Friday, September 10, 2021

Summer Recap: Eating Around Maine

Whew, what a summer! This time of year, I always feel like it went by too fast and that I didn't do enough. But when I look back through my pictures, I find that in fact I did do a lot—and much of it involved eating really good food! So here's a bit of a recap of my summer highlights in food.

In early July, we welcomed Cafe Louis to the Knightville neighborhood of South Portland. This cafĂ©, run by chef Evan Richardson, serves Costa Rican/Caribbean food like hand pies, fried plantains, and this delightful fried halloumi cheese with honey and nuts. 


I went for breakfast, and they serve lunch and dinner. I sadly haven't been back! I need to remedy that pronto with drinks at the cute bar. Richardson will be hosting a fundraiser for Hurricane Ida relief on Wedesday, September 15 from 5-9 p.m., serving chicken and waffles and hosting the Little Easy Snoball truck. Sounds fun! 

I also made it out to Crown Jewel for dinner on a rainy July night. We took a water taxi, which while kind of pricey, was perfect for the glum weather since we were whisked out to the island quickly and under cover. 

I enjoyed chef Sara Devereux's new menu, especially the deviled eggs, scallop crudo, and tuna poke. Lots of fresh seafood on the menu! The hospitality from the Crown Jewel crew always makes a night at this Great Diamond Island spot special. 


My role as Maine magazine's food editor has me thinking about restaurants all around the state (suggestions always welcome!). Recently I profiled Broken Arrow after I ate there in mid-June. 

I typically eat at a restaurant about 2-1/2 months before the story runs in print. I've faced some unexpected challenges during the pandemic, from a restaurant closing (temporarily, but for an unknown duration) while I was in the middle of writing a feature on it to a new and well-known chef leaving before I could even make it to the restaurant for a meal. There has been a fair amount of scrambling behind the scenes. But we make it work and the pieces look fabulous thanks to Nicole Wolf's photography and Joel Kuschke's design. 


I had a great meal at Broken Arrow and then enjoyed meeting and talking with the owners and chef. That's by far the part of this job I have enjoyed the most—talking to restaurant owners and chefs about their industry. It has been really interesting (and sad at times) to hear what these folks have gone through in the last year and a half. I am grateful for every day these people show up to work so we can come and enjoy a nice meal or a drink at their restaurants. 


In Biddeford, Magnus on Water is back in the swing of things with a new chef, Ben Jackson. I loved this charred squash and ricotta dish, as well as the great cocktails from bar manager Brian Catapang. A meal on the beautiful patio this fall would make for a great night if you haven't been yet. 

Farther out of Portland, I went to a new area in Maine last month (!!). I'd. never been down the Blue Hill peninsula, just south of Mount Desert Island. So we made a reservation at Aragosta in Stonington and planned to spend the night at a friend's place in East Blue Hill. 


We enjoyed dinner on the deck overlooking the water and then ten delightful courses. From this tomato salad with a fried tomatillo to smoked duck breast and gnocchi, everything was prepared with care and presented delightfully. 

The wine went down easy and it was a real treat to have a special night on the beautiful Maine coast with friends. 


Back in Portland, Crispy Gai, the new Thai street food restaurant from chefs Jordan Rubin (Mr. Tuna) and Cyle Reynolds, quickly became one of my favorite new restaurants. I absolutely love the lively flavors of Thai food, and everything on the menu is so well-prepared. 

The fried chicken is obviously the star of the show, but everything else on the menu is fantastic too. Especially the waterfall salad, with fresh herbs and seared flank steak. It's like my ideal dish! The tropical cocktails from Arvid Brown are so fun and creative. 


Speaking of the generous use of cilantro, another one of my Portland favorites returned—Cong Tu Bot has reopened as a breakfast and lunch spot. I went for breakfast last weekend and ordered almost one of everything on the menu. 

There's fry bread, breakfast sandwiches, pandan coffee cake, yogurt and rice pudding, and congee with tofu, veggies, and a salt-cured egg. Plus boba tea! Everything was so good, but if I had to pick a star of the show, it was the breakfast sandwich. 


The fry bread comes sliced with an egg patty, mayo, green onions, and Chinese sausage. It's so good! The perfect portion and not too heavy. Ugh, I love it. I can't wait to go back for lunch and be reunited with bun cha. 


