Thursday, August 10, 2017

First Look at Cong Tu Bot

The opening of Cong Tu Bot came up quickly—first with some quiet development of a corner space on Washington Ave., the new neon sign pronouncing that PHO would soon be served there. Then the public was offered a glimpse during the Inner Washington Ave. block party in early July, and while not much food was served, I got to check out the adorable space, pink and baby blue and adorned with tres chic potted plants. 


Cong Tu Bot was born of Tandem Coffee co-founder Vien Dobui's noodle pop-ups in 2013-2015, none of which I attended, but always heard raves about. Several years later, we now have regular access to Vien's Vietnamese noodle and veggie dishes, with a small but stellar menu in this festive cafe. 

I went in on a Monday night (CTB is open Wednesday through Monday for dinner at 5pm) with Original Roomie A, where we ordered veggie stir fry, cabbage salad, and bun cha (a cold noodle salad with pork patties). 


The veggies, broccoli and cauliflower that night, were crisp from a quick stir fry with a delicious garlic ginger sauce. They were topped with fried shallots, and while we opted not to, I see why it's recommended to order the stir fried veggies with rice as a vehicle for the tasty sauce. 

The cabbage salad was my personal favorite, another lifestyle salad (as in my personal Platonic ideal of salad), crunchy cabbage and peanuts mixed with fresh herbs, red onions, and a tangy dressing. On another visit, the salad was pretty spicy, so beware the varying spice levels if you're sensitive. 

The bun cha was also a hit, a base of vermicelli noodles with pork patties and fresh vegetables on the side. I opted to combined all of the dishes into one. Bun cha is a dish of contrast: fatty pork against fresh herbs, soft noodles cut by crunchy peanuts and fried onions, all deeply satisfying.


For dessert, if you can manage it, there's flan topped with coffee ice (!!), creamy and cool, not too sweet. 


I've always come away from Cong Tu Bot full but not uncomfortably so, despite eating way more than is reasonable. The portions are generous, making it easy to share, and so are the prices. It was about $22 (tip is included) for my portion of the meal I had here. 

With Cong Tu Bot, inner Washington Ave. has gained yet another fantastic place to eat. Its small, inexpensive menu and casual service show the crew there is focused on good food, and I appreciate that they're able to provide it at a relatively inexpensive price point. 

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Summer Menu at UNION in The Press Hotel

A. and I recently had a nice dinner at The Press Hotel's restaurant UNION. We were celebrating—we had eloped a few days before, and UNION turned out to be the perfect place for the two of us to enjoy a quiet dinner. While we made no mention of our reason for celebrating, the restaurant staff found out somehow and delivered several celebratory touches throughout our meal. 

UNION is in The Press Hotel, so called because of its location in the former home of the Press Herald's offices, and has the feel of a high-end home. There's lots of blonde wood, slate flooring, marble bar tops, and interesting light fixtures. Everything feels soothing and like you're in experienced hands. The service, in addition to going above and beyond with the congrats and sparkling toast, was competent and friendly yet unobtrusive. 


We dined on the eve of the switch from the spring to the summer menu, so we sampled items from the newer menu as a preview. We started with a two appetizers: the summer zucchini cakes ($13) and the confit eggplant ($10). 

The zucchini dish was crisp fritters topped with jumbo lump crab meat, crab mayonnaise, and Old Bay pickles. As a Maryland girl, you know I loved this dish—although the chef said serving a blue crab dish to a native Marylander made him nervous. (He passed with flying colors.) The eggplant dish had a touch of spice to it, with the silky eggplant topped with fresh figs, yogurt, sumac, mint, and a sunflower cracker.

Our entrees arrived after we cleared our appetizer plates—the highlight being the salmon in red curry ($27). I loved this dish since any coconut curry is a gimme for me and because I thought salmon was an unusual choice for pairing with curry. But it went really well together, with the salmon being cooked perfectly—flaky and moist with a crunchy top. The curry wasn't too sweet and the fried jasmine rice balls added more crunch. 

