: We made plans to have the taxi pick us up from the restaurant at 8:30, giving us 2 1/2 hours to eat dinner. It was after 8 already, and we had to focus on leaving, despite the fact that we didn’t have an entree yet. Our bartender suggested perhaps a dessert, and we decided to order a second plate of chicken wings to end our meal!

I was bummed that we didn’t give ourselves enough time to have a complete dinner. I suppose that meant we were having a good time and not just shoving food down our pie holes. It’s also my excuse to come back to Earth to “do things right” the next time!

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Our last stop was back in town at Old Vines, a wine bar that also serves great food. Though we were seated quickly at the bar and got our first drinks, it seemed like forever before we could get the attention of our female bartender who was far more interested in the other females at the bar than us two old guys. Hey, I understand that, but we wanted to order some food. It was only when the owner showed up that we were asked what we’d like to eat and by then we were told the kitchen may be closed. Fortunately, we ordered two cold dishes, so they were easy to prepare: beef carpaccio and a burata salad. Both were excellent.

A cab ride home, and it was time to pass out.

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The next morning, breakfast was back in Cape Porpoise at The Wayfarer, a local favorite for years. Always crowded, we managed to find a couple of seats at the bar. Crowded because the menu offers breakfast favorites with their own twist: a scramble of the day, housemade sausage, and interesting takes on standards, like lobster and pork belly eggs Benedict.

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The creativity of this dish was excellent, the execution not so much. Hey, I love pork fat, but the pork belly wasn’t cooked enough so it was rubbery and the lobster meat was cold–should’ve been warmed through before putting it on top of the eggs.

That’s OK…lots of good coffee and smiling faces were a welcome sight the morning after a big night of drinking!

The ride back to Rhode Island was a bit rough with a hangover. Next time, it’ll be 48 hours in Kennebunkport and I’ll make sure I get some rest!

 

Mugaritz, San Sebastian, Spain

Mugaritz, San Sebastian, Spain

In the yearly listing: The World’s Top 50 Restaurants, Mugaritz consistently gets into the top 10…this year it’s at #6. A few years ago, on a trip to San Sebastian, Spain, my family and I had a chance to dine there.

The main kitchen from outside.

The main kitchen from outside.

The dishes that acclaimed chef Andoni Luis Aduriz created were some of the most original we’ve ever enjoyed. There was a flow to our experience…a reason why one dish followed another. It was like a concert, with Aduriz at the helm as director and composer.

Mugaritz has about twenty tables. And one seating. You are there for the night. Well over twenty courses, small bites to be sure, but all intense and rich with flavors and textures that complimented each other.

The kitchen at Mugaritz.

The main kitchen at Mugaritz.

Every table got a private tour of the kitchen. And though we didn’t meet chef Aduriz, we did get to talk with his second in command: chef Ramon Perise.

Mugaritz, as Perise explained it, has three kitchens: a lower level for preparation…a middle kitchen on the main floor for cooking all the food, plating it and making it look beautiful…and then an upstairs kitchen, the laboratory, where they come up with their newest creations.

Hangin' with Ramon Perise.

Hangin’ with Ramon Perise.

With our kitchen tour, we saw the chefs setting up rows of small iron bowls on wooden stands: individual mortar and pestles for each person in the dining room. It was going to be a dish that was served to everyone at the same time, no matter where they were in the course of their meal. So when we finished our kitchen tour, we sat down, and the mortar and pestles were brought out.

Inside the iron bowl were some wet and dry ingredients: what looked like corn nuggets, a colorful cube of gelatin and other ingredients. We were instructed to grind up what was in our bowls with our personal pestle. The entire restaurant was filled with a ringing sound, like church bells going off somewhere in the distance. For a few precious minutes, every patron shared this special perfectly choreographed event as we ground up the contents of our bowls. They called it the “linking dish.”

Then, one by one, the grinding stopped. The iron bowls continued to ring for a few seconds until the sounds faded away into silence, replaced by the low murmur of conversation. And we all went back to our meals.

The linking dish.

The linking dish.

Our sommelier, Guillermo Cruz, was a bright, knowledgeable and enthusiastic young man that offered us thrill rides in a glass, including a much-needed digestivo half-way through the meal so that we could continue our dining experience!

