Friday, October 30, 2020

Weekend Eats in Camden and Mount Desert Island, Maine

I went on a much-needed long weekend trip through the Midcoast and Down East regions of Maine two weeks ago. My mom and her husband drove up from Maryland, and we celebrated fall, birthdays, and being together. Any shoulder-season visit to these areas can often be tricky from a dining perspective—many restaurants have closed after a busy summer season. 

Add in the Covid restrictions and despite (what I thought was) careful planning, we at times had to scramble to find options for dinner (someone may or may not have resorted to gas station pizza for a meal). But we had a really memorable trip and so here are the dining highlights. 

We were off to a strong start on our first night in Camden. I had scoped out two places I wanted to try: the new Franny's Bistro (in the former home of Francine Bistro) and 40 Paper, a modern Italian place I've never tried. Franny's didn't have room for us at 7:30 p.m. on a Thursday night (but hey, good for them!), and we found only a short wait for a patio table at 40 Paper. Our meal was one of the highlights of the trip—my mom enjoyed some "cheffy" food that she hasn't had in a while, and we were warm on the patio cozied up to a heater with blankets across our laps. 

We enjoyed a round of cocktails—the Ranchito Verde (tequila, cilantro, mint, jalapeno, pineapple, lime, and velvet falernum syrup) for me and a Tom Cat gimlet for A. We couldn't decide between seared scallops over a celery root puree and potatoes elote—fried smashed potatoes with chile lime crema, grilled corn, scallions, and Parm—so we ordered both plus a Caesar salad. 

We shared two pasta entrees between the four of us—B. and I enjoyed the traditional bolognese on housemade pappardelle with basil pesto, while Mom and A. shared a spinach cavatelli with local mushrooms, goat cheese mousse, kale, and Parm. 

We finished the meal with dessert—a lemon pound cake and a chocolate torta with semifreddo—and walked back to our car along the river over the sweet footbridge in town. It was a really nice evening! 

The next morning, we walked into Camden from our inn Whitehall and then hiked a short ways to the top of Mount Battie. Mom picked us up in the car and we were off to enjoy our Ruckus Donuts along the water. These donuts are made at Boyton McKay's and were easily the best donuts I've had... ever? in the state of Maine? I really can't think of a better donut experience. I hammered a classic glazed, and it was so damn good—tall, slightly crispy exterior, with a moist, light, pleasantly chewy interior.

The other flavors (coconut lemon, blueberry lemonade, the Homer donut with strawberry glaze and sprinkles, maple bacon) were reportedly also fantastic. These donuts are easily worth a drive from the Portland area for (just preorder on Instagram by 5p.m. the day before). 

That evening we ventured up to Belfast to meet friends at the reopened Marshall Wharf Brewing Co. The beloved brewery closed last summer and then was sold to a couple—one of whom works as a general contractor, so he was able to add the needed infrastructure updates to the patio area (and I'm sure much more than just that). 

It was a rainy night, but we found a table undercover and had a great time catching up with the first friends I made in Maine, over 20 years ago now (!!). After realizing our takeout options were dwindling by the minute back in Camden (Long Grain had closed by then, sob), we found Neighborhood in Belfast was still serving, so we were able to get some soup, shrimp and grits, and gochujang tacos to enjoy back at the hotel.

Up in Bar Harbor, we stayed at The Villager Motel, which was a much nicer experience than its name might imply. The first night, we ordered takeout from McKay's Public House which is two doors down. I enjoyed a $40 filet from a plastic takeout container off the footstool of a motel, which I had to laugh about—it was still delicious! 

After a beautiful day exploring Acadia National Park, we were back in town for sunset and some light shopping. We had enjoyed takeout beverages from The Barnacle, a new-ish teeny bar in downtown Bar Harbor, the night before, and as we strolled by we decided to pull a repeat. This time, the weather was more agreeable and there was a table available outside, so we enjoyed cocktails and a dozen local oysters on the patio. 

For dinner on our last night, I searched through as many options as I could, considering who was still open in Bar Harbor, who had outdoor seating (with heaters preferably), as well as a menu that would suit everyone. Eventually I ended up at McKay's Public House again. When I'd gone to pick up my takeout the night before, I admired its oasis of a garden patio with heaters, twinkly lights, and cheerful umbrellas over each table. So we made a reservation and had another lovely meal (this time with 100% fewer plastic takeout containers). 

