68 Commercial St., Portland
By Elizabeth Peavey
Photographed by Jared Kuzia
Even before construction started, Scales was one of the most talked about restaurants in town. Everyone wanted to know how two Portland legends, restaurateur Dana Street and chef Sam Hayward, could possibly top their wildly successful prior endeavors — Street & Company and Fore Street. Then there was the place itself: Scales was to occupy the bulk of the ground floor in a newly constructed, 23,000-square-foot, post-industrial warehouse that stretches along Maine Wharf out toward the harbor. How would Street and Hayward fill, staff, and manage such a cavernous space with the exactitude they’re known for?
Slowly, it turns out. Originally slated to open last summer, Scales didn’t launch until March of this year, and even then, the first couple of months of operation were on the down-low. Try to find a website and you were out of luck. Try to call for a reservation and the only number available was not in service. Even to find the entrance you had to be a sleuth: there was no sign on the street or the door. It was almost as though they were hoping you wouldn’t find Scales.
“Yes, we tried to keep things quiet while we got our feet under us,” executive chef Mike Smith said when I caught up with him just before the onset of summer. He laughed: “We referred to ourselves as a 140-seat speakeasy.”
Smith, an Old Orchard Beach native who served for six years as chef de cuisine at Boston’s Toro, describes the menu as New England classics with a twist: yes, there’s boiled lobster and fried clams, but they might be served next to squid with cherry peppers or tuna tartare. There are five food stations, including a raw bar and a fry station, and as many as 15 people cooking on a busy night. With such a complicated operation, holding down the number of diners while the crew worked out the kinks suited Smith just fine.
Except that keeping a new Street/Hayward restaurant secret is hard to do in food-centric Portland. The place was jammed from the start. When my husband and I scored a Thursday evening reservation for two (albeit at 5:30), it felt mildly akin to winning the lottery.
Passing the boats tied up at the pier, with their rigging clanking and flags riffling in the wind, we stepped inside and were immediately wowed by the soaring ceiling and massive windows. Beside the host station, crab legs and lobster tails are displayed on a bed of ice. Above it, a warehouse chute, like you’d find at a fish-packing plant, dispenses ice. A bubbling lobster tank sits beside a large set of industrial scales. The open kitchen seems to sprawl endlessly.
We settled in at a cocktail-table-size two-top with an icy martini, a dozen oysters on the table, and menus balanced on our laps (even if we wanted to move to a roomier table, there was not one to be had — by 6 the place was packed). We deliberated the selections with our lead server (each table is assigned a waitstaff team, a lead who helps you navigate menu choices and backups who fill in the rest). The pace was fast. Timing depends on selections, which may or may not arrive in the order you desire or be delivered by someone you recognize. Some might find this a bit off-putting — but oh, the food.
A soft-shell crab perched atop a puddle of green tomato salsa and adorned with purple petals of chive flowers was a symphony of color, texture, and spice. A plate lined with six slices of delicate yellowfin tuna, pink as watermelon, bore a ribbon of citrus and serrano pepper sauce drizzled across the top. The hand-cut fries were sprinkled with salt so coarse it crunched with each bite.
A crisp chopped salad lightly tossed with buttermilk dressing refreshed us before we forked into our perfectly pan-roasted hunk of halibut that arrived bathed in hazelnut brown butter. My good Yankee husband couldn’t resist the Indian pudding, which to a certain diner who did not grow up with this classic New England sweet (me!) tastes like a cross between steamed brown bread and pumpkin pie. Whether that’s a good thing (he thinks so) is a matter of debate. As we polished off the last tiny bites, servers and patrons swirled in eddies around us, but we were happy on our own little island.