Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Portland Restaurant Inspections

A friend texted me a link at an oddly early hour for such things: Portland Restaurant Inspections. This Portland Press Herald report is a list of recent restaurant inspections with the status of the inspection (pass or fail) and the date of the inspection(s).

Ever since then, I've been thinking about the list. (N.B.: I am going to say The List a lot, and I'm not referring to the one from Kennebunk.)

The list has 91 restaurants, some with multiple inspections, which is nowhere near the number of food service establishments in Portland. This list includes places from Dunkin' Donuts to Hugo's. If you think of every place that serves food in Portland (which legally has to include any place that serves alcohol), the numbers are close to mind-boggling.

So this eliminates the compulsion to check the list before deciding where to eat tonight - many places have not been inspected recently (the earliest inspection listed is February of 2011) and therefore are not included in this report.

But what of those that are included? If the establishment was inspected, failed, and never reinspected, how does that make you feel? Poor Nosh is left hanging with a 'Failed' status from August 22, 2011.

So let's take Nosh for example. Since the pass/fail/complaint status of each restaurant links to a PDF of the inspector's report, you can see what the specific violations are that led to a failed health inspection.

These standards come from the Maine Food Code, which is a beast of a document, and details everything from the materials to be used for the walls of food-prep areas during construction, to of course, the squickiest section of employee hygiene.

So Nosh failed this particular inspection due to improper tasting, eating, drinking habits, or tobacco use of employees, inadequate kitchen hand washing supplies, unsanitary food contact surfaces (the ice machine), and improper storage of chemical supplies.

Having worked in kitchens, I can tell you that these things are fairly common. A hand wash station that runs out of paper towels and is not restocked for a shift is out of compliance with the food code.

But read 'improper hand wash' and everyone thinks E.coli in the appetizers. That said, I don't think that this particular failed inspection is hurting Nosh's business. The sinister 'improper employee drinking habits' violation was fixed while the inspector was still there - employee drinks just need to have lids on them and not be kept on a workstation.

But would you decline to visit a restaurant because the ice bin doesn't have a "proper air gap" or because the trash cans in the women's room don't have lids? Both of these violations contributed to Nosh's failed health inspection.

But some inspection histories tell a more damning story - check out the Porthole's list:
8/18/12    Failed
8/19/12    Passed
9/13/12    Complaint
9/13/12    Imminent Health Hazard
9/13/12    Failed
9/14/12    Failed
9/15/12    Passed

The complaint listed is some poor employee beseeching the city to come address the rat infestation and dangerous food handling practices. It's hard to believe the restaurant was cleared to open two days later after the litany of violations, but we now know that the place closed and never reopened.

So great, the health inspection process worked to shutter a place that was apparently a great public health hazard. But, um, how many times did I eat there before it was inspected?!? (Many.)

This rabbit hole of paranoia can lead to a total avoidance of eating out. But ever since I heard about a middle school acquaintance putting Ex-Lax in a pizza at work (and fired for it, fortunately), I've considered the trust that is implicit in going out to eat.

So what is the role of restaurant health inspections? It would be great if every food service establishment were inspected frequently and up to code. But with one health inspector for the entire state, that's not happening.

I'd like to say I'm not going to consider this list at all. But there are some reports that mesh with what you see in the restaurant - and that may give you pause when picking up a menu. I mean, yes, I know I should probably not be ordering a ham Italian from my neighborhood gas station, where the cashier doesn't stop to wash her hands before heading behind the deli counter.

But truthfully, it's probably not going to change my dining habits all that much. I'm going to continue to believe that the pride many Portland chefs take in their work will translate to clean kitchens where it really matters. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Best Portland Food Blog Nominee

I am so happy to announce that the Blueberry Files has been nominated by readers as one of Portland's Best Food Blogs! Thank you so much for the nod; I am in great company with the other nominees.

Go to the Portland Phoenix to vote for your favorite food blog - the category is in the Food & Drink section and to complete your ballot, you'll need to click 'Submit' twice. You do not need to enter your email address, and you can vote once a day until the contest ends. Thanks again!

Click here to vote.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Allagash Brewing Company Tour

We just got so much snow in Maine! Thirty inches is our record-breaking total in Portland. The city was shut down yesterday, and after venturing to Ruski's for my typical snow day breakfast, I stayed in, drank Dark and Stormies, played board games, and ate soup. 

Last Saturday though, the weather was just cold, and the ground was bare. Friends and I scheduled a tour of Allagash Brewing Company, as I've lived in Maine for quite some time and have never been. It was starting to become negligent. 

