Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Back Bay Grill Burger

At the beginning of the month, Back Bay Grill quietly announced on its facebook page that the kitchen would be serving their famous burger. It's only available as a special, and you have to call ahead to reserve yours. Maybe the promotion is an attempt to draw in an audience that otherwise wouldn't frequent the Back Bay Grill, and if so, it totally worked. 

For the first time, I ventured down to Back Bay Grill with a group of 5 friends, all 30-somethings. We were greeted warmly by the host, who took our coats from us. A nice round table was set for us in the corner of the restaurants, allowing us to talk as a group. 

Having reserved six burgers for our group, the only decisions we were left with were what to drink and the temperature of our burgers. I ordered a pinot noir ($12) and we also decided to share two orders of steamed mussels ($12) before our meat-fest. Several servers attended to us, setting warm bread and a ramekin of butter with 'BB' traced into the top. We noticed our server was even wearing 'BB' earrings. 

While the group raved about the mussels, I thought they were a little big - bordering on two inches, rather than the smaller local mussels. But the broth they were in was delicious. As we enjoyed our first course, another group of 30-somethings was seated at a large table in the dining room. They were also pilgrimaging for a tableful of burgers. 

Finally, the burger ($15): 


Because the burger was a special menu item, I don't know the specifics about the pedigree of the meat or the bun... just that it was all fantastic. The burger was topped with shredded lettuce and a Stilton blue cheese sauce? dressing? mayonnaise? Something that added a nice salty element in contrast to the richness of the meat. I'll admit my burger was a little overcooked (ordered medium-rare, came more like medium), but nothing worth getting upset about. 

After much ecstatic eye rolling and "mmm"ing, we untucked our napkins from our shirts and pushed back from the table. We declined dessert, but they sent us one anyways - some coffee ice cream and a crunchy tuile cookie. I felt like we received the high-roller treatment, even though we "only" ordered burgers. 

As we left the dining room and waited by the host stand for our coats, members of my party found friends at the bar and chatted for a bit, giving me a minute to scope out the crowded bar area. The entire front room of the restaurant is filled with the bar and host stand, creating a cozy environment. I thought I'd be very much at home sitting at the bar and enjoying drinks and appetizers. 

I wonder why Back Bay Grill is not on more people's radars? The restaurant has been run by Chef Larry Matthews, who has a serious culinary background, since '97. It's menu and wine list have racked up considerable awards and is considered one of Portland's best restaurants. 

You might suggest the price point keeps younger people out of the Back Bay Grill. I agree that it's not necessarily an everyday place, but it is possible to eat there and not blow your budget (by enjoying soup/salad/appetizers mostly - the mains are expensive). I would also argue that I view Hugo's as a restaurant with a younger crowd than BBG. And Hugo's is by no means cheaper than BBG. Maybe Hugo's recent rebranding has made them more popular with a younger crowd?

So what makes a high-end restaurant fill with a mix of young and old diners, while one remains frequented by the fur-and-pearls pre-theater set? (Not that that's actually a thing in Maine, but you know what I mean...) 

Regardless of your age, check out Back Bay Grill in Bayside for a drink and an appetizer, or go whole hog and order the filet mignon ($36). 

Back Bay Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Preorder Portland Food: the Culinary Capital of Maine

Photos by Phil Jellen, Greta Rybus, and Zack Bowen

I've finished writing and editing my book about Portland's food scene! It will be coming your way on May 13th, 2014 in all its local, hand-made, chef-owned, small city, big taste, lobster-y glory. 

The book is available for preorder through The History Press. There will be a launch party, and I'll be sure to invite you. In the meantime, here's the back cover copy as a teaser: 

Portland, Maine’s culinary cache belies its size. The vibrant food scene boasts more than three hundred restaurants, as well as specialty food businesses, farmers’ markets, pop-up dinners and food trucks. Since back-to-the-landers began to arrive in the 1970s, Maine’s abundant natural resources have been feeding local dreams of sustainability and resilience. Portland is uniquely primed for chefs and restaurateurs to draw on local agricultural and marine resources. Gulf of Maine fisheries and the working waterfront bring the freshest seafood to Portland’s palate, while Maine’s rural landscape is fertile ground for local farming. Local food writer Kate McCarty taps into the evolution of this little foodie city. Dig into Portland’s bounty, from classic lobster and blueberry pie to the avant-garde of the culinary cutting edge.  Explore the unique restaurants, farmers, producers, community activists and food enthusiasts that create and drive Portland’s food scene.

