Thursday, July 25, 2013

First Look at MJ's Wine Bar

I have to admit that when Professor A. initially wrote that a wine bar was going into the Food Court area in One City Center, I was skeptical and made some snarky comment about how I'd pass on drinking wine in an office building's basement.

But a tradition is a tradition, so when Prof. A. asked if I wanted to join him for the opening of MJ's Wine Bar last night, as we have made a habit of this year (see our "First Looks" at In'Finiti, Little Tap House, P&R Public House), I went along to see what this new wine bar entailed.

And as I stood at the top of the non-moving escalators inside One City Center, looking down into the empty food court, I felt a sense of dread. And confusion.

But after looking at facebook photos that showed a street level entrance, I walked outside the building into Monument Square, went down a few steps, and then rounding a corner, found a little patio with bistro style tables and umbrellas and plenty of al fresco wine drinkers. So one can easily forget that this space is technically in a soulless office building, and rather look out over Free Street and down into the heart of the Old Port. Perfectly positioned.

Inside, the space is light and airy, but with warm, dark woods and leather couches, creating a coffee shop/cafe feel, but also slightly living room-ish (complete with record player and all). We sat on a couch with a low table in front of some floor to ceiling windows.

Wines are available by the half glass, full glass or bottle, and there is an interesting selection of imported bottled beers and local draught beers as well. I started with a glass of GSM, then a glass of sparkling rose, and a half glass of a Torrontes, which the obliging staff picked out for me when I asked for the weirdest or most challenging white they had. (I was having a "life is so hard" moment and didn't have the enthusiasm to pick out my own wine.) 

We also shared an amazing spread of cheese, nuts, and olives, all ordered a la carte, with the cheese selections accompanied by mustard, baguette, and pickled vegetables. 

I hear 'wine bar,' and I think 'stuffy.' But this place, run by an affable man named Mark who used to bartend at Little Tap House, has not one fleck of pretentiousness. The staff is clearly knowledgeable, but will help you out when you just want a glass of wine and don't care what it is. I think MJ's wine bar is a welcome addition to this awkward little corner of space where Monument Square meets Free Street.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Royal Rose Simple Syrup Party

This winter, while the Hunt & Alpine Club was throwing their private "Hush, Hush" cocktail parties, I said to Professor A., I don't get jealous of others' foodie pursuits often, but watching local bloggers detail their fabulous cocktails and samplings from local chefs was making me positively green. 

So you can imagine my excitement when I received an invite to the Royal Rose Simple Syrup one year anniversary party, with cocktails from Hunt & Alpine Club and food by Blue Rooster Food Co

Royal Rose simple syrups are made in Biddeford by a couple that moved up here from Brooklyn and who have an appreciation for craft cocktails. They use all organic ingredients, and their line includes intriguing flavors like strawberry fennel, lavender lemon, and tamarind. 

The party was held in a private apartment in the Biddeford North Dam Mill building, which is an old paper mill building renovated to house apartments, condos, and retail and industrial spaces. The mill buildings are home to Rabelais Books, Vervacious, and Inspired Wire Studio

Cocktails were mixed up by a bartender from the Hunt & Alpine Club, a much-anticipated craft cocktail bar opening at 75 Market Street in Portland's Old Port. Here, bartender Kit is measuring some juice for my favorite cocktail of the night, a rum swizzle made with dark rum, snap, fresh pineapple and lemon juices, tamarind and cardamom clove syrups, and angostura bitters. 

Other cocktails included The Weekender, a vodka, aperol, lemon, grapefruit juice with the saffron syrup that was bitter, but sweet and spicy, as well as Summer Haven, a sort of French 75 with gin, lillet blanc, lemon juice, prosecco and the lavender lemon syrup. Very easy drinking. 

Food from Blue Rooster Food Co. served by the friendly proprietors was delicious as always. I particularly enjoyed the moroccan-spiced hummus, the tomato, black olive, ricotta, sea salt crostini and their bite-sized bahn mi sandwiches, made with country pate slices on toasted focaccia. I also stole away with a beautiful, light-as-air sugar cookie.  

In Portland, Royal Rose simple syrups are available at the new cocktail and soda shop Vena's Fizz House on Fore St. Check them out for a fun, locally made addition to your cocktail repertoire or to mix into some seltzer water for a homemade Italian soda.

Bonus best statement of the night, where conversation frequently turned into a Biddeford love fest (yes, you read that right): "Biddeford is to Portland as Brooklyn is to Manhattan." 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

First Look at Portland & Rochester Public House

The Portland & Rochester Public House opened quietly tonight, down in Bayside across the street from Bayside Bowl. The friendly bar manager who chatted with me indicated they hope to be well positioned when the neighborhood fills out with some significant real estate projects that are in the works.

I was just excited to have a restaurant back in the space that used to house G&R Dimillo's. While I never wrote about it here (it wasn't really note worthy), I loved the little Italian-esque, family restaurant/sports bar that was. 

