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. 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Lunch at Woodford F&B

Woodford's F&B, the cute, classic brasserie out at Woodford's Corner, started serving lunch last week on Wednesday, Thursdays, and Fridays. I met up with a friend and caught up with her over several courses of delicious food, reminding me to attempt to make it out to this neighborhood restaurant more often. 


Many of the lunch items are also on the dinner menu, like the burger, steak frites, and salads. New lunch additions include the soup of the day (a butternut squash with curry ($5), unfortunately appropriate for the dreary weather on the day we dined), a few sandwiches, and salads like Cobb salad and a rotating seafood salad. 

The seafood salad was a poached salmon over a spring salad with sauce gribiche. Salmon is not usually my favorite, but this one was cooked perfectly. The fresh salad, full of radishes, peas, and asparagus, with flaky fish and the light, creamy sauce was so good. 

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it—everything went so well together and perfectly expressed the season. 

I had to try the crabcake sandwich ($15), and while I always prefer a blue crab cake, this one had great flavor, with a crispy exterior on a buttery, soft bun. The jicama slaw with pungent red onion was a nice alternative to coleslaw. 

We even had lunch dessert—I had to make up for not being able to drink at lunch due to working that night. Otherwise, this was a meal (and a day) calling out for a glass of rosΓ©. We enjoyed a vanilla panna cotta with lemon and blueberries ($8), but also eyed the strawberry rhubarb fruit crisp and warm chocolate brownie with caramel sauce and ice cream. 

Really, you should take any excuse you can to go to Woodford F&B. It's affordable, the service is so friendly, and the food is feels fancy yet remains approachable. Now that they offer lunch three days a week, you've got even more opportunity to stop in and enjoy some fine food at F&B.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

BBF Travels: Asheville, NC Eats

I had the pleasure of traveling to Asheville, North Carolina last week for work. Asheville is surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains and has a reputation for being a bit of a hippie, artist town, albeit one that is growing and gentrifying Γ  la Portland. 

Two good friends of mine visited last summer, and they reported its food and drink scene is also similar to Portland's. Naturally, after I booked my tickets, I immediately started planning my eating itinerary. 


I flew into Charlotte, about two hours east of the mountains, to spend the weekend with some friends from Maine who have migrated to warmer climes (can't say I blame 'em right about now). The plan was to then rent a car and drive up to Asheville for the week. My bf accompanied me too, working in his own professional development trip. 

In Charlotte, I quickly confirmed my reputation for being singularly minded when it comes to food and suggested dinner at a unique sounding Korean food/Southern BBQ fusion restaurant. But first, my friends wanted to take us out of town a bit to Muddy River Distillery, a rum distillery on the bank of the Catabwa River. 

We signed on for the long tour, an hour and a half, which made me wonder what in the hell there was to discuss for that long in a microdistillery. But the owner Robbie did a great job of filling us in on his backstory, the process, and the rum tasting while keeping us entertained. 

We tried the silver rum; Queen Charlotte, a barrel-aged rum; coconut rum; and spiced rum. The last two were surprisingly delicious, using real ingredients to flavor the rums rather than artificial ones. The rum is only distributed in North Carolina, but is available in all counties, so if you find yourself in the state, you should pick some up (and it's surprisingly affordable for a craft distillery). 

After some cocktails on the porch (not to brag, but it was 80* and sunny in Charlotte last weekend), we headed across town to Seoul Food Meat Company. I'd scoped this place out via the Eater Heatmap, and while my friends apparently never venture over to Charlotte's South End, they obliged my foodie agenda. 

After a wait for a table and some stella people watching (so. many. bros.), we dove into the best Korean-style chicken wings, fatty brisket tacos, ramen mac and cheese, bao buns, pickled deviled eggs, and braised beef ribs. The ribs were our least favorite—we figured later we should have ordered pork spare ribs. Or a million more spicy barbecue and soy garlic chicken wings. 

We drove to Asheville on Monday, where I bided my time in cold conferences rooms until I could sprint outside and soak up the sun. Spring was like 😍  in the mountains, with flowers at every turn, baby green leaves, and temps in the mid-70s every day. 


Asheville allegedly has the most breweries per capita in the country, which, I know a lot of stats regarding "the most" of anything are inflated, but there was seriously, like a brewery on every corner in this town. 

We stopped into Wicked Weed Brewing for happy hour our first night. It's one of the larger breweries in town, with two floors of seating and large patios on each level. They were out of my first choice, Pernicious, the flagship IPA, so I turned to the sour section and enjoyed Marina, a peach apricot sour. 


After our beers, we headed over to Buxton Hall BBQ for a late dinner. This was high on my to-eat list, ever since I'd seen a Bon Appetit video about the making of their famous banana cream pie. 

