Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Secret to Dining at the Palace Diner, Biddeford

Many a love song has been sung to Palace Diner in Biddeford, the resurrected dining car from Chad Conley and Greg Mitchell, chefs formerly of Gather in Yarmouth and Hugo's in Portland. 

What makes Palace Diner's food so special is not (for once) a "creative take on classics," but rather just that they nail the classics every time. The menu consists of traditional diner dishes: eggs, toast, corned beef hash, huge pancakes, tuna melts, burgers. And each and every one of those items is very likely to be the best version of it that you've ever had. 

Palace Diner is only open during the day (there was a brief stint of dinner service, but that ended shortly after it began), and the diner car only contains 12 or so stools at a counter. So if, like me, you have a day job, that means you're relegated largely to breakfast or lunch on the weekends, and there's frequently a long wait. Hence, the secret to dining at the Palace Diner: go early. 

Those famous Palace potatoes - parboiled, smashed, then deep fried

For any trip out of Maine, I've started it off with what is quickly becoming a tradition - stopping for breakfast at the Palace Diner. And a good road trip usually starts early, so you can be the first customer through the door of the Palace Diner at 8am. With their quick service, you can be back on the road before nine. 

It may seem simple, but if you can beat the hordes of sleepy kids down to Palace on a weekend, you won't end up waiting for an hour in the parking lot, but rather be feasting on the Deluxe sandwich, a breakfast sandwich of eggs, cheddar, and jalapenos on an English muffin. 

And no visit to Palace Diner is complete without some of their French toast. It's available as once slice or two, and I usually order a slice to share. It's hands down, the best French toast I've ever had. I didn't really understand the appeal of French toast until I had theirs. 

This is how it's supposed to be - custardy in the middle, crunchy on the edges, and bruleed on top, giving it a crackly, caramelized sweetness. There's a river of butter and real maple syrup. 

Don't miss the lunch either; while I don't have as much experience with it as I do the breakfast items, I loved the tuna melt, the perfectly fried chicken, and have been eyeing the burger (or Palace Royale) for months. Someday I'll surely want a burger at 8am... 

In summary: go, and go early, so you too can enjoy the fabulous diner fare at Palace. 

Palace Diner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Review of Mi Sen Noodle Bar, Portland

Eating out on a Monday and Tuesday night in Portland can cause a bit of head scratching - so many restaurants are closed on these weeknights, especially as we head into relatively slower seasons. Fortunately, Mi Sen Noodle Bar is open on these early weekdays, causing me to land there twice recently for some great noodle dishes. You should head there any night of the week (except Sunday, they're closed) when you're in the mood for some filling, inexpensive, and delicious Thai food. 

First off, where? Mi Sen is located at 630 Congress St. in the Arts District, in the strip next to Sun Oriental Market, the post office, and Coffee By Design. Many people struggle to come up with where it is mentally, but I'm sure you've walked or driven by it many times without noticing. 

The decor is fairly modern for a Thai restaurant - there's definitely Thai touches, but it's bright (a little too bright) and open with black furniture, and mirrors and art on the walls. The menu offers starters, noodle soups, noodle entrees, and rice dishes. The rice dishes are fairly standard selection of curries and larb, but I think the noodle dishes are where it's at. 

Drunken Noodle with shrimp ($11.50)

The first time I went we shared several plates of appetizers - the crispy shrimp rolls ($6), adorable triangles of crunchy and sticky chive cakes ($5.45), and the crab rangoon ($5.50) which actually contains identifiable pieces of real crab. 

On my first visit, I had the Tom Yum with chicken ($5.45/$8.45), a delicious spicy coconut broth with mushrooms and noodles. It comes with cellophane noodles, but you can substitute in any kind of noodle, and they have a wide variety. Our server was happy to recommend a type of noodle for the dish. 

Someone in the group ordered the dry noodles on our first visit and raved about it, so I ordered it as my entree on my second. And now I'm obsessed with it. It's noodles mixed with a spicy and tangy sauce, topped with bean sprouts, green beans, green onions, cilantro, and ground peanuts. I loved it with the sen ba mee noodles, which are curly egg noodles, like the ones in instant ramen. I can't get enough of the flavors in this dish, plus it's amusing that it's called soupless soup (although there is quite a bit of sauce, so it's not a dry dish). 

