This brunch works, but it’s light on breakfast

My original thoughts on the (dinner) menu at Italian eatery Tipo when I was there a while back were that it offered a little something for everyone, but I felt differently about the brunch version as I was reviewing it while seated at the bar. Not that it didn’t have a fair number of options – it included lots of plates, some pizza, and sweets – just that not many of them were the “br” in brunch. That seemed a little odd since I assume many people eat brunch looking for a traditional breakfast.

She started with a Mimosa Spritz – aperol, prosecco, oj – and I stuck with water as I continued perusing the menu. Wanting the early morning meal despite the fact that is was after noon, I picked out the few options that were available to me. Crepes and frittata stood out at first, but it was the Smoked Shortrib and Potato Hash – farm egg, melted onion, sourdough – that had me the most interested. It sounded like a hearty breakfast and met me where I was at at the moment.

Mrs. Portlandeater was in the mood for a Margherita Pizza – fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil, olive oil. It wasn’t the most exciting choice on the menu, but the heart wants what the heart wants, as they say. We placed our orders and watched as the pie was created and thrown into the oven. The kitchen appeared to be prepping for dinner as the restaurant was in its last hour before closing to reopen for the night.

Our food came out with mine in a skillet, the seasoned egg and two buttery pieces of toast hiding the hash. It was on the smallish side, though I somewhat expected that because the prices weren’t particularly high. Her pizza was traditional with a fair pouring of olive oil on the top. She grabbed a slice and I arranged my food in a way that allowed me to view it all at once.

I took a bite of the toast first and it was marvelous. It was made from fresh bread and crispy through and through; I found a satisfying crunch in every bite. I ate all the toast first, making room to dig into the egg. The chicken seed was cooked to medium and a smidge spicy. As eggs go, it was quite good. I finished that before moving on to the taters.

Based on appearance, I had mixed feelings about the hash. It looked well prepared overall, but the potatoes were a little large for my liking. It was nothing too far outside of the ordinary, but for a hash, smaller bites of potato offer a better ability to mix in the other parts of the dish, allowing for more consistent flavors and textures. An initial bite proved it wasn’t devastating, but I felt the beef didn’t quite cover for the large potato as well as it could have.

Despite the biggish spuds, the hash was still quite enjoyable. The short rib in particular was really tasty and added the depth I was looking for in the plate even if some potatoes were left without any. These weren’t just hash browns, they were a meal – a small one, but still substantial enough to remind me I had made a good decision. I finished those and considered an order of another plate or something sweet, however, my wife had plenty of pizza left and was willing to share.

For pizza purists, the margherita at Tipo is a must. The smattering of mozz and basil on top of thin crust and light red sauce with an olive oil finish is true pizza for many a restaurant-goer. While it’s not my personal favorite, I frequently find myself eating her leftovers and Tipo is at least as good as any I’ve had lately. Before I was done, I found myself gladly consuming half a pizza.

Pizza, drink, and hash plate came to about $37 with tip. Whether you are there for brunch or dinner, Tipo makes really good food. My only issue is that the brunch menu itself falls short on breakfast options. Yes, there are some, but many more are suitable for lunch. If you are in the mood for lunch or dinner, Tipo makes a great choice, but if you want some of the standard morning foods, you might consider going somewhere else.

Tipo 182 Ocean Ave

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High-end fare, elegance delivered by award-winning eatery

Among those who live in or visit Portland and love to eat, Fore Street has attained legendary status. Opened in 1996, the restaurant with a menu that changes at every sunrise focuses on what’s fresh and available to them that very day. The wood-burning oven, grill, and turnspit add not only great scenery, but are the key to many of the flavors which exit the open kitchen and land on the eater’s table.

Their use of only the highest quality ingredients and supreme cooking technique has earned Fore Street a number of awards and they rightly command a high price for their fare. For that reason, my visits have been infrequent, but a return was due. We made early-ish reservations for a Friday evening and looked forward to a special meal, hoping the menu of the day would suit us well.

We hung our coats upon arrival and were promptly seated by the window, provided menus, and poured water. I looked over the wine and spirits menus, longing to find a drink that was “different”. One caught my eye quickly, the El Nuevo Old Fashioned – Herradura Reposado Tequila, agave, mole poblano bitters. An old fashioned with tequila sounded interesting enough on its face, so I went with it. She opted for a glass of Pinot Noir Rose – Domaine de Corbillieres, Touraine.

It was strange, but my drink really did have the feeling of an old fashioned and came complete with an orange peel garnish. Not exactly what I expected, but it was great. I took a few sips and poured over the two-sided food menu. The front page consisted of starters and the back had entrees and vegetables to share. There were plenty of options and the descriptions of each item were thorough, so it took some time to scan them all.

