Friday, September 10, 2021

Summer Recap: Eating Around Maine

Whew, what a summer! This time of year, I always feel like it went by too fast and that I didn't do enough. But when I look back through my pictures, I find that in fact I did do a lot—and much of it involved eating really good food! So here's a bit of a recap of my summer highlights in food.

In early July, we welcomed Cafe Louis to the Knightville neighborhood of South Portland. This cafĂ©, run by chef Evan Richardson, serves Costa Rican/Caribbean food like hand pies, fried plantains, and this delightful fried halloumi cheese with honey and nuts. 

I went for breakfast, and they serve lunch and dinner. I sadly haven't been back! I need to remedy that pronto with drinks at the cute bar. Richardson will be hosting a fundraiser for Hurricane Ida relief on Wedesday, September 15 from 5-9 p.m., serving chicken and waffles and hosting the Little Easy Snoball truck. Sounds fun! 

I also made it out to Crown Jewel for dinner on a rainy July night. We took a water taxi, which while kind of pricey, was perfect for the glum weather since we were whisked out to the island quickly and under cover. 

I enjoyed chef Sara Devereux's new menu, especially the deviled eggs, scallop crudo, and tuna poke. Lots of fresh seafood on the menu! The hospitality from the Crown Jewel crew always makes a night at this Great Diamond Island spot special. 

My role as Maine magazine's food editor has me thinking about restaurants all around the state (suggestions always welcome!). Recently I profiled Broken Arrow after I ate there in mid-June. 

I typically eat at a restaurant about 2-1/2 months before the story runs in print. I've faced some unexpected challenges during the pandemic, from a restaurant closing (temporarily, but for an unknown duration) while I was in the middle of writing a feature on it to a new and well-known chef leaving before I could even make it to the restaurant for a meal. There has been a fair amount of scrambling behind the scenes. But we make it work and the pieces look fabulous thanks to Nicole Wolf's photography and Joel Kuschke's design. 

I had a great meal at Broken Arrow and then enjoyed meeting and talking with the owners and chef. That's by far the part of this job I have enjoyed the most—talking to restaurant owners and chefs about their industry. It has been really interesting (and sad at times) to hear what these folks have gone through in the last year and a half. I am grateful for every day these people show up to work so we can come and enjoy a nice meal or a drink at their restaurants. 

In Biddeford, Magnus on Water is back in the swing of things with a new chef, Ben Jackson. I loved this charred squash and ricotta dish, as well as the great cocktails from bar manager Brian Catapang. A meal on the beautiful patio this fall would make for a great night if you haven't been yet. 

Farther out of Portland, I went to a new area in Maine last month (!!). I'd. never been down the Blue Hill peninsula, just south of Mount Desert Island. So we made a reservation at Aragosta in Stonington and planned to spend the night at a friend's place in East Blue Hill. 

We enjoyed dinner on the deck overlooking the water and then ten delightful courses. From this tomato salad with a fried tomatillo to smoked duck breast and gnocchi, everything was prepared with care and presented delightfully. 

The wine went down easy and it was a real treat to have a special night on the beautiful Maine coast with friends. 

Back in Portland, Crispy Gai, the new Thai street food restaurant from chefs Jordan Rubin (Mr. Tuna) and Cyle Reynolds, quickly became one of my favorite new restaurants. I absolutely love the lively flavors of Thai food, and everything on the menu is so well-prepared. 

The fried chicken is obviously the star of the show, but everything else on the menu is fantastic too. Especially the waterfall salad, with fresh herbs and seared flank steak. It's like my ideal dish! The tropical cocktails from Arvid Brown are so fun and creative. 

Speaking of the generous use of cilantro, another one of my Portland favorites returned—Cong Tu Bot has reopened as a breakfast and lunch spot. I went for breakfast last weekend and ordered almost one of everything on the menu. 