The only misstep I experienced with Mi Sen was the takeout I ordered once - pad thai and larb gai didn't live up to my favorite versions from Vientiane Market. But that's fair - I love those versions so much that they're hard to compete with. Hit up your favorite Thai takeout joint for your weeknight standards, but head to Mi Sen for their unique (and inexpensive!) noodle dishes. 

Mi Sen Noodle Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Velveteen Habit, Cape Neddick

Note: The Velveteen Habit closed permanently in August 2016.

At the end of this month, I will have lived in Maine for seven years now (and have written the Blueberry Files for nearly as long!). That's a long time for me to have lived in any one place - and yet there's still so much of this beautiful state to get to know. Particularly when it comes to the stretch of Route One south of Kennebunk and north of Kittery. I've explored Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, as my boyfriend A. is from there and his parents own a beach house there, and I've headed down to Kittery (several times even) with friends just because I'd heard it has a great food scene. 

But my experiences south of the Kennebunks and north of Kittery are limited to the one, off-season visit I took to Wiggly Bridge Distillery in downtown York, and for whatever reason, Thanksgiving dinner shopping at the IGA in Wells, where I visited the famed Tully's Beer & Wine and had lunch at Las Olas, a great local Chipotle-style Mexican restaurant. But in the summer, it's difficult to want to a) leave Portland and b) wade through the crowds of people that flock to these southern beach towns. 

All of this is to say, I'd never been to Ogunquit, which I now know to be a cute town, full of shops, restaurants, bars, and much larger than many of its coastal cousins like Kennebunkport, York, Camden, and Belfast. The high concentration of large houses with well-manicured landscaping lets you know that this isn't a rustic fishing village, but one that caters to wealthy out-of-state tourists. But the natural beauty of the area is free and accessible to everyone, and the sweet Perkins Cove area shouldn't be missed with its tiny anchorage jam packed full of lobster boats and suspension pedestrian bridge high over the river. 

The occasion for my visit was dinner at The Velveteen Habit, a new restaurant in the former Arrows space, which closed in 2013 after 25 years of operation by chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier (the two still own and operate a restaurant nearby in Perkins Cove, as well as a new restaurant in Boston). Owner Ben Goldman opened his restaurant last spring, after some renovation and sprucing up of the old farmhouse that is the restaurant. 

Like, look how big that window is. That's only ONE HALF of the original window, mind you.

Anyways, I should tell you that I was invited to be a guest for dinner (read: did not pay) by the PR company that promotes the Velveteen Habit, and so while my hard earned shekels were not on the line, I hope you know by now that I'm not in the habit of shilling things I don't actually enjoy. Because I am a cheap/broke person, however, when I return, I will be employing my "drinks and apps" strategy that allows me to experience high-end restaurants without leaving me homeless. 

When A. and I arrived, we were led to our table, through the bar area, where the bar program uses house-infused spirits, syrups, bitters, shrubs, and sodas. We were seated in one of three dining rooms, one that I figured seats about 50 people, with a view into the other two, both smaller and more intimate. For our 8pm dinner reservation, the restaurant was about a quarter full, and never loud at any point - despite the dining rooms being wooden and open, the restaurant didn't feel loud or unpleasantly public. 

We started with cocktails, of course. A. chose the Whiskey Paramour: Laphroaig, Clement creole shrubb, rosemary honey, and lemon, and I went with the Little Pucker: Pisco, cherry brandy syrup, lemon, and egg white (all speciality cocktails are $12). A. loved his cocktail, but he loves Scotch, so he liked that it had that campfire smoke aftertaste. I'm not a smoky Scotch person, but I still enjoyed my small sip - the smokiness was only in smell and aftertaste, while the citrus and herbal middle were the main flavors. My flip was citrus tart with a cherry sweetness.

Other tempting cocktails included Scarborough Fair with Hendrick's gin, sage liqueur, lime, and rosemary honey, and Brooklyn Stop with Bulleit Rye, Domaine Canton (ginger liqueur), ginger syrup, and lime. There's also housemade sodas, "sipping spirits" like crabapple rye and coffee liqueur. The owner is a certified sommelier, so there's an extensive wine list, as well as local draft beers. 

We ordered a few starters, delightfully crunchy tots with bravas sauce ($6) and beef tartare ($12), salty and mixed with chopped dilly beans. TVH has a huge garden on the restaurant grounds, and they pickle, cure, and ferment a lot of produce to use throughout the year. We started off with a cute jar of pickled peppers, cucumbers, and cauliflower ($5), and other pickled veggies appear throughout the menu. 