My wife beat me to making decisions and fell for the Simmered Beet and Roasted Hokurei Salad – rocket and red Russian kale, seared raddichio, mandarin, spiced cranberry, toasted pistachio, cranberry mandarin vinaigrette – and picked the Atlantic Monkfish Loin – Gulf of Maine, roasted flat fish broth with mushroom and fermented adzuki bean, garlic roasted carolla potatoes and carrots, pickled pepper vinaigrette, leek butter – as her entree. She threw in Aroostook County Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Hard Roasted Carrots with Cider Vinegar Marinated Red Delicious Apple to share with me.

I was thinking about a salad to start, but also gave some consideration to the smelts. For entrees, it was scallops, arctic char, or chicken. Salad won out over a fish app as I chose Warm Roasted Exotic Mushroom and Scarlet Turnip Salad – small kale and spinich, roasted cabbage, bacon, pickled red onion, brown butter, thyme and sherry vinaigrette. My entree would be the Arctic Char Filet – smoky ham hock, simmered marifax beans with bacon, maple and mustard, beet and red onion slaw with tarragon and citrus.

As we were nibbling on bread, our salads arrived looking glorious, hers a little greener than mine. I took a few bites and found it to be light and refreshing. No one part was overly potent. The mushrooms were delicious and buttery and the vinaigrette mild. The bacon added a little strength which was nice, but not required. It didn’t feel like it had to be overwhelmingly powerful. The flavors were smooth and eazy like the perfect jazz quintet, and that was enough.

After the salad was done, our entrees and veggies didn’t take long to make their appearance. Both mains were prepared in the wood oven and mine came in a pan I was warned was “too hot to touch”. My dish was layered with beans underneath, fish above, and then slaw on top. Her potatoes and fish sat side by side in a puddle of broth. It was time to dive in.

The fish was wood-fire delicious, but best delivered with the beans at the bottom. Call it a “Maine thing” if you want, but beans done right – and bacon, maple, mustard is about as bean-right as humanly possible – work with almost anything. The arctic char enveloped the smokey wood goodness and took on added flavor from the beans creating a torrent of tastes that had some snap. The slaw, which I mostly ate on its own, poked at the dish with fresh flavors of slight citrus.

In between bites of fish, I threw down some potatoes and carrots and they were spectacular. The potatoes were creamy and garlicky, both to perfection, the carrots tender and sweet. Both were excellent additions to my hearty fish dish and all the items worked so well together. Eventually I finished my food, eating more than half of the veggies as my wife struggled to finish her meal.

There was some debate about whether or not to order dessert, but reading down the menu we stumbled upon cheesecake after bypassing variations of panna cotta, chocolate cake, and pecan pie. With a wink and a nod, it was agreed upon. We ordered the Apple Crisp Cheesecake – clove caramel sauce, candied pistachios, pomegranate sherbet. She threw in a decaf coffee for insurance.

Our sweet ending was modest in size, but its presentation flamboyant. The small, round cheescake with the crisp top layer was flanked by a perfectly rolled pink sherbet. Both sat on the caramel with the pistachios scattered about like tasty, edible marbles. I gave my wife the eye, knowing I was unable to wait for her to ready her fork and dug in without remorse.

My first bite was good, though perhaps a little heavy on the apple. Luckily, I didn’t stop there and took a second try that had an ample sampling of actual cheesecake. In combination, the crisp/cheesecake combo felt pure. The two, both having achieved greatness on their own, partnered for what I felt was a delightful marriage. Sugary crisp topping, sweet apples, and cheese – the dessert had it all.

It was only right to make sure I next tried the caramel sauce. Caramel is not usually on my list of favorites, but in combination with the cake, it was undoubtedly the best use of it I ever consumed – a natural pairing. The pistachios were marvelous too and the sherbet was tasty, but probably necessary only as a way to cut the sweetness, if you want that sort of thing. We slowly finished the cake, making room one bite at a time as space inside us became more and more limited.

Once we finished the cheesecake, it was time to make our way out. Our meal came to about $153 before tip. They’re not inexpensive by any means, but Fore Street means business when it comes to food. Freshness, seasonality, and methods of preparation all play a critical role in they way they create flavors. And they present a wonderfully diverse menu that offers something for everyone who likes wholesome, real food that will put a smile on your face.

When you walk into Fore Street, you are immediately greeted by the smell of wood smoke, but the smells, colors, flavors, and textures around you will continue to provoke your senses throughout. Even the sounds of the kitchen will add to the experience. For me, this time at Fore Street was even better than the last. The meal was outstanding from cocktail to cake and while the boldest flavors came at the end, the palate throughout the meal painted a beautiful picture one happy, little bite at a time.

Fore Street 288 Fore St.

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Sushi restaurant moves up to the next level with new space

I enjoyed Benkay when I was there last. The food was good, but the physical space wasn’t anything to write home about. For that reason, I was inclined to visit a couple days after they opened their new Middle St. location. Hearing that it was going to be new and nice along with my strong desire to consume some sushi made it an easy decision.

