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The Autumnal Pleasures of Maine’s Summer City

Portland, Maine's restaurants are even better in the fall

The most compelling time to dine at Fore Street — long the grand dame of Portland, Maine’s ever-more-dynamic dining scene — is in the fall. I first ate at Fore Street last August and thoroughly appreciated my dinner, though I’ll confess that I didn’t quite grasp its legendary status. I remember salads electric with summer freshness and local seafood and meats brightened by the sunny hues of tomatoes, corn, stone fruits, and singular Maine blueberries. Every bite earnestly conveyed New England's high-season bounty. But in the same way that dining downstairs at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse can be simple to the point of dullness, the fish entrees and desserts in particular at Fore Street came off a little dozy.


I returned to Fore Street last month, and this time my appreciation deepened to adoration. Every aspect of the food and atmosphere resonated with the precise moment in the calendar. Walking in, the signature scents of spit-roasting chicken and steaks sputtering over the grill tempted profoundly. The dining room — a collage of timeworn, mismatched bricks and woods in a former warehouse — felt like shelter designed to ward off the spiraling temperatures.

October’s gingered carrot purees, sweet potato and sage gratin, and savory apple griddlecakes matched the grilled and roasted meats and seafood with more elemental oomph. Even a chilled seafood plate seemed designed to thaw moods and bodies with its uplifting flavors: It included plump smoked mussels and the last of the season’s lobster (poached and served with garlic aioli) fished from Casco Bay viewed out the restaurant’s windows. A hunk of pork loin cut as thick as filet mignon satisfied with the complexity of a great steak, its charred and peppery edges giving way to gutsy meat. The twang of garlicky red cabbage sauerkraut beneath the pork made for an ideal autumnal grace note.

A dining room inside a restaurant blends into the open kitchen. One wall is all brick, and there are lots of wooden accents throughout the space. Bill Addison/Eater
Big silver skillet of mussels in a buttery sauce, with a side of bread Bill Addison/Eater

The interior at Fore Street; Pork with red cabbage sauerkraut and mussels in garlic almond butter

Finding Fore Street to be at its most spiritually attuned was just one of the deep pleasures of visiting Portland in the fall. As seasons go, it is nearly impossible to compete with Maine’s summer: the mild temperatures, the diverse topography at its greenest, the jutting coastline dotted with lobster shacks that go dormant as the foliage begins preening. The dropping thermometer and lack of crustacean temptations along the shoreline meant that it was easier to hunker down in Portland, especially before the snow moves in to bury its picturesque roadways. With the exception of Fore Street (where one should book two months in advance to avoid agonizing waits for a place at the bar or in the dining room's unreserved section), reservations are easier to snag most places this time of year.

Given its favor as a vacation destination, it’s widely known that the town has an astounding breadth of quality restaurants. And the options only keep growing broader and better. It is Maine’s largest city, though the population of the town proper only numbers around 67,000. In my 16 months of near-constant travel for Eater, I’ve yet to encounter a U.S. metropolis of its modest size where I eat more superbly.

In my 16 months of near-constant travel for Eater, I’ve yet to encounter a small U.S. metropolis where I eat more superbly.

Sam Hayward energized Portland dining when he and his partners opened Fore Street in 1996. He is among the pioneering chefs who began forging close ties with local farmers, fishermen, and other producers. Rob Evans, who had cooked at The French Laundry and Virginia’s equally luxe Inn at Little Washington, furthered the town’s burgeoning reputation when he took over laidback Hugo’s (perched on a prominent corner two blocks from Fore Street) in 1999 and gave it a high-end makeover. Evans differentiated himself from Hayward’s rustic straightforwardness with sous-vide playfulness and Maine ingredients sometimes accented with European or Asian flavors. Generations of Portland cooks trained in these two kitchens.

Almost two decades later, it is Portland’s array of cuisines from around the globe that astounds. It speaks to the sophisticated palates of food-savvy residents and visitors alike that so many of them serve such remarkably accomplished cooking. At Japanese restaurant Miyake, customers graze on small plates like tai snapper braised in dashi, sake, and ginger, or they settle in for a $70 omakase of sushi, sashimi, and dishes such as grilled uni or seared duck breast that would easily cost three figures in a larger city. At upscale-ish Greek stalwart Emilitsa, even a crowd-pleaser like chicken souvlaki is finely tuned: The rice pilaf underneath tingles with just the right amount of lemon juice. I’m still hoping that the Sicilian street snacks and billowy flatbreads like the ones served at Slab (which opened last year) catch on as national trends. I’m sorry I missed the sambusas and stewed cassava leaves at Chez Okapi, a Congolese restaurant that opened the week I was in town.