The place has had a facelift, mostly some changes that make the bar area flow better and the restaurant space more warm and welcoming, rather than cavernous like before. Dark hardwoods and recycled materials set the mood, with a beautiful stained concrete floor that resembles ceramics glaze. The large windows overlooking Preble St. have had the frosting removed, brightening up the dining space significantly. 

Professor A. and I sat at the bar, where he ordered a "beet.nik" cocktail of yellow beet infused vodka, beet puree, ginger simple syrup, and lemon. At first it tasted like, well, beet vodka, but the bartender was very amenable to our suggestion to add more ginger syrup to create a more balanced drink. 

I ordered off the selection of mostly local draught beers, starting with a Scrimshaw Pilsner and next a Rising Tide Daymark Pale Ale

We ordered mussels ($11), Scotch eggs ($11.5), and pretzels ($7), but were also tempted by a flatbread pizza with pork belly and smoked mozz, a burrata salad, and a charcuterie plate. 

The mussels were surprising, in that they were 'dry' or not served over that lovely wine, garlic sauce that is so right for sopping. But rather these were smoked and served with a garlic herb cream sauce. I enjoyed the different albiet unexpected preparation. 

I've never seen Scotch eggs offered in Portland, and again they were different than I was expecting. A small quail egg was wrapped in heavily spiced lamb sausage and fried. I've previously had them rolled in a bread crumb coating and deep fried. I think maybe for this price point that some may be disappointed with the portion. 

The pretzel bites were very good (I was truthfully afraid after being scarred from one too many bad pretzels at In'finiti). While not especially pretzel-y, the bites were crispy on the edges (almost like a cheese puff) and very buttery. The mustard sauce was good, but the cheese sauce had a mobility problem, so we didn't get too much to adhere to our pretzels. 

While I admit my love for the previous place has carried over to this one, I want to see this place succeed. The draught list is solid, the cocktail list intriguing, and the wine full of things I'd never even heard of. Entrees range are typical proteins - chicken and steak, but with intriguing sides like spatzle. The restaurant is staffed with industry pros, and the space transformed into a hipper, younger joint. 

I encourage my fellow bowlers to stop in and check the place out before or after a game. And the rest of you will just have to make the trek down into Bayside to see this place's potential for yourself. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Thai Steak Salad and Strawberry Peach Pie

I don't know what's up with the weather in Maine. It's been brain-liquefying, stupor-inducing heat, then back to fleece-wrapped, muggy drizzle. For dinner, I have alternately had cold fried chicken with zucchini corn salad and then spicy chipotle chili and cornbread.  

I guess if I've learned anything about the weather patterns in Maine, it's that they follow no pattern. But here's two dishes that will be seasonally appropriate at some point soon - a cold salad topped with grilled sliced steak and a zingy dressing and a delicate pie crust filled with sweet, in season fruit, whatever it happens to be. 

Thai Grilled Steak Salad

1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon white rice
juice of 2 limes
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons water
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 (1 1/2 pound) flank steak, trimmed
Salt and white pepper*
4 shallots, sliced thin
1 1/2 cups fresh mint leaves, torn
1 1/2 cups fresh cilantro leaves
1 Thai chile, stemmed and sliced thin into rounds
1 cucumber, sliced 1/4 inch thick on bias
Salad greens

Toast spices in a frying pan over medium heat until fragrant. Set aside. Toast rice in frying pan until golden brown. Grind into a fine powder using a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle.** Set aside. 

Whisk together reserved toasted spices, lime juice, fish sauce, water, and sugar. 

Season steak with salt and pepper liberally on both sides. Grill on high heat for 5 minutes per side. Let rest for 10 minutes and slice against the grain into thin slices. 

Toss steak with dressing. Serve over salad greens, garnished with shallots, mint, cilantro, chilies, cucumbers, and rice powder. 

Serves 4. 

*I enjoyed walking down to La Bodega Latina and Hong Kong Market on Congress Street to shop for the supplies for this recipe - specifically I bought a huge cheap bag of shallots, a big (again, cheap) tray of bird's eye chilies, white pepper, and cilantro. However, you could easily find everything you needed at a supermarket. 

**I failed to find rice powder at Hong Kong Market, so I made my own by employing my boyfriend, a rolling pin, and a zip top bag. If you decide to make your own rice powder, do follow the recipe's advice and use a spice grinder or a mortar and pestle. The rolling pin-smashed rice was a little large, and therefore bordered on molar endangering. 

On pie: first, do not be intimidated. I'm not here to make it sound easy, but I'm telling you firsthand that you can make a good one. If it's your first one? It might not be good. Or it might be great, giving you baking confidence, only to find that your next six are tough or bland. But press on, because even not great pie is good and can be fixed with ice cream. 

However, this pie was good, and I give the credit to my new pasty blender. Forget the whole 'two knives' thing you may have heard. Just buy a pasty blender to cut your butter into the flour. The right tools really do make a difference. 

Pie Crust 
Makes two 9-inch crusts
Adapted from Joy the Baker

2 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons ice cold water
2 tablespoons ice cold vodka*
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar 
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cold, cut into cubes

*Replacing some of the water with vodka prevents gluten from forming and helps create a tender crust. 