We also enjoyed a pasta and meatballs dish with spicy nduja added to the tomato sauce ($22). The dish was featured as the "Market Plate," a rotating special showcasing seasonal ingredients the chef sources that day. But the pasta and meatballs are a regular item on the summer menu. 

I knew UNION's desserts were good, so when the offer came I ordered up the whipped cheesecake. A. debated between that and the eclair and the chef got wind of it and sent out the eclair too. 

You can't go wrong with juicy strawberries, graham cracker crumbles, and cheesecake (I mean, I guess you can, but the kitchen at UNION didn't). The eclair itself was a little tough, but A. made it disappear nonetheless. 


I often view hotel restaurants with suspicion, but with its understated decor, professional service, and an elevated yet familiar menu, UNION manages to transcend the stereotype. With its full bar (including local draughts and specialty cocktail menu) it's also a nice place to enjoy a drink and a snack at the bar. UNION serves dinner daily from 5pm on and also offers a weekday lunch and weekend brunch. 



I was invited to dine free of charge at UNION. I was not compensated in any other way, and the words and opinions in this post are mine alone. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

A Celebration at Scales

Dinner at Scales a few months ago still lingers in my mind—the rainy, cozy early May weather (thank god for valet parking), the huge windows with rain dripping down the panes, the wonderful service from Sandra, and the decadent food we enjoyed. We were celebrating my father-in-law's birthday, and Scales was the perfect choice for this special occasion. 

I take a certain amount of pride in recommending Portland restaurants, curating an enjoyable experience for different people and different circumstances. I wanted Scales to impress, having switched the birthday dinner reservation at nearly the last minute from Street & Co. after an impromptu happy hour at the Scales with friends. I figured my in-laws would love the views of the waterfront, the menu, and the beautiful renovation of this former seafood warehouse. 

And I was right, but I certainly can't take much credit for allowing the capable staff at Scales to do their thing. From the moment we stepped in the door until we left, everyone was so friendly and warm, so willing to chat even when they were busy, to say nothing (yet) of the quality of the food. And while Scales is not a cheap meal, the quality of the food and service reflect money well spent. 

We started with a bottle of wine, which Sandra helped us pick out. We wanted Italian wine, as we're planning a trip to Italy in the fall, and she recommended a "baby Super Tuscan," a phrase that displays so much of my ignorance about Italian wine (wine in general?) that I had to just shrug and take her word for it. 

While our meal came with some housemade sourdough bread, I knew to start with the real star of the show: the Parker House rolls slathered with ramp butter ($4). We'd ordered them with our mussels at happy hour, and I was more than willing to repeat the performance a few days later. Impossibly soft with delicious salty, oniony butter running down the sides. Uh, OK. 


I shared a salad with A., which the kitchen thoughtfully split onto two plate for us. The salad was sticks of shaved kohlrabi with gouda, walnuts, thinly sliced celery, and lemon pepper vinaigrette ($11), and it was a sleeper hit. It was so fresh and crunchy with the cheese and walnuts adding a richness that didn't make the salad feel like an exercise in deprivation or health. My favorite kind of salad, really. 

But it was my entree that really stole the show. I could barely even tell you what other people had, as I was too 😍 over my seared scallops with oyster mushrooms, asparagus, salsify cream, and bacon ($34.50). It was spectacular—a beautiful mix of rich and fresh elements and a hearty portion that I could be generous and happily share a few bites. 

My mother-in-law had a beautiful piece of lemon sole, pan roasted with hazelnuts, brown butter, lemon and potatoes ($33), while the men both had the roasted haddock special. 

We ended our dinner with a dessert of peanut butter pie, with a candle, another thoughtful touch to end a meal that had been full of them. 

