Thursday, December 14, 2017

Updates to Portland's Washington Ave. Restaurant Scene

I recently went on a Maine Foodie Tour of Washington Ave.—the East End Artisan Tasting Tour—and in walking around my neighborhood, I realized how much change is coming. If you follow the Portland Food Map, then you've read the news of new businesses opening and existing ones moving. I thought I'd illustrate some noteworthy changes for those of you who may not live in the area and might not know specifically what's happening where. 

First, RIP to the cool Sahara Club mural at 135 Washington Ave. The AA-meeting spot has moved onto a larger location, and it was announced the Washington Ave. space would be filled by a coffee shop. Those plans fell through and White Cap Coffee is instead moving to a new location in South Portland. What would you like to see go in here instead? 

Update: 135 Washington Ave. is now the home of Root Wild Kombucha. See my review

Just down the street is the new home of Maine Craft Distilling, behind The Shop, the new oyster bar. Maine Craft Distilling has completed its move into the space, and I was surprised to learn, now also has local beer on tap and a menu of delicious-looking happy hour snacks (chicken and waffles—my fave!). 

Next to The Shop and Maine Craft Distilling is the new home of Forage Market. This Lewiston-based market (more of a cafe, really) is opening a Portland location. They're known for their wood-fired bagels and pizza nights, meaning we've officially reached peak bagel. 

Portland Pottery added a dinner option to its popular cafe with Lena's Italian Comfort. It's open Thursday through Sunday nights from 5-9 p.m. 

Natural wine bar Drifters Wife and wine shop Maine & Loire will close at the end of the year to finalize the move next door. The new space, the former home of Roustabout, will offer a much larger kitchen, more seating, and more space for the retail operation. Owners Peter and Orenda Hale anticipate the businesses will be open again by late winter of next year. 

Update: Drifters Wife has closed and reopened as Pigeons

Kittery-based Bob's Clam Hut is opening a location in the former home of 3 Buoys, and while the lack of progress on the building made me think the project had fallen through, Bob's PR rep. assured me the project is still happening. No word on the projected opening date as the project is still in its infancy. 

Update: Bob's Clam Hut did open, but has since closed. The space is now home to New York Fried Chicken. 

With these new businesses, Washington Ave. continues to grow and establish itself as a destination for eating, drinking, and shopping. Don't miss next summer's Inner Washington Ave. block party for a chance to check out these new businesses all at once. 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

BBF Travels: Florence, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Italy

Alright kids, it's finally time for pics from Italy! My husband and I went to Italy for our honeymoon in mid-October, piggybacking on a friend's destination wedding in Tuscany. We started our trip with a few days in Florence, then headed to Tuscany, and wrapped up exploring the Cinque Terre (big shoutout to Mister Meatball, who helped us with the itinerary). 

Our two week trip looked like this:
  • Days 1-3, Florence
  • Days 4-7, wedding at Il Borro, Loro Ciuffenna
  • Days 8 + 9, Montepulciano
  • Days 10-13, Cinque Terre

In addition to spending time with our friends at their wedding, we also overlapped with them in Florence, which meant we had lots of company and advice about where to eat/what to do. Being me, I also checked the Eater Heatmap and Essential 38 map for restaurant recommendations. Some hits, some misses. 

Wild boar (cinghiale) is the regional specialty, so I had it over pappardelle on our first night in town (after a nap, of course!). The Florentine steaks are also big—like literally—and A. enjoyed one at his birthday dinner. We enjoyed delicious pastas and crostini, so-so pizza, and one fail of an expensive meal that took a stab at modern cuisine. Stick to the classics in Florence. 

We had a few action-packed days, touring the Pitti Palace, Boboli Gardens, the Uffizi, and Accademia Gallery (the home of Michelangelo's David) and climbing the Duomo. We stayed in a nice Airbnb apartment by the Arno, and after three days of taking in the sights of Florence while bumping into tourists and dodging cars and bicycles, we were ready for the Tuscan countryside. 