Rijsttafel (rice table), including halibut steamed in banana leaf at Tempo Dulu

But I did make it to Tempo Dulu, a white-tablecloth restaurant serving Southeast Asian tasting menus that launched in June in the newly renovated Danforth Inn, a mansion built in 1823. Dutch owners Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest went all in on the decor: edgy contemporary art, plush banquettes, extravagant flower arrangements. There are three options for dinner: a three-course menu for $67, a five-course meditation on lobster for $98, or (the one that most intrigued me) an $87 variation on Indonesian rijsttafel, the "rice table" tradition that developed during the 300 years that the Dutch ruled over Indonesia. Rijsttafel lives on most prominently these days as a specialty of Amsterdam's restaurant scene.

Few rijsttafel restaurants exist in the U.S., and Tempo Dulu's giddy abundance worked in the posh surroundings.

At Tempo Dulu, the meal began with green papaya soup and lobster spring rolls. Then the straight-backed servers marched out the main event: a spread of nearly a dozen dishes arranged in small bowls, including plenty of rice and the fiery condiment called sambal. Halibut steamed to suppleness in a banana leaf was the centerpiece. Chicken satay had a caramelized crispness that lifted the dish from its usual blandness. Only coconut-sluiced beef rendang disappointed; an overdose of lemongrass obliterated every other flavor. Few rijsttafel restaurants exist in the U.S., and the sense of giddy abundance worked in the posh surroundings. And at this time of year, the food's tropical sultriness whisks away the palate to warmer climes. If the splurge for dinner doesn’t appeal, at least swing by the bar to ogle the furnishings (especially the chandelier covered in what appears to be moss) and to savor the cocktails (tiki-esque but light on cloying sweetness) by Trevin Hutchins, one of the city’s most lauded bartenders.

The current richness of Portland’s culinary landscape — the cherished Maine ingredients mingled with the international reach of its dining options — manifests most rewardingly in the three restaurants owned by Arlin Smith, Mike Wiley, and Andrew Taylor. In 2012 the trio purchased Hugo’s from Rob Evans. They had been overseeing the restaurant as Evans began concentrating on Duckfat, a runaway success specializing in Belgian fries and sandwiches that Evans opened in 2005 with his wife, Nancy Pugh. The same year that Smith, Wiley, and Taylor bought Hugo’s they also took over the space next door to Hugo’s to create Eventide Oyster Co., a bar that muddles foods from Maine and "from away" in dazzling mash-ups: Pemaquid oysters glossed with kimchee or pickled ginger ices, a classic New England clam bake alongside green curry lobster stew, peekytoe crab rolls next to fried chicken buns topped with pickled watermelon.

And this past April, on the other side of Eventide, the three of them launched The Honey Paw, a casual hangout serving homemade pan-Asian noodles and other globetrotting comforts. The back of the block-long building they’ve effectively taken over now stretches into one extended mega-kitchen.

Smoked lamb khao soi at The Honey Paw and Tuna tataki with compressed cucumber noodles at Hugo's; Clam bake at Eventide

Among the group’s trinity of restaurants, Eventide remains my favorite. I continue to marvel over how the menu nails an irresistible balance of tradition and innovation. (Crowds still occasionally spill out the door in the fall; go early or late.) That said, I enjoyed the other two restaurants mightily on this trip. The Honey Paw struck me as a restaurant that will be deeply useful to its community, a place to stop in solo for a lunchtime lobster tartine (beautiful with its blanket of radishes and hijiki seaweed and celery leaves) or for sharing bowls of Thai khao soi (potent with smoked lamb, coconut curry broth, fermented greens, and fried noodles) when winter descends. The lists of craft beer and unusual wines come off as skillfully calibrated as the food.

The group’s restaurants capture Portland’s specific strengths — a mingling of cherished Maine ingredients with international influences.