A. had a Maine Beer Co. while I tried a cocktail of Back River cranberry gin with tonic and elderflower liqueur. Our starters of the sweet and spicy pork potstickers and Kung Pao Brussels sprouts took the edge off our hunger while we waited for our entrees. 

I was really jealous of A.'s entree—the chicken and grits with pepper jelly. The chicken was so crunchy and juicy and the pepper jelly drizzle was a fun twist. My mushroom pasta purses more than made up for my envy, with with fresh tomatoes, spinach, and mushrooms in a balsamic thyme cream sauce. 

It was a lovely trip—one of only a handful I've taken this year, compared to what I had planned. We are fortunate to live in a state where the leadership has taken its response to the Covid crisis seriously and kept our numbers down. Now, as you surely know, Covid cases are going up as people are growing weary of the restrictions that living with the coronavirus requires. I'm continuing to mask up, avoiding going inside others' homes, and getting takeout or even, as we did last night, having a beer on the patio of Banded Brewing's new Portland location despite the pouring rain (all hail the party tent industry right now). 

That's it from me until the dust settles after Election Day—please do your part to put a compassionate, effective, and progressive administrative in office, and have a happy and safe Halloween! 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

First Look at Leeward in Portland, ME

Leeward, a new pasta and wine spot on Free Street in Portland, opened mid-March for a week of service before our coronavirus shutdown began. It served takeout for a while then reopened for outdoor dining only at the end of July. I made it there last week for a meal on the patio, on a windy night when the beach blanket stashed in my friend's car came in handy. 

The restaurant's menu features some appetizers/small plates and then several handmade pasta dishes. The chef Jake Stevens used to work at Eventide Oyster Co. and owns the restaurant with his wife Raquel who manages the front of the house. 

Inside the restaurant is bright and airy, with lots of blonde wood and an open kitchen. (The only dining is outdoors, so I just passed through the unused dining room on my way to the restroom.) The patios are constructed in the parking spots of Free Street, but will end October 21st. 

I started with a cocktail, the Early Twenties with tequila, lime, corn, cilantro, and hot smoked paprika. It was a lot sweeter than that list of ingredients implies and just one of many intriguing cocktails. I was also tempted by Closing Ceremonies with gin, lemon cantaloupe, and mint and Future Teller with rum, lemon, husk cherry, birch sap, sumac, and honey. 

We ordered most of the menu, starting with a thick slice of toast topped with 'nduja (a spicy spreadable pork sausage) pear slices, fried Marcona almonds, and drizzled with honey. The meal was off to a great start. 

The kitchen sent out this grilled lentil and broccolini, which we had overlooked due to its unsexy ingredients. But it was rich with hearty and smoky flavors.

The chicken liver mousse with a crab apple mostarda and crackers. So good, with its salty, sweet, richness. We also enjoyed the summery burrata and roasted apples, with radishes, pecans, sourdough crisp and balsamic vinegar. 

Then it was on to the pasta. My favorite was the first dish I tried—a butternut squash egg yolk raviolo with delicata rings, brown butter, and fried sage leaves. Stunning. 

We also plowed through the saffron malloreddus with a smoked lamb ragu, collard greens, and rosemary, the simple tonnarelli (a squared-off spaghetti) with fresh pomodoro, basil, and garlic, plus a squid ink spaghettini with squid, pickled chiles, and cherry tomatoes. Needless to say, we were stuffed.  

But always have room for dessert, especially when it's a savory cheesecake with watermelon, husk cherries, and hints of fennel. A great way to end a windy evening on Free Street. 

Despite the wind that night, the patio of Leeward was very comfortable, spacious and heated with gas heaters. The menu is also available for takeout, plus fresh pasta, sauces, gelato, wine, and cocktails. Their comfort food will certainly be in-demand this fall and winter. 

Leeward | 85 Free Street, Portland, Maine | 207-808-8623

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Eating Out in Portland, Maine During COVID-19

Writing about food during Covid-19 is difficult. There is so much wrapped up in what was once a casual meal on the town—from the ethics of dining out during a global pandemic to wanting to support the businesses that create Portland's identity as a foodie small town. But the best way out is through, so here we go. 