Like I said, while dinner at Scales is not inexpensive, it is certainly worth it. Be sure to make a reservation, as like most restaurants in Portland now, it's popular and difficult to get a table without planning ahead. And consider happy hour in the bar/lounge area, where the full menu is available and you can still enjoy the ambiance and great service. 

Monday, July 3, 2017

Long Grain in Camden, Maine

The list of restaurants outside of Portland I want to visit is long—but truth be told, I don't leave the city that much, and when I do it's usually for work, leaving me not much time to explore an area's food scene. But two recent trips to Camden and Lincolnville gave me the opportunity to finally dine at Long Grain in Camden, a place I'd heard many raves about. 

The first visit was for fun, up to the Camden boutique hotel Whitehall's opening night. I have stayed at the Whitehall before and love its on-site restaurant, hip outdoor space, and proximity to downtown Camden. Before the evening's poetry night kicked off, I went over to Long Grain to enjoy dinner. 

Long Grain is usually billed as a Thai restaurant, but they also serve Vietnamese, Japanese, and other Asian dishes using local food, with a pricetag about on par with Portland Thai restaurants. 

The restaurant is small, with only 10 or so tables and a few seats at the bar. The few times I've tried to go in the past, the wait has been considerable due to limited seating. This night though, while the restaurant was still full even in mid-May, we only had to wait a few minutes for seats at the bar. 

I started with an order of the street wings ($12), served undressed with a spicy/sweet dipping sauce on the side. They were super crispy, maybe battered and fried twice and very moist inside—more like fried chicken than typical sports bar wings. 

Here I need to tell you that I went back to Long Grain a month later for lunch by myself and wasn't able to stray from the next two dishes. I had good intentions of exploring the rest of the menu, but these two dishes were such home runs for me the first time around that I couldn't help but order them again. 

The Vietnamese salad with nuoc cham dressing ($9) was so fresh and light—a wonderful mix of vegetables, a few vermicelli noodles, fried garlic and shallots, and lots of fresh mint, basil, and cilantro. With a tart and sweet dressing, I was in heaven. I wish all my salads could be like this one. 


Same with the Northeastern style Thai beef ($12)—this is a lifestyle salad with fresh herbs, grilled beef and lots of lime juice and fish sauce. It's slightly spicy too, and I inhaled it with sweat breaking out on my brow. 


So from years of no visits to Long Grain to two in a month—we'll see if on my next visit I can manage to branch out in my ordering. 

Don't wait as long as I did to venture up to Camden and enjoy lunch or dinner at Long Grain. They do take reservations for both meals up to one month in advance. I am already looking for my next reason to visit. 

Friday, June 9, 2017

First Look at Blyth & Burrows

Blyth & Burrows, a new cocktail bar on Exchange St., opens today. I checked it out on Tuesday as part of a media preview, and there certainly are a lot of things to check out. For one, the recently rennovated space encompasses not one, not two, but three bars. 

When you first enter off Exchange St., you're in the showiest part of the space, complete with a library ladder to access top shelf bottles. The bar staff is made up of Sur Lie and EVO alums, so expect a similar style bar menu, with specialty cocktails involving lesser known ingredients like Carpano Antica and housemade ingredients like a spruce tip cordial. 

Marquess of Queensbury: gin/sloe gin/carpano antica, blueberry lavendar shrub, bitters

The drinks are inspired by flavors the two ships' captains for whom the place is named would have encountered on their trade routes. As someone who worked on boats, I was tickled by all the nautical references that abounded from murals to figureheads to references and ingredients on the cocktail menu. 


The Blood of the Incan cocktail was another hit, with Pisco, blood orange liqueur, agave, Lillet Rose, lemon, and cranberry bitters. It was citrusy and tart and went well with the tray of local oysters on the half shell that was circulating. 

The back bar, up a few stairs, has a raw bar with a several barstools and tables in a cozy nook. But the real attraction is the secret entrance to the dive bar downstairs. Through a bookshelf that doubles a door, you can access The Broken Dram, a red light joint with a simple menu of boilermakers. 