I'm also thrilled to be nominated as one of Portland's best food blogs by the Portland Phoenix. Cast your votes until April 30th.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Zeppoli at Piccolo

Brunch at Piccolo was quiet on a rainy Sunday morning last week. We were a big party and tried most everything on the menu. The zeppoli were my favorite, by far, served with a different sauce each Sunday. Here, a salted caramel sauce. 


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Happy Hour at the Black Birch, Kittery

Some friends of mine invited me down for happy hour in Kittery at the Black Birch. An hour south of Portland, Kittery is the first town over the border into Maine and is better known for it's outlet malls. But the Kittery Foreside is a quaint little strip of waterfront with a burgeoning food scene. As I drove in, I spotted Tulsi, raved about by Maine magazine's food editor Joe Ricchio. He also loves the Black Birch, so I've long since wanted to try the place. 



The friends I met are involved in the food community themselves, so maybe it was a biased view, but everyone seems to know everyone else in this place. Black Birch is a small restaurant, maybe 50 seats, and we sat at a communal high table in the middle of the restaurant. The draught beer list is extensive and rotates frequently. I enjoyed Mo Carra, the new red ale made from Maine potatoes by Banded Horn Brewing Company in Biddeford. 


I was lured to Kittery by the promise of poutine, and Black Birch delivers. Their version is topped with duck confit as well as the traditional gravy and melted cheese curds ($8). It was amazing. I ate it politely, but I really wanted it all to myself.

While we ate, we learned of the plans for some neighboring spaces to the Black Birch on Government Street. Gary Kim, a Black Birch employee, is starting Anju, a noodle bar next door, where they'll serve his line of fermented hot sauces and kimchi. Deb sent me home with some of each. The kimchi crunchy, salty, funky, and a little spicy. I've just been snacking on it, but I'm going to make some kimchi fried rice soon to let it take center stage. 


As we were leaving, we ran into Jarrod Spangler, formerly the Rosemont Market butcher, who is now working on launching his own local meat butcher shop on the other side of the noodle bar. He's launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the construction of the shop. 

Lauren brought me Beach Pea Baking Co. bread, a crusty sourdough that is very flavorful. It was so nice to see a glimpse of the food community in Kittery. There truly are people all over this great state that care about the way food is being produced and served. It's amazing to see! One visit to Kittery just created the desire for another - especially after that noodle bar is open.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Easy Day Bowling and 158 Pizza in South Portland

In what felt like a laughably heroic effort, we ventured OFF PENINSULA for a Saturday night adventure to South Portland last weekend. We went all the way over the bridge, guys. 

I kid. But as my friends one-by-one become homeowners, I occasionally have to make the concession to visit the Portland suburbs or South Portland. It's like a 10-1 ratio of their Portland visits to my suburb visits. 

As avid bowlers, my friends and I were eager to check out Easy Day, a new bowling alley on Broadway in South Portland. The lanes are easy to find - just turn right after the bridge and they're immediately on your right. The parking looks tight, but there is a free valet service. 


The former event hall (and before that Beale Street BBQ) has been renovated beautifully, something that will surely help it shake its reputation of being a cursed space. Floor-to-ceiling windows face the Fore river, letting in lots of natural light and providing a rare view of Portland and the Casco Bay bridge. 

The lanes are owned by former Navy SEAL and Pat's Pizza owner. The name "Easy Day" comes from the Navy SEAL motto "the only easy day was yesterday," and the bar is decorated with photos of SEALs in training. The pizza part comes in a different form than at Pat's, served Detroit-style, which looks similar to Sicilian-style. I saw one go by, and it was square, thick, and delicious looking. 