In the early days of the shutdown, I ordered takeout and navigated the new preorder/curbside-pickup systems like everyone else. We got our meals to-go—Coal's, MiSenRadici, Ramona's—and enjoyed that we could now get takeout from places that previously didn't offer it, like Boda, Evo, and Palace Diner

Right before the shutdown, I snuck in an interview with Atsuko Fujimoto for a profile in Down East magazine, and speaking with her kept her amazing pastry, formerly found at the now-shuttered Ten Ten Pié, in my mind during those early days. 

I was ordering these incredible treats for pick up from her production space at Two Fat Cats in South Portland, then as coffee shops reopened I found them at Higher Grounds on Wharf Street. Just this morning, I enjoyed a crabapple caramel sticky bun. Incredible! 

After the flurry of takeout and as warmer weather arrived, I began to dip my toe into going out. At first, for a drink, finding the bars on Washington Ave. great places to feel safe while enjoying a beer or cocktail: A&C GroceryOxbow Blending & Bottling/Duckfat Friteshack, and Anoche. Most of these places offer window service, which makes me feel the most comfortable (compared to table service). 

Then on to food trucks—so many new food trucks this year! My friend Steffy launched Actual Foods, serving up a menu of build-your-own-bowls with fresh vegetables, proteins, and carbs cooked up in a wok and doused in a tasty sauce. My steak tips with wild rice, tomatoes, spinach, corn, and a zippy ginger-scallion sauce were so satisfying. 

In a regular year, Bite Into Maine's heaping lobster rolls are a treat and even more so during the pandemic. The rolls lend themselves to being enjoyed overlooking the ocean, whether that's at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth or Higgins Beach in Scarborough. The picnic-style roll (lobster topped with melted butter and celery salt on a bed of coleslaw) continues to be my favorite. It's the best lobster roll I've had. 

I also ventured to the new marina on Fore Street to try Evo X, the new food truck from Chef Matt Ginn of Evo and Chebeague Island Inn. I was less impressed with the bar environment, but the food was most excellent. With a casual menu of lobster rolls, burgers, polenta fries, and seafood specials, this truck is the best of both dining worlds: amazing food in a casual environment. 

Skip the bar and take your food up to the Eastern Prom for a better view of the ocean and islands.  

I still prefer window service to table service, but couldn't help but check out Via Vecchia, the new Italian restaurant from the owner of Blythe & Burrows. We sat outside on their patio, and I had a delicious Averna Mai Tai and a tomato salad. 

I ducked into the restaurant to use the bathroom and the space looks so stunning. Indoor dining isn't for me, so it hurt my heart a little to know it's going to be a long while before I will enjoy a meal in there. 

Certainly one of the highlights of my summer was my meal at The Lost Kitchen last Friday. My friend A. had her postcard drawn for dinner on a night The Magnolia Network (a project from Joanna and Chip Gaines) was filming for its mini-series featuring The Lost Kitchen. 

This was my first time at the acclaimed Freedom restaurant, so I didn't know what to expect, much less how it had changed during the pandemic. We were seated in an enclosed patio on the lawn, between the mill, where the dining room typically is, and the mill pond. It was such a beautiful night and the food was that alluring combination of sophisticated and simple.  

I will admit though that I experienced sticker shock when the bill came—the price per person was nearly double that of previous years. I found the price of our meal ended up influencing how I felt about the experience. 

I, of course, believe food should be produced ethically and priced accordingly, but at $225 per person (including tip, excluding alcohol), I was left pondering exclusive dining experiences and the relationship between the cost and the perceived value of a meal. We had an hour-and-a-half drive back to Portland, so plenty of time to think. 

The window for completing our summer to-do list is closing (sigh), so I was happy to check off having tacos on the rooftop of Bayside Bowl recently. Although the nearby Time and Temp building told me it was a hardly-summery 66*, we still enjoyed our al fresco experience with tacos, frosé, and Dirty Dancing, as the last installation of their rooftop movies series. 

You don't need me to tell you it's been a strange summer. I attempted to balance an all-consuming anxiety over coronavirus with the reassuringly low rates of Covid-19 here in Maine and enjoy some meals out in what I hope was a safe way. 

