Monthly Archives: December 2013

Peter Peter Portland Eater’s 2013 Eating Portland, ME awards

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“After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations.”
― Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance

What you are about to read are the awards for the best and brightest restaurants I visited and reviewed in 2013. I’ve been to and written about a number of Portland area eateries this year, and while life got in the way of reviewing even more, there were some that just stood out from the rest. What I present below is a random conglomeration of my selections for the best places to eat, drink, and hang out around Portland.

I think it’s fair to say that my selection process wasn’t overly scientific, so how did I measure all these restaurants against each other? I did it by comparing them to other top tier restaurants of the same genre, and to a lesser extent, those of other genres. Are other good or great joints still no match for the greatness of a particular standout? Are there features of certain places that just skyrocket them into the culinary stratosphere? Does one eatery simply handle every last detail of food, service, and atmosphere to perfection? I considered all these factors and came up with the following winners.

Restaurant of the Year – Catbird Creamery

This was a tough choice for a number of reasons. First of all, I went to a lot of great restaurants this year, so just the competition in this category alone made me feel like I was trying to pick my favorite Jonas brother. Second, the debate between my wife and I as to what qualifies as a restaurant made me wonder if Catbird was even in the running for this award. The dictionary definition of restaurant indicates that restaurants serve meals, so for the purposes of my first annual awards, either I believe ice cream is a meal or I’m expanding the definition of restaurant to include anyplace that serves prepared food of any sort. I’ll let you choose.

Catbird Creamery is my choice for restaurant of the year because they are so far and above their competition that they stand on a whipped cream and cherry mountain top all alone. In fact, the tiny little Westbrook shop’s products are so good that every time I eat them I have to slap myself silly to make sure it’s real life. But what makes them the blue ribbon winner here is that the award isn’t a negative statement about Catbird’s competitors, but rather the opposite. Catbird stands out because it produces a product that is great when compared to other excellent confectioners. Catbird is as close to perfect at what they do as I could imagine possible, and that perfection, in my experience, occurs on each visit. And what’s best about it all? Their made-from-scratch treats are priced so low that I feel like I’m ripping them off every time.

Honorable mention – Boda – See below.

Best Ethnic Food – Boda

A serious challenger for restaurant of the year, Boda wins this category hands down with their simply amazing Thai cuisine. This restaurant never disappoints and is an example of a rare “try anything and you’re guaranteed to like it” joint. From the drinks to the numerous apps and entrees, to even get just a “good” dish is a rarity. Virtually everything at this place is extraordinary and as someone who hesitates to try new dishes for fear of disappointment, this most certainly is not a place I have to worry about that.

If you haven’t been to Boda, and you like food at all, you simply must go. As long as Boda doesn’t change anything with their service and keeps their menu fresh, varied, and magically delicious, they’re going to be around forever. This is a must-visit, so put them on the “Places To Eat in Portland” list immediately. I should mention that their prices are very reasonable too. So go try a rice ball, spiced nuts, skewers, or anything at all and enjoy a first-class meal you’re guaranteed to dream about until you go back the next time.

Honorable mention – Zapoteca

If their popularity and my last visit there were any indication, Zapoteca will be a perennial contender on all the “best of” lists related to food in Portland.

Best New Restaurant – Portland and Rochester Public House

When I went to Portland and Rochester Public House the first time, I honestly didn’t expect much. As it turned out, they knocked my socks off. Hell, they could have stolen my shoes too and I wouldn’t have cared. From the cool, laid-back and rustic atmosphere to the great service and wicked drinks this place had me going even before I got to my entree, but that’s when shit started to get real. Their succotash, something I’m not sure I had ever eaten previously, was mind-blowing and the scallops and pork belly that accompanied it were wildly and inappropriately delicious.

If Portland and Rochester keeps whoever is creating those delicious vittles every night in their kitchen, I don’t know how it wouldn’t be a success. Everything they served was delicious, so this place is definitely going to be making waves. In the future, I envision people calling it PRPH to shorten the bulky name, but everyone will know what it means and I suspect a lot of hungry people will be going there.

