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Consider the accidental tourist who happens upon the Danforth Inn , seduced by its coolly stylish interiors, and then proceeds to revel in a remarkable dinner beyond compare.
That in a nutshell is Carmen at the Danforth , the restaurant that opened last month at one of Portland’s most refined lodging establishments in the gentrified West End.
Most chefs ascend the ladder of success slowly. But Carmen Gonzalez is already a star. And her namesake restaurant is in a beautifully appointed space where posh meets graciousness like divine twins in a drawing room portrait.
Maine is certainly not short on star chefs. They commandeer such fabled establishments as Arrows , Back Bay Grill , Fore Street , Hugo's , Five Fifty-Five , Bresca , Primo , Francine — all waving the awards of national acclaim.
Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico, is hardly twirling a baton of nouvelle Puerto Rican, a term that’s basically meaningless. Instead she displays a cuisine of refinement based on Latin flavors and classical cooking woven into a lustrous fabric of flavors.
She was awarded best Top Chef in 2010 and her varied background includes a stint with Chef Barry Wine at the Quilted Giraffe in New York City and her own restaurant, Carmen, in Coral Gables, Florida.
How did such an unlikely transplant wind up in Maine’s pulsating jumble of wunderkind chefs?
Her good friend, Kim Swan, who owns the Danforth and other inns around Maine, urged her to come to Maine to open a restaurant in her establishment — a kind of home away from home, where Carmen would have free reign.
I went there last week and enjoyed one of the best dinners in recent memory. Here was a caliber of cooking that was exciting — without the usual artisanal delirium so de rigeur today.
It all takes place in an 1823 Federal mansion with three intimate dining rooms that form the nucleus of a culinary parlance unmatched by other restaurants in the city. The tables are large and well spaced, the accoutrements are beautiful and the service is flawless.
Diners begin their evening in the main salon, replete with grand piano and double fireplaces, where drinks are served before going to table. The principle dining room has a big bay window overlooking the gardens. The adjoining dining room is flanked by tall windows overlooking the avenue and dominated by a handsome fireplace, which will afford a cozy setting during the colder months. The third space is a garden room with one big table for a large group and dominated by a life-size portrait of a friend of Swan’s who was a Philadelphia debutante and Dior model in her day.
We started off by sharing the bacalao fritters, a soulful dish of salt cod redolent of the kitchen’s assertive style. This was followed by a trio of appetizers that included manchego fritters, plantains topped with smoked salmon, Berkshire pork bites and monkfish croquettes—each one superbly invigorating.
For a first course my dinner mate chose Dodge Coves oysters, a Damariscotta staple of farm aquaculture--slightly briny with a pronounced citrus flavor. These were presented two ways: in the shell with mignonette and fried served with a mango dipping sauce. At $28 it’s a very pricey first course but beautifully executed and worth the extravagance.
My starter was the razor clam ceviche served with roasted corn fritters. In lesser hands ceviche can be a soupy mess. This had the exact balance, a cured crispiness without being drowned in brine.
For main courses there’s a lot of options such as several fish dishes, pork, beef and duck. I decided on Rohan duck breast, a heritage breed, with a confit of duck leg formed into a roulade, accompanied by a corn flan, warm baby spinach, garlic and a late-bottle vintage port sauce. This was haute fare responsible for one of those magical culinary moments.
My dinner mate chose the striped bass which was deemed as “the most heavenly piece of fish” perched on a fresh garbanzo bean mélange.
We couldn’t resist ordering a side of hand cut yucca fries with roasted garlic aioli. If you’re going to gild the lily, this is the route to take.
With our meal we enjoyed a perfect white wine from Spain, Burgans Albanno 2010, a big wine that stood up to the chef’s grand flavors.
The desserts are heavenly. The flan was served as a wedge of rich custard with its requisite caramel sauce--“hauntingly delicious,” my dinner mate proclaimed. My empanada, the glorified turnover of Spanish cuisine, was wrapped around guava and cheddar along with a luxurious guava milkshake that was transcendent. That and a few more sips of the remaining wine and we concluded a perfect evening of wine and food.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinions. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org