I had wings ($7.99 for 6) which unfortunately, did not wow me. They had great flavor, but were served lukewarm and with too much breading. Also without napkins... kind of a deal breaker for eating and bowling. I asked for napkins, then went to the bar, and then eventually got my own paper towels from the restroom. Which alludes to the subpar service... I don't want to hammer them too hard, since they were slammed while we were there from 6-8pm on a Saturday night. Our server was very sweet and they have a call button on the lanes - like the flight attendant button on an airplane - a great feature. 


For the record, while I love Bayside Bowl, I am open to all bowling experiences. I do not want this to come across that I went in with biases and had them confirmed. The bowling alley is very new and very popular and so good for them. 

But as someone who enjoys bowling, I found the experience to be a little overwhelming. The lanes are very crowded - of course with people, but with furniture too. It's difficult to navigate between the couch and tables on your way to the lane. That said, with only a few people, this setup would be very comfortable, like if you had lanes in your living room. 

Apparently the people of South Portland were starved for a place like Easy Day, since it's so popular. It's a great family-oriented spot, but it is super crowded. I hope for the owner's bottom line that it stays that way, but it made it a little difficult overall with noise level, waits for service, and just physically navigating around in the space. (Also had a weird issue after we were done bowling where we were standing near some reserved tables and some staff said we'd get yelled at if we used them? Which we weren't planning to do? I don't know, it was hectic by that point.) 

Anyway, we hurried out and decided to get a pizza and retire to a friend's house. I've long since wanted to try 158 Pickett Street Cafe's pizza, offered only on weekend nights until 9PM. We got the last two pies at around 8:30PM. 


We ordered the Stinger - one pie I've been wanting to try ever since they started serving pizza. It's a pink sauce, with cheese and charred jalapenos ($11). I added pancetta (+ $1.50). LBK ordered the veggie special, with scallions and red peppers. 


But unfortunately, I wasn't blown away by these pizzas. And it pains me, pains me, to say this, because 158 Pickett Street is a) run by super nice people and b) home to the world's best salmon bagel

The problem was that the pies were too greasy. The crust is nice and thin, creating a floppy slice, but also allowing for the grease from the cheese to soak through quickly. The jalapenos added no discernible heat (OK, not the cook's fault) and the pancetta was very fatty, further contributing to the grease overload. 

Sorry, hastily shot. I know better than to get in between people and their pizza!
I don't know if our evening was doomed from the start? (I will not make that a connection to South Portland.) But unfortunately, I didn't find a SoPo experience worth repeating during this adventure. But I do believe you should go check out Easy Day bowling alley and try 158's pizza for yourself. My opinion is just that, and you may find your next neighborhood favorite. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

New England's Best Seafood at The Fisherman's Grill

First things first: the Fishermen's Grill is a small, deli-style restaurant on outer Forest Ave. next to the Fisherman's Net (seafood market) and Haggerty's (Brit-Indi take-out). Near RSVP? Are we all together now? This is usually how my conversation with people goes. It's a bit back from the road, marked by a small green awning and very easy to miss.

Recently, the Fishermen's Grill was recognized as the number one seafood restaurant by Yelp in all of New England. The subsequent Bangor Daily News article was the most I'd heard of the restaurant in one go, previously only having seen the rare facebook updates from friends involving pictures of mountains of fried seafood. 

So a casual mention of this to coworker/friend Dr. P led to a suggestion that we should go for lunch. Like that day's lunch. Like right now. I balked, saying I'd brought a sensible, healthy packed lunch and shouldn't be spending money. He countered with point out that it tooks us months of discussing Duckfat's poutine to before finally making it to the restaurant for a plate. Point, counterpoint, you win. 

The Fishermen's Grill is the very definition of "no frills." It is a deli-style counter, but there's about eight seats inside, and I perused a gun catalog while we waited for our food. Dr. P and I split a Seafood 3 Combo ($22.95) and chose Maine shrimp, haddock, and scallops, skipping over clams (they were temporarily out) and clam cakes. The combos come with coleslaw and fries as well. 