Honorable mention – Portland Hunt and Alpine Club

PHAC has a really nice bar and interior and serves great drinks and excellent snacks. I can’t think of any reason you shouldn’t go there. It’s an outstanding choice for a pre-dinner drink or an after work gathering.

Best Upscale Restaurant – David’s Opus Ten

The David’s Opus Ten experience isn’t something you’d do every day, but it’s really something you must do at least once. With so many courses already planned for you, there’s a decent chance something won’t be to your liking, but that’s sort of the fun. If you’re feeling adventurous and you want to be wowed by some uniquely delicious foods, this is the place to go. You’ll make a night out of just a meal, but it will be one you’ll remember.

Honorable mention – Fore Street

The awesome open kitchen, the great local food, and perfect service make this beautiful restaurant a must visit location.

Best Eats on the Cheap – Silly’s/Silly’s with a Twist

Silly’s has become one of my very favorite places to eat in Portland. With an incredibly random and diverse menu, they have something for almost everyone. Their quirky attitude, employees, and decor never fail to intrigue and their food and service are magnificent. What’s more is that their prices are reasonable for even the tightest budget. If Silly’s continues down the path they’ve maintained for years now, I’ll continue to go down the path from my house to Silly’s.

Honorable mention – Bayou Kitchen

If you go out for breakfast in Portland, this place will serve you with some of the most delicious and interesting dishes this side of the Mississippi for very little paper.

Best Appetizer – The Grill Room

While the Grill Room is a really awesome restaurant in general, their Wood Oven–Baked Brie with chive oil, balsamic syrup, and pepper jelly is worth going there for by itself. The warm, mild cheese and incredibly flavorful toppings are to die for. Get it with water, a drink, an entree, or whatever. Just make sure you get it. You won’t regret it or forget it.

Honorable mention – Duckfat

I’m not sure if fries are an appetizer, but in this case I’m making them one. Duckfat’s fries didn’t receive national attention for nothing – they’re actually that good.

Best Restaurant That Works Well as Take-Out or Eat-In – Otto

Otto’s pizza is the best I’ve ever had in a city with some really great pizza places. With tons of unique topping combinations and seriously delicious…well…everything, Otto shines. Whether you go there for a work lunch or just grab a slice – or a whole pie – late at night, Otto will gently sooth your crusty cravings. And with the recent opening of their South Portland store, they have more pizza than ever awaiting your grubby little paws and plaque-covered choppers.

Honorable mention – Bonobo

This category was made for pizza and Bonobo comes nipping at the winner’s heels with their unique and delicious pizza and salads. Whatever you do, do not forget to order a house salad, regardless of where you plan on consuming it.

Best Place to Grab a Beer and Chill Out – Novare Res

With just a handful of food options and what seems like a million beer choices, Novare Res has carved out a great niche as the “all things beer” place to go in Portland. Regardless of your beer tastes, they’re guaranteed to have something you’ll like. When I was there, their featured brewery on tap had a bunch of incredible brews. If it weren’t for the fact that I had other places to go that day, I might have made my best attempt at killing a keg.

Honorable mention – Nosh

Burger and a beer anyone? Nosh has you covered with their unique and delicious pork and beef burgers and their great beer menu. Their beautiful long bar is definitely a cool spot to relax.

There it is – my choices for the best places I went in Portland this year. If you haven’t been to them, you must go check them out. If you have, go again. Many more reviews and whatever else is on my mind will be coming in the new year. Do you agree with this year’s choices? Do you have suggestions about what I should review or write about next? Let me know what you’d like to see from me in 2014. Happy New year!

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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Zen Chinese Bistro – Hmmmmmmmmmm…

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I’ll probably never be enlightened enough to understand the actual meaning of the word “zen”, but when I saw Zen Chinese Bistro had opened last year, I figured I should go anyway. I have long rued the Portland food scene’s lack of good Chinese cuisine and this place gave me some hope that we might have a new contender in our midst. Chinese is my favorite category of food after seafood and the Portland scene has Chinese joints which range from not so good to okay, with a select few or less that are in the very good to great range. We need more per capita; the current situation just won’t do.