Smith, Wiley, and Taylor renovated Hugo’s but have otherwise maintained the levels of relentless creativity that Evans initiated. Categories of dishes focusing on meats, seafood, and vegetables define the menu, with diners encouraged to mix and match from each section to create two-, three-, or five-course meals. Choosing a volley of contrasting proteins paid off: fluke cured in umeboshi (pickled plum-like Japanese fruits) with translucent apple slices and crackly rice puffs segued to a hearty salad of duck tenderloin, gizzards, and liver punchy with mustard vinaigrette and then to gently smoked cod over potato puree and a clever, pleasantly rough sambal made from tomato skins. Taken together, the group’s restaurants capture Portland’s specific strengths — a mingling of cherished Maine ingredients with a port city’s receptivity toward international influences.

Breakout hit Central Provisions, which reaped heaps of national acclaim after opening in February 2014, also revels in a melting-pot approach to its food. The attention has made a seat at the restaurant (which doesn’t take reservations) nearly as hard to claim as at Fore Street. A friend and I arrived at 6 p.m. to be told the small dining room had just filled and the wait could easily stretch to over an hour.

We returned for lunch next day instead. The noontime offerings were a truncated version of chef Christopher Gould’s evening menu but still provided a gratifying tour of his signatures (with a table available immediately). We eased in with the bread and butter, a deceptively banal name for a dish that includes a white beer sabayon whizzed through an aerosol dispenser into the shape of a giant, tremulous egg yolk set over hazelnut butter. Spicy beef salad jolted with Sriracha; roasted bone marrow with horseradish delivered fatty, pungent happiness. The Bluefin tuna crudo, presented as tidily stacked dominoes with radish and mustard and sesame seeds, reminded me that I’d seen the fish at a surprising number of restaurants in Portland. I’ve certainly noticed its presence dwindling across the country in light of overfishing and its endangered status. But the restaurant receives the fish from the city’s Browne Trading Company, one of America’s most respected seafood purveyors. It sells fish caught wild from the Gulf of Maine, in limited catches and in season from June to October. At lunch that day Gould also had a plucky open-face tuna melt on the menu, a smart way to use the leftover fish.

Central Provision's tuna melt and exterior; dining room and Palais Royale burger at Palace Diner

The tuna melt at Palace Diner is something else altogether. Between two toasted bread slices rests an inch-plus of iceberg lettuce that acts almost literally as box springs for a mat of not-too-creamy tuna salad. To savor it means leaving behind Portland’s cobblestone streets for a 20-mile drive south to the town of Biddeford. Last month the trees along I-95 practically lit the highway in their blaze of yellows and crimsons. By now their branches will be stark. Biddeford still merits the short jaunt, for both Palace Diner and for Rabelais, a national treasure of a cookbook store that specializes in out-of-print and rare tomes, some of which are hundreds of years old. Owners Don and Samantha Lindgren frequently travel at this time of year, so call ahead to make an appointment, even simply to browse or buy the latest Ottolenghi cookbook.

Aim for mid-morning and visit Rabelais before or after Palace Diner, which is open only for breakfast and lunch. For breakfast, make it the deluxe sandwich, a beguiling combination of egg, bacon, cheddar, and jalapeño on English muffin that chefs and co-owners Chad Conley and Gregory Mitchell somehow elevate beyond the sum of its parts. Around 12 o’clock, order the tuna melt or the Palais Royale, a double cheeseburger stacked with patties griddled until the edges crisp. Hell, the restaurant also serves the Palais Royale at 8 a.m. Go for it. There are only 15 seats so, yes, like many prized meals in this part of the world, there may be a wait — in this case, a short one.

ESSENTIALS:

Fore Street: 288 Fore Street, Portland, (207) 775-2717, forestreet.biz

Hugo's: 88 Middle Street, Portland, (207) 774-8538, hugos.net

Mikaye: 468 Fore Street, Portland, (207) 871-9170, miyakerestaurants.com

Emilitsa: 547 Congress Street, Portland, (207) 221-0245, emilitsa.com

Chez Okapi: 249 St. John Street, Portland, (207) 536-1484

Tempo Dulu: 163 Danforth Street, Portland, (207) 879-8755, tempodulu.restaurant

Eventide Oyster Co.: 86 Middle Street, Portland, (207) 774-8538, eventideoysterco.com

The Honey Paw: 78 Middle Street, Portland, (207) 774-5838, thehoneypaw.com

Central Provisions: 414 Fore Street, Portland, (207) 805-1085, central-provisions.com

Palace Diner: 18 Franklin Street, Biddeford, (207) 284-0015, palacedinerme.com

Rabelais: North Dam Mill, Building 18, 2 Main Street, Biddeford, (207) 602-6246, rabelaisbooks.com

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