The pulled pork was delicious, very m-word with tons of flavor, despite the lack of barbecue sauce. I say lack of barbecue, since being in North Carolina meant the two options on the table were a yellow mustard sauce and straight vinegar. I opted to eat my meat naked. Aside from the RC Cola baked beans, the sides weren't particularly noteworthy. 

My cocktail, a Humdrum Paradise was anything but with rum, hibiscus, grenadine, lime and egg white. A's fried chicken sandwich with white barbecue sauce and pimento cheese was delicious, and that much anticipated banana cream pie made an appearance in my dreams that night.

Other highlights included dinner at Cucina 24, a great Italian restaurant. I was out with coworkers, and we tried all the handmade pasta, naturally. Mine was orecchiette with spicy sausage, tomato, and what she said was broccoli raab, but looked more like Brussels sprouts leaves to me. 


We ventured over to the River Arts District another night for beers at Wedge Brewing Co., where the Cajun food truck Root Down was parked. I had a heaping plate of crawfish poutine to soak up some IPA. 

The only meal that was a "miss" was our dinner at Local Provisions. This buzzworthy restaurant was underwhelming, which left me disappointed and with a sense of regret that I didn't maximize my meals better. 

But lunch the next day at the vibrant Chai Pani, which served Indian street food, more than made up for it. The okra fries (on the right) were the sleeper hit, crunchy and with an addictive tang. 


When we hit the road back to the Charlotte airport, we certainly felt like we'd "done" Asheville, and were ready to fly home...mostly to see our cats! But I was loving on the warm spring weather, the friendly company, and the vibrant brewery and restaurant scene. Maine has a lot of things going for it, but spring weather is not one of them (not to beat a dead horse). 

I could have easily kept eating and drinking my way through Asheville. In fact, we've already started floating plans for a family trip back there next spring. Any stir crazy Mainers should consider flying to Asheville for a getaway—it's a short flight to Charlotte, and while a car is nice to have, you don't need one if you stay downtown. 

And Chai Pani owners, if you ever read this, we'd keep you in business should you open a place in Portland, Maine! πŸ’œ

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

First Look at Baharat

CN Shawarma was one of my favorite food trucks—it was always parked at my favorite breweries, the owners are so friendly, and its food was that elusive combination of meat with enough fresh vegetables to make you feel like your lunch had a semblance of health. 

I loved their big, fried hunks of crispy potatoes coated with toum, a garlicky sauce that stuck with you for the rest of the afternoon. There were zippy red onions tucked into their sandwiches with chunks of shawarma meats, moist and dyed yellow from turmeric, wrapped up Iraqi flatbread that was far more interesting than a flabby tortilla. 

So when the owners announced they'd sold the truck and planned to move into a restaurant space on the first floor of some new apartment buildings in East Bayside, I eagerly awaited its opening. 

Baharat, the business' new name, opened mid-March, and like a dream come true, there were all my old favorites: falafel, shawarma, and fries, but now available with a full bar and comfy seating. As you'd expect, the new menu is larger too, with mezze like crispy fried chickpeas, za'atar deviled eggs, and baba ghanoush, and of course, that full bar. 

The food truck family is tight—the bartender, Arvid, ran the popular seafood truck Fishin' Ships (which he and his partner sold last year). His speciality cocktail menu has a Middle Eastern theme, with a Charred Lemon Collins, chickpea foam on The Adventure Capitalist (rye, Cynar, spiced grenadine, citrus), and Return of the Sumac, which I ordered—a blend of sumac-infused tequila, mezcal, citrus, and a dehydrated lime rim. 

There's also unusual wines from Lebanon, Patagonia, and Austria, and of course, as you'd expect from a food truck that parked outside of breweries on the reg, plenty of local beer on tap.


After an onslaught of dips and other mezze, the main course arrived. I ordered a plate of two kebabs, minted rice, a pile of pickles, and Iraqi flatbread. The kebab options are falafel ($12), chicken ($14), and lamb kofta ($16). 

The same options are available in a wrap or as single kebabs, and The Shwarmageddon wraps up chicken, falafel, house fries, and sauce in a glorious mess. Hungry diners should go for "The All In," a large platter of kebabs, dips, pickles, and and flatbread available for 2 at $45 or 4 at $70. 

The 2 kebab plate is still a lot of food—tender chicken with a nice char, a pile of crunchy pickled carrot and radish, and warm rice flecked through with mint. The thin bread is perfect for tearing off pieces and wrapping around a hunk of chicken. 

We passed on dessert, much to my regret after seeing the menu which included some sort of custardy thing (my fave). Reportedly the desserts are great, with options like baklava cheesecake and chocolate with tahini buttercream to end the night on a sweet note.

It's exciting to watch food truckers grow their business into something that's familiar and yet grows the concept of the original truck. Baharat takes the bright, unique flavors of CN Shawarma and gives them a home in East Bayside, where you too will be "all in" at first sip and bite.