And here it is: my very own picture of a mountain of fried seafood to post to facebook. While I will concede that I think it's hard to screw up fried seafood, everything we had was delicious. My favorite was the fried scallops (don't think I'd ever had them before) and of course, the fried Maine shrimp. I don't know where owner Mike Nappi sources them, but once I confirmed they were Maine shrimp, I didn't ask any more questions. 

The haddock portion was plentiful, the fish inside still moist, and the batter coating crunchy. Everything was hot, but not scalding. The menu also includes lobster rolls, all sorts of combinations of fried seafood, burgers, chicken and fish sandwiches, and every kind of seafood chowder. 

This place isn't sexy, but the food is the real deal. The seafood is ordered fresh daily and sourced locally. Once there weather warms up, I could see sitting outside or getting food to go and enjoying it in Baxter Woods across the street. It's not necessarily cheap, but portions are big and easily feed two. The Fishermen's Grill is cash only. Go check it out and enjoy the "locals only" feeling.

Fishermen's Grill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Restaurant Week at Hot Suppa

Maine Restaurant Week 2014 ended on Sunday, and I made it out to one participating restaurant during the 10-day promotion. I initially was excited to revisit restaurants I don't normally frequent like Five fifty-five and Petite Jacqueline or visit a place I've never been like The Good Table. That is, until the rubber met the road, and I looked at the prices of said restaurants. 

The prices of MRW have crept up over the years, making the mid-priced restaurants not necessarily a bargain at $35 for 3 courses. Or rather, maybe it is a bargain for that particular restaurant (ie ordering the same thing off the regular menu would cost more), but I could easily spend $35 on an appetizer and an entree off the regular menu and be just as happy. 

So I considered the $25 restaurants, most of them bars like Sebago and RiRa or other casual spots like El Rayo and Buck's Naked BBQ. Hot Suppa jumped out at me as a place that I don't frequent for dinner. I've enjoyed their brunch and happy hour before and love their hot catfish dish and burger for dinner. The food there is always excellent, and they really shine when cooking up Cajun classics. 


I chose a lovely fennel, pickled red onions, grapefruit, arugula salad as my starter, but the clear winner was the grit fries with pimento cheese (I mean, duh). My second course was a roasted pork chop with a sweet mustard sauce over grits with roasted parsnips and carrots. Other entree options were Szechuan shrimp over salad or a bacon-wrapped meatloaf over mashed sweet potatoes. 


Everyone in my party enjoyed their food and drinks, but felt we would have been better served by ordering off the regular menu. None of the Restaurant Week menu dishes are on the regular menu and are more typical fare than you'd usually find at Hot Suppa. Maybe the special menu was designed to attract non-Cajun food lovers? (I don't know if those people exist, but maybe?) 

I would have enjoyed Hot Suppa's Restaurant Week promotion more if they offered a menu that was Cajun-themed, whether composed of items regularly offered in the restaurant or not. I think that's where Hot Suppa excels and while the we enjoyed food was good, it wasn't anything extraordinary. And several of the regular menu items at Hot Suppa are. 

Restaurant Week is a promotion that participating restaurants have to pay to participate in, and I'd like to think that restaurants want to show off on their featured menus so as to attract new customers. Hot Suppa must have been taking a different approach by serving these safer menu items, but in doing so, I think they missed an opportunity to shine. 

Buttermilk pie with blueberry sauce

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Rosemont Allagash Beer Dinner

I attended the first ever Allagash Rosemont beer dinner last night and had a great time. I was a little apprehensive at first, not knowing what to expect. But I shouldn't have been, knowing the Rosemont and Allagash guys know how to throw a good party. It was like an Allagash brewery tour on steroids - with great food and endless beers at every stop. 


To start, the dinner began with snacks and tastes of two beers in the tasting room. The Allagash Brewery has expanded since I was there last, and the renovation looks fantastic. A group of about fifty assembled in the tasting room, and snacked on pretzels and beer cheese; chips and a creamy, truffled dip; and little bites of scallops over lentils topped with bitter orange. We drank the White and the house beer. 

The official programming was a bit of intro from Joe Appel of Rosemont Market and Rob Tod and Jason Perkins of Allagash. Rosemont provided all of the food, with a mind towards incorporating the beer into the food, like as a braising liquid for meats or using the spent grain in the baking. 