Come winter, I know our restaurant community will be struggling even more. There aren't any easy answers right now, but I do hope that if you enjoy Portland's restaurants and dining out in typical times, that you'll find a moment to contact our elected officials and urge them to pass a more coronavirus relief efforts to help these businesses remain solvent through winter. Hope you're all staying safe and healthy. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Bread and Butter Pickles

Why hello there. How's everyone doing? I haven't updated this thing since, you know, the global pandemic changed every facet of life as we know it. I thought I'd ease us back in with something simple and rewarding—sweet, tangy, crunchy bread and butter pickles. 

True confession time: I used to hate bread and butter pickles. I was a dill pickle ride or die. My great aunt made sweet pickles and added green food coloring, so the brine turned a murky greenish-black. These are not that. Simple ingredients (but yes, a boatload of sugar), stained with turmeric, perfect for piling high on deli meat or pulled pork sandwiches, these pickles are a must-have for summer. 

First, navigate the farmers' market. Don't forget your mask, observe the new protocols like one-way aisles and frequent hand sanitizing. I got my 6 pounds of perfect pickling cukes from Snell Family Farm at the Portland Farmers' Market. I also picked up 4 white onions, which might seem like an afterthought, but share the spotlight with the cukes in this recipe. 

Then I used a crinkle cutting tool I picked up from LeRoux Kitchen in Scarborough. It's a pain in the ass to use—way slower than a knife—but I love the wavy texture it gives each piece. Next, the cukes and onions are mixed with salt and covered with ice. This step draws the water out of the cukes and helps them to stay crunchy after being cooked and canned. Muy necesito. 

After soaking for a few hours in the refrigerator, drain the cucumber-onion mixture, and prepare the syrup. I'd say brine, but it's just vinegar and sugar, making it more of a syrup. Turmeric, mustard seed, and celery seed (which I omitted) are added for flavor. Boil the mixture and then add the drained vegetables. Then bring the syrup and vegetables to a boil, stirring occasionally, and in the meantime, prepare your canning equipment. 

This recipe makes 8 pint jars, which I'm already realizing is not enough to properly share with friends and family. Fill the jars with the solids first, and then cover with syrup until there's 1/2-inch headspace. Remove any trapped air bubbles, wipe jar rims, add lids, and tighten screw bands until fingertip tight. 

Process in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude. After they're canned, admire your handwork. Calculate how many jars you'd like to keep, how many you intend to share, and quickly realize that you'll be doing this all over again next weekend...

If you are a first-time canner—as many of you are this year!—my UMaine Extension colleagues and I are producing weekly webinars on seasonal food preservation topics. These webinars are free (donation optional) and open to anyone, anywhere. We will also record the webinars and post them to the web afterward.

I recommend you watch the Quick-Pack Pickling webinar if you've never canned pickles before. While we wish we could be together preserving food this season, this is the next best thing—plus, you get to learn from the comfort of your home. Please reach out with your questions! 

Be well, stay safe, and wear a mask. 

Bread and Butter Pickles

6 lbs of 4- to 5-inch pickling cucumbers
8 cups thinly sliced onions (about 3 pounds)
1/2 cup canning or pickling salt
4 cups white vinegar (5 percent acidity)
4-1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 tbsp mustard seed
1-1/2 tbsp celery seed
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1/8 tsp Ball Pickle Crisp crisping treatment (optional)

Wash cucumbers. Cut off 1/16-inch of blossom end (to aid with crispness) and discard. Cut into 1/4-inch slices, preferable using a crinkle cut slicer. Combine with onions in a large bowl. Mix in salt. Cover with 2-inches of ice and place in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours. 

Prepare canning equipment. Wash 8 pint jars and place into boiling water bath canner. Fill canner to cover jars and place on the stove—bring to a simmer over medium heat. Wash lids and screw bands; set aside until needed. 

Prepare syrup: bring vinegar, sugar, and spices to a boil in a large stockpot. Drain cucumber-onion mixture, and add to stockpot. Return to a boil, stirring occasionally. 