Historically, when I think about Chinese food, I drum up memories of two different types of restaurants. The first, which make up probably 98% in my experience, are the traditional Americanized version. Their menu has lo mein, chow mein, fried rice, General Tso’s, dumplings, rangoons, and all the other typical fare you generally expect from a Chinese eatery. Often the place is a real dive and the restaurant scenery is indirectly proportional to the taste of the food – dumpy restaurant equals amazing food. This seems to be especially the case in bigger cities for some reason.

On rare occasion, you might run into the second type of Chinese restaurant. This is a higher end, bistro-type place with nicer decor/atmosphere and some original, gourmet takes on more authentic food or traditional favorites. These tend to be really nice on the inside, do less of a takeout business, and have decent table service. I suspected that Zen might be this type of place, having been to previous restaurants that were in the same Danforth street location.

When I entered Zen, the interior looked as I remembered it from its previous incarnation. We were greeted by the host right away as we walked in. The downstairs was adorned with a long bar nearly the length of the entire floor. The tables were well-spaced, allowing for plenty of breathing room. We were ushered to the upstairs which also resembled my memory of it. A nice room with a bar in the corner, it seemed the bar was for prep rather than for seating like the one on the main floor. We were left with menus and told a waitress would be by shortly. I noticed that it wasn’t very busy.

Quite quickly, the waitress showed up with waters. She came back in a couple minutes and we were ready to order our drinks from the sizable drink menu. My wife chose a wine and I went with a Scorpion Bowl for one; it wasn’t a scorpion bowl for two type of night. We looked at the food menu which was pretty typical of a traditional Chinese restaurant, but without the combination plates. They had all the standards but in a higher end setting. That was fine since I like Chinese pretty much any way it gets served to me as long as it’s tasty.

One more visit to the table from our waitress and we had drinks. We were ready to place our orders. I took the Steamed Pork Dumplings and General Tso’s Chicken. My wife selected the Vegetarian Rolls and the Chicken with Cashew Nuts. I tried my scorpion bowl. It was magnificent. The drink was icy and the juices were nice and sweet. The scorpion had a sting and came with the requisite orange slice and maraschino cherry. It was among the better “bowl” drinks I’ve had.

It didn’t take long at all for our appetizers to come out. My wife got two large rolls – probably about one and a half times the size of a typical roll. I had 6 nice looking dumplings on a bed of cabbage and carrots on a long plate. The waitress had already dropped off my dumpling/ginger sauce and a dish with hot mustard and duck sauce. Even though I’m a sauce guy, I’m not a fan of duck sauce unless we’re talking about the electronic musicians. I’ve had dreams that the edible version is squeezed from the head of live, pre-pubescent ducks from the eastern islands of Indonesia and that’s not something I want to eat. However, I do have a love of ginger sauce and hot mustard, so I was ready to do some dipping.

I began my perfectly perfect dumpling consumption routine. I dipped the prongs of my fork in a downward 12:00 to 6:00 manner into the mustard to ensure only a small amount adhered to my silverware. Once I got the mustard on my fork, I stabbed one side of the dumpling with it, liquid from the fork pooling in the stab location, and took my knife to cut it in half. The side I impaled then got dipped in the ginger sauce with the open end being used as a dough ladle to scoop the maximum amount of the sweet, tasty liquid into it. I then sent it express fork delivery into my mouth, chewing in a precise and rhythmic manner allowing all the flavors to blend together. I proceeded to perform the same routine – mustard sauce fork dip, dumpling stab, dumpling cut, ginger sauce scoop, chew, chew, chew – with the other piece sans the cutting and followed suit with the remaining five pork wraps.