Exit through The Dram into an alley off of Fore Street, where the bar entrance is marked by a single red light and if you look closely, the bar's name spray painted on the door. 

Blyth & Burrows will surely fill with the summer crowds of Exchange St. It's nice to know that there's a cool oasis down below that will also suit those who prefer a slightly less polished scene. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

First Look at Luis's Arepera & Grill, Portland

Luis's Arepera & Grill just moved from Saco and opened at 948 Forest Ave. in Portland, in the former home of Vivian's Drive-In. I'd always heard about this mythical Luis's, serving delicious arepas in the far away land of Saco, but had never made the pilgrimage. For the uninitiated, arepas are Venezuelan sandwiches made of fried masa shells, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, stuffed with meat, veggies, and cheese. 

When my lunch was insufficient today and my friend texted to celebrate Luis's opening, we decided to buzz over, and finally, I experienced my first arepa. 

The space inside Luis's new location is pretty small—it's mostly kitchen, with a Pepsi cooler, counter space, and some bar stools along the wall of windows. We ordered an arepa each; I went with shredded chicken ($5.99) while A. ordered shredded beef ($6.99). There's a few other meat options and avocado, 3 cheese, and bean and cheese. 

We waited for our food on some stools; I was extremely hungry, so the wait felt long. In reality, it was probably 7 minutes until our arepas were ready. While we waited, we watched other customers come and go, and I eyed their bulging takeout containers as they added hot sauce. I must have seen a combo meal, which comes with rice and beans or fries. 


Our food came up, and now I know what all the fuss is about! The arepa was warm and crunchy on the outside, and filled with juicy shredded chicken, cool lettuce, and cheese. And it was a perfect amount of food—I didn't feel too stuffed afterwards. I already can't wait to go back, especially now that I've seen their menu includes churros (!!). 

If you, like me, have only heard tales of these wonderful arepas, now you can check out Luis's closer to home. Brave the traffic of Forest Ave. to Luis's Arepera & Grill, and be sure to give them a warm welcome to Portland. 

Bayside Bowl Rooftop Bar

Bayside Bowl has been expanding—more than doubling even—its space over the last year. And last Tuesday afternoon, the last piece of the expansion, the rooftop deck, opened. This is particularly exciting because Portland doesn't have a lot of outdoor spaces that are sunny during happy hour o'clock and even fewer spots still that offer such great views al fresco. 

The rooftop bar at Bayside opens at 4pm on weekdays and can reach its capacity of just under 200 people quickly. You can reach the rooftop through the new bar via the stairs or an elevator. After a winding walk across the solar panel-covered rooftop, you'll reach the fenced-in bar area with a covered bar and an old Airstream trailer that's been adapted into a taco truck. 

The seating is a mix of vintage bowling chairs and the wooden tables that used to be in the old bar area. During Friday happy hour, I drank Rising Tide's MITA, while my friends had other canned beers. I saw others with cocktails too. The bartender on the first floor offered to pour our drinks into plastic cups for the rooftop (no glass is allowed), so if the top floor doesn't have what you're looking for, you can bring your drink up from another bar. 

Pretty soon after we settled in we hit up the taco truck. Its menu has 5 kinds of tacos: two vegetarian (cauliflower and cactus), fried fish, pulled pork, and carne asada. I tried the cauliflower with sweet potato, sliced peppers, tomatillo salsa, and cotija cheese. It was delicious, as you'd expect from roasted cauliflower, but the hit was the fried fish taco. It was perfectly battered and fried, topped with crunchy pickled cabbage and red onion. 

When this next round of rain stops, head to Bayside Bowl to get a new view of the city, four stories up. Bring your sunscreen and be ready to wowed by this great new addition to Portland's bar scene. Opens at 4pm weekdays and 12pm Sundays.