January 29, 2016

Friday Food Round-Up: Lunch at Tandem, the Honey Paw, Palace Diner

I've been pretty good at sticking to my post-holiday budget while managing to have some stellar eats around town too. Trying to save money is not the most joy-inspiring while it's happening, but I'm starting to feel some of the payoff of this newfound (and surely short-lived) self discipline. 

I've found that dining out at lunchtime is a great way for me to feel like I'm not depriving myself of Portland's wonderful food scene - lunch entrees are typically cheaper, plus there's (usually) no alcohol involved. 

I enjoyed The Honey Paw's beef rendang - savory, rich comfort food on a cold day, but Original Roomie A's Vietnamese chicken noodle soup (fermented rice noodles, smoked chicken, meatballs, aromatic broth, kale, jalapeno, herbs) was the clear winner. 

Sometimes I don't bring lunch to work, betting that I'll think of an exciting lunch idea before noon. After rejecting all the ho-hum deli sandwiches near my office, I thought of Tandem Coffee's selections. I was up and out the door only a half second after thinking about their veggie banh mi. 

This, though, is the egg and pickle sandwich - pickled beets, sliced hard-boiled eggs, herbs, and creamy feta spread on their house-baked focaccia. Super messy. Despite its vegetable components, probably not very healthy. Super satisfying. 

I made a riff on Tandem's addictive sesame seed banana bread using the recipe from El Rey (a coffee shop in New York). I'd probably drop the tahini next time - am I the only one to find it super bitter? 

I've said it before: a weekday Palace Diner visit is the way to go. Especially in January, there's hardly anyone in there midmorning. On a recent visit, if you squinted, it could have been conceived of as lunchtime, so I ordered the cheeseburger. I've always wanted it, but have only ever been there early in the morning (another strategy for grabbing a seat without a wait), and I've yet to eat a hamburger at 9am. 

The burger is eyes-roll-back-in-your-head perfect. Eating at the Palace Diner kind of makes me angry, because if they can manage to make something as simple as the french fry so tasty, what's up with all the other mediocre versions?? Like, do better, everyone else! 

Also, I got a side of french toast (obviously).

I have splurged a few times for dinner lately - once to catch up with an old friend at Yosaku. His choice - I usually gravitate to Benkay, because of its proximity to my apartment. 

A. and I ordered this beautiful plate of rolls and sashimi: rainbow and gorilla (tempura shrimp with eel and avocado outside) rolls and prawn, scallop, amberjack, and golden snapper sashimi. Plus many Kirin beers, of course. 

Before Christmas, when I was used to spending money, I went to check out Moxy in Portsmouth, and spent way more money on a delicious dinner than I had any business parting with. I loved everything I had - and the tapas menu was right up my alley. I loved getting to try a variety of dishes and sharing with my friend. 

The short rib "marmalade" came on sliced bread with bleu cheese and pickled red onions; we also loved the johnnycake community - juicy pulled pork served with thin cornmeal cakes, butter lettuce, barbecue sauce, sweet pickles, and fried onions. Delicious little savory packets that you get to make up yourself - fun too! 

As a parting shot, these beautiful beet pickled deviled eggs from Vena's Fizz House deserve some love. I could have made a serious dent in these by myself if I'd allowed it. 

Lastly, grab a copy of Jan/Feb's ZEST magazine (free at the Rosemont on the Hill if you're in the neighborhood). I wrote a story on Maine coffee roasters (Tandem, Coffee By Design, Bard/Wicked Joe, and Rooster Brothers) that travel to the country of their coffee's origin to research which beans are the best for their customers. 

My friend Claire also wrote a great article about the changing preferences of women's taste in alcohol. She included the Portland Spirits Society, which was nice! 

January 21, 2016

First Look at Woodford F&B

Woodford F&B opened last night at the intersection of Forest Ave. and Woodford St., otherwise known as, you guessed it, Woodfords Corner. The cozy restaurant is in a large white building with a funky roofline that also houses a laundromat and a tanning salon. The space used to be home to Portland institution Valle's Steakhouse back in the day, but most recently was a mortgage company. 

On the restaurant's opening night, there was a growing crowd; clearly everyone is excited to have a worthy food destination in the neighborhood. The space has been restored with a large bar and diner-like banquette and booth seating separated from the bar area by a half wall. The architecture, light fixtures, and tiling give the place a retro feel, and the menu is full of classics like deviled eggs, steak frites, and clam chowder. 

I joined Professor A. for dinner; we sat at a table with banquette seating and shared some wine. The wine selections are available by the glass, in a half carafe, or a bottle making for affordable sharing. There's also a selection of draft and bottle beers, as well as classic and original cocktails. A. had been in earlier this week for the friends and family dinner, so he had scoped out the menu and had some recommendations. 

To start, we ordered the roasted oysters which are served on the half shell, with leeks, bechamel sauce, and breadcrumbs (4 for $11). They were fantastic - rich and meaty with a mild, savory onion flavor.  