After about an hour in the tasting room, we went into the brewhouse, where brewers work round the clock. The new system is huge and has expanded their capacity dramatically. I assume most of the production is for the White, which is the most widely distributed of all of their beers. 


Our next course was pork sausage in a beer-yeast-leavened bun with sauerkraut. The sausages were poached in wort (the grain liquid that is fermented to make beer) in the brewery's small pilot system. Employees can brew small batches of experimental beer with this system. Rob Tod joked that the next batch of pilot beer is going to taste like sausage. 


The beer pairing for this course was the Saison, a Belgian farmhouse style ale. During this course, my boyfriend's cousins arrived, and I was so happy to have some company. I was starting to feel "middle school dance" awkward since I was attending the event alone. 

Next, in the wild beer room, we enjoyed a curried goat stew paired with a ginger wit (a "ramped up" version of the White with loads of ginger added) and smoked beef ribs over a potato pancake and sauteed spinach with a Curieux reduction. The Curieux was also the pairing for this course.   


Several of Allagash's beers are aged in barrels, either old wine or whiskey barrels. All this talk of barrels led to a conversation with a man who makes flooring and other items (like the cribbage boards sold in the gift shop) out of reclaimed barrel staves. It was incredibly interesting to learn about his business River Drive Lumber in Buxton. Check out his site to see examples of the beautiful types of flooring he does. So very cool. 


The wild beer room is the original brewing space, and now home to beers that are fermented using, according to brewmaster Jason Perkins, "yeasts that 99.9% of breweries try to keep out of their beers," - as does Allagash in their other beers. But these wild yeasts add different flavors. We saw beers fermenting with peaches, cherries with fun names like Victoria's Secret and Farm-to-Face. 


Last, we went into the barrel room, where beers like the Curieux and Coolship beers are aging. Our last course was french toast, made with spent-grain bread and topped with fresh cheese, fried onions, and malt vinegar. Sounds strange, but it was so good. The french toast was perfectly creamy, with crunchy, salty onions on top. 

Beer pairings were the Coolship Resurgam and Lil' Sal (like Blueberries for Sal), a coolship beer aged with blueberries. Coolship beers are fermented in an open, shallow vessel (looks like a swimming pool), allowing wild yeasts to grow. They're sour and tart and fruity if they've had fruit added in.


The event was great fun, educational with delicious food and drink. It certainly wasn't your average beer dinner and would appeal to beer nerds and casual drinkers alike. Both the Allagash and Rosemont staff expressed that the event was a success, so look for another beer dinner from the two!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Seared Maine Diver Scallops

Inspired by a recent recipe in the Portland Phoenix about cooking restaurant-worthy scallops at home, I tried my hand at searing scallops the other night. I turned to this NPR story, written by local food writer Laura McCandlish, for the recipe. 

The only hiccup was ordering the scallops - I was under the impression that being local and in season, that the scallops would be a relatively inexpensive seafood to purchase. Like they're expensive in restaurants, but the locals all know a guy, so we make them at home for pennies on the dollar and laugh as tourists pay through the nose. No?

But stepping up to the counter at Harbor Fish Market, I realized they were $21.99/lb. and I was in the market for 3/4 of a pound (6 scallops since they were U8-10). So they were $16. Not quite the local, in season deal I usually walk out of Harbor Fish with. I guess you really have to know a guy! 


But at this point, I was committed, so I forked over my card and headed home to sear my scallops. To start, I heated up a cast-iron pan with about two tablespoons of vegetable oil on medium-high heat. I prepped the scallops with freshly ground black pepper on each side and placed them in the pan. And then I didn't touch them for about 4 minutes. I flipped them once and repeated the process. 

I'm sorry I don't have a reliable way to tell you when they're done - I was guided by the appearance of the sear. Really the only thing you can do to mess up a scallop is overcook it, so err on the side of less cook time, but make sure you get a nice crusty browning on each side. 