Add 1/8 tsp Pickle Crisp, if using, directly to each jar. Use slotted spoon to distribute vegetables evenly among 8 pint jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Ladle hot syrup over vegetables, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Wipe jar rims clean with a damp paper towel. Apply dome lid and screw band, tightening until fingertip tight. Place jars in canner, cover, and bring to a boil. 

Boil for 10 minutes, adjusting for altitude as needed (see Selecting the Correct Processing Time to learn more about adjusting for altitude). Remove jars, let cool for 12-24 hours. Check for seals, remove screw bands; label and date jars. Store in a cool, dark, dry place and use within 12 months for best quality. 

Yield: About 8 pints

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

New Restaurants in South Portland, Maine

Since I moved to South Portland, there's been a flurry of new bars and restaurants in the works. I thought I'd share with you an update of what's planned where, since, unless you're also a SoPo resident, you probably aren't tracking these announcements as closely as I am. 

First up is Big Babe's Tavern, which opened Tuesday. Big Babe's is located on the spot of the Griffin Club, a storied sports bar that closed in May of 2017. Big Babe's proprietor Ginger Cote bought the property and demolished the 100-year-old building to make way for the 47-seat tavern with 5 hotel rooms on upper floors. Cote is a longtime professional drummer and already has a great lineup of local musicians like Kenya Hall and Primo Cubano booked. 

The kitchen at Big Babe's will serve bar snacks and pub fare, overseen by Dillon Houser, who most recently worked at East Ender. Big Babe's is open daily from 3pm-close at 60 Ocean Street. Happy hour runs from 3-6pm daily. 

I think the next restaurant to open in South Portland will be Judy Gibson. This restaurant from Chris Wilcox, who has worked at Eventide and the now-closed The Velveteen Habit, is going into the space formerly occupied by Teriyaki Exchange on Ocean Street in Knightville. 

Wilcox offered three pop-up dinners at Hugo's in early January to preview the menu of Judy Gibson. The night I went, there was a crab and celery root salad, sweet potatoes and housemade bratwurst, roasted hake with mushrooms, and a delicious butterscotch pudding for dessert.

Wilcox has begun hiring for Judy Gibson and estimates the restaurant will be open mid-February.

Just down the street, The Farm Stand has closed and begun its transformation into Solo Cucina. The Farm Stand was a small market and butcher shop from Penny Jordan of Jordan's Farm and butcher Ben Slayton. The new market will have the same focus on using local foods, but bring in the culinary talents Paolo and Mercedes Laboa the couple that owns Solo Italiano. The new iteration of the market will offer more prepared foods—baked pastries, handmade pasta, and panini—still using Maine meats and produce. For a farmer, butcher, and chef, it's a perfect pairing.

What will become of the old Terra Cotta Pasta Company space as been the talk of the town for months. Terra Cotta moved up Cottage Rd. to a new space next to Thai Taste. The new location offers a bigger and better space for the Italian market and café. The Portland Food Map reported Matt Moran, co-owner of Nosh and Slab, plans to open a family-friendly restaurant in the quirky, old yellow and green building.

I was a little unsure if the project was stalled because there were no signs of life on the property. But recently a dumpster appeared and I've seen men working inside. So we'll see what Moran has up his sleeve soon enough.

That's the South Portland update! If you live over here, you've probably already heard the buzz about these new restaurants. If you're a Portland city dweller, do any of these options sound tempting enough to make the trek over the bridge? 

Monday, January 13, 2020

Oxbow Beer Garden in Oxford, Maine

This past Saturday was a glorious 55-degree day in Southern Maine, so my husband and I decided to get outside and enjoy the great combination of sunshine, mild air, and snow. We headed west to Oxford, where Oxbow Brewing Company has opened its third location on a property with cross-country ski trails. Formerly Carter's XC Ski Center, there's a few miles of trails through the woods and fields here where you can ski, fat bike, and snowshoe. 

I rented skis at Gorham Bike and Ski in Portland, but the Portland Gear Hub has just opened a shop at the Oxbow Beer Garden, renting bikes, skis, and snowshoes, so you can come empty-handed. 

After we swished through the woods and worked up a sweat, we headed back to the parking lot to retire our gear and explore the pizza and beer options. The brewery has a bottle shop and restaurant on site, perfect for rewarding yourself after a woodsy workout. 