A grappa-like Fillaboa digestif from Gallicia that was made from the local Albarino grapes. Helpful in making room for more food!

A grappa-like Fillaboa digestif from Gallicia that was made from the local Albarino grapes. Helpful in making room for more food!

As Chef Perise said to us (paraphrasing): “When you leave this place…and weeks afterwards…you’re not going to remember the food. But you’re going to remember the emotions you had and the feelings you had when you were here. And that’s what we’re working for.”

Shaved ice cream with cheese: one of many desserts.

Shaved frozen apple with cheese: one of many desserts.

Could there have been too many dishes? Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing? Is less really more?

These burning questions can only be answered with another visit to Mugaritz. I hope it’s sometime soon!

 

 

 

It’s mind-blowing how many new and exciting restaurants keep popping up in Portland, Maine, and even more interestingly, how they’re all thriving! With a great arts scene, historic New England waterfront, and a young crowd eager to spend their money, Portland is just exploding.

I work in Providence, Rhode Island, a city whose food scene has had a lot of attention in the last few years in a variety of national magazines. But really creative restaurants here are hard to find, perhaps five in the entire city. In Portland, you’ll find five on one block!

Portland is big enough to be a destination, and small enough that you can park your car once and walk everywhere you want to go all day and into the night.

Oysters at Eventide.

Oysters at Eventide.

Three of the best restaurants in town just happen to be owned by the same three guys: Andrew Taylor, Arlin Smith and Mike Wiley. They called their company AMA LLC, though now I think they go by the name Big Tree Hospitality. All three restaurants are located right next door to each other on Middle Street: Hugo’s, Eventide, and The Honey Paw. If you go nowhere else in Portland, hit this one block. If you’re just passing through for lunch, it’s right off 295. Just take the Franklin Street exit.

The block. From left to right: The Honey Paw, Eventide, and Hugo's. And if you stay at the Hampton Inn, like we did, you walk less than a block!

The block. From left to right: The Honey Paw, Eventide, and Hugo’s. And if you stay at the Hampton Inn, like we did, you walk less than a block!

 

The bar at Eventide.

The bar at Eventide.

Our love of Portland started years ago with Eventide, an oyster bar serving the freshest and most creative small seafood plates in the city: a killer brown butter lobster roll, tuna crudo that rivals the best sushi anywhere, blackboard special plates like char tartare, and a dozen oyster choices served with inventive accouterments, our favorite being the pickled red onion ice. Our non-seafood-eating daughter loved the buttermilk fried chicken bun and Eventide burger. And probably the most ignored-but-shouldn’t-be entry on the menu is the fish sandwich: best you ever had or I’ll eat it for you. They use pieces of fresh-caught hake, a fish that’s somewhat unknown unless you’re a local. A full bar and a surprisingly friendly staff, despite the fact they’re jamming all day long.

The amazing fish sandwich at Eventide.

The amazing fish sandwich at Eventide.

Hugo’s made Portland a food destination thanks to its previous chef/owner, Rob Evans, who sold it in 2012 to concentrate on his newer joint: Duckfat. The three guys: Taylor, Smith, and Wiley, worked there before it closed down and they grabbed the opportunity to take over, bringing a cutting-edge American menu served over a series of exciting tasting courses. Whether you’re a carnivore, vegetarian or seafood lover, you’ll find some wonderful choices here. Our night featured raw and cooked beef selections, lamb bolognese, ankimo (monkfish liver) and unusual veggie plates like sunchokes and smoked parsnips.

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Paul, the bartender, is a mixologist of the finest kind. My wife sipped on a Jasmine Fizz before we plunged into the eclectic and inspired wine list chosen by Big Tree Hospitality’s wine director, Brian Flewelling, who happened to be our server that night.

My wife enjoyed a sip of my Pappy's as well.

My wife enjoyed a sip of my Pappy’s as well.

 

And it didn’t hurt that they had three kinds of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon on their shelves…something I haven’t seen anywhere else. (These are the bottles that go for over $1500 on line.) Needless to say, Paul the bartender and I bonded over a taste of the 20-year-old Pappy.

A bourbon conversation between my newest best friend, Paul and myself.

A bourbon conversation between my newest best friend, Paul, and myself.