I ordered the moules frites ($12) and A. went with the burger ($16). I was tempted by the steak frites and, to be honest, the plat du jour, which was a baked stuffed lobster - not usually an item that grabs my attention, but the celeriac and whipped potatoes accompaniments sounded decadent. 

My mussels were great - the broth was everything you want it to be: savory, garlicky, and accompanied by plenty of starchy things with which to sop it up. A. reported his burger was good too. 

For dessert, we shared a spiced ginger cake, surrounded by caramel and topped with freshly whipped cream. It was nice in that it wasn't too sweet and came with soft slices of pears. 

Those who live in the surrounding neighborhood are sure to be thrilled with this comfortable restaurant that boasts good food, cocktails, and a family-friendly atmosphere. And those of us who are stuck in our peninsula bubbles will want to shake up the routine by heading out Forest Ave. to check out Woodford F&B. 

January 20, 2016

Maine-Made Absinthe Cocktails at Vena's Fizz House

The Portland Spirits Society met at Vena's Fizz House in Portland last night to learn about the Tree Spirits of Maine's absinthe, the only absinthe produced in Maine. A group of 35 or so women crowded into the cozy bar at Vena's to listen to Karen Heck describe how she and her husband Bruce make absinthe, among other spirits and wine, at their facility in Oakland (near Waterville). 

First, we tried straight absinthe - and my it's strong! At 130 proof, it tastes like a liquorice fire in your mouth. Hence the ritual of diluting the stuff with some sweetened water (although Karen pointed out that the sugar was used to combat the bitterness and isn't as necessary in today's craft versions). 

The traditional method of serving absinthe involves a special set up: a fountain, an absinthe spoon, and a glass with a 1 oz. reservoir for the absinthe. When mixed with water, the absinthe turns cloudy and opalescent, an effect called "the louche." 

Tree Spirits makes their absinthe by first distilling their apple spirit to a high-proof neutral spirit, then infusing it with organic herbs: wormwood, anise, hyssop, lemon balm (well, not exactly like that, but that's the gist of it for non-distilling nerds). 

Steve, the owner Vena's Fizz House, made four cocktails using Tree Spirits' absinthe - some where the absinthe was front and center, like the Sipper (just absinthe, sugar, and water) and others more complex, like the Billionaire Cocktail (Wiggley Bridge Bourbon, lemon, simple syrup, absinthe, grenadine, bitters) that I enjoyed. A Corpse Reviver and a Sazerac rounded out the drink choices. 

If you're curious about Maine's only local absinthe, stop into Vena's, where the bartenders can make you a tasty drink using the spirit of the Green Fairy.

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January 14, 2016

The NFL's Top 10 Hottest Quarterbacks 2015

Once again, it's time to revive my ranking of the NFL's hottest quarterbacks! You're so excited. There's been many changes in the league since my last list in 2013, some new blood, if you will. Ahem. 

First, some ground rules: I tried to stick to starting quarterbacks, since if we also considered backups, it'd be mayhem. Next, while I tried to judge objectively, you should know I am a hardcore Baltimore Ravens fan, so while it wasn't an issue, I'd have a hard time placing, say Big Ben or the Red Rifle on the list. 

And one big caveat, since I live in Maine and surely have lots of readers who are Pats fans: Tom Brady is not on this list. I cannot abide by his small mouth and his dented chin. Which is too bad, because when he's on the field in his pony ankle socks, he's pretty cute. Anyway, if that bothers you feel free to move along, write your own list with him as number 1, etc.

And with that, away we go:

1. Cam Newton 

Cammy (as I like to call him) has always been in the top 5 and this year he's rocketed up to numero uno. He's got a beautiful smile, a sense of humor, and looks good in a suit. I'm hoping he goes to the big game this year - he's fun to watch and finally has a good team to support him. 

2. Marcus Mariota

I actually know very little about Marcus, but mentally added the handsome Hawaiian to my list at the start of his NFL debut. Have you seen pictures of him wearing a lei at the Heisman ceremony? Hello.

3. Ryan Fitzpatrick

Fear the beard! I love a man with a righteous beard. While Fitzy seemed kind of sad after being booted from the Bills, I hope he finds some success with the Jets. No one wants to see a sad beard. 

4. Aaron Rodgers

While Rodgers doesn't fall into the "model hot" category, he's got a great personality that bumps him up a few notches. I love his sense of humor - he seems like someone you'd enjoy hanging out with in real life. 

5. Joe Flacco

Whaaaat? Joe Flacco made the list?? This Baltimore magazine article puts it best: "When exactly did Joe Flacco get hot?" I guess he got a stylist or something. Growing out his hair vastly improved his looks, and obviously, I'm thrilled to welcome Joe to the top 10.

6. Russell Wilson

Already to number 6 and we're still going strong! I've always loved Russell Wilson - he seems like a nice man. Actually, I know he's nice, since he's from Richmond, VA and my aunt reports he used to work the concession stand for the younger kids' games. So sweet. However, his short haircut kind of makes his head seem a bit pointy. Bring back the curly locks, Russell!