Upon first trying the dumpling, I was quite pleased. Both the dumplings themselves and the sauces were up to par. Contrary to my usual crunch preference, I love the doughy, gooey outside of the steamed dumplings. These were no exception. The inside was also delicious with excellent sweet, meaty flavor. The sauces were a great compliment. There was one issue with the dumplings though; the filling was a bit sparse. I generally expect that the meat concoction will fill any space inside the dough and these were probably only half full. I suppose that wouldn’t be so much of an issue if they were huge, but they were just average-sized. Nonetheless, the taste was superb, but more meatiness would have taken these to another level. My wife’s veggie rolls were decent, but not spectacular. They had a great fresh flavor, but needed more seasoning.

Our appetizer plates were taken away and within a few moments and the entrees came right out. They both looked great and were sizable portions. My breaded, saucy chicken was accompanied by a decent amount of veggies including broccoli, red peppers, and pea pods. I was hungry so I quickly did the downward dip into the mustard and properly slid my fork into the chicken careful not to snag a hot pepper which could burn my face off. It was really delicious and I was pleased with the level of spice. I find that many restaurants err on the side of too sweet and not spicy enough with the general’s chicken. This was a bit sweet for sure, but with a definite, but not overwhelming, spice. It was a winner.

As my wife kept taking pieces of my chicken which she really seemed to like, I snuck a piece of her food into my face. It was very good. The sauce was delicious and the chicken fresh and tender. We continued to eat until mine was done and my wife’s nearly so. My mouth had a slow, steady, burn from the meal. We passed on any dessert as we were quite full. The bill came to 57 smackers before tip – 15 of which were for the drinks. Our fortune cookies had fortunes that I didn’t understand.

So where does Zen stand in comparison to the rest of the Chinese food in the greater Portland area? It’s near the top. That’s not saying much, but it was good. The drink I had was superb. Our entrees were particularly delicious; however our apps could have been better. But make no mistake, the issues with the food were not huge and could be easily fixed if the desire is there to fix them. I was concerned with the lack of business on a Saturday night, but it was relatively early so that may or may not have reflected a typical weekend evening. I hope that this place sticks around. Portland really needs some decent Chinese food, and with the nice scenery, Zen adds a twist to the mix. Bring your friends, drink some scorpion bowls, and down a bunch Chinese food. That’s definitely the path to enlightenment.

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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David’s Opus Ten – A Culinary Experience

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David’s Opus Ten was opened a year ago as the tenth restaurant by chef/restaurateur David Turin. The restaurant is literally a restaurant within a restaurant, consisting of a sectioned off back area of David’s. Turin opened it with the idea that it would not just provide a meal service, but rather a complete experience – the ideal meal according to a highly experienced chef.

The dinner offered by David’s Opus Ten is a fixed price meal with nine predetermined courses on the weekends; price and number of courses vary during the week and the menu changes frequently. For an additional charge, you can try the “opus ten” or more expensive “reserve” wine pairings with each course. You can also order by the glass and a full bar is available along with special drink recommendations.

There was no doubt that I was excited to try this experience which I hoped would be extraordinary and had booked a couple months in advance. But I also had a certain amount of trepidation since I didn’t have a choice about what I was ordering and, like most diners, there are certain foods I like better than others. My particular concern was raw meat or seafood which I normally try to avoid. My wife called ahead and gave her dietary restrictions, but I decided that I would eat whatever was served whether I liked it or not. It wouldn’t be the first time I ate foods I didn’t enjoy. Plus, I’m a ninja.  And ninjas eat anything.

We arrived a few minutes early and were taken right to our table; each table is only seated once per night. Light music played in the background. From the outset, there was no question that David’s really had the service down to a science. We were watered right away, menus were already on the table, and a waiter visited to give us the full story about David’s Opus Ten. He also knew exactly what my wife’s exclusions were and was able to accommodate additional restrictions she required when she saw the menu.

Small breads were immediately provided to us. I chose the salt stick, but had the option of croissant, wheat, and olive and rosemary – each of which I would try throughout the night. On the table to compliment the bread was some fig vinegar and thyme olive oil. There was also some butter with salt sprinkled on top.

