David's Restaurant: In the Eye of the Beholder
That David’s Restaurant continues to thrive in a town that’s become an inspired collective of highly creative young chefs says a lot about this dining mainstay on Portland’s Monument Square.
On the face of it David Turin, chef and owner, is highly regarded by his peers and patrons. He was awarded the Maine Restaurant Association’s top honor of chef of the year in 2012. And lately he’s received flattering reviews in local publications including a good-natured write up in the April issue of this magazine.
From my perspective, however, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. He’s not an ardent locavore or renegade chef. But rather his food is done the old fashioned way: cooked well and easy to eat.
I’ve been there numerous times for lunch and have enjoyed good burgers, pizza, salads, sandwiches and some of the chef’s Asian inspired dishes.
Smack in the middle of Portland’s downtown bustle it can’t help but be popular day or night. Its commanding presence over the square is nearly as prominent as the commemorative Civil War statue that defines this urban space.
Turin’s tag line of “creative cuisine,” however, might have been so 20 years ago when dishes that fill his menu like tuna tartare were de rigeur. The cooking is safe and reliable, middle of the road done well with culinary twists and turns that impress the tourists and placate others.
The interior space, however, is downright dull, a classic time warp very frayed around the edges: The open kitchen, the brick walls and poor lighting add up to a boring visual. Except for the tables in the front room that face the square and the open kitchen, the rest of the place is a rabbit warren that’s unwelcoming.
The last time I ventured into David’s for dinner was a least ten years ago. I summed it up then as nice but no thanks.
Being the magnanimous sort that I am I thought it was high time to see what’s going on there now. The square that night last week was teeming with a dicey element that gathers steam after dark. Walking into David’s held some relief. The front section was full so we were shown to a table along that dreaded dark passage adjoining the bar—a space as dreary as a Hopper depiction of a downtown diner.
Still, our waitress was cheery and bright and she brought us two very well made cocktails from the bar.
The menu is fairly large and moderately priced with the usual suspects. To me the choices read like a gratuitous nod to culinary clichés disguised as “creative.”
Still, I figured, go with the flow, and I ordered the tuna tartare as a starter. It’s presented on a long horizontal plate, with two samplings of the tartare on each end sandwiched in between two potato gaufrettes--a rendition that was trendy for a while in the last century.
It lacked balance. It needed interplay of sweetness and acidity to give this dish guts. Curiously the tuna was so red it was like seeing it through tinted glasses.
My dinner partner had seared scallops paired with a risotto cake. It was a huge first course that nevertheless went down well. My personal preference is to have this dish at its most elemental. Scallops are a very rich, sultry shellfish, which I think are best left unadorned and sautéed quickly in butter and a touch of garlic and parsley.
For a main course I chose the duck breast. This was nicely done and very tender but again too sweet and served over a sticky risotto and grilled asparagus spears on top. My dinner mate had the salmon covered with crabmeat. None of this was enthralling fare.
We shared a dessert, a berry infused cheesecake that was adequately rich and dense but really sweet like diving into a bag of Oreos tinted pink.
Interestingly I considered instead going to Turin’s South Portland outpost, David’s 338, which is a charming boite with only 10 or so tables. The menu is very similar to the Portland branch, but given its comfy bistro-like setting, the evening out might have been more fun and the food might have left a better impression.
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John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinions. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org