Posts Tagged ‘restaurants’

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!

 

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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…!

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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.)

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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

 

 

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 three restaurants owned by chef David Turin, who owns two 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 and a rather bland lobster salad. Its key location also makes it a tourist trap and so 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 all kinds of 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!

 

It’s always a challenge when you’re on a diet. I’m going no alcohol and low-carb to lose some weight. (Down 6 lbs. in 5 days so far.) My wife needs to include gluten-free food in her diet, though she can have a few carbs. Fish is a great source of protein, and we love it sauteed in a little butter and olive oil with Paul Prudhomme’s Seafood Magic seasoning on it. But let’s face it, that gets old after a while, and we all know there’s nothing tastier than fried fish.

Rather than using a heavy beer batter like I used to do (damn good and easy to do:http://wp.me/p1c1Nl-en), I came up with a very light gluten-free-flour-based seasoning that gave the fresh-caught local fish we bought incredible flavor and crunch without a carb overload and without gluten. Damn good, and I have to say, you’d never know the difference.

There are many gluten-free flours out there now, and all you need to do is substitute them cup-for-cup in any recipe you have. I’ve tried Bob’s Red Mill (OK), King Arthur (better), and Pamela’s (very good–what I used for this recipe.) I’ve just ordered the latest: Cup 4 Cup, created by chefs that include the famous Thomas Keller, which we tasted at Mario Batali’s Del Posto restaurant in New York City recently. They have about 12 different pasta dishes on their menu, and each one has a gluten-free option using the Cup 4 Cup flour. They were fantastic!

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1 cup flour (all-purpose or gluten-free)

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon dried parsley

1 teaspoon oregano

1 teaspoon granulated onion

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1 teaspoon paprika

2 eggs

fresh locally caught fish fillets of your choice (I used fluke and ocean perch)

Organic GMO-free canola oil or avocado oil for frying

 

In a flat bowl you will use to dredge the fish fillets, combine the flour, salt and pepper, parsley, oregano, granulated onion and garlic, and paprika.

In a separate flat bowl, scramble the 2 eggs.

Pour about 1/2″ of the oil in a pan and heat to medium-high heat.

Dip the fish fillets first in the eggs, coating well. Then dredge in the flour mixture, pressing down on both sides, so the flour mixture really sticks to the fish. Then shake the fillet lightly to remove the excess flour and gently lay the fillet in the hot oil. Fry until golden.

We made a quick and delicious tartare sauce using mayonnaise, dill pickle relish and Maille sauterne mustard.

 

Mugaritz, San Sebastian, Spain

Mugaritz, San Sebastian, Spain

Mugaritz is one of the top restaurants in the world: ranked #3 or #6, depending on who you ask. And I’m just a guy with a blog. But on a recent 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!