On my radar of new places to try is Helm, Wayside Tavern, and Il Leone pizza on Peaks Island. Sounds like a fall bucket list is shaping up! Hope you're all eating well and safe and healthy. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Crown Jewel Preview Pop-up

While it's definitely too early to take a victory lap, there are signs we're emerging from this awful pandemic. I'm getting my second vaccine shot today (thank you, public health!!), and many of my loved ones are fully immune. Many restaurants have adapted to the pandemic, creating comfortable outdoor spaces in which I feel a low risk of catching COVID. And I've only come to appreciate dining out even more in this past year. 


In my role as food editor for Maine magazine, I recently covered Little Giant's pandemic changes, from its change in ownership to the new heated patio that, like Terlingua's, has become one of the best places to dine out in Portland during the pandemic. Since its patio opened in January, Little Giant has been hosting monthly pop-ups, like Central Provisions and Izakaya Minato, on Mondays when his restaurant is closed.

So when I heard Crown Jewel was the next restaurant to pop up on Little Giant's patio, I was beside myself with excitement. I didn't get to eat at Crown Jewel last year (but did enjoy some cocktails and wings to-go on my friend's boat, so don't feel too sorry for me). I'm especially looking forward to trying the new chef Sara Devereux's island menu this year. 

We started with gin fizzes on the streetside patio as there was a short wait for our table. Despite it being a whopping 38*F on Monday night, the cheerful cherry blossoms and pink drinks put us in a summery mood. 

We made our way through the restaurant to the patio where it truly was toasty. The patio is open on one end, covered, and surrounded by vertical wood slatting that breaks the wind. The electric heaters mounted on the walls pump out a lot of heat and Huga heated seat cushions are available too. While our freezing days of dining outside are hopefully behind us, Little Giant's patio is amazingly comfortable for being outdoors. 


We continued sipping our drinks at the table with a delicious snack mix of furikake popcorn and rice crisp crackers. The menu was a prix fixe of 5 courses, so no decisions were necessary. The dishes soon started arriving, starting with oysters on the half shell topped with a tart, pickled pineapple mignonette. 


Next was tamari cured deviled eggs, topped with pickled red onion, trout roe, green onions, tempura flakes, and edible flowers. Together the flavors tasted like a sushi roll. 


Then mussels, steamed with black garlic miso butter and shiitake mushrooms. The wedge of sourdough bread was perfect for dipping in the butter (honestly the best part of steamed mussels). 


The main course was crab fried rice with a swipe of coconut cream, tinted green from the addition of pandan, a Southeast Asian tropical plant with a coconut-like flavor. I thought the rice dish needed a little punching up with some chili crisp or other spicy/flavorful drizzle. But that was my only feedback on any of the dishes! 


For dessert, a bouncy butter mochi cake came topped with sesame, toasted coconut, a drizzle of thick caramel, and Parlor ice cream. So fun. 


Crown Jewel opens Friday, May 28 this year, and reservations are available beginning May 1. I can't wait to see which dishes make the final cut for this season's menu and what other Asian/Pacific island delights Chef Sara and owner Alex Wight come up with. 

Crown Jewel | 255 Diamond Ave, Portland, ME | (207) 766-3000

Monday, March 8, 2021

New Restaurants in South Portland, Maine: 2021 Update

It's been just over a year since I published my last look at all the new restaurants opening in South Portland. And so much has changed—between Covid, South Portland's continuing popularity, and surely some would point to the minimum wage increase in Portland (which I whole-heartedly support), many restauranters are headed over the bridge to SoPo. 

The last update detailed the opening of Big Babe's Tavern and three businesses coming soon: Judy Gibson, Solo Cucina Market, and the unnamed Matt Moran project in the old Terra Cotta building. Big Babe's has since closed. Music venues and restaurants have both been hit hard during Covid, and as Big Babe's was both, I imagine it was especially difficult to keep the business going. Owner Ginger Cote listed the building for sale in July and is searching for a new location for the tavern. Big Babe's we hardly knew ye. 


Judy Gibson | 171 Ocean St, South Portland, ME | (207) 808-8649

Judy Gibson opened last year on March 4th (oof, that opening announcement video on Instagram is hard to watch knowing what we know now). I went late that evening for some light snacks and a fabulous butterscotch pudding. The restaurant had a great outdoor dining set up last summer/fall, and I enjoyed my birthday dinner there in mid-October. 

Since the outdoor tent has come down, chef Chris Wilcox and crew have been offering a to-go menu of fried chicken and cocktails. I haven't gotten to the fried chicken yet, but this research is bumping it to the top of the list. That chocolate pudding cup is calling my name. 


