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Portland, Maine: It's to Dine For

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 27, 2006

The captain of the Lucky Catch lobster boat has taken us about six miles from the docks of Portland, Maine, to the state's oldest lighthouse, a national landmark commissioned by George Washington. Along the way the captain has shown us how to pull traps, sex-type lobsters, measure them and band their claws before dropping the keepers into an onboard seawater tank.

As a bonus, those who are so inclined can help him throw back the starfish and crabs that have crawled into the traps along with the more desirable lobsters.

When the 90-minute tour through picturesque Casco Bay is done, some of the passengers buy some of the catch (at the bargain price of $7 for two-pounders), then take it to a small restaurant on the dock that will boil or steam it for $9.95 -- and throw in the sides for free.

Seafood doesn't get much fresher than that. Then again, that degree of freshness is pretty much par in Portland, as I discovered this month while eating my way around the city with a friend.

The city takes pride in having one of the few remaining seafood auctions in the country. Restaurateurs move the catch directly from boats pulling up to the piers to the pots and pans in their kitchens.

And it's not just the seafood that's fresh. Portland chefs and nearby farmers have pulled together in a burgeoning food movement that saves small farms while delivering to restaurants fresh meat and produce that has been bred and grown for taste, rather than for durability during transport. It's such a point of pride that many restaurants list the names of the nearby farms where each of their ingredients is grown -- in greenhouses, when necessary, in winter.

The passion about this food movement is intense.

"This morning I picked cherries for the restaurant," says Dan Kary, who along with acclaimed chef Lee Skawinski and Kary's wife, Michelle Mazur-Kary, opened the restaurant Vignola last month.

"Those cherries weren't quite ready yesterday, and tomorrow they would have been past peak," he says. "Today was the right day to pick them, and they'll be made today into a sorbet for tonight's desserts."

That dedication to freshness has no doubt contributed to the buzz about Portland restaurants in food circles. In the past few years, the city's dining scene has been compared to that of San Francisco, and both the city's chefs and its restaurants are regularly featured in magazines like Gourmet, Saveur and Food & Wine.

Sure, the city is small by any standard except Maine's. (Portland, the state's largest city, has 64,000 residents.) But the historic buildings, lively cultural scene and gorgeous scenery draw plenty of visitors, to say nothing of those who come simply for the food. Then, of course, there are those New York ad executives and such who moved to Maine to escape to a better lifestyle -- one that is slower-paced, but includes fine dining.

I came to check out the food, but fell in love with the whole place: its friendly people, great shopping, beautiful galleries and museums, vibrant streets, and the waterfront, with its sailboats and old clippers and whale-watching cruises. The restaurants, I decided, are a wonderful thing to wrap, three times a day, around the package of a city that has undergone vast changes for the better in the past decade.

* * *

The only problem with a long weekend in Portland: You'll only have enough meals for a tiny fraction of restaurants that deserve a try, plus you'll probably miss the historic towns nearby, such as Brunswick, and the outlet stores in Freeport.

But in my five days in and around Portland, I was able to try more than my fair share of places, having an appetizer here, an entree there and dessert in another -- something restaurants didn't seem to mind because I would eat on weeknights, often starting before the dinner rush.

In addition to reading restaurant guides and asking chefs about their favorites, I chatted up every local I chanced to meet and asked for recommendations for both fine dining and cheap eats. Never once was I disappointed. For all I know from my limited experience, it's impossible to buy a bad meal in Portland. For sure, though, any number of places should fit your budget and palate.

With only a week to visit, you could easily dine well three times a day without leaving the lively port area, which has the greatest concentration of restaurants; bars with live music and stores that stay open late add to the ambiance. But great dining is here and there and everywhere in Portland, including the downtown area and more residential neighborhoods.

· My friend didn't take long to reach her conclusions about the food at Fore Street (288 Fore St., 207-775-2717). She succinctly delivered her verdict the moment she'd had her first bite: "Wow." And that was just about the pork loin. The garlic mashed potatoes were beyond wow.