Allagash is Portland's craft brewing golden child, as one of the most creative, well-known small brews to come out of Maine. (Yes, you may argue that that is Shipyard Brewing, but I prefer Allagash, so I say it's Allagash.) 

Their moneymaker, the White, is a Belgian-style Wheat beer, which then allows them to experiment with smaller batches and different techniques.  

The tour of the brewery starts in their retail shop and tasting room. I love that the tour starts off with the beer, since I knew the business side of the tour would be far more interesting once I'd had a few tastes of beer. 

We sampled the White, the Grand Cru (the Winter ale), the Interlude (a Farmhouse Ale aged in wine barrels), and the Curieux (the Tripel aged in Bourbon barrels). 

Our entertaining tour guide Ashley led us into the brew house with the warning, there's going to be a lot of shiny shit that you're going to want to touch. But don't. 

We stopped first where the tanks are, continued onto the bottling and keg line, and ended in the barrel aging room. The tour script is friendly to non-beer nerds, and our guide was also willing to entertain any questions, no matter how basic, like... what does 'coagulate' mean? (No joke.) I wanted to know why the big bottles are finished with a cork and cage, rather than a bottle cap (because of tradition and in-bottle carbonation). 

The barrel room contains beer aging in old wine and Bourbon barrels, and here we also learned about a process I was really interested in - the Coolship. The Coolship is a process that allows beer to ferment with wild yeast for 24 to 36 hours in an open container. 

The results are unpredictable and different each time. We sampled some, and it was very tart, sour, and fruity (the one we tried was infused with cherries). Coolship beers are available only at the brewery.  

I loved the Allagash tour; you should go - it's free, but you do need to make a reservation, as the tours fill up. The brewery is located in outer Portland, almost Westbrook, on Riverside Dr. It's right next to Yankee Lanes, so we went bowling afterwards, natch. 

In addition to taking a peek behind the scenes of some of the best beer made in Portland, the staff is super friendly, the merch is very cool (Allagash embroidered Patagonia gear, cribbage boards made from old barrels), and beers are for sale that are only available at the brewery. Plus, well, free Allagash beer, duh. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Ravens Super Bowl Champs!

As my roommate greeted me this morning, welcome to a world in which the Baltimore Ravens are the World Champions! Man, that was an incredible post-season run - four games in which the Ravens were predicted to lose, beating some of the best teams in the NFL on the way. 

Our Harbowl Shrine

Obviously, I was extremely excited for yesterday's game - I said, it's like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one! - and I rallied the less-than-enthusiastic troops for a Ravens Nation party in Maine. 

I must thank my awesome friends, roommate, and boyfriend, as they all supported me (reassured me) and rooted for the Ravens on my behalf. 

Ravens cupcakes from East End Cupcakes

The Super Bowl is exciting to many though for the commercials and the food - in addition to the Maryland Crab Soup I made, we had Buffalo wings, "totchos" (tater tot nachos from S. at Edible Obsessions) that blew my mind, Rummy Worms (gummies soaked in rum, in honor of Flacco's Harbio contract), pulled pork sliders, soft pretzels, grilled veggies... man oh man, it was a feast. 

Even Rhoda the dog was attentive, but that may be a chicken wing she's staring at off-camera. 

While that was one one of the weirdest/craziest football games I've seen (30 minute power outage, faked field goal, an intentional safety, Williams shoving a ref and no call, Flacco's 30-yard under pressure dump pass to Boldin, Smith's no-holding call on Crabtree, etc etc etc.), a win is a win! 


Maryland Crab Soup

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (28 ounces) whole tomatoes, cut into small pieces
8 cups water
2 tablespoons Better than Bouillon, beef
1 cup carrots, sliced
1 cup potatoes, diced
2 tablespoons Old Bay Seasoning
1 cup peas, frozen
1 cup yellow sweet corn, frozen
1 pound crabmeat

Heat oil in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add onions, saute until translucent. Add garlic, saute for one minute. Combine tomatoes, water, beef bouillon, carrots, potatoes, and Old Bay. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Decrease heat and simmer until potatoes are tender.

Add peas, corn, and crabmeat, reserving some crab for garnish. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve garnished with crab meat. 

Related: Hottest NFL Quarterbacks of 2011 and 2012 (I take back all the nice things I said about you, Colin Kaepernick). Most Elite Quarterback of 2012: Joe Flacco. :)