SoPo Seafood | 171 Ocean St, South Portland, ME | (877) 282-7676

To the right of Judy Gibson sits the shuttered Uncle Andy's Diner. This business closed last May after 66 years in business as a result of the pandemic. SoPo Seafood is opening a retail seafood operation with a raw bar in the space. You can read more about the details of SoPo Seafood's new venture at Portland Food Map.


Cafe Louis | 173 Ocean St, South Portland, ME 

To the left of Judy Gibson is the shuttered RJ's Pub—another South Portland institution put out of business by the pandemic. Chef Evan Richardson of Eaux in Portland is opening a restaurant in this space that will serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner with baked goods in the morning and small plates at night. Richardson says the restaurant will have a Costa Rican and Honduran theme. The opening date is reportedly March or April via PFM

This restaurant row is forming right down the street from Taco Trio, which is opening a second location in Saco. The popular Mexican spot is closed for a while to focus on that project but should open here soon (its Facebook says early March).

Other restaurants in South Portland open for takeout/limited indoor dining over in this area of South Portland include The Snow Squall, Foulmouthed Brewing, Cia Cafe, and Bridgeway Restaurant. If you haven't visited downtown Knightville in a while, come over and check out all the changes. You can reward yourself with an Italian pastry at Solo Cucina and some JG fried chicken. 

Friday, January 8, 2021

First Look at Batson River Brewing & Distilling in Portland, Maine

Batson River Brewing & Distilling opened a Portland location a few weeks ago, and thanks to the pandemic (boo, hiss), I opted for takeout from the restaurant. I did take a quick tour of the new location in Bayside and I'm definitely looking forward to spending some time here once it's safe to do so. 

Batson River opened its first location in Kennebunk's Lower Village in late November 2018. The Kennebunk tasting room is a cozy two-story location with a bar on the first floor, a game room upstairs, and an expansive deck that overlooks the village. I've visited a few times, but my interest was recently renewed when it debuted private, reservable "fish shacks" on the patio this fall. 

These cute shacks are heated and offer a sheltered way to dine out during the pandemic winter. We checked one out on a very rainy Saturday in December when it was so cozy inside with the sound of the rain falling on the roof (and many kudos to the servers who had to dash from the restaurant to the shacks in the rain!). 

The Kennebunk location offers a menu of pubby comfort food and drinks made from its own spirits, as well as its own beers. I enjoyed the fruity bitterness of a Jungle Bird, made with the Dixie Bull Rum rum, Campari, pineapple, and lime juice. 

A few weeks later, I heard the Portland tasting room was ready to open. It's located in Bayside near the bowling alley in a building that was formerly part of the Portland Public Works facility. The renovated space is 9,000 square feet (!!!) with 18-foot-tall ceilings and a huge fireplace. 


All decked out for the holidays, it really made a beautiful first impression, with its manor home/hunting lodge vibe. 


The space has two bars, each serving six draft beers from Batson River and cocktails made with their vodka, gin, rum, and bourbon. There's a large center bar and several larger tables in the front room, with plenty of space to spread out (the capacity right now is limited to 50 people). The backroom has another bar and chairs grouped around low tables. 


Upstairs, as in Kennebunk, is a game room with shuffleboard, foosball, and board games. The games are on hold right now, as everyone is to be seated while in the restaurant, but this will be a really fun space once we can mill about again. 
 

At home, I enjoyed Nashville hot wings with a dry spice rub (there are also barbecue wings) and a wood-fired pepperoni pizza. The menu also offers pub fare like burgers, a delicious roasted cauliflower dish that we tried in Kennebunk, fries, poutine, and grilled cheese and tomato soup. 

One note: the takeout menu is more limited than the restaurant menu, so make sure you're looking at the right menu before you begin crafting your takeout order. 



We also enjoyed beer and a cocktail to-go (pandemic perk!)—the Cleaves Cove IPA, which was a pleasant balance of malt and hops, and the Snow Day cocktail, a horchata and rum take on egg nog. 


It was so fun to check out a new restaurant! Admittedly, it would have been more fun to cozy up by the fire and have a drink in this beautiful new space. I'll leave it up to you whether you dine in or grab some to-go food from the tasting room, but definitely add it to your list of new places in Portland to explore. 

Batson River Brewing & Distilling | 82 Hanover Street, Portland | 207-800-4680