As I approached the restaurant from the outside, I could already tell I would be pleased. The floor-to-ceiling windows made it easy to see inside and it was indeed quite attractive. Upon entering, a statue of a shogun greeted me followed by a waitress who sat us at a table by a window near the bar. We wiped our hands with the warm cloth and peeked at the menus which were beautifully bound and still looked unused on their third day.

Not having been a regular at the prior incarnation, it was difficult to tell if the menu was much different, but I was certainly pleased with the options, which were numerous. I was mostly craving some sushi, though I thought I might want a starter of some sort. My wife vacillated between sushi and a create-your-own-dinner option for $25 and decided to order some tea while sorting it out.

After some thought, I decided on the Seaweed Salad – crunchy mixed seaweed in a lemon sesame dressing – to start. Then I added three orders of sushi to the mix – Garlic Maki Roll – hamachi, garlic; Kappa Maki – cucumber; and Spicy Scallop Maki – scallops broiled with spicy sauce. She went with the create your own dinner once she realized it could include sushi. It automatically came with miso soup, chawanmushi (Japanese style egg custard), and rice (she chose brown). Then she added seaweed salad, shrimp dumplings, chicken teriyaki, and spicy tuna maki.

My seaweed salad and her miso soup came out first and by then, I had worked myself into a frenzy about the greenery, having a seaweed salad craving like never before. I took a bite and it was everything I had hoped for. Sure, seaweed salad is pretty basic and I can’t tell you for sure if it was my craving that made it so good, but the freshness and quality of the dressing certainly didn’t hurt. I squeezed some extra lemon on it in order to make it more acidic. I was feeling a little wild.

The salad went down the hatch quickly and the rest of our food came out soon after. I had a single plate with six rolls each of my three orders and my wife had a round platter loaded with individual bowls of each item she had ordered. I started with the garlic rolls. They were a good combo with the cooked yellowtail and a solid shot of garlic. A little wasabi and soy sauce were perfect additions.

With the first set of rolls done, I moved on to the cucumber which were quite standard, but excellent. After those, I worked on the spicy scallop rolls. Those are always a favorite and they were excellent. The sweet bits of scallop and creamy, spicy sauce were easy to love. A little dab of wasabi made them extra, runny-nose spicy.

As I was winding down with my food, Mrs. Portlandeater offered to let me try a couple bites what was left of hers. Neither of us loved the custard which we were told was absolutely not a dessert. It was too salty and a little thin for me to acknowledge as actual custard. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it as such. The chicken teryaki was unexciting, but tasty enough. I finished the rest of her seaweed, not having had enough of my own.

Once we were done, we settled up with the grand total coming to about $64 including tax and tip. The meal was very good. I was pleased with the sushi and, except for the custard, my wife liked her meal too. It should be noted that while I didn’t order any of the fish specials, there were nine available on the board by the sushi bar, so there’s most definitely no shortage of options for rolls. There’s also a sharp-looking wet bar to sit at and there was a saki flight special while we were there.

Despite the solid food and strong menu, Benkay now has a totally different aura specifically because the inside is much more upscale. It looks beautiful and feels very comfortable because of that. It’s not hard to imagine sitting at either bar and spending some time ordering lots of sushi or maybe a sampling of libations. It would be difficult not to have an enjoyable stay, especially if you want like to sprawl out in a place with some class.

Benkay 16 Middle St.

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Check out these pictures of the new bar menu at Emilitsa

I had a recent opportunity to try the new bar menu at Emilitsa. Though I recently re-reviewed Portland’s Greek restaurant, I was exceptionally happy to return for even more. They always amaze me with their exquisite food and drinks and first-rate service, so it’s safe to say that, for me, too much Emilitsa is never enough. Here’s what I tried.

Sazzy Goes to Greece – Bulleit Rye, cane sugar, Ouzo 12, lemon oil

An excellent cocktail, reminding me of a Manhattan because of it’s full whiskey flavor, but with a little more sweetness, and hints of herb and citrus. A stellar concoction if you enjoy bourbon.

Elies – spiced Mediterranean olives

Just your basic spiced olives here, but a very nice little bar food to go with a beer, wine, or their fabulous drinks.

Fava – dal lentil puree, slivered vidalia, garlic toast

One of my favorites at Emilitsa. This spread is good enough to eat by the pound. I know some people are offended by raw onion, but this is one of the best uses of it I’ve ever had, offering flavors that put the perfect touch on the on the little open-faced sandwich on top of crisp toast.

Sloppy Yanni – Greek sloppy joe

These saucy sweet and mustard-y sliders are a good choice for those looking for something beefy, but get your napkin ready. They are truly sloppy.