There's fry bread, breakfast sandwiches, pandan coffee cake, yogurt and rice pudding, and congee with tofu, veggies, and a salt-cured egg. Plus boba tea! Everything was so good, but if I had to pick a star of the show, it was the breakfast sandwich. 

The fry bread comes sliced with an egg patty, mayo, green onions, and Chinese sausage. It's so good! The perfect portion and not too heavy. Ugh, I love it. I can't wait to go back for lunch and be reunited with bun cha. 

On my radar of new places to try is Helm, Wayside Tavern, and Il Leone pizza on Peaks Island. Sounds like a fall bucket list is shaping up! Hope you're all eating well and safe and healthy. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Crown Jewel Preview Pop-up

While it's definitely too early to take a victory lap, there are signs we're emerging from this awful pandemic. I'm getting my second vaccine shot today (thank you, public health!!), and many of my loved ones are fully immune. Many restaurants have adapted to the pandemic, creating comfortable outdoor spaces in which I feel a low risk of catching COVID. And I've only come to appreciate dining out even more in this past year. 

In my role as food editor for Maine magazine, I recently covered Little Giant's pandemic changes, from its change in ownership to the new heated patio that, like Terlingua's, has become one of the best places to dine out in Portland during the pandemic. Since its patio opened in January, Little Giant has been hosting monthly pop-ups, like Central Provisions and Izakaya Minato, on Mondays when his restaurant is closed.

So when I heard Crown Jewel was the next restaurant to pop up on Little Giant's patio, I was beside myself with excitement. I didn't get to eat at Crown Jewel last year (but did enjoy some cocktails and wings to-go on my friend's boat, so don't feel too sorry for me). I'm especially looking forward to trying the new chef Sara Devereux's island menu this year. 

We started with gin fizzes on the streetside patio as there was a short wait for our table. Despite it being a whopping 38*F on Monday night, the cheerful cherry blossoms and pink drinks put us in a summery mood. 

We made our way through the restaurant to the patio where it truly was toasty. The patio is open on one end, covered, and surrounded by vertical wood slatting that breaks the wind. The electric heaters mounted on the walls pump out a lot of heat and Huga heated seat cushions are available too. While our freezing days of dining outside are hopefully behind us, Little Giant's patio is amazingly comfortable for being outdoors. 

We continued sipping our drinks at the table with a delicious snack mix of furikake popcorn and rice crisp crackers. The menu was a prix fixe of 5 courses, so no decisions were necessary. The dishes soon started arriving, starting with oysters on the half shell topped with a tart, pickled pineapple mignonette. 

Next was tamari cured deviled eggs, topped with pickled red onion, trout roe, green onions, tempura flakes, and edible flowers. Together the flavors tasted like a sushi roll. 

Then mussels, steamed with black garlic miso butter and shiitake mushrooms. The wedge of sourdough bread was perfect for dipping in the butter (honestly the best part of steamed mussels). 

The main course was crab fried rice with a swipe of coconut cream, tinted green from the addition of pandan, a Southeast Asian tropical plant with a coconut-like flavor. I thought the rice dish needed a little punching up with some chili crisp or other spicy/flavorful drizzle. But that was my only feedback on any of the dishes! 

For dessert, a bouncy butter mochi cake came topped with sesame, toasted coconut, a drizzle of thick caramel, and Parlor ice cream. So fun. 

Crown Jewel opens Friday, May 28 this year, and reservations are available beginning May 1. I can't wait to see which dishes make the final cut for this season's menu and what other Asian/Pacific island delights Chef Sara and owner Alex Wight come up with. 

Crown Jewel | 255 Diamond Ave, Portland, ME | (207) 766-3000

Monday, March 8, 2021

New Restaurants in South Portland, Maine: 2021 Update

It's been just over a year since I published my last look at all the new restaurants opening in South Portland. And so much has changed—between Covid, South Portland's continuing popularity, and surely some would point to the minimum wage increase in Portland (which I whole-heartedly support), many restauranters are headed over the bridge to SoPo. 

