Postcard from Tom: Portland, Maine

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema's monthly report from the road.

Portland, Maine, is a gourmet's port of call. In addition to the suggested restaurants below, be sure to find time for Rabelais (86 Middle St.; 207-774-1044^ ), a small but serious bookstore that packs in everything from "The Grassfed Gourmet Cookbook^ " to "The Drinks of Yesteryear," a rare Prohibition-era cocktail guide, for $3,000.

^ Rachel Ray Rachael Ray and Paula Deen ^ Dean are gratefully absent from the shelves; instead, the first-edition work of such giants as M.F.K. Fisher and the English translation of Auguste Escoffier's "Ma Cuisine" dominate. The husband-and-wife owners, Don Lindgren and Samantha Hoyt Lindgren, know what they're talking about. He's a rare-book curator, and she trained as a pastry chef. If you want to take a taste of Maine home with you, there's no hauter food shop around than Browne Trading Market (262 Commercial St; 207-775-7560^ ), where the lures include smoked local seafood, select caviar and a wine collection rich in Burgundy. If the fresh cod, uni and peekytoe crab sold here are good enough for the chefs at Daniel, Le Bernardin and Per Se in New York, they're good enough for us. (And, yes, the purveyor will ship its wares to you.)

EVANGELINE (190 State St.; 207-791-2800):"We love pork," says Erik Desjarlais. He's got that right. There's a pig etched onto the big picture window and a porcine weathervane atop the restaurant's front door. Then there is the whole hog that is routinely delivered to the kitchen, where the beast is "broken down" by the 32-year-old chef. The hog "gives us lots of gifts," he says, including pork rillettes, pork belly and specials such as sliced pork decked out with a perfect sunny-side-up egg. Candlelit and snug, Evangeline would look at home in Paris. The menu nods to France, too. I love the warm gougeres that begin a meal here, as well as the tiny snails in their buttery, chive-flecked broth and the caper-sparked brain fritters that follow. Desjarlais's vichyssoise is a pretty revelation that includes peekytoe crab in the equation; the secret to its deep flavor turns out to be the addition of potato skins in the cooking. Any night is a treat, but Monday features a deal of a meal prepared by the chef and his fiancee: $28 for three courses of "whatever we feel like cooking," he says. "We're kind of laid-back." And very talented. Entrees, $20-$26.

HUGO'S (88 Middle St.; 207-774-8538): Rob Evans never went to cooking school, but that hasn't stopped the Massachusetts native from helping to put this city on the culinary map with this warm and whimsical restaurant. While using staples of the Northeast, he's apt to prepare them in unusual ways. Cod, for instance, is served in a chowder presented with house-made oyster crackers and cod skin that is poached, dehydrated and flash-fried so that it resembles a pork crackling. Hugo's popular risotto is made without stock; beet juice gives the dish its subtly sweet flavor and brilliant hue. And Caesar salad is a rethought classic in which a gently cooked egg finds itself in the well of hollowed-out iceberg lettuce. Can't get a table? Find a stool at the intimate bar, where the snacks include crisp pirogi filled with foie gras and the counter is paved with pressed cork, or what Evans likes to call his "big coaster." Entrees, $17-$22.

LOBSTER SHACK (225 Two Lights Rd., Cape Elizabeth; 207-799-1677): Visitors to this houselike, 1920s-era seafood purveyor 20 minutes from Portland have the bonus of an Atlantic view and the sound of foghorns as they graze on lobster rolls, snowy crab, ultra-thin onion rings, thin-crusted blueberry pie and a regional oddity: custard swirled with Grape Nuts. Go soon, or wait till spring: The season for the family-run destination is March through October. "Do not feed the seagulls," a sign near the entrance cautions. "Please do not leave food unattended," a second outside poster urges. Not every guest takes the warnings seriously, which results in some screams and some scrambling when one couple momentarily leaves their lunch on a picnic table to check out the rocky shoreline -- and a flock of birds swoops in to steal their meal. Seafood plates, $8.99-$23.99.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company