Carmen at the Danforth

By John Golden
Photographed by Douglas Merriam

Consider that final moment when you’ve had the last morsel of a splendid meal whereupon all of the pleasures of dining well conspire toward perfection. You’ll find that delight at Carmen at the Danforth, a thoroughly captivating dining venue that opened this past summer in the historic Danforth Inn, an 1823 Federal mansion along Portland’s gentrified West End.

The eponymous chef of this establishment is Carmen González, the nationally acclaimed chef from 2010 Top Chef Masters and the star of La Chispa de Chef Carma González. González, like the accidental tourist, came to visit an old friend in Portland and wound up opening her namesake restaurant. Such providence, however, might not have been so coincidental. Danforth innkeeper, Kim Swan, might have had ulterior motives in asking Carmen to visit. “As soon as I walked in,” Carmen recalls, “I said to Kim ‘This place has to have a restaurant.’ ”

This vision seemed a natural fit for Swan’s restoration plans. The first-floor principal rooms were perfect in which to be wined and dined. Diners repair to the main salon, decorated with a grand piano and double fireplaces, where cocktails are served before dinner. The setting is pure posh.

Across the entry hall are three intimate dining rooms that form the nucleus of a culinary ambience matched by few other restaurants in the city. The setting is very much like being in the hush of a private club, with fine-looking rooms loaded with architectural interest. The inn’s original dining room has a period fireplace and expansive bay windows overlooking the gardens. The adjoining dining room is flanked by tall windows along the avenue and dominated by a handsome fireplace. Perhaps the most felicitous dining space is the garden room.

González garnered national acclaim with her own restaurant, Carmen, which ran until several years ago in Florida. That she came to Portland already a star chef bespeaks her background as a precocious restaurateur. She grew up in Aguadilla, a small coastal town in Puerto Rico, and at the age of nineteen, she opened an eatery there. “I knew nothing about running a restaurant, much less being a chef in one,” admits this petite culinary dynamo.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s that she enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and from there apprenticed at Chef Barry Wine’s extravagant New York pleasure palace, the Quilted Giraffe, where the signature dish was the  “beggar’s purse,” crepes bulging with Beluga and crème fraiche. No wonder there’s a touch of the extravagant in Carmen’s cooking, though she describes her style as “simplicity at its best, refined but rich.”

Those qualities can be found in innumerable dishes. There’s the hake with boniato mash — the Latin sweet potato that’s laced with copious amounts of butter and cream — powerfully intense, yet so sublime.

Other standout dishes include Rohan duck breast, which is a heritage breed coveted for its rosy-red meat and tenderness. It displays the savoir-faire of classical French cooking but cloaked in the luminous flavors of Latin cookery.

The wine list is esoteric but very well composed with choices that don’t appear elsewhere in Portland. One of González’s favorites is the Burgans Albarino 2010, Rias Biaxas.

Desserts should not be missed. The flan swathed in a rich caramel sauce is classic. A crowd favorite: the churros, Spanish-style doughnuts dipped into an alluring deep chocolate sauce.

A worthy last morsel at a very worthy new restaurant.

Carmen at the Danforth
163 Danforth Street

John Golden writes articles on food, dining, and lifestyle and lives in Portland.