The third and newest restaurant in the group is The Honey Paw, featuring an eclectic Asian menu. The intense flavors come from all over Asia, and we wondered how these young chefs could be so knowledgeable. We found out that the company flies its employees to countries like Singapore and Malaysia on a regular basis to give them the experience they need to create and serve this amazing food. I swear, I wanna work for these guys! I haven’t seen any company anywhere treat its employees with such respect, and all of that trickles down to how they treat the food, the community, and their customers.

The Honey Paw's mind-blowing albacore tuna sashimi.

Beautiful plates at The Honey Paw.

Like their other two restaurants, The Honey Paw sources most of its ingredients from local farms. So when we ordered a plate of coppa, it was housemade from rare mulefoot hogs raised in Maine, topped with pickled husk cherries.

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I’m a huge fan of whole-fried fish, but very few restaurants take on that challenge. Even many of my favorite New York Chinese restaurants no longer feature that on the menu. The whole fried black bass I had at The Honey Paw is something I will have every time I return.

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We did leave the block, eventually! Though not big on atmosphere, Sur Lie was another restaurant in the long list of new establishments in the city featuring small plates full of exciting flavors.

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We enjoyed tapas like a plate of “Surryano” ham, the West Virginia version of Spanish Serrano…fried milk-braised cauliflower…Hiramasa (Yellowtail Amberjack) crudo…carrot agnolotti (pasta)…and a nicely cooked hanger steak. Good food, good service, and a nice selection of Greek wine.

We walked a lot in Portland. Loads of small shops, art galleries, and stores with collectibles. We hit a couple of comic book stores with our daughter, who’s in that phase…art galleries that enticed my wife, the artist…and an unusual shop with rare, collectible barware in the storefront and an actual bar in the back to do some serious sipping: a place called Vena’s Fizz House.

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One of the more interesting products they sell at Vena’s was a variety of infusion kits: dried fruits and spices just waiting for vodka or tequila to bring their flavors to life…

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Sometimes we did jump in the car to get to the other side of town. Portland boasts one of the largest–and coolest–Whole Foods stores ever. The selection is fantastic, and they sell wine and local spirits in a special section that comes with its own wine expert to help you make the right choices!

A short hop down the road from Whole Foods is a line of distilleries and breweries on Fox Street just waiting for thirsty customers. We stopped in to Maine Craft Distilling for a tasting of their creations.

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Here’s the thing that tells you you’re in Maine: we arrived at Maine Craft Distilling, and they told us they were sold out of just about every spirit because of the holidays. But they still poured us free tastings of all their booze! That would not happen anywhere else. Their logic was: if you like it, you won’t forget it and you’ll buy it the next time around. Friendly and informative, and their blueberry spirit called Blueshine, is worth a trip back.

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Back along the waterfront, on Commercial Street, we tucked into the Flatbread Company, a wildly popular pizza joint that now has 15 locations in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and even Hawaii. Great pizza (with gluten-free options), salads, and an awesome view of the water.

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Watching these talented chefs work the oven is better than television. I could watch all night!

Watching these talented chefs work the oven is better than television. I could watch all night!

A must-stop at least once on any Portland trip is the classic Porthole. Featured on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” they open for breakfast and rock all through the night. I dropped in for some breakfast to go on New Year’s morning, watching those at the bar chug down their Bloody Marys: a little hair of the dog after a long partying night.

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Perhaps my biggest disappointment of the trip (and mainly because it has received so much hype from magazines and friends) was The Portland Hunt and Alpine Club. I was told not to go here for the food, so we passed on that. But while my wife and daughter spent some time in the shops nearby, I decided to go in and check the place out for a cocktail.

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The bartender was friendly enough, and when I asked for a Manhattan with his choice of bourbon (he used Baker’s), he made it with flair and it tasted good. But it was also something I could make at home just as easily. I don’t know…maybe I needed to order something else. Maybe I should give the place a try in the light of a summer day and not a cold winter’s night. It just seemed kind of dumpy and not at all what I was expecting: uncomfortable metal benches at the bar, a stuffiness in the air like the vents in the kitchen weren’t working. I need to come back and give these guys another chance.

 

For more on Portland, Maine, check out my blog from July of 2013. A lot has changed in a year and a half, but there’s still some good info there. http://wp.me/p1c1Nl-g3