Plevra Choirinou Kreatos – smoked pork ribs, anise-citrus glaze

I can’t say I’m a huge fan of ribs, but the reduced orange glaze on these babies makes them more than worthy of a try. If you like ribs, you’ll love them.

Little Souvlaki – daily selection

The ones we had were swordfish, but they will change regularly between pork, beef, fish, and whatever else the chef comes up with. And it’s safe to say that no one – and I mean no one – does souvlaki like Emilitsa. I’ve never had swordfish like that.

Plevra Arnu – grilled lamb rib chop, pomegranate au jus

A great rare lamb lollipop with a nice flavor added by the pom. Lamb lovers will swoon at this winner of a dish.

Tiganito Kotopoulo – fried chicken wings, spicy oyster sauce, lime

An unusual take on wings with the oyster sauce, these carried more flavors than any wings I can remember. Salty, spicy, and a bit sweet all at the same time, the crispy guys were absolutely delicious. I was a little disappointed we ate them last because I had room for only a few.

Thanks to owners John and Demo Regas and very humble chef Niko Regas for their hospitality and the chance to bring their food – in pictures – to my hungry readers.

Emilitsa 547 Congress St.

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It’s hard to stop eating at this spectacular Japanese restaurant

It had been too long since I’d eaten at Izakaya Minato on Washington Ave., but after just naming them restaurant of the year for 2017, I didn’t want to waste any more time before I went back. The masters of Japanese cuisine serve a variety of items, but what makes them particularly interesting to me is that they’re not totally focused on sushi, though they do have some of that available too.

We got there early on a Friday and I was thinking they might be busy even just after opening for the night. I was incorrect, and when we took our seats at the bar, we were actually the only customers in the front room of the place. The bartender quickly approached us and provided menus, at some point also firing off a few specials. We scoped out the available drinks.

Though I’m not a huge fan of gin, I decided to go with the Plum Vesper 2.0 – spicy plum sake, gin, vodka, ume boshi. Something about plums caught my attention and I figured the uniqueness of a plum drink might be fun. My wife went with a glass of the Scaia Rosato. Once the bartender started concocting those, we discussed what we might want to eat.

Our drinks came and we were ready to order the beginnings of our food. Having arrived so early, we decided to take it slowly, going with only a couple of items at a time. We started with Garlic Edamame – fried soybeans and garlic. I threw in one of the specials, Smelt Kara Age – deep fried smelts in potato starch and served with a spicy sauce and yuzu salt.

My drink looked relatively basic except that it had a toothpick bridge with the ume boshi (Japanese plum) impaled on it. I gave it a try and was immediately impressed. The drink was a little different than anything I remember having, but it was extraordinary. The botanicals of the gin were in play, but slightly muted, rather than the harsh full frontal assult on the senses that I often dislike. The drink was strong, slightly sweet, and pleasant in every way.

The first two food items came out one after the other, first edamame and then smelts. The soybeans were as good as I could imagine them ever being, which is to say they were incredible. The fried pods combined with the glut of garlic and salt tossed into them, transformed the traditional Japanese offering, making them something truly spectacular.

I had four smelts on my plate and they won me over similarly to the edemame. Fried until totally crisp, the fish was great as it was, but with a dip of the sauce, it became a spicy, flavorful app that I enjoyed immensely. Once my swimmers were gone, we ordered the Tuna Poke – sliced tuna mixed with avocado, garlic, tobiko and sesame oil – for her and the Mochi Bacon – grilled bacon-wrapped mochi, served with sweet soy – for me.

She insisted the tuna was great and ordered another glass of wine as I was preparing to try my mochi. I always find the rice paste to have great texture and brilliantly take on the flavors with which it’s paired. This one was much chewier than any other I’d had. However, the bacon and sauce added just the right amount of flavor and fat to make it a sucess despite leaving my jaw a little tired after each bite.

Next, we went with the JFC – Japanese fried chicken, boneless thigh meat and Kimchi Cha-han – kimchi fried rice as our last two pieces of the meal. The JFC was once again on another level as the super-crispy, sensationally seasoned chicken left few words able to exit my mouth. The fried rice wasn’t far behind with its own stellar flavors taking everyday fried rice to the next level. Slightly spicy and salty, it was close to perfection.

All our food was finished and we passed on dessert, though I thought twice about ordering some even though I was no longer hungry. Our meal came to $67 – close to half of which was alcohol – plus tax and tip. Izakaya Minato knocked it out of the park again. They create stunning dishes that always leave me in food-borne ecstasy, reinventing some basic Japanese to make it exponentially better, while also creating their own bold recipes that excite anyone looking for something uniquely delicious.

If you have any inclination at all to see what Izakaya Minato is all about, I highly recommend you head there without delay. They offer an incredible value, food that stands on its own merits, and an fun, enjoyable atmosphere. Their dishes are almost all made to share and everything they serve is very good, if not straight up great. While you’re there, you’ll keep asking “what’ll we have next?” When you leave, you’ll only be asking yourself how soon you can make it back.

