Fawning, Still, Over Fore Street
What more can be said about Portland’s revered Fore Street Restaurant that hasn’t already been an iteration of reverential praise time and again since it opened its doors in 1996?
A long-time fan, I find each visit is like going for the first time. Even the room itself, a sort of eighties hip-hop of design — those brick walls could certainly be deemed passé by now — offers a visual thrill and vibes of timeless cool. The open kitchen is a stage for a nightly drama of hooping and hollering among the line chefs at their various stations. The copper-topped tables look like they’re set to sizzle as good-looking plates of food come forth. Even the front desk — so often a dead zone at many restaurants around town — is a welcoming podium, and the floor managers actually know what they’re doing when it comes to the crowds that storm this eatery nightly.
Fore Street is surely the closest thing to being an American brasserie. There’s no dreaded small-plate manna here. Instead chef and co-owner Sam Hayward has set the standard for eat-local dining in Maine. At Fore Street, the provenance of what you’re eating is as vital as the food itself.
The Fore Street kitchen is not a laboratory of culinary kickshaws. No magical soufflés under a dome of foam and smoke. Instead the chef’s style relies on the quality and purity of the ingredients presented in straightforward fashion. When possible the ingredients are locally derived. But that doesn’t stop the kitchen from cooking Montana beef or chicken or pork from Quebec if that’s the best of what’s available at the time.
To be sure, surprises of taste and ingenuity abound. Pan-seared flounder might sound old hat, yet set upon a fricassee of Brussels sprouts and toasted hazelnut sauce it’s sublime. Or consider the heritage pork from nearby Cumberland paired with rillettes, local green tomato chutney, and fresh ricotta gnocchi. Local enough?
At my most recent dinner, which I enjoyed sitting at the bar — oftentimes an adventurous amalgam of personalities — I started with the chilled and cured seafood platter, a piercingly fresh trio of fish tartares. As a restaurant dish, tartares of any stripe have become a haywire of culinary cliché much like tiramisu or flourless chocolate cake dominate a banal list of has-been desserts.
Before me though was an inspired rendition. It included roughly chopped raw flounder cured in citrus salt and rich olive oil; sliced yellow-fin tuna with pickled cardoons, and a grapefruit cured arctic char with mustard and leeks.
It was a great dish, with distinct nuances of flavor served at the right temperature — chilled just enough. Oftentimes elsewhere I’ve had tepid tartares.
For my main course I opted for the duck, which was farmed in Pennsylvania. The breast was grilled and paired with a confit of the leg. It was accompanied by a sensuous ragout of wild mushrooms and turnips. Generally I prefer the magret of duck breast, more tender and leaner. This version presents a fattier cut, which is rich if not a bit chewier. But the dish was utterly hearty and it perfectly comingled with the mushrooms and turnips.
The restaurant’s longtime pastry chef, Brant Dadaleares, who introduced Portland diners to bacon ice cream, jumped to the savory line at Fore Street a year ago, and his successor, April Robinson, is now at the helm. Not missing a beat, her style, however, is more succinct than her predecessor’s more fanciful peregrinations.
Some of the choices that night included apple cornmeal cake with rosemary ice cream; fig clafoutis in a port wine reduction, and baklava with wood-oven roasted apples and buttermilk ice cream.
I chose the crystallized lemon tart. This was no ordinary confection but rather creatively constructed in delicate nuances: to wit, a luxuriously silken lemon custard adorned with rosettes of Italian meringue, the whole of which shimmered, sheathed in the finest sweet glaze. Add a pool of citrus syrup and fruit compote and here was one awfully good sophisticated take on lemon pie.
With some of the best wait staff in town and a stellar kitchen staff, Fore Street is still one of Portland’s most admired restaurants with an iconic joi de vivre that makes dining here an event
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at email@example.com.