Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dining in and out in Portland

We visited our Portland, ME branch in mid-August. We had a fine time, and a lot of really spectacular food. Portland is a truly lovely city. The locals are friendly, the weather was perfect - particularly to a Texan suffering through weeks of 100-degree plus August days - and the food culture there is remarkable.

I particularly enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the places we ate. If you've recently visited a popular place in NYC, San Francisco, or Austin, TX (to name my three most recent big-city dining experiences), you will appreciate what I mean. In these cities, you make your reservation days or weeks in advance, arrive at the restaurant well in advance of your reservation time, then proceed to sit or stand at the noisy, crowded bar until the host staff deign to seat you. I'm typically fine with this - I don't like to think of waitstaff hustling the current occupants of my table-to-be out of the restaurant before they're ready - but the whole experience can be exhausting, expensive, and loud. If you're from Austin, think Lambert's or Vespaio on a Thursday or Friday night. I only get a bit resentful when I feel the place in question is kind of purposefully engineering this sort of crazy atmosphere to engender 'buzz' (e.g. Vespaio with their dumb 'no reservations' policy).

I will pause to note that I fully realize that I sound like a curmudgeon. Setting the fact that I actually am a curmudgeon aside for a moment: I totally get the fun of wedging one's self up in a noisy, happening restaurant, spending too much at the bar while waiting for a table, elbowing pretty/sweaty people,etc. This, in fact, puts a gloss on "hunger" that perhaps these hyper-urban spots satisfy in a very specific, deeply interesting, way. That's all great, I'm all for it. I'm just making the point that it's nice to have options, that sometimes you want to actually talk to your dining companions, etc.

Portland is a small town with a disproportionately large food subculture, so eating a good meal there is relaxed and leisurely in a manner I'd never experienced. A caveat, I suppose, that I'm writing from an extremely limited perspective, using a small sample size of two places: Evangeline and Bar Lola.

Anyway. I want to write a bit about Evangeline. Evangeline is a small (maybe 10-12 table) place in Portland's West End - the classic "clean, well-lighted place," if you will. I immediately liked the feel of the space - there were young parents with babies, slightly tipsy/raucous service workers at the bar, all good things.

Evangeline was cool - we ate the calf brain fritter, the roasted marrow bone, the hake, the duck breast, the baby vegetable, the lounging on the couch sucking milk from the teat of a baby goat while the rancher blowdries its feathers chicken, the red bow on its tail removed only seconds before slaughter pig. Etc. You get the idea. Locally-sourced food, thoughtfully & enthusiastically prepared in a very pleasant environment. It's easy to get earthy-crunchy, I-heart-Michael-Pollan rhapsodic about this sort of thing, but I enjoyed every second of this meal.

It was all very delicious and ethical. I was feeling good about myself - righteous, even. Then, they brought out the sexy food. Soft, stinky cheese in a spoon, balanced on a wine cork, with buckwheat honey and candied hazelnut. Melon sorbet in cold melon soup. Baked figs over a port reduction. Syrupy, inky cups of espresso. The real sensual deal.

In sum: good meal, truly excellent finish.

More on our home-cooked seafood and foraged wild blackberry meal in my next post, + bonus video.