Izakaya Minato 54 Washington Ave., 207-613-9939

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New Maine Mall eatery adds fine food option to the area

“Holy cow, this place is big.” I walked into the massive, new Tuscan Table at the Maine Mall (in its own building), amazed by its gargantuan size. With decorative lighting, a huge oval bar that encompassed much of the first floor, and a sizable upper level, it felt a little like walking into a casino or resort grand entrance. Wy wife – we drove there separately – texted me the directions “left upon entering and up the stairs.” I followed them and found her.

She had already ordered a drink when I sat, so I looked at the list of libations, hoping to try something new. The cocktails didn’t excite me, but I was pleased to find a beer from a local brewery I had yet to try, which rarely happens these days. I went with The Thirsty Botanist IPA from Boothbay Craft Brewery. The waitress said that was her favorite – don’t they all say that? My wife had ordered a rose; it’s her new thing.

The food menu consisted of a wide selection of mostly typical Italian restaurant fare with a hint of Maine flair. It started with raw and chilled seafood while meats, cheese, and antipasti followed. On the reverse were salads, pasta, pizza, and entrees. I was impressed with the selection. Each section had plenty of options and many appeared quite interesting and, I assumed, delicious.

Because I was having some difficulty picking an app, I went with what I considered a sure thing, deciding to order one meat ($3 each; seven options) and one cheese ($5 each; seven options). After a couple questions about ones with which I wasn’t familiar, I went with Prosciutto di Parma and Foglie di Noce. My wife ordered Cavolfiore – roasted cauliflower, romaine lettuce, anchovy lemon dressing, garlic croutons, grana padano.

For entrees, I decided on the Maine Haddock – oven roasted leek, Maine potato, artichoke, basil and shallot sauce, garlic croutons. Even though I’m not a huge fan of artichokes, I figured they probably weren’t a major player in the dish, though I didn’t bother asking. She chose the Chicken Parmigiano – crispy chicken marinated in basil buttermilk, cherry tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, spaghetti pomodoro.

My beer turned out to be a winner. A really excellent brew with plenty of hop and a fairly prevalent boquet of citrus, I highly recommend it. Our apps came quickly which was good; service had been a bit on the slow side until that point. Mine looked awesome and had a particularly large serving of cheese which was great because I occassionally feel somewhat shortchanged on cheese plates.

Upon inspection, I was a little perplexed by what I had in front of me. The meats and cheeses both came with crackers and crostini provided in a separate pail. However, the meat was supposed to be accompanied by giardiniera, house mustard, walnut grape jam, and the cheese with sultana mostarda, Maine honey, spiced nuts. I was missing walnut grape jam, sultant mostarda, and honey. I’m not sure it mattered much, but it was confusing since the menu indicated that’s what I was getting.

Despite my missing pieces, I forged ahead, not particularly concerned with what I didn’t have. The main parts were both excellent – the foglie de noce reminded me of manchego – and the house mustard was truly superb. It went perfectly on my little crostini sandwich and I couldn’t get enough except that it had a moderate heat which prevented it from being eaten in massive portions. The nuts and giardiniera were also both delicious.

As I ate my starter, I ran into two issues. One was that the house made crackers were long, slender, and somewhat brittle. They weren’t made to have toppings piled on. Other than a dip in the mustard, they couldn’t handle anything else added to them. A shorter, wider cracker would have been more conducive to my plight. Because of that, I ran out of crostini and crackers too soon and was left to pile the rest on top of the bread service we had remaining.

After I finished my food, I tried a bite of her cauliflower salad. It was fine, but I prefer my roasted veggies warm and was happy with what I ordered. She eradicated the rest of the veggies and we soon were in receipt of the entrees. Hers looked slightly larger than mine, though I surmised that after our apps, we would both have enough for us to leave without going hungry. We started to dig in.

On the bottom of my dish was the cream sauce, in which my fish swam. The artichoke, taters, and croutons were also paddling in it. I took a bite of the haddock. It was on the well done side which was totally fine with me, but I think others might have wanted it pulled from the oven a minute or two sooner. The cream sauce was tasty, though a tad weak. I pushed the few artichoke pieces aside, but enjoyed the potatoes and crunchy croutons and thought they added nicely to the plate.

Many bites into my food, I was sold on the haddock plate as quite good, though lacking the umph to be great. I did finish it and tried my wife’s chicken when I was done. I hadn’t noticed that it was on the bone which surprised me. Still, my two bites were very pleasant. It was definitely crispy – as the menu had promised – and nicely seasoned. Though I didn’t have enough to confirm, I might have liked that more than my own meal.