We rented a car and drove away from the city to the south, stopping by the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, where my husband's great uncle is buried. This beautiful park memorializes the graves of over 4,000 American soldiers who died in Italy during World War II. I was not prepared to be as moved as I was, but it was touching to think of all those men that died in a foreign country and the staff that maintains their memorial today. 

We spent three nights at Il Borro, a villa now owned by Salvatore Ferragamo, but once a Medieval village built in 1040 (!). We stayed in the old village, connected by a steep stone path to the newer event center, restaurant, and main house where the wedding took place. 

The wedding itself was next level beautiful and the food was amazing (um, what?!) at all the events at Il Borro. The best pizza I had on the trip was served at Il Borro, as well as my "this is kinda healthy, right?" lunch of burrata bruschetta. 

Sunday after the wedding, we said goodbye to all of our new friends and drove further south to Montepulciano—where, as my sister said, it looked like we were in a painting. 

Our Airbnb apartment overlooked the Val d'Orcia (the valley) and was right inside the old walls of the city. We were the shortest walk up to the main drag and its shops and restaurants. It was ridiculously charming. 

After we explored the town on our first night, we indulged our inner introverts and stayed in to make dinner and watch football. The Pats game came on at 7pm local time, so we cooked up some pasta with sauce I'd purchased at Eataly in Florence and drank Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Perfetto. 

Recharged the next day, we again set off on vacation sightseeing mode with a vengeance. I fell in love with Caffè Poliziano, with its sweeping views of the valley, display cases full of tempting pastry, and delicious cappuccinos. And this was one of the first places we'd had really warm service from wait staff, so I immediately loved the place. 

We spent the day driving around the countryside on a scenic tour, with stops at wineries along the day. One treat to ourselves was to rent a Fiat Spider Abarth convertible, because if you're going to do a lot of driving, it should be in style, right? 

We found a memorable dinner at Rosso Rubino where I fell in love with the saffron cream gnocchi (sidenote: can I get good gnocchi in Portland or do I have to learn to make the stuff myself?). 

After driving back to Florence and returning the rental car (boo), we took the train to the Cinque Terre for two nights. We planned to hike between the towns, hit the beach, and enjoy some wine in the sun. 

A note about Italian trains: I read multiple times that train travel is easy in Italy. And now that I've figured it out, I agree. But before you know how to read schedules and learn the idiosyncrasies? It was confusing as all get out. The strike that wasn't really a strike on our last day of travel didn't help things either! But aside from a few tense moments, traveling by train across Italy was a nice way to go. 

Cinque Terre is stunning—I mean, all of Italy is, but the coast particularly so. The way the towns are built into the hill makes everything feel like an exploration, like you've just stumbled on this perfect place to have happy hour overlooking the ocean. 

We stayed in Riomaggiore, the easternmost town, and hiked from Corniglia to Monterosso (sections of the trail are closed due to landslides, so you can't hike from Riomaggiore to Corniglia). The hiking was beautiful—not too strenuous, but just enough so that I felt I'd earned that Aperol spritz when we arrived in Monterosso. 

Cinque Terre is known for its pesto, seafood, and white wine. We found the sweetest spot in Manarola and stopped in for a glass of wine—it was the sort of spot that looked like it would create a forever memory, with tropical plants and hammocks on its outdoor deck. We enjoyed a flight of local wines with a mezze board, including some of that local pesto. 

After one night out for dinner in Riomaggiore, we opted to bring pizza back to our apartment the next night. Our Airbnb host recommended a place... back by the train station, down an unlit alley with practically no signage. I don't know how it survives in such a tourist town, but I'm glad we sought it out, it was some fantastic pie. I didn't see how carbonara could translate to a pizza, but K & Pris did it! 

After a few magical days in Cinque Terre, we trained it back to Florence for one night before heading to the airport early. We ended our trip with a last meal of ramen in a hipster Japanese restaurant—still noodles, but we were ready for a break from Italian cuisine (blasphemy, I know). 

What a beautiful place! I'm already planning my next trip to the Italian Riviera. I think as far as honeymoons go, we got a good one. We'll just have to come back for an anniversary or two!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Savory Dutch Baby Recipe

While I was perusing Christine Burns Rudalevige's new cookbook Green Plate Special one recipe in particular stopped me in my tracks: a savory Dutch baby. I love the light, popover-like dish for breakfast, so when I saw a way to eat more of it—topped with vegetables that would make a dent in my ever-piling-up CSA share—I was right on it. 