I served the scallops with sauteed spinach and fake risotto - which was just white rice cooked with chicken broth, sauteed mushrooms and onions, and topped with grated Parmesan cheese. I may never make risotto again. The scallops were delicious. Truth be told, I didn't used to love scallops, until someone said they're like the steak of the seafood world.

And just to torture you, something I had that you might not be able to: the Eventide Oyster Co. burger. 


Eventide's burger is amazing. Just the classic shredded lettuce, American cheese, a juicy patty, and pickled red onions, served with perfectly crispy fries and a Coke. This is, however, a sporadic special, and even a secretive one at times. A few hours after lunch last week, I saw an Instagram of the burger. Despite having already eaten lunch, I texted A. of the Cupcakes to meet me there for second lunch. 

I was nervous because the burger wasn't on the specials board, so we just had to ask if they had it. Fortunately, they did. I have no idea if they'll have it again, but if you see that they do, I recommend rearranging your schedule (and your stomach) to make room for it.

This burger hullabaloo stirred up the age-old debate about the best burger in Portland. I started my list with Congress St. Bar & Grill, Downtown Lounge, and Hot Suppa. Clearly, I love the soft bun, thin patty, classic style. I'd love to hear your opinions. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tequila Research Findings

The column I wrote for the Portland Phoenix this month was a little outside my comfort zone. I was assigned a topic for February's "Food Feast:" tequila. (Portland Phoenix, A tequila-tasting education: Sampling the nectar of the gods at Zapoteca

Prior to my research, I knew very little about tequila: I like it, and Patron is expensive. So in order to write a knowledgeable column about the spirit, I had to take to the bars for an on-the-fly education. Rough assignment. 

My first stop was The North Point with my friend Luke, who has always tried to talk tequila with me, but I never had a place in my brain for the info. I tapped him for recommendations and as a drinking buddy, figuring he'd know the bars around town with the best selection and could talk the lingo with the bartenders. 


They're so friendly at The North Point. The bartender and the owner were very excited to be part of our tequila tasting, serving up a flight of the three styles of Kah tequila. Kah is fun because it comes in white, yellow, and black skull-shaped bottles. The reposado was my favorite, which turned out to be my favorite style of most brands. 

I enjoyed the Centenario reposado, which was $13, I believe. Reposados are aged two to twelve months, and so are more nuanced and mellow than unaged or silver tequilas. Anejo tequilas are aged longer in charred barrels, so they can taste smoky like scotch whiskey.

After two Centenarios (silver and reposado), I tried the Patron reposado, which was a step down in my mind, after to the Centenario. It tasted comparatively flat. Also, drinking tequila is not a cheap hobby; my tab was $40 for the three drinks. 


The following weekend, I finished up my research at Zapoteca, mecca for tequila selections. Zapoteca has upwards of 80 brands of tequila and mezcal and offers nine tequila flights. The flights are half-ounce pours of one brand of tequila in the three styles. 

I tried Tres Generaciones flight ($18), which tasted distinctly different between the silver and the reposado. I didn't notice too many different flavors in the anejo. A spicy side of sangrita, made from fire-roasted tomatillos serves to cleanse your palate between sips. 


Tequila-loving Luke was along for this trip too, and after the bartender picked up that he was an aficionado, he was offered this Herradura Pork Cask Finish Reposado. It was heavenly; very full-bodied for a reposado, tasting more like an anejo with some sweetness from the port cask aging. 


After my flight, I spotted a beautiful minimalist bottle on the shelf and we ordered a drink from it - Casamigos, which turns out is George Clooney's brand. It was very good, but apparently very expensive (by the bottle) for what it is. There are a lot of celebrity-owned tequila brands, ones from Justin Timberlake (901), Sammy Hagar (Cabo Wabo), John Paul DeJoria (aka Paul Mitchell, Patron), and Santana (Casa Noble). 

I learned a lot about tequila in a short time; it felt like overturning a rock and discovering all the life teeming underneath. I'm looking forward to continuing to expand my knowledge with LFK and El Rayo Cantina's selections of tequila. If like many, you fear the hangover of tequila, know that like all liquors, the better they are, the easier they are on you. After three tequila drinks, I felt fine the next day. Drink up!