She couldn’t finish all her food and neither of us were able to eat dessert. We called it quits and left, our meal coming to just over $90 with tax and tip. Tuscan Table adds a solid option to dining near the mall. They have a few items they can work on, but they are minor. Our service started off a little on the slow side, and then picked up to the point that the waitress came by a bunch of times to make sure we were all set. Ideally, that could be smoothed out some.

In addition to the service, the meat and cheese plate – which I felt was both really delicious and a very fair value -needs a couple of – I’ll call them logistical – improvements. And my haddock was good, but not the great, flavorful piece of art I’d look for in a perfect world. Still, Tuscan Table is off to a good start in their first weeks. In fact, good enough that my wife went back with a friend the very next night. I think it’s reasonable that you check it out at least once and see what you think.

Tuscan Table, 390 Gorham Road, South Portland, 207-536-0240

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​Peter Peter Portland Eater’s Eating Portland, ME Awards 2017

Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what’s for lunch.” -Orson Welles

Oh Portland…how I love you. With your ocean waters, golden summer sun, and crowds of admiring tourists brought here by air, land, and sea. Your winters are a little on the rough side and seem to last forever, but fortunately, you’ve got plenty of food to keep us entertained and add that layer of warmth to our bodies when the sun isn’t doing it for us.

Of course, that food is what we’re here to celebrate. It’s been a busy year for Portland – with many restaurant openings and closings, as usual – but it’s also been a busy year for me going to many newcomers on the scene, and also revisiting some favorites to keep up with what they were doing too. Part of that included significant time blogging for the Bangor Daily News, and of course, recently returning full-time to this, my own personal blog.

This year, I’ve had the opportunity to try more food, eat more special dinners, and meet more people in the restaurant world than I ever have and I’ve been lucky to do it in the greatest food city imaginable. When you’re involved with food in Portland, it’s truly special. So, thanks to all the restaurant owners, chefs and other employees, food media, PR, and everyone who makes Portland eating so great for me all the others who are here looking for a spectacular food and drink experience.

In this article, I’m recognizing the best restaurants I visited from either blog I wrote for, whether or not I’ve reviewed them before. There may be repeat winners as they deserve to be celebrated too. The criteria are overall quality of experience with a focus on food, atmosphere, and service with strong consideration given to value and how well they stand out in their genre. Congrats to everyone and thanks for making 2017 my most delicious year yet. 

It should be noted that a lot of the restaurants below are new as of 2017. There are some true standouts that opened over the course of the year and they have earned some good words and recognition. Opening a restaurant is no easy task, especially where there are already many great ones, but it’s even more difficult to make a lasting impression on customers and that’s what many of these have done. Here we go.

Restaurant of the Year – Izakaya Minato, 54 Washington Ave.​izakaya-minato-turning-japanese-in-maine/

Having eaten at so many restaurants this year, some really excellent ones regrettably didn’t make this article at all and many of the ones mentioned below could certainly take this spot. In other words, choosing my favorite restaurant of the year was no simple task. However, taking into account all the criteria above, Izakaya Minato deserves this accolade and then some. 

Highlighted by Garlic Edamame, Kimchi Fried Rice, and Japanese Fried Chicken – which my wife deemed a food “you have to eat before you die”, my meal was an absolute barnburner. One after the other, I tried foods that either made me reconsider my thoughts on flavor combinations or simply knocked me upside the head with beautifully concocted, elegant tastes.

When I walked in, I was excited to go to a Japanese restaurant where sushi wasn’t the main focus. On my way out, I was left wanting to go back as soon as possible. Izakaya Minato makes food that is stunning, interesting, and exciting. That, and they hit all the marks for service, atmosphere, and – at $40 for my wife and I combined – are on the list of best values around.

If you want a meal that will knock your socks off, impress friends, or make you feel special, Izakaya Minato is the place to go. It’s difficult to go wrong there. Their JFC is among the best foods in all of Portland, so that alone is worth the visit. But you’d honestly be missing out if you didn’t have a more thourough sampling of their menu. It’s just that damn good.

Honorable Mention – Street and Co., 33 Wharf St.

Street and Co. does non-fried seafood just about as good as anyone anywhere. My Grilled Lobster on Linguine was a masterpiece of the senses. It looked beautiful, smelled of mountains of garlic, and was everything something that sounds that good should be. There was also lots of it on my plate, so there was no chance of me going home hungry. Plus, the scallop meals in front of my tablemates were just as good.

It’s pretty clear why Street and Co. is a perennial favorite in town. Their food is excellent and they’re getting their wares from nearby, enabling them to serve some of the freshest, tastiest sea creatures imaginable. Whether you’re a local or a tourist, there isn’t any good reason not to go there on occasion and treat yourself to an incredible meal you’ll remember for a long time to come.

Best Ethnic Food – Baharat, 91 Anderson St.

Middle Eastern restaurant Baharat made a name for themselves when they were only a food truck (under a different name), but their more accessible brick and mortar store has been exactly what I hoped it would be and then some. From their mezze/apps, to Kebabs of chicken and lamb, and the massive Shawarmageddon – an “everything” sandwich, the food is sometimes simple and occassionally more complex, but always delicious.