In addition to the nine course meal, we were told that we would be provided with a complimentary hand-carved charcuterie plate – a tenth course – complete with cured ham, manchego cheese, crostini, and warm olives. This was a lucky break for me, because I just couldn’t see myself satisfied with a measly nine courses. We tried the bread in the dipping sauce while waiting for the charcuterie. The salt stick was somewhat hard and, of course, salty. When I made sure that some of the oil and vinegar were attached to it, I got a definite sweet fig taste which was pleasant.

A great looking charcuterie plate was delivered shortly after the bread was devoured and we decided to order drinks at that time. One of the recommended drinks was the Big Smokey Apple which was their version of a smoked apple Manhattan. I ordered that, and my wife chose a Riesling from the wine pairings. After the drinks were ordered, we dipped into the meat and cheeses. They were dope like 90’s hip hop. The ham was salty and delicious and paired perfectly with the manchego and olive on crostini. By the way, manchego is one of my absolute favorite cheeses. If you love cheese and you haven’t tried it, you must. You will become BFFs.

While we were eating the charcuterie plate, our drinks were delivered. I was ready to try this concoction I believed would properly wet my whistle. I took a swig. I fell in lust. It was a delicious whiskey treat that did indeed taste like a big smoked apple.  I thought to myself that I might have to give it a shot and make one at home.  I instantly updated my Christmas list to include a good bottle of bourbon and punched myself in the head for not already having one. With a freshly opened wound on my face, we received the first course of our meal. 

I feel compelled, as I always do, to give a thorough review of all the food. But today I’m going to do it by number, just like when you were a kid and colored by number. I’m going to start with #1 so even those of you that aren’t good with math will recognize that as the first item on the menu. When we get to #2, that will represent the second menu item, and so on.

#1. Mushroom Gratin, Madeira Cream Shooter

When this showed up in front of me, I thought a cheese stuffed mushroom sounded great. I wasn’t sure about the foamy shot of white stuff next to it, but I dug in. The mushroom was outstanding. Can you really go wrong with mushrooms and cheese? No, you can’t. I dipped my spoon into the warm shot. My wife and I agreed that it was spectacular. It tasted like cream of mushroom soup – the freshest and most delicious cream of mushroom soup imaginable.

#2. Lightly Handled Scallop with Figs Apricot, and Bacon

I was nervous about this course and with good reason. It wasn’t something I would have ordered from a menu. When it arrived, it looked beautiful, but I prefer my scallops fully cooked and this wasn’t. I felt that the overall taste was fine with the sweet fig, apricot, and bacon adding a nice touch, but I just couldn’t see past the nearly raw scallop. I’m sure most people would have loved it.

#3. Butter Poached Lobster, Vanilla Bean Buerre Monte, Caramelized Onion, Apple and Potato Hash

Another beautiful dish, the poached lobster had some jicama, greens, and some sort of spinach puree with it. When I tried it, I was blown away. It was exquisite. The vanilla bean, onion, and hash all added to the flavor. The texture of this one was magnificent too. I was thoroughly impressed. The presentation was on the mark but the flavor was ridiculously good.

#4. Quail Egg Ravioli, Butternut Squash, Brussel Sprouts, Pistachio, Brown Butter Nage

Presented as a plate with small ravioli on top of a small pile of vegetables, the waiter gave way to the chef to finish the cooking by adding the Brown Butter Nage. The chef explained the making of the sauce and doused our ravioli with it. When he left our table, we tried the little saucer shaped ravioli and veggies. The simple sauce made it rich and creamy and the flavors blended very well. This was another winner for sure.

#5. Lemon Apple Cider Sorbet with Cinnamon Vodka

The chef came to our table to finish this one with the cinnamon vodka. The flavors were definitely distinct and the vodka was a nice addition to give it a bit of a stronger flavor. As you might expect though, it was relatively light overall and cleansed and chilled my pallet for the next course.

#6. Half Quail, Foie Gras Medallion, Foie Gras Butter Toast, Grilled Pear Gastrique

Similar to the scallop, I wasn’t particularly excited for this course and I was probably even more reluctant to eat it. While I had had foie gras once previously, I wasn’t ever looking for a repeat. I wasn’t a big fan of the taste and after learning how it was made, I honestly felt it was disgusting. Nonetheless, a lot of restaurants serve it locally and many see it as a delicacy. While I disagree, I decided to consume it.