The last update detailed the opening of Big Babe's Tavern and three businesses coming soon: Judy Gibson, Solo Cucina Market, and the unnamed Matt Moran project in the old Terra Cotta building. Big Babe's has since closed. Music venues and restaurants have both been hit hard during Covid, and as Big Babe's was both, I imagine it was especially difficult to keep the business going. Owner Ginger Cote listed the building for sale in July and is searching for a new location for the tavern. Big Babe's we hardly knew ye. 

Judy Gibson | 171 Ocean St, South Portland, ME | (207) 808-8649

Judy Gibson opened last year on March 4th (oof, that opening announcement video on Instagram is hard to watch knowing what we know now). I went late that evening for some light snacks and a fabulous butterscotch pudding. The restaurant had a great outdoor dining set up last summer/fall, and I enjoyed my birthday dinner there in mid-October. 

Since the outdoor tent has come down, chef Chris Wilcox and crew have been offering a to-go menu of fried chicken and cocktails. I haven't gotten to the fried chicken yet, but this research is bumping it to the top of the list. That chocolate pudding cup is calling my name. 

SoPo Seafood | 171 Ocean St, South Portland, ME | (877) 282-7676

To the right of Judy Gibson sits the shuttered Uncle Andy's Diner. This business closed last May after 66 years in business as a result of the pandemic. SoPo Seafood is opening a retail seafood operation with a raw bar in the space. You can read more about the details of SoPo Seafood's new venture at Portland Food Map.

Cafe Louis | 173 Ocean St, South Portland, ME 

To the left of Judy Gibson is the shuttered RJ's Pub—another South Portland institution put out of business by the pandemic. Chef Evan Richardson of Eaux in Portland is opening a restaurant in this space that will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner with baked goods in the morning and small plates at night. Richardson says the restaurant will have a Costa Rican and Honduran theme. The opening date is reportedly March or April via PFM

This restaurant row is forming right down the street from Taco Trio, which is opening a second location in Saco. The popular Mexican spot is closed for a while to focus on that project but should open here soon (its Facebook says early March).

Other restaurants in South Portland open for takeout/limited indoor dining over in this area of South Portland include The Snow Squall, Foulmouthed Brewing, Cia Cafe, and Bridgeway Restaurant. If you haven't visited downtown Knightville in a while, come over and check out all the changes. You can reward yourself with an Italian pastry at Solo Cucina and some JG fried chicken. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

First Look at Batson River Brewing & Distilling in Portland, Maine

Batson River Brewing & Distilling opened a Portland location a few weeks ago, and thanks to the pandemic (boo, hiss), I opted for takeout from the restaurant. I did take a quick tour of the new location in Bayside and I'm definitely looking forward to spending some time here once it's safe to do so. 

Batson River opened its first location in Kennebunk's Lower Village in late November 2018. The Kennebunk tasting room is a cozy two-story location with a bar on the first floor, a game room upstairs, and an expansive deck that overlooks the village. I've visited a few times, but my interest was recently renewed when it debuted private, reservable "fish shacks" on the patio this fall. 

These cute shacks are heated and offer a sheltered way to dine out during the pandemic winter. We checked one out on a very rainy Saturday in December when it was so cozy inside with the sound of the rain falling on the roof (and many kudos to the servers who had to dash from the restaurant to the shacks in the rain!). 

The Kennebunk location offers a menu of pubby comfort food and drinks made from its own spirits, as well as its own beers. I enjoyed the fruity bitterness of a Jungle Bird, made with the Dixie Bull Rum rum, Campari, pineapple, and lime juice. 

A few weeks later, I heard the Portland tasting room was ready to open. It's located in Bayside near the bowling alley in a building that was formerly part of the Portland Public Works facility. The renovated space is 9,000 square feet (!!!) with 18-foot-tall ceilings and a huge fireplace. 

All decked out for the holidays, it really made a beautiful first impression, with its manor home/hunting lodge vibe. 