Whisk together flour, sugar, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Mix water, vodka, and vinegar together in a liquid measuring cup and add several ice cubes. Add cold butter to dry ingredient mixture, blending until mixture resembles a coarse meal. Add vodka/water mixture by the tablespoon, stirring gently to combine, until mixture comes together (or looks like it will after some kneading). 

Dump out mixture onto a lightly floured, clean countertop. Knead until mixture forms a ball. Divide the ball into two equal size pieces, and gently flatten them into disks. Wrap with plastic wrap (to prevent the exterior from drying out/crusting over - ew) and refrigerate for 1 hour. 

After an hour of chillin', roll out your crusts. Start by generously flouring your countertop and your rolling pin. Roll gently and slowly, in one direction, from the outside of the pie crust to the edges. Rotate it frequently and if it sticks at all, add more flour. Roll until it's 1/4" thick and as round as you can make it. 

Gently transfer one crust into a glass pie pan. Fill with your favorite fruit filling. I used a quart of sliced peaches, a quart of sliced strawberries, 1/2 cup of sugar, 1 teaspoon nutmeg, and a tablespoon of cornstarch. 

Cut off the overhanging crust off to be even with the edge of the pie pan and top with the second crust. Press two crusts together with your fingers. To make this neat pattern, pinch together the thumb and forefinger of one hand and press crusts between pinched fingers and your thumb. After a few misshapen dents, you'll get a rhythm. 

Brush with milk or egg wash for a pretty browning effect, sprinkle with sanding sugar (big cubed sugar) if you have it, and cut a few slits in the top to allow steam to escape. Bake for 15 minutes at 400*F. Reduce heat to 375*F and bake for 45 to 55 minutes more. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

"Barbecue Friendly Reds" Wine Wise Tour

Despite drinking a lot of it in my eight years of legal drinking, I know very little about wine. I've never taken a systematic approach to learning about it or even cataloging what I've drank in order to help narrow down what kinds of wine I like. 

While I know what I like when I taste it, I don't have the words to describe my preferences to help a merchant or a server make a recommendation. It's pitiful. I suspect many of you may feel the same way. So when I saw that Wine Wise was offering a "barbecue friendly reds" themed walk through the West End of Portland, I snapped up a ticket. 

Wine Wise is a company that offers educational wine events, hosted in various restaurants around Portland or on a sailboat in Casco Bay. Erica Archer is the founder and tour guide and she did a great job of introducing us to the language of wine. 

We started at bonobo pizza where we paired their pulled barbecue pork pizza with an Argentinian Malbec. Here we learned to aerate our wine and how to anticipate a wine's flavor based on its appearance. 

I was surprised to remember how good bonobo's pizza is, as I live very nearby and never frequent the place. The wine, as was the case with all of our wine and food pairings, stood up to the bold flavors of the barbecue due to the bold flavors of this young, high alcohol wine.  

Next we headed to the outdoor patio of Hot Suppa! where we paired their smoked and barbecue wings with a California Pinot Noir. Here we learned that a high alcohol wine can amplify the spiciness of food - which may or may not appeal to you. But I learned this lesson the hard way after sampling one of Hot Suppa's excellent barbecue wings, which I thought were plenty hot. 

Our third stop was only a few doors down at Local 188 where we caught a glimpse of the good things to come from Salvage BBQ with Chef jay Villani's smoked brisket paired with a South African Pinotage. 

And with this matching, we learned the "secret" of pairing wines and food - for success, match the body of the wine (indicated by the percentage of alcohol) with the body of the food. So for barbecue, which Erica pointed out is not a delicate affair, we drank high alcohol, young wines. 

After Local, we tripped down to Outliers Eatery, our longest walk of the tour, but much appreciated to enjoy the beautiful weather we had on Saturday. 

Outliers was one of the best stops - the interior of the restaurant was very beautiful on a sunny afternoon. Because the place is so new, it was nice to see everyone on the tour appreciating the beautiful restaurant and the fantastic food they served us. 

Here we had a California Zinfandel paired with a seared lamb chop served over a spicy eggplant relish with a spicy blueberry barbecue sauce. 

I was surprised to learn that I liked this wine the most, as Erica described it as having some residual sugars (sugar leftover after the yeast die). But the wine was very fruity and not too sweet (I mean, I should know that Erica was picking out nice wines) and the food was incredible. 

The lamb was cooked perfectly and despite thinking that the eggplant relish tasted of hot dogs (once I made the association, I couldn't taste anything else about it!), this food and wine pairing was my favorite. (This is not a menu item, but the staff encouraged the kitchen to add it.) 

Did I mention that this Wine Wise tour was only $40? I had such a good time learning from Erica, as she is so incredibly knowledgeable and approachable. The atmosphere of the tours is casual, so you can take as much or as little as you want from it. 

Erica has several wine sails coming up (one with oysters!), as well as a Rose vs. Reds Old Port walk that sounds intriguing. Sounds like I might be advantage of the 'buy 5 - get the 6th Wine Wise event free' promotion before I know it!