I made it for dinner that night, and it was a delicious and quick weeknight meal that I felt was more elevated than the box of Annie's Mac and Cheese with vegetable add-ins. 

Christine's book is a round up and expansion of her Portland Press Herald columns of the same name with small tips and a recipe to help green your kitchen. It was Christine's tip that finally got me to make a chicken stock bag in the freezer. I'd always frozen the carcass of a rotisserie chicken to make into stock, but now I add in the scraps from vegetable prep that would otherwise be composted. 

Onion peels, garlic skin, carrot peels, unwanted herbs—all go into a gallon-size freezer bag with the chicken, and then when the bag is full, I add the contents to the crockpot, cover it with water, and let it cook all day.

Christine's new book is full of great ideas like this: how to reduce kitchen waste, how to stretch your dollars when eating locally, and tips to ensure that those non-local splurges don't go to waste. And Christine's tips are realistic—perfect for someone who wants to move down the green spectrum, but isn't ready or able to go 100% homesteader. 

This savory Dutch baby is a great way to create a meatless main dish and uses up tons of those ubiquitous CSA greens. Christine will be giving a cooking demo in Falmouth on Friday, October 13th from 11am to 1pm (lunchtime!). Tickets are $65 and include a copy of Green Plate Special

Savory Dutch Baby
Adapted from Green Plate Special by Christine Burns Rudalevige

8 eggs
3/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or cheddar
1/4 cup finely chopped herbs (dill, cilantro, basil, chive)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 cups of chopped greens (chard, beet greens, spinach)
1 cup chopped tomato

Preheat oven to 425*F with a 12-inch cast iron skillet in it. While oven is heating, combine eggs, milk, and salt and pepper in a large bowl and whisk well. Add flour and whisk until well mixed. Add in cheese and herbs.

When oven and pan are preheated, add butter to pan and tilt to coat. Pour batter into pan and return to oven. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden.

Meanwhile, toss greens with olive oil and spread on a baking sheet. Add to oven for final 8-10 minutes of the Dutch baby's baking until nicely roasted (but careful, they burn easily). Slice tomatoes and toss with olive oil, salt, and crushed red pepper.

Let Dutch baby cool and cut into wedges. To serve, pile greens and tomatoes on top of a slice of savory Dutch baby.

Serves 4

Sunday, September 17, 2017

First Look at Island Creek's Oyster Shop

Summer weather has continued to grace Southern Maine these past few weeks, even though the F-word season officially starts on Friday. There's few better ways to enjoy the weather than by sitting outside with a glass of wine and some oysters on the half shell. And the raw bar from Island Creek Oysters, dubbed "The Shop," on Washington Ave. in Portland is the newest spot to soak up some sun and slurp oysters. 

The menu is very simply raw oysters, tinned fish, and caviar with beer and wine. I've visited several times since its opening just after Labor Day and have enjoyed a mix of the Massachusetts and Maine oysters available each time. 

For just $1.50 whether you get them shucked or to go, you can afford to order a dozen made up of a few different varieties. These are some of the cheapest oysters in town outside of a happy hour special. 

The counter service surely helps keep the overhead down—simply mark the desired quantities of oysters or fish on a paper menu available next to the day's selection of oysters on ice. Only three draft beers and a few wines are available, making choosing a beverage nice and easy. 

Oysters are delivered on ice to you at your table. Sit at a few barstools in the window or at a big communal table indoors or head outside if the weather's nice to grab a high top table or a comfy patio couch. 

While I like to eat my oysters as naked as possible, the peppery mignonette available is delicious. The oysters were always well shucked, cold, and the staff is happy to give advice on oyster varieties. 

I love the simplicity of The Shop and its menu. While many restaurant and bars opt to attract customers with complex concepts and elaborate dishes, The Shop goes stripped down with a sunny patio and cheap oysters. Works for me. 

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.