The Spice Route
A chef’s travels bring exotic flavors and farm-fresh ingredients to Portland’s food universe.
- By: Michaela Cavallaro
Photograph by Ted Axelrod
Lee Farrington was just six when she began to understand the alchemical power of an open flame. “My earliest recollection is coring a tomato, dropping it in boiling water, and watching the peel come off,” says Farrington, who first learned to cook in her grandmother Mary’s Kentucky kitchen.
It’s a long way from the fare served at Mary’s table — “anything that had meat in it went into the pot with potatoes and all that other jazz” — to the menu at Figa, the twenty-eight-seat restaurant Farrington opened last fall at the base of Portland’s Munjoy Hill. She describes the food she serves as “globally inspired cuisine,” but don’t mistake that description for a muddled fusion mashup. Instead, each dish on the globe-hopping menu has a distinct culinary origin — the shrimp patia from India, the risotto balls known as arancini in their native Italy, the black bean quinoa cake from vegetarian tables across the land of Moosewood.
At Figa, you can assemble a meal that is comfortingly familiar: a cheese plate that includes quince paste and a wedge of triple-cream St. Andre, salad greens from Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport, and perfectly cooked salmon. Or you can take a slightly more adventurous approach, sampling the tangy shrimp patia, beet “carpaccio” — ultra-thin slices of tender beets, topped with a breaded, fried cake of goat cheese from New Hampshire’s Heart Song Farm — and a rich, savory meatloaf that bears only a passing resemblance to the breaded brick of your childhood.
Farrington sees the menu as a way to share the flavors she’s come to love in her culinary travels, which began in Kentucky restaurant kitchens, then took an enormous leap forward at the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan. She spent six years in New York City kitchens, working at restaurants including Balthazar (French), Al Di La (northern Italian), Tabla (Indian/French), and Raga (Indian fusion). But her heart wasn’t in the city. In the years following 9/11, she looked for a reason to leave, and found it on a Maine vacation. “I fell in love with the fact that there’s so much fresh everything up here — the local farm scene is crazy,” she says. “So I moved here for the snow, the seafood, and the quality of life.”
Farrington pondered opening her own restaurant, perhaps an artsy, coffeehouse-style place where you’d order at the counter. But she wanted to get her feet wet in Maine cuisine first. After a brief stint at Fore Street, she found a culinary home at Uffa, the now-defunct restaurant run by chef/owner James Tranchemontagne of the Frog & Turtle in Westbrook.
Along the way, Farrington’s hairdresser joined the Peace Corps. Over dinner one night, the women discussed the fate of the hair salon, one of the small, funky storefronts on Congress Street between India Street and Washington Avenue. By the time the hairdresser headed to Morocco, Farrington had bought her building and embarked on a stressful, more-than-year-long journey to open Figa. The obstacles were significant: a lengthy — and expensive — water line dispute with a neighbor, major interior renovations, and the numerous bureaucrats to be satisfied in Farrington’s pursuit of business permits and liquor licenses.
Though Farrington was vocal about her dismay with the water line in particular, today she’s grateful that things worked out as they did. She happily presides over her open kitchen, overseeing the ongoing cocktail party facilitated both by her Figatini — Cold River vodka and elderberry liqueur — and her firm no-reservations policy. (While you wait, grab a drink down the block at the Snug; Figa’s hostess will call your mobile phone when your table is ready.) “I want people to come here and enjoy themselves,” she says. “I don’t want them to ever feel rushed.”
To that end, Figa’s menu — divided into “spoons” (small tastes), “forks” (half portions), and “knives” (large portions) — and wait staff encourage sharing, whether you’re splitting an enormous skillet of plump salty mussels or sparring with your tablemates over Farrington’s signature wild boar rendang, succulent forkfuls of meat draped in a robust, dark red sauce spiced with curry. Figa’s décor is a typically Portland brand of rustic chic, heavy on reclaimed wood, rough-hewn tables, and attractive, unpretentious table settings. Like the food, the room reflects Farrington herself: cosmopolitan, environmentally conscious, and just a little bit spicy — a welcome addition to Portland’s food universe.
Figa is located at 249 Congress Street in Portland. Open for dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 5 to 9 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 5 to 9:30 p.m. Spoons (small tastes) $4 to $6; forks (half portions) $8 to $14; knives (large portions) $15 to $20. 207-518-9400. Figarestaurant.com
- By: Michaela Cavallaro