In case the food isn’t enough, they are another in a line of new restaurants around Portland that are taking cocktails to another level. What’s even more exciting is that many of these places – like Baharat – aren’t the types of venues in which you might expect that. I recommend a few different libations, but you’re guaranteed to love A Rad Mirage which is made with Lebanese yogurt, honey, and mint. I assure you, like some others there, it’s a drink you’ll want to go back for again and again.

Honorable Mention – Lazzari, 618 Congress St.​this-pizza-is-worth-1000-words

It’s probably safe to say that pizza has transcended ethnicity to a large extent, but one of the things that makes Lazzari so great is that they make a serious – and incredibly sucessful – attempt to keep the Italian food theme throughout the rest of their menu. From the incredible Panzanella I had in July to the Italian street food known as Suppli, they throw a wrench into the traditional pizzaria and take it to a different, well-thought-out place.

I can’t stop talking about Lazzari before I mention their drinks too. They have some of the best drinks in town and if you haven’t sampled them, it’s probably time to do that. I haven’t had a cocktail there yet that I didn’t find absolutely stunning. They’re original, preposterously delicious, and the perfect compliment to the simple, yet exquisite pizza.

Best New Restaurant – Little Giant, 211 Danforth St.​pictures-from-the-wild-game-dinner-at-little-giant/

Little Giant certainly got my attention this year. The beautiful eatery, opened as Andrew and Briana Volk’s follow-up to their very popular Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, is a change of pace in that it focuses on full service meals, rather than only drinks and snack. While LG has their own thing going on, they continue on a Volk tradition of artfully created foods and drink with bold flavors served in a relaxing atmosphere.

As my most reviewed restaurant this year, I can say that multiple visits in a short period of time are not only okay, but encouraged. Graze on the amazing cheese ball, biscuits, and a small oyster taco while drinking creations with names like Knife Fight and Born To Run. Then move on to the house burger, skirt steak, or a very potent mushroom pasta. Whatever you eat or drink, you simply can’t go wrong.

Honorable Mention – Blyth & Burrows, 26 Exchange St.​what-to-expect-when-the-new-bar-with-a-secret-door-opens-tomorrow/​unique-bar-lives-up-to-hype-seven-months-after-opening/

There aren’t many places with a theme and atmosphere as cool as Blythe & Burrows, but add to that to the secret door leading to a totally different bar downstairs and you’ve got the makings of a place that can potentially amuse patrons for hours. They only serve small plates, so don’t go looking for an entree, but you can be sure that the food and drinks deliver and ordering enough plates to fill you up and call it dinner seems totally appropriate.

My first post-opening day visit just recently made me a total believer in what they’re doing. All the food was high-quality and the drinks hit the mark too. My wife thought the Poke Bao was one of the best things she’d eaten all year and my Korean Short Rib Bao also was very pleasing. If you’re an oyster lover, they’ve got a great selection of those too, including a charbroiled option if you like those babies cooked.

Best Upscale Restaurant – Emilitsa, 547 Congress St.

What can be said about Emilitsa that hasn’t already been said by Portland as a whole? If you want upscale food and drink, it’s hard to find a better place to go. From the first bite to the last, and every single one in between, they serve Greek cuisine that is absolutely magical. They also put an exclamation point on customer service and have every last detail down to a science. I particularly appreciate the offer to take jackets immediately upon being led to your table.

Like many restaurants in Portland, Emilitsa’s menu changes frequently based on the season and to keep it interesting, but regardless of what else they’ve got available, I highly recommend the spreads to start. Frankly, anything you order after that is all but guaranteed to be an absolute winner. I think if you go, you’ll wholeheartedly agree.

Honorable Mention – Bolster, Snow, and Co., 747 Congress St.​historic-location-fine-drinks-and-bold-flavors-define-new-eatery/

Bolster Snow invited me to check them out shortly after they opened and I feel lucky they did. With only about a month under their belt, they came through in a big way. Starting with a top notch drink – Honey Buck – and moving on to apps and snacks, our meal got off to a really great start and continued right through the completion of our entree. It was unfortunate that we didn’t have room left for dessert, because an “eclair” with cranberry was right up my alley. 

The restaurant serves weekend brunch and is open for dinner Wed-Sun in the winter. They receive a fair amount of nightly traffic for drinks and rightly so, because their libations are proper and the lounge areas very inviting. However, their food makes staying for a full meal after a cocktail or two a very reasonable proposition. They’re just getting started, but I think Bolster Snow is going to be making Portlanders happy for a long time to come.

Best Eats on the Cheap – Cong Tu Bot, 57 Washington Ave.