The space has two bars, each serving six draft beers from Batson River and cocktails made with their vodka, gin, rum, and bourbon. There's a large center bar and several larger tables in the front room, with plenty of space to spread out (the capacity right now is limited to 50 people). The backroom has another bar and chairs grouped around low tables. 

Upstairs, as in Kennebunk, is a game room with shuffleboard, foosball, and board games. The games are on hold right now, as everyone is to be seated while in the restaurant, but this will be a really fun space once we can mill about again. 

At home, I enjoyed Nashville hot wings with a dry spice rub (there are also barbecue wings) and a wood-fired pepperoni pizza. The menu also offers pub fare like burgers, a delicious roasted cauliflower dish that we tried in Kennebunk, fries, poutine, and grilled cheese and tomato soup. 

One note: the takeout menu is more limited than the restaurant menu, so make sure you're looking at the right menu before you begin crafting your takeout order. 

We also enjoyed beer and a cocktail to-go (pandemic perk!)—the Cleaves Cove IPA, which was a pleasant balance of malt and hops, and the Snow Day cocktail, a horchata and rum take on egg nog. 

It was so fun to check out a new restaurant! Admittedly, it would have been more fun to cozy up by the fire and have a drink in this beautiful new space. I'll leave it up to you whether you dine in or grab some to-go food from the tasting room, but definitely add it to your list of new places in Portland to explore. 

Batson River Brewing & Distilling | 82 Hanover Street, Portland | 207-800-4680

Monday, November 30, 2020

Eventide Oyster Co.'s Homemade Twisted Tea Recipe

A few months ago, I bought the Eventide Oyster Co. cookbook as I panicked over the number of restaurants are going out of business during Covid-19. I appreciate that the restaurant industry needs more relief than I'll ever be able to offer by purchasing takeout, cookbooks, and tote bags. But it's what we've got for right now (that and calling your elected officials, urging them to pass another Covid relief package). 

Eventide's take on Twisted Tea will help you take your mind off, well, all that, at least for a short while. It's a boozy tea with a subtle orange flavor and packs a surprisingly alcoholic punch. The recipe in the cookbook makes nearly five gallons, so I scaled it back to a quarter of that volume. It still makes nearly a gallon, so you'll need a big container in which to mix it, preferably one that fits in your refrigerator. 

The ingredients are straightforward—the only relatively obscure ingredient is the Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom vodka. I found it at Bow Street Beverage along with the Sobieski vodka, an inexpensive Polish rye spirit. 

Once I'd gathered my ingredients, I set out making the simple syrup and lemon juice and infusing the vodka with black tea bags. After that, it's just a matter of mixing all the ingredients together and chilling. 

Start by infusing a quart (4 cups) of Sobieski vodka with 2 black tea bags. 

Then mix together 2 cups of fresh-squeezed lemon juice and 2 cups of simple syrup (made from equal parts sugar and water). 

Add in 1 quart (4 cups) of plain unsweetened black iced tea. 

Then add 2 cups of the mandarin blossom vodka and the quart (4 cups) of black tea-infused vodka. 

And that's it! Stir well and chill to serve. It's best served over ice in small portions—it's strong! If you're not looking to make this much boozy tea, you can always order a single portion from the restaurant—it's available as a to-go cocktail. 

Tea with a Twist
Adapted from Eventide Oyster Co.

4 cups Sobieski vodka
2 black tea bags
2 cups Hangar 1 Mandarin Blossom vodka
4 cups unsweetened black iced tea
2 cups fresh lemon juice
2 cups simple syrup

Combine Sobieski vodka and black tea bags in a large jar. Let stand at room temperature for at least 3 hours. Remove tea bags and discard. 

Combine tea-infused vodka and remaining ingredients in a large jar or other food-grade container. Stir to combine and chill. Serve over ice. Drink will last up to a month in the refrigerator. 

Yield: 14 cups

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 Boynton-McKay 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