We hit up the bottle shop first, where I found a two Oxbow beers I'm excited about—Magenta, a mixed fermentation farmhouse ale refermented with Concord grape juice, and a 4-pack of Surfer Rossa, a salted grissette with blood orange. There were easily dozens of other choices. 

Next, we headed into the restaurant, which has been beautifully done with a great mix of modern and farmhouse elements. The space has two seating areas on two stories and bar stools, topped with the signature repurposed signs made by their artistic director, Will Sears. 

The menu is small, with one soup, a salad, four kinds of pizzas, and two desserts (a build your own pizza option is available too). We opted for the Caesar salad ($7) with bacon croutons and a delightfully mustardy dressing, and a cheese pizza ($13).  

The pizza was about 12" and delicious—a thin, floppy sourdough crust made with Maine grains that had tons of flavor. I don't normally eat pizza crusts, but I ate all of it here! 

We also enjoyed beers from the 18 on tap—a India Pale Lager and a New England-style IPA brewed in collaboration with Brooklyn's Other Half Brewing. The bartender was friendly and our food came out quickly. 

The beer garden also has live music and has started hosting a pop-up sauna built in an Sprinter van on Sundays. There's talk of revitalizing the disc golf course to use the property in the summer. In short, there's a lot going on and it's only going to get better and better. Be sure to add Oxbow Beer Garden to your list of places to visit out of Portland. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Cocktail Mary, Anoche, and A&C Grocery at Night

I went out last Friday night to visit several new Washington Avenue businesses. A friend who moved away in August was visiting for the holiday and since we both used to live on Munjoy Hill, we wanted to see what's new in the old neighborhood. On our agenda: drinks at Cocktail Mary, a new cocktail bar on Congress Street, drinks at Anoche, a cider and tapas bar, and dinner at A&C Grocery, a former market turned diner. 

The first stop, Cocktail Mary, was a huge success. This space used to be Ramen Suzukiya and has been transformed by former Izakaya Minato bartender Isaac MacDougal with a hand painted mural, pastel colors and a bar running the length of the space. Despite there not being any soft materials in the decor, it never got too loud in here.

The menu is short and sweet: 7 specialty cocktails, sodas, beer, and wine. We enjoyed the Marty Washington with Hardshore gin, grapefruit kombucha, Aperol, maple, and luxardo ($14), while G. had The Orchard Rye with Jim Beam rye, Melletti, Fernet Michaud, and fresh apple juice. 

A. showed up after a while and enjoyed the tropical Scurvy Snack, made with rum, caraway, pineapple gum syrup, and lime ($10). We snacked on some delightfully over seasoned ranch-flavored oyster crackers, which is the only food available. 

Next up: Anoche. This cider and tapas bar is from Erika Colby, former bar manager of Novare Res. She has completely transformed the former Coffee By Design space, with dark walls, natural wood, and lots of houseplants (this picture came out kind of crazy, but I think it channels the vibe well!).

There's an extensive cider menu, but I'd been hearing about the gin and tonics, served in giant goblet-esque wine glasses, so I went with one of those. We intended to try out the some of the tapas menu, but were approaching closing time at A&C Grocery, and I was a little afraid of what Joe would do to us if we rolled in at 8:50pm.

So I'll be back to try out Anoche's tapas menu—the whole leg of Jamon Iberico was calling my name. 

Down the block we went to A&C Grocery, at the corner of Washington Ave. and Walnut St. Owners Joe Fournier and Ben Slattery have just started serving a French brasserie dinner menu from 6 to 9pm. The menu is small and they were out of an item, so we were able to order nearly everything: French onion soup, a frisee and 7-minute duck egg salad, and steak frites. The mussels and frites were out for the evening and we skipped the duck wings and sausage served with beans. 

Everything we had was so good—the French onion soup sweet and salty, the frisee salad mustardy and rich, and the steak and frites both perfectly cooked. I would repeat this meal in a second. 

We had a great time bar/diner crawling down Washington Ave. and judging from friends' Instagram stories, we weren't the only ones spending a Friday night checking out the new businesses that have opened in Portland's East End. Inner Washington Ave. is quickly becoming (has become?) a better place to spend a weeknight evening than the Old Port.