Despite what many are saying about the Portland food scene, there are still a number of eateries that are both tasty and inexpensive. Vietnamese eatery Cong Tu Bot is one of those. With their small menu of often spicy food and their “throw a restaurant into an empty garage” appearance, they have created a little eatery that reminds me of the big city. It’s sparsely appointed restaurants like that – the interior is nice enough, though plain – that I often associate with having top notch food.

Portland is small and filled with foodies always looking for the next big thing, so it’s not likely Cong Tu Bot will be the place only you know about and get to introduce to everyone for the first time. That’s good though, because they deserve to be more than that. My only warning is to take them seriously when they say their food is spicy, because unlike many others in this area, they actually mean it.

Honorable Mention – Big Fin Poke, 855 Main St, Westbrook, ME 04092 (with a second location in South Portland)

Big Fin Poke isn’t the type of place I normally review. The counter service and create-your-own style food doesn’t always offer quite the excitement of table service with the chef’s best creations. However, they introduced Maine to poke – Hawaiian style sushi – this year, and in doing so, have made a name for themselves, because not only is it inexpensive and really good, it turns out it’s quite fun to order.

Whether you decide on one of the house creations or start yours from scratch, you can be sure that Big Fin has sometthing to satisfy whatever your tastes are at the moment. Start with a rice bowl, a wrap, or a salad and then add raw fish, cooked beef and chicken, and even tofu. Then pile on any number of interesting additions. It’s even better than it sounds and if their new, second location in SoPo is any indication, a lot of locals agree.

Best Appetizer – 33 Elmwood, 33 Elmwood Ave, Westbrook, ME 04092

What makes 33 Elmwood in Westbrook so fun is that they have games, but what a first-time visitor might not expect is that they also have solid food and drinks. When I went with a group nearly a year ago now and shortly after they opened, their bowling alleys weren’t ready, but the rest of the place was in full swing. We had a meal and then played some bocce. 

But the very good reason why 33 Elmwood makes this list is because of their Fried Deviled Eggs. Made with sriracha, dijon, and chive, the chicken seed was crunchy, tangy, and delicious. As someone who loves deviled eggs in pretty much any form, this preparation took a favorite of mine culinary delight to a whole new level. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that they have lots of other great food too.

Honorable Mention – Liquid Riot, 250 Commercial St.​liquid-riot-beer-spirits-and-food-all-made-right-there/

Have you ever had the Duck “Nachos” at Liquid Riot? Well, neither had I until I finally got there this year and I can’t believe what I was missing. Made from what might seem like a strange combination of ingredients – house potato chips, duck confit, apple butter, blue cheese fondue – the dish was amazing with lots of brilliant flavors wrapped into one insanely delicious package.

Like all the eateries on this list, Liquid Riot offers lots of good options for tasty sustenance, but the duck nachos are an absolute “must have”. I suppose any item with the word “nacho” in it is worth a shot, however these are a little out of the box which makes them special and more than worthy of a try. Of course, the specialty there is the booze made in house, and that all just so happens to go perfectly with nachos of any kind.

Best Place to Grab a Drink/Beer/Wine and Chill Out – Mash Tun, 29 Wharf St.

Mash Tun is quickly becoming one of my very favorite spots in Portland and with good reason. They take no frills greatness to a whole new level. With an excellent beer list and a tiny menu on which everything is both really basic and utterly awesome, Mash Tun makes not only a good place to hang out and drink beer on a whim, but also a pretty excellent location to sooth that growling stomach.

If their beer and food doesn’t convince you to visit, their prices are a drop in the bucket too, so you’ll leave feeling like you made a good decision for your family’s long term financial heath. I can’t get enough of Mash Tun and I feel like they might be the perfect place to take up residence every year during the cold weather until they save me enough money to buy an actual winter home in the tropics.

Honorable Mention – BRGR Bar, 11 Brown St.

I went to BRGR Bar alone the first week they were opened while my wife was traveling. I ate plenty, but I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that it would also be a great place to just sit for a while and enjoy some suds. Sure, the fact that burger is in the name of the joint will likely drive you to order some sort of food, but there seemed to be plenty of people who were content just having a beer or adult milkshake while I was there.

I’ve suggested to a fair number of friends that they go and if I’m taking their word for it, BRGR Bar is impressing everyone who walks in the door. For those who don’t love beef, fear not because there are lots of different options including poultry, fish, and both vegetarian and vegan options. Plus, with fries, tots, apps, and salads, you’ve got a wide range of non-burger choices. I recommend trying the Vietnamese fries, but where you go from there is anybody’s guess.
There are best of the best restaurants I visited in Portland in 2017. I wish I could have recognized more, since the margin of victory in almost every category was nearly negligible this year. Regardless, Portland restaurants continue to be the best in the game. Look forward to lots more food talk this coming year and maybe some new and exciting things from me too. I think 2018 is going to be incredible. See you then!

Stay hungry.

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