The Front Room – So Many Rooms, So Little Time

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The Front Room is another in the long line of “room” restaurants – two of which I’ve reviewed previously – owned by chef/restaurateur Harding Lee Smith. Located on Munjoy Hill, the restaurant provides a relaxed atmosphere with a great bar and, according to their owner, “New American Comfort Food”. My interpretation of that phrase is that they provide a good variety of new takes on traditional American dishes. That’s exactly what The Front Room does best.

As we often do, we arrived early. Dinner wasn’t being served yet, but we wanted to get a drink first. When we walked in, we were a little disappointed that there were no seats available at the bar, but the waitress offered a couple pillows so we could sit on the bench in the waiting area. We accepted and walked to the bar to ask for a menu.

The first drink on the menu bore the restaurant’s namesake. Right below that was a drink named Portland, Manhattan. My love of Portland and Manhattans combined, it was hard to ignore. The drink included Woodford Reserve Bourbon, Angostura Orange Bitters, Absinthe, Luxardo, and Cochin Vermouth Do Torino. I considered the inclusion of Absinthe a slight flaw, but I still had to try it anyway. My wife went with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.

A lot of prep work went into my drink. We watched as the bartender worked hard to put it together. I was particularly impressed by the extra-long, spiral lemon zest wrapped around his finger inside-out and wiped on the inner rim of the glass. After a few minutes, it was ready to go. We took our beverages and sat on our pillows. Mine wasn’t that much different than a typical Manhattan. I didn’t love the Absinthe addition, but it wasn’t overpowering, so it was fine.

They were soon seating for dinner and we were at our table within moments. By the time we sat down, there were enough people there to fill half the restaurant and just after that, the restaurant was full. The manager left us with menus and a waitress visited our table and left us with a list of specials. We looked and saw much of the same food choices we were used to on the menu. That wasn’t so bad as the Front Room menu offers some great options. I was happy to see old favorites and some items I had always wanted to try but never did.

When the waitress came back, we had ruled out ordering any of the specials. My Maine squeeze ordered the Ceasar Salad. I had to try the French Onion Soup. We held off on ordering entrees since we hadn’t made our final decisions yet. As we continued to consume our drinks, I started to feel the effects of mine. My brain was a-buzz with a weird whiskey whistle, but it seemed to help me pick my food.

Our orders were decided when the waitress made her next appearance. She dropped off our apps and some bread and we divulged our food desires. It was Grilled Meatloaf – naturally raised beef wrapped in bacon with mashed, vegetables, and gravy – and a side of Pan-Fried Gnocchi for me. She ordered the Casco Bay Scallops – mashed, spinach & mustard sauce. I was mildly concerned about ordering the meatloaf as I’m not usually a fan of gravy, but I figured I’d give it a shot. Plus, I make an amazing meatloaf myself (see my recipe for meatloaf nachos from early in the year), so I’m always afraid I’ll be disappointed with someone else’s. Nonetheless, bacon and mashed was enough to sway me. Peterpeterportlandeater rule #72 says that mashed and meatloaf are a perfect combination under all circumstances.

I spooned with my soup. It was in a crock with a heavy cheese layer on top. Inside, hidden by the cheese blanket, were deliciously sweet onions, salty broth, and previously crusty, but now somewhat soggy bread. It was splendiferous! I moved between scraping the crusty cheese off the sides, dipping the bread in the broth, and spooning the crock contents into my craw. This was a winner. My wife’s salad was a typical Caesar – fresh and delicious.

Before long, we were done with our apps and the empty dishes were taken away to drown in a pool of bath water. Our entrees came out just after and looked scrumptious. My saucer-shaped slice of meatloaf was hugged by bacon and leaning on a mountain of mashed potatoes; both were topped with gooey gravy. On the other side of the plate was a sizable portion of colorful vegetables, including cauliflower, carrots, parsnips, and green beans. I also had half a dozen gnocchi nuggets in a small bowl which were coated in seasoning. My wife’s four large scallops were arranged on the outside of her pile of mashed and all of it was on top of the mustard sauce. Her potatoes wore a spinach fedora.

It was time to dig in and, as such, I found my fork and knife giving my meatloaf a taste of Dexter’s “dark side”. With ease, I sliced the soft meatloaf, certain to get a sizable piece of bacon. I whisked my fork away from my plate and sprinted it toward my face, making sure to avoid a forking accident and placing the meatloaf perfectly in my mouth. It turns out that any concern about the meatloaf was unwarranted. It was excellent. It was well seasoned, moist and soft, and the bacon was a very nice addition. The smooth potatoes went perfectly with the loaf of meat. The vegetables were fresh and crunchy.

With full verification that my entree was delicious, I wanted to get my teeth on the gnocchi. I stuck one, almost expecting it to deflate. It didn’t. I ate it anyway. I loved it. The seasoned coating was primarily parmesan.  The taste was great, but the texture was even better. The crisp, pan-fried outer shell hid a doughy inner shell which served as housing for the great creamy potato stuffing.  Pan-fried potato perfection with parmesan? It all makes for great gastronomic goodies and alluring alliteration.

My wife verified that her scallops were awesome. I already knew since I had had them before. We stuffed ourselves until we could stuff no more. There wasn’t a shred of meat or vegetables left on my plate. My wife had a bit left which the waitress took and boxed for us. I was extra impressed when the leftover scallops were returned labeled and dated. It was a nice touch.

We passed on dessert and received our bill. The bill holders now say “the Rooms Portland, Maine” which struck me as slightly pretentious, but in sort of a funny, light-hearted way. Altogether with drinks, the meal was around $80 before tip. It was worth it as we were well-fed and our thirst was quenched. The Front Room is a serious place for people who like to eat. With great takes on traditional fare and reasonable prices, it’s pretty obvious why they stay so busy. Plus, the service is excellent. The Front Room continues to be great option if you want to eat a wicked good meal in Maine. Stop by and tell ’em Peterpeterportlandeater sent ya.

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or feel free to post your thoughts below. Like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook and follow me on Twitter at @Portlandeater.

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