Back Bay Grill: A Shining Star of Gastronomy
The neighborhood in Portland's Bayside may be an urban jungle ringed with haunts and dives, but that didn’t stop an enterprising restaurant by the name of Back Bay Grill to fire up the Garland range for the first time in 1988. And it has burned brightly ever since as Portland’s long-running star of gastronomy.
I first went there in the late nineties as a visitor to the city. It began with a chilling taxi ride down the declivitous ice-slicked roads from the West End’s Pomegranate Inn where I was staying. It seemed like the driver was either vision impaired or demonic as we came to a screeching halt at the front door.
But as soon as I entered the restaurant, I felt safe and at home, greeted by its legendary proprietor, Joel Freund. Manning the kitchen then was the young chef, Larry Matthews, who is still the chef de cuisine and now also the proprietor, maintaining one of the best kitchen crews in town. Assisted by aide de camp, Adrian Stratton, maitre d’ and general manager, this operation runs smoothly and professionally at all times.
Back Bay sticks solidly to the basics. That in itself is a relief from the trendy menus everywhere else these days. Instead diners are treated to superbly crafted dishes that manage to be bold without excess — the essence of a discerning chef.
I hadn't dined at Back Bay for nearly six months but remember my last meal there vividly. It started with the savory fritters, coppa di teta, which were filled with head cheese and paired with a pristine poached egg. My main course was divine: a classic red wine reduction balancing a confit of prunes as the underpinnings of a succulent roast breast of pheasant. This was fine dining on a par rarely achieved elsewhere in town.
As a long time patron of Back Bay, I’ve witnessed how the kitchen keeps evolving. These days Matthews has an able partner in his sous chef Ryan Hickman who he gives free reign to develop new dishes for a clientele that expects only the best.
I’ve always favored Back Bay’s cream soups —-- they are silken purees. On the menu on a recent night, for example, was a cream of cauliflower (local, of course) with sautéed white shrimp and curry oil. Some of the other choices included mussels poached in Geary ale; foie gras lapping up a pomegranate reduction, and truffled beef tartare with white anchovy and olive oil crackers. But I’m intrigued by another first course offering: pork rillettes. This pate-like dish is rich with spices and pork fat, an utterly luxurious creation that bespeaks flavor. The accompanying house-cured pepperone lay like shingles on a pristine plank along with a round of fruit mostarda, alive with mustard syrup that also complements strips of pancetta — all of which is a perfect swathe for the crisp wands of rosemary crostini.
The portion was actually too rich to finish, and the waiter put the lid on the little glass jar in which the rillette was served, which I was only too happy to take home.
There was much to choose from the main course offerings. House-made parpardelle with a pork ragu; salmon with ginger-spiked sweet potato and pickled daikon and kohlrabi, and grilled filet with potato gnocchi among some of the choices. Again I was intrigued by a relatively new item on the menu: stuffed organic Maine chicken leg. I wasn’t sure how this was going to be prepared. Served in a sausage like fashion, it was stuffed with a forcemeat of the chicken scented with garlic and thyme and accompanied by a cauliflower gratin, grilled radicchio and smoked bacon.
Like my previous meal months earlier, this was another winning dish. The confluence of flavors and textures and the beautiful arrangement of the foods items on the dish were superb.
Dessert was almost an anticlimax. But I wasn’t going to pass it up. I ordered one of Matthews’ famed ice cream creations. This time it was caramel ice cream with Bourbon caramel sauce and almond lace cookie, which I washed down with the remaining excellent Bandol wine still in my glass.
In retrospect I'm sorry not to have tried another tempting dessert listed that night — a pistachio and cranberry parfait with honey cake and maple syrup. I’m sure I will next time..
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at email@example.com.