Wednesday, September 23, 2020

First Look at Leeward in Portland, ME

Leeward, a new pasta and wine spot on Free Street in Portland, opened mid-March for a week of service before our coronavirus shutdown began. It served takeout for a while then reopened for outdoor dining only at the end of July. I made it there last week for a meal on the patio, on a windy night when the beach blanket stashed in my friend's car came in handy. 

The restaurant's menu features some appetizers/small plates and then several handmade pasta dishes. The chef Jake Stevens used to work at Eventide Oyster Co. and owns the restaurant with his wife Raquel who manages the front of the house. 

Inside the restaurant is bright and airy, with lots of blonde wood and an open kitchen. (The only dining is outdoors, so I just passed through the unused dining room on my way to the restroom.) The patios are constructed in the parking spots of Free Street, but will end October 21st. 

I started with a cocktail, the Early Twenties with tequila, lime, corn, cilantro, and hot smoked paprika. It was a lot sweeter than that list of ingredients implies and just one of many intriguing cocktails. I was also tempted by Closing Ceremonies with gin, lemon cantaloupe, and mint and Future Teller with rum, lemon, husk cherry, birch sap, sumac, and honey. 

We ordered most of the menu, starting with a thick slice of toast topped with 'nduja (a spicy spreadable pork sausage) pear slices, fried Marcona almonds, and drizzled with honey. The meal was off to a great start. 

The kitchen sent out this grilled lentil and broccolini, which we had overlooked due to its unsexy ingredients. But it was rich with hearty and smoky flavors.

The chicken liver mousse with a crab apple mostarda and crackers. So good, with its salty, sweet, richness. We also enjoyed the summery burrata and roasted apples, with radishes, pecans, sourdough crisp and balsamic vinegar. 

Then it was on to the pasta. My favorite was the first dish I tried—a butternut squash egg yolk raviolo with delicata rings, brown butter, and fried sage leaves. Stunning. 

We also plowed through the saffron malloreddus with a smoked lamb ragu, collard greens, and rosemary, the simple tonnarelli (a squared-off spaghetti) with fresh pomodoro, basil, and garlic, plus a squid ink spaghettini with squid, pickled chiles, and cherry tomatoes. Needless to say, we were stuffed.  

But always have room for dessert, especially when it's a savory cheesecake with watermelon, husk cherries, and hints of fennel. A great way to end a windy evening on Free Street. 

Despite the wind that night, the patio of Leeward was very comfortable, spacious and heated with gas heaters. The menu is also available for takeout, plus fresh pasta, sauces, gelato, wine, and cocktails. Their comfort food will certainly be in-demand this fall and winter. 

Leeward | 85 Free Street, Portland, Maine | 207-808-8623

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Eating Out in Portland, Maine During COVID-19

Writing about food during Covid-19 is difficult. There is so much wrapped up in what was once a casual meal on the town—from the ethics of dining out during a global pandemic to wanting to support the businesses that create Portland's identity as a foodie small town. But the best way out is through, so here we go. 

In the early days of the shutdown, I ordered takeout and navigated the new preorder/curbside-pickup systems like everyone else. We got our meals to-go—Coal's, MiSenRadici, Ramona's—and enjoyed that we could now get takeout from places that previously didn't offer it, like Boda, Evo, and Palace Diner

Right before the shutdown, I snuck in an interview with Atsuko Fujimoto for a profile in Down East magazine, and speaking with her kept her amazing pastry, formerly found at the now-shuttered Ten Ten Pié, in my mind during those early days. 

I was ordering these incredible treats for pick up from her production space at Two Fat Cats in South Portland, then as coffee shops reopened I found them at Higher Grounds on Wharf Street. Just this morning, I enjoyed a crabapple caramel sticky bun. Incredible! 

After the flurry of takeout and as warmer weather arrived, I began to dip my toe into going out. At first, for a drink, finding the bars on Washington Ave. great places to feel safe while enjoying a beer or cocktail: A&C GroceryOxbow Blending & Bottling/Duckfat Friteshack, and Anoche. Most of these places offer window service, which makes me feel the most comfortable (compared to table service). 

Then on to food trucks—so many new food trucks this year! My friend Steffy launched Actual Foods, serving up a menu of build-your-own-bowls with fresh vegetables, proteins, and carbs cooked up in a wok and doused in a tasty sauce. My steak tips with wild rice, tomatoes, spinach, corn, and a zippy ginger-scallion sauce were so satisfying. 

In a regular year, Bite Into Maine's heaping lobster rolls are a treat and even more so during the pandemic. The rolls lend themselves to being enjoyed overlooking the ocean, whether that's at Fort Williams in Cape Elizabeth or Higgins Beach in Scarborough. The picnic-style roll (lobster topped with melted butter and celery salt on a bed of coleslaw) continues to be my favorite. It's the best lobster roll I've had. 

I also ventured to the new marina on Fore Street to try Evo X, the new food truck from Chef Matt Ginn of Evo and Chebeague Island Inn. I was less impressed with the bar environment, but the food was most excellent. With a casual menu of lobster rolls, burgers, polenta fries, and seafood specials, this truck is the best of both dining worlds: amazing food in a casual environment. 

Skip the bar and take your food up to the Eastern Prom for a better view of the ocean and islands.  

I still prefer window service to table service, but couldn't help but check out Via Vecchia, the new Italian restaurant from the owner of Blythe & Burrows. We sat outside on their patio, and I had a delicious Averna Mai Tai and a tomato salad. 

I ducked into the restaurant to use the bathroom and the space looks so stunning. Indoor dining isn't for me, so it hurt my heart a little to know it's going to be a long while before I will enjoy a meal in there. 

Certainly one of the highlights of my summer was my meal at The Lost Kitchen last Friday. My friend A. had her postcard drawn for dinner on a night The Magnolia Network (a project from Joanna and Chip Gaines) was filming for its mini-series featuring The Lost Kitchen. 

This was my first time at the acclaimed Freedom restaurant, so I didn't know what to expect, much less how it had changed during the pandemic. We were seated in an enclosed patio on the lawn, between the mill, where the dining room typically is, and the mill pond. It was such a beautiful night and the food was that alluring combination of sophisticated and simple.  

I will admit though that I experienced sticker shock when the bill came—the price per person was nearly double that of previous years. I found the price of our meal ended up influencing how I felt about the experience. 

I, of course, believe food should be produced ethically and priced accordingly, but at $225 per person (including tip, excluding alcohol), I was left pondering exclusive dining experiences and the relationship between the cost and the perceived value of a meal. We had an hour-and-a-half drive back to Portland, so plenty of time to think. 

The window for completing our summer to-do list is closing (sigh), so I was happy to check off having tacos on the rooftop of Bayside Bowl recently. Although the nearby Time and Temp building told me it was a hardly-summery 66*, we still enjoyed our al fresco experience with tacos, frosé, and Dirty Dancing, as the last installation of their rooftop movies series. 

You don't need me to tell you it's been a strange summer. I attempted to balance an all-consuming anxiety over coronavirus with the reassuringly low rates of Covid-19 here in Maine and enjoy some meals out in what I hope was a safe way. 

Come winter, I know our restaurant community will be struggling even more. There aren't any easy answers right now, but I do hope that if you enjoy Portland's restaurants and dining out in typical times, that you'll find a moment to contact our elected officials and urge them to pass a more coronavirus relief efforts to help these businesses remain solvent through winter. Hope you're all staying safe and healthy.