By Elizabeth Peavey / Photographed by Mark Fleming
There are just a few things you need to keep in mind before you dine at Central Provisions in Portland’s Old Port: The restaurant does not take reservations. While the efficient and accommodating staff will make every effort to seat your party as soon as possible (and one could do worse than cool one’s heels in the handsome subterranean bar), you may have to wait. The place has been a hotspot since the day it opened back in February and shows no signs of slowing.
Central Provisions is not a place for an intimate dinner. Seating at the bar, which overlooks the cooking line, is snug. In fact, your thighs might graze your neighbors’, depending on everyone’s girth. And while the banquettes that line the wall facing the bar aren’t quite that cozy — there is a gap of several inches between tables — it’s not exactly a place you’d want to plot a heist.
You should also know Central Provisions doesn’t offer a conventional soup-to-nuts style of dining. Instead, it specializes in small plates — ranging from $5 to $26 and broken out into categories of raw, cold, hot, and hearty — that arrive at your table as they are prepared. You simply order menu items, a couple at a time, until you are satiated. Some diners, in fact, will insist on holding onto their menu throughout the entirety of the meal, just in case one more dish — a house-made sweet: salted caramel mousse with cocoa and coffee, local strawberry shortcake — can be squeezed in.
You should also keep in mind your server is not a mere taker of orders and fetcher of food. To fully enjoy Central Provisions requires collaboration with this person. While each menu item has explicit descriptions, there’s so much more to know. Is the Fancy Gin Cocktail sweet? No. Just crisp and refreshing. Would the spicy fries be a nice accompaniment to drinks? Oh, yes they would. This crack staff will answer all of your questions and help you navigate the ride.
If any of this sounds unsettling and perhaps a bit off-putting, it is not.
That’s because Central Provisions is a perfectly envisioned and realized dining machine.
The owners, executive chef Chris Gould and his wife, Paige Gould, have a combined 30 years of restaurant experience between them (Chris most famously at Boston’s Uni Sashimi Bar), and it shows. Chris, a Bethel native, casts a Zen-like calm behind the busy line. The way orders are expedited and executed is nothing short of balletic. The only non-food-related motion from these intense and focused chefs is the occasional bop to the nonstop (and sometime vintage – Queen, anyone?) rock ’ n’ roll pouring out of the speakers.
The expansive menu, which changes daily in accordance with what has come in from Gould’s local purveyors, is heavy on vegetables, cheeses (Paige worked at the Cheese Iron in Scarborough before opening the restaurant), and meats, with offerings like foie gras, lamb breast, and suckling pig. Maine seafood shines. While lobster, fish, and scallops are represented on the menu, dispel thoughts of bibs and breadcrumbs. The fried oysters, for example, do not arrive in a basket with tarter sauce. Your server will warn you they come but three to an order (just in case you were envisioning a heap), and each is presented on an open half-shell, which is perched atop a small mound of salt on a wooden plank. The fried nugget rests on a dollop of cilantro aioli and is topped with a confetti of kimchee and scallion. One almost feels guilty for devouring these small monuments to deliciousness. Almost.
There are other Asian accents. The yellowfin tuna crudo has a hint of sesame, radish, and mustard — just enough to complement the pink flesh dissolving on your tongue. The spicy beef (carpaccio) salad has a nice Sriracha kick. And the halibut — a beautiful hunk of fish, seared crispy on the top and beribboned with grilled garlic scapes — has just a hint of heat from garlic and jalapeño to brighten the flavor of this dense fish.
The upstairs dining room is dominated by the gleaming open kitchen and 14-seat bar. Reclaimed wood, exposed brick, rough-hewn planked flooring, hand-forged bar stools with burlap seats, a barn door that slides sideways to reveal the restroom all speak to the 1874 building’s heritage as a one-time purveyor of bitters and wine, and later, barrel tops and burlap. Paige, even though she is Culinary Institute of America trained and clocked all her prior restaurant hours behind the line, manages the front of the house with ease and aplomb. She sweeps around the dining room, swingy dress swaying with each step, as she corrals and herds waiting patrons. Despite the number of those waiting, there is no sense of being pressed, as is the case at so many popular eateries. Your server will not bring the check until you finally wave your stained menu and cry uncle.
From there, the only thing to do is plot your return.