Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Crown Jewel Preview Pop-up at Little Giant

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 Little Giant's patio opened in January, owner Ian Malin 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

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.