My whole experience with this course was pretty much a disaster. The first issue was my fault. Not being a frequent consumer of quail, I took what must have been a leg in my mouth and after a couple chews, I realized I had eaten a bone. I slyly removed it from my quail-hole and started on another piece. It turns out the quail was pretty good without the bones. The gastrique added a nice flavor but the waiter stated that it was grilled peach and cranberry while the menu said it was pear. The meat was exceptionally tender.

The foie gras was exactly as I expected – not something I loved. It was alright, but it won’t be something I look forward to in the future. My attitude regarding it didn’t change.

#7. Carved Lamb Rack, Braised Leg, White Bean Puree, Kale, Oven Roasted Tomato

This dish consisted of a well-cooked and very tender piece of lamb and a rarer portion. While I don’t eat lamb or rare meat frequently, this was a solid course. The flavor of the meat was drawn out with its seasoning and the white bean, kale, and tomato. It was really well done and while it was again something I probably wouldn’t have ordered on my own, I was pleased with the result.

#8. Apple Tart Tatin, 7 Year Aged Cheddar, Toasted Walnuts, Bourbon Ice Cream

The ice cream on this course made this a double bourbon dinner which pleased me so. Even though I was starting to get full by this point, I was most definitely ready for this treat. I first tried the cold concoction which had a pretty significant bourbon flavor. I was not the least bit unhappy about that. I’ve worked hard for years to acquire a taste for bourbon and it wasn’t lost on me that the ice cream was fit for any level of bourbon love.

When I tried the tart, I didn’t know what to expect. I have had tarts that were amazing and some that were mediocre. I took a bite and was stunned. On a scale of one to ten, the tart was a “holy shit”. The combination of the cheddar, tart, and crunchy nuts made a simply amazing dessert. In fact, it was so good, it was reported that three colorblind men were able to identify all the crayons in a 64 count Crayola box after eating it.

#9. Ice Cream Truffles, Caramel-Nut Bark, Rose Petal Biscuit

These were as you might expect – quite sweet and delicious. They were very small, but I wouldn’t have wanted them to be bigger because it would have been too much sugar for my belly. It was a nice ending.

 

So what’s the verdict after all of that? David’s Opus Ten provided a nice meal – a very nice meal. The course spacing was perfect. Food came out every 20 minutes or so with bread in between a few of the courses. I was never thinking to myself that I couldn’t wait any longer for more vittles.

Our waiter was a book of knowledge. We asked a few questions about our meal, but he really shined when other customers asked more complicated questions about the meal, wines, or drinks they were consuming. His level of knowledge was not only impressive, but it made the meal really interesting. He was engaged, pleasant, and personable while still making sure the job got done. I have no idea if he had gone through some formal culinary arts training, but it I’d have to guess so.

There were a number of positives I took from the whole event. It was a fun time and provided an experience to learn about food and try lots of new items. While I was a cook long ago, I never worked directly with a highly accomplished chef. This meal gave me an opportunity to open the door to the mind of one and see what was inside. It was fancy. Everything was very nice. We got new silverware with every course. It was definitely “special”. Aside from all that, the food was very good.

A meal of this type is not without some minor drawbacks though. With a three hour meal and nine/ten courses, it would be difficult to suit everyone’s taste. However, only the scallop and quail plates were items I would have asked for differently if I did it again. The taste on both was pretty good, just not to my preferences. While I enjoyed all three hours of our time there, I wouldn’t want to spend three hours eating too often. Also, the meal is pricey. After tip and with only one drink apiece, we spent $200 which was the most expensive meal I have ever had. On a positive note in that regard, had we ordered the same foods individually anywhere, it would have cost even more.

You should go to David’s Opus Ten soon. Get ready for some great food and be adventurous. It’s worth it for the experience. Pick a special occasion, make a reservation, and try something new. You can thank me later.

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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