7. Josh Freeman

Who? Ok, ok, this one is cheating a little bit. Freeman once was the starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but is now the backup for Andrew Luck. I think he took a few snaps in the last regular season for the Colts. But while Freeman was bouncing around the league (and then even playing for the FXFL for a season), he was quietly getting hotter. Dude lost a lot of weight and got seriously buff. So welcome to the big leagues, Josh!

8. Alex Smith

The last three spots on the list are dedicated to dudes who aren't hideous. Let's just say there is not a lot of depth in the roster at the position of hot quarterback. Alex Smith is kind of cute - in some pictures he even manages to look like Ryan Gosling and in others, Bradley Cooper. 

 9. Kirk Cousins

I noticed Kirk Cousins' eyes while watching him play Green Bay the other day. Unfortunately, after that floated in some reference about him trying to trademark a catch phrase. Yup, dude is trying to register his "You like that??" line. Honey, no. Just no. But d-baggery aside, kind of cute.

 10. Matt Ryan

Ugh, Matt Ryan is not even that cute. I am going to great lengths to avoid including Brady, aren't I? (I even squinted and looked at Jay Cutler. Desperate.) But Matt Ryan has typical football player looks, so he squeaks in at the bottom of the pile. 

Tell me who does it for you in the comments! I won't judge - I've heard it all. 

January 4, 2016

Looking Back on 2015

My 9 most liked Instagram pics

Hello friends! I suppose I'm a little late on the end-of-year reflection, but I enjoyed my mini-break from sitting in front of my computer, so here we are in 2016. My reflections can actually take the form of celebrating an anniversary - January 9th, 2010 was my first post (which I will link to, since I've cleaned up the spelling mistakes - did Blogger not used to have spell check??). As of this Saturday, I'll have been writing here at the Blueberry Files for seven years.

First the numbers: overall, I published 47 posts in 2015, down from 68 the year before. I'd like to say it was quality over quantity, but truthfully, my enthusiasm for posting about everything that goes in my mouth has dampened. Lately I've narrowed my focus to blogging about the Portland/Maine dining scene over homemade recipes, and it may surprise you to learn that I don't eat out that often. Hence the drop in posts. I can't decide if that's something I'll aim to fix this year or if I'm ok with it.

The most popular post from last year was my first look at Terlingua. This thrills me, since the owners are friends of mine, that everyone was as excited about their "boutique barbecue" joint as I was. The next most viewed post was a first look at Honey Paw, which if you'll notice is only pictures and descriptions.

The post came in the wake of Critic-gate where the Honey Paw owners banned John Golden from their restaurants after he wrote a review of their place when they'd asked him not to. I was afraid I'd be drawn into the fray, after one of the owners asked me not to share any pictures from our friends and family dinner until after they'd opened. Hence my playing it safe with a limited post.

Nearly tied for the third most viewed posts are Canning Hot Pepper Jam and a first look of the reopened East Ender. First looks and food preservation are my wheelhouse, y'all.

On the press side, 2015 saw the publishing of my second book, Distilled in Maine: A History of Libations, Temperance, and Craft Spirits. The reception has been fantastic - just like the food community, the spirits community is a friendly one. Many thanks to the distillers, readers, and business owners who have been so supportive of my book this year.

The beginning of the year saw the collapse of Portland's new alt weekly paper, DigPortland, and with it, my monthly column about the Portland food scene. As I was deep in the writing of my manuscript, I didn't mind at the time and later even had a conversation with the editor at the Portland Phoenix about returning to their food and drink section (that editor was later let go, ahem). While I don't begrudge the current freelancers who contribute to the Phoenix, I do think it frequently misses the opportunity to provide the city with true alternative coverage.

In July, I was asked to contribute a feature to Down East magazine about dining on the islands of Casco Bay. I embarked on a truly comical schedule to visit the island restaurants and submit a draft over a week in July before my family visited. My favorite meal of the trip was probably at the Chebeague Island Inn, as it perfectly captured the summertime vacation vibe.

I also began contributing to Eater Maine this year, creating three maps a month for the site. I got to shine love on the growing Saco/Biddeford food scene, Portsmouth, the Kennebunks, and Kittery. Of course, I loved creating a donut map - I had to follow my own advice and take some donut road trips. My most controversial map? 17 Maine Restaurants With a View. People have strong feelings about their scenic views in Maine.

The project that I'm probably the most proud of in 2015 is the Portland Spirits Society, a women's-only whiskey appreciation club. The monthly events have been popular and the amount of enthusiasm around the idea shows me that Portland women are just as excited as I am to learn about spirits in a safe and welcoming space. I'm looking forward to continuing to grow our group in the new year, as we further learn about the world of liquor.

So here's to another year of blogging and another year of eating in Portland and beyond. As far as 2016, I'm most excited about the opening of Rhum, a tiki bar in Portland, as it combines my love of drinking and warm weather. I hope they turn the heat up in there.

Most of all, thank you to everyone who has ever poked around "the files" here. Without readers, I'm just yammering into a vacuum. I hope your upcoming year is full of good food, drinks, and time with loved ones.