Chef-owner Sam Hayward is credited by some for raising the bar for city restaurants and for creating the Portland craze of working closely with farmers. The restaurant has one small, quiet room and a large, noisy but fun main seating area that overlooks the grills, wood-burning ovens, roasting pits and prep tables. Although the food is gourmet, it tends to be gorgeously simple. The long list of entrees -- including fish, fowl and red meat -- ranges from $16 to $34, with pizzas made in a wood-burning oven beginning at $9.

· While Fore Street is Portland's most buzzed-about restaurant, many say Street & Co. (33 Wharf St., 207-775-0887) has some of the city's best seafood, albeit a bit pricey. While the menu changes daily, most fish offered can be pan-fried, broiled, grilled or blackened. Linguine entrees with seafood range from $15.95 to $20.95, and seafood entrees range from $22.95 to $28.95.

· Although it's far from fancy, I loved the jolly local atmosphere, the unpretentious fresh seafood and the great view of the harbor at J's Oyster Bar (5 Portland Pier, 207-772-4828). Most of the dining area is dominated by a bar, with a few tables scattered around it, and bistro tables outdoors facing the water. In addition to raw oysters (a baker's dozen cost $11), J's has sandwiches and chowders starting at $4.95, and all manner of seafood, with dinner entrees ranging from $12.95 to $16.95.

· The laid-back charm and fabulous indoor and outdoor views of the bay at Flatbread Company (72 Commercial St., 207-772-8777) make this inexpensive restaurant special. Several comfy couches and reading material at the door -- books and newspapers -- hint that you're welcome to hang out. Wood-fired, flat-bread pizzas big enough for two start at $12 and come with a large assortment of gourmet toppings.

· For hearty, inexpensive diner fare, Becky's (390 Commercial St., 207-773-7070) has a huge local following. It's small and noisy and crowded and great, with homemade pies and cakes and incredible muffins, a couple dozen kinds of sandwiches, and breakfasts that have people lined up and drooling. Unless you want the lobster rolls, you'll likely pay no more than $10 for a meal.

· At the other end of the elegance scale, Hugo's (88 Middle St., 207-774-8538) offers a small, intimate, upscale dining experience. A four-course, fixed-price dinner by chef Rob Evans, named one of the top 10 new chefs in the country by Food & Wine magazine two years ago, costs $68. Alternately, a bar menu prepares light fare such as flash-fried Scottish salmon cake or Atlantic swordfish tataki ranging from $10 to $16 per entree. The menu lists not only the farms where the produce comes from but also the names of artisanal cheese producers, the forager who picks the mushrooms and wild vegetables, and the micro roaster who handles the coffee beans.

· 555 (555 Congress St., 207-761-0555), in a renovated firehouse, is ultra hip, with a spacious lounge area added recently. A mezzanine overlooks the main dining area and its open kitchen. The night I visited, the inventive menu included such entrees as truffled lobster mac and cheese, Irish salmon with house-baked focaccia, and saffron-scented Israeli couscous. Entrees are generally $20 to $25.

· Vignola (10 Dana St., 207-772-1330) opened last month in a lovely old building surrounded by windows and given a hip new design, with an Italian-inspired menu that includes seafood, pork, veal, chicken and gourmet pizzas. Pizza is $10 to $12, and entrees range from $16 to $19.

· Abby Harmon, a longtime chef at Street & Co., decided to take fate into her own hands and opened the new Caiola's (58 Pine St. 207-772-1110). It's a cozy, unpretentious restaurant serving what might best be described as upscale comfort food, with a menu that changes daily. Entrees range from $12.95 to $23.

I had time for just one more dining experience before departing Portland: a chocolate tower dessert at Uffa! (190 State St., 207-775-3380), a rustic, French-country-style place. I gaped when the waiter delivered an eight-inch-high sliver of dark chocolate filled with an incredibly creamy light chocolate mousse. The tower ($8) sat atop a river rippling with streams of mint chocolate, white chocolate and dark chocolate. A mound of raspberry confit sat on the side. A long corkscrew of caramelized sugar protruded from the top of my tower. Too beautiful to eat, I thought, until I had a first, tiny taste.

Wow.

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