Restaurant Quality: the New Line-Up
New restaurants that opened in 2011 fared well in Portland. From French to Mexican, Japanese and Thai, to recasting of established restaurants moved to spiffier settings, Portland dining held its own, living up to its reputation as a cool food town.
Still, in such a small city as Portland, it’s a lot to absorb. But diversity of cuisine helped to set each one apart from the other. To wit, city dining branched out admirably to strengthen its ethnic ties. Miyake’s two restaurants, for example — his stunning Japanese dining room on Fore Street and Pai Men noodle bar on State Street — as well as Boda’s inimitable haute-style presentation of Thai street food round out a corner of Asian fare that is quite impressive.
Then there are places like Petite Jacqueline, Figa, and the newly urbanized setting for Walter’s in the Old Port, all of which offer choices of European, Mediterranean, and fusion menus respectively that have been very well received indeed.
I take some issue, however, with Walter’s because chef-proprietor Jeff Buerhaus has barely tweaked his menu from the restaurant’s former Exchange Street days. Nevertheless, with an "if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mindset, he maintains a steady following who love his brand of globe-trotting third-world cookery. As for the interior space, it is a remarkable transformation from its former stodgy quarters into an urban cool template.
On the lighter side places like District, the East Ender and Sebago Brewing Company give a much needed light motif to the dining scene. The latter, however, is barely one step above chain-restaurant quality. My first impression was that it filled the niche for short-order cooking in an attractive enough setting. But after several visits I’ve concluded that their hamburgers — which are good -- remain your best bet.
As for waterfront dining in a city bordered by waterways on three sides, it’s slim pickings except for peaks at the piers from various wharf restaurants off Commercial Street.
You have to travel a few miles to Falmouth Foreside to the Falmouth Sea Grill, which underwent an incredible transformation from a dowdy neighborhood eatery to a dazzling space with gorgeous views of Casco Bay. From what I hear, Foreside regulars like the new digs but are nostalgic for what it used to be.
The revised menu has been streamlined, too, offering trendier versions of beef, fish, and fowl. The food is good, though I miss some of the old New England dishes like baked cod under a cracker crumb crust. Instead it’s been replaced by hazelnuts, which I prefer on ice cream rather than fish. What’s also missing is their terrific fried clams — a must-have for any restaurant that purports to be seaworthy.
Mexican fare is now fairly strong in Portland. Zapoteca offers a relief from the typical enchilada menus with regional Mexican cooking that’s done well. Taquerias have taken hold too, with such new entrants as Taco Escobarr on Congress Street and Taco Trio in South Portland. El Rayo, the popular taqueria on York Street, is opening its highly awaited cantina later this month.
Then there’s the tapas bar invasion. I mean how many small plates can a small city digest in one fell swoop?
Gingko Blue is probably the best one so far. Owned by Walter’s, the food is excellent and served in a plush, stylish space. Speaking of which, Plush, is also the name of a new cocktail lounge-cum-tapas emporium at the site of the old Katahdin on High Street. I’ve heard mixed reviews and have not been there yet. There’s one more tapas bar still under its brown paper wraps on the corner of State Street and Pine, rumored to be serving small dishes from a wood oven along with its version of classic cocktails.
What we really need — and no sign of it anywhere — is a real Chinese restaurant beyond those at the take-out joints and strip malls. I liked the long-gone Oolong that used to be on Commercial St., but it was a fusion formula that seemed too esoteric for most diners. Perhaps a transplant from Boston or New York’s Chinatowns could hit the right switch in our northern sky.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at email@example.com.