TVH also cures and prepares a lot of meats in-house, so we took owner Ben's recommendation to try the chicken liver mousse, with black currant jelly, sliced radishes, almonds and pieces of buttermilk biscuits ($9). Aside from being a beautiful dish, it was one of our favorites - rich and flavorful as good chicken liver mousse is, with a nice fruit sweetness from the spread, then a great variety of textures from the crunchy radishes and nuts. This easily makes my list of apps to return for. 

For not having eaten *all* that much, I was getting full by this point, so we opted to share an entree, the smoked beef short rib with olive oil crushed potatoes and pot roast vegetables (aka carrots and cippolini onions) topped with a gremolata ($31). It was a perfect dish for the chilly turn the weather had recently taken - comforting and filling, but yet the garlic-parsley sauce brightened up the dish, keeping it from becoming too rich. The recommended wine pairing - Nero D'Avola - was a nice touch, in that I enjoyed the wine along with the beef; my limited wine knowledge keeps me from being able to say much more than that! 

Other entree choices include duck with pumpkin and Brussels sprouts, haddock with white beans and bacon, scallops with black rice and turnips, and grits, grilled mushrooms, and hot peppers. We also loved one of the two sides we tried - the roasted mushrooms ($9). They were so simple and delicious. The roasted broccoli with Caesar dressing ($6) was also nice - the dressing was particularly tangy like I like it. 

For dessert, we went with a reported diner favorite: the chocolate pots de creme or chocolate custard with graham cracker crumbs and cream cheese ice cream (hello). We also sampled a bit of the housemade Bailey's Irish Cream, which was worlds apart from the syrupy sweet, commercial stuff. 

By this point in the meal, our rich menu choices were starting to add up (shouldn't have overlooked those salads apparently!), so I had a delicious spoonful and let A. finish the rest off. 

It's probably no surprise we had a great meal at the Velveteen Habit - we enjoyed our food, the drinks, and the whole vibe of the restaurant. I love that they're dedicated to sourcing local meats and produce, and preparing cured meats, preserved vegetables, and infused spirits in house. Now that I know what a beautiful town Ogunquit is, I'll be sure to continue my exploration of this part of southern Maine, with drinks and snacks at the Velveteen Habit to round out my visit. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Ladies Love Whiskey and Upcoming Book Events

The DISTILLED IN MAINE tour continues! I have book events scheduled through the end of the year, and as you can probably imagine, they're pretty exciting, as they come with the promise of alcohol! I think a lot more people would excel in the study of American history if it always came with a few cocktails. 

I've already one under my belt, which went great, at Maine Historical Society, with Steve and Johanna of Vena's Fizz House serving up a delicious gin and grapefruit cocktail they dubbed The Meadow. 

This Friday, I'll be at the Yarmouth History Center at 7pm, giving a talk about the history of alcohol in Maine. The specific cocktails are still being worked out, but they're sure to use Maine-made spirits and be delicious. Samples of Cold River spirits from Maine Distilleries will also be provided. Tickets are $25 for non-members and $20 for members. 

In a few weeks, I'll be headed down to Kennebunkport to present a workshop with Joel Souza, the bar manager at David's KPT, in partnership with TABLE, the culinary event program of the Kennebunkport Resort Collection. 

I attended a TABLE tequila mixology workshop back in the spring, led by Joel and a Casamigos rep. We learned about how tequila is made and how to make four tequila-based cocktails. It was a great time - a nice mix of education and delicious drinks, so I'm excited to be part of providing that same experience for a group. 

I'll be presenting findings from my book's research about the Kennebunks and their history with alcohol, while Joel mixes up related cocktails, on Saturday October 24th at 3pm. Tickets are $35 and include an hour-and-a-half workshop with four cocktails. A $50 ticket includes a signed copy of DISTILLED IN MAINE. 

Finally, at the end of the month (on the 27th), the ladies of the Portland Spirits Society are headed to Liquid Riot Bottling Company to nerd out over some whiskey. We'll be learning from Liquid Riot staff about the ingredients used to make whiskey and how they affect the resulting spirits' flavors. We'll sample both Liquid Riot's whiskeys (they have at least 2 that I know of) and some national brands for comparison. 

Get your tickets soon - I'm thrilled to say that all of the PSS ticketed events have sold out - you ladies are thirsty for whiskey! Tickets to this event include four tasting pours of whiskey and all the knowledge that Liquid Riot staff drops on us - plus the company of other women with such superb tastes as yourself. 

Photo courtesy of Liquid Riot/Instagram