“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” -Virginia Woolfe
What a food year 2015 was! The restaurant scene in Portland and the surrounding areas was the busiest it’s ever been – new restaurants opening weekly, some closing for various reasons, and a host of them making regional and national food news as usual. A huge congratulations goes out to all the chefs, wait staff, management, and others who work so hard every day to create a universe of food and drink that draws people from literally all over the world to here in little Portland, Maine. Hardly ever do I go to a restaurant in this area that I feel is not good and when I travel, I often miss the quality of food we are so lucky to have. The level of culinary skill in these parts is on par with any city in the country. Period.
Because our great city provides such amazing experiences in the way of food, its prices seem to have grown alongside it’s reputation. For that reason, I put more emphasis on overall value than ever in comparing restaurants for this article. While I’m always willing to try someplace once at almost any price, the ones that offer great value are the ones that keep me coming back for more. Oftentimes, the final determination of this comes primarily from whether or not I felt I got my money’s worth as I was on my way out the door and whether or not the cost justifies a return trip in the near future. Fortunately, regardless of price, you’re likely to get a good meal wherever you go in Portland, but this time, I weighed value more than I have in the past.
This year’s award winners, as always, are picked from among all the places I’ve reviewed in the previous year. I spent lots of time visiting lots of eateries, paid lots of money for meals, and wrote lots of reviews all just so I could let you know what to eat and where to eat it. To determine the best of the best, in addition to value, I took into account all aspects of the dining experience including food, service, atmosphere, and how well each restaurant performed relative to similar restaurants in the area. While the vast majority of the places I visit provided at least a very good experience, this is where I tell you who I thought truly stood out from the crowd.
Lastly, before getting started, I’d like to thank you for your readership and thank the restaurants who invited me to sample their menus too. You are all very much appreciated and without you I’d just be some weird guy who eats a lot and writes to himself about food. Instead, I’m a weird guy who eats a lot and writes to you about food. With that said, let’s get down to business and talk about why we’re all here in the blogosphere right now. Without further adieu, I present to you the definitive list of restaurants you should visit immediately after reading and this year’s Eating Portland, ME award winners with links to my initial review.
Restaurant of the Year – Tempo Dulu
In my opinion, the sweet spot for the price of a restaurant meal falls somewhere between the $15-$50 range. That excludes drinks, tax, tip, and whatever other costs might be involved. While that range is large, it takes into account that you truly can get a good meal at almost any price. It also assumes that meals which cost less are unlikely to be of a certain quality. Higher costs make it difficult to exceed the expectations created by the large price tag. Because of that and my whole diatribe about value, it might seem odd that my restaurant of the year is Tempo Dulu, but indeed it is.
When I went to Tempo Dulu shortly after they opened, I knew they were pricey and I expected a lot as I had heard that preliminary reviews were exceedingly positive. By the time my meal was done, I signed the credit card slip, paying well over $200, and thought I might have somehow gotten away with something because I couldn’t believe the massive quantity of absolutely delicious food I had eaten. My meal produced endless exclamations of joy from start to finish and in addition to magnificent food, the service and atmosphere were also nothing short of perfect.
I haven’t stopped talking about Tempo Dulu since I went, recommending to everyone with whom I discuss food that they save their money and get there as soon as they possibly can. With three tasting menus and an endless number of drinks of all types, their options are sure to do much more than just satisfy the most discerning of food connoisseur. I guarantee that if you consider yourself a lover of food and drink, TD will meet your every need. Just make sure you go there hungry, because despite the very high price, they will be sure to earn every single penny of your cash.
Honorable Mention – Central Provisions
Central Provisions has a stellar reputation and for a damn good reason – they serve food that is unquestionably awesome. The purveyor of small plates puts a ton of thought and care into each dish and it shows. Both their lunch and dinner menus offer a wide range of tastes which wowed me with every single bite every time I was there. From vegetables and seafood to meat and sandwiches, their ability to create magic keeps hordes of people waiting in line for the chance to sample their many items. During my first visit there, we ordered a bunch of plates and they were all brilliant. We also ended with one of the best desserts I had had in recent memory.
Best Ethnic Food – Empire Chinese Kitchen
As far as I can tell, Empire is doing just about everything correctly. In a city that was craving more and better Chinese food a few years ago, they have taken traditional Americanized Chinese, made it a little more authentic Chinese, and given Portland a go-to location – maybe the only location – for that exact thing. Their menu offers some items you might see on the typical Chinese menu, but is punctuated by some you won’t and all at a price that will keep your wallet fat. Every food we had there was really, really good and the service was excellent too. It’s no coincidence that they stay very busy and unless something significant happens, I don’t see that changing at all.
Honorable Mention – Miyake
Miyake serves up some ridiculously good sushi which will give any sushi seller a run for their money. The prices aren’t cheap, but regardless, you’ll leave wanting to come back as soon as possible for the beautifully created rolls which have a taste that is difficult to beat. Everything else they serve is delicious too, so don’t be afraid to order a salad or soup or anything else, because it’s all done to exacting and very high standards.
Best New Restaurant – The Treehouse
Though it was open previously under a different name and and is mostly the same otherwise, The Treehouse is still my best new restaurant of 2015. Unfortunately, I did a terrible job as a customer in my visit there because I ate too much earlier in the day. Despite that mistake, I was impressed by them at every turn. My drink, app, and especially the main course were all brilliantly executed with the scallop portion of my meal being a uniquely delicious take on the seafood that I don’t ever remember seeing anywhere else. It should also be noted that they are getting lots of interest from Portland restaurant patrons lately, so it seems they are making a well-deserved name for themselves.
Honorable Mention – Roustabout
Roustabout seems to have their own view of Italian food and it’s a good one. They spared no expense with the creation of their seafood salad which packed in more delicious seafood than I ever could have expected and their excellent house made sausages were nicely seasoned. Since they were so new when we went, they had the advantage of lots of local media and word of mouth which caused them to be very busy, even having to turn away people without reservations. If they maintain their food quality, they’ll probably have to continue doing that.
Best Upscale Restaurant – Emilitsa
With lots of Greek names on their menu, Emilitsa serves food that is as complex to pronounce as it is in flavor. Was my favorite part of the meal the chef’s courtesy app of lentil puree and crisp bread, the jalapeno and feta spread, my chicken with cinnamon wine sauce, or the beautiful baklava? It’s virtually impossible to decide, but every step of the way, I was surprised at how different each course was from what I was used to at other restaurants. Maybe that’s because there aren’t really any other Greek restaurants in Portland. Regardless, Emilitsa made me incredibly happy and there was nothing I regretted after leaving except maybe that I didn’t sit at the really cool bar.
Honorable Mention – The Velveteen Habit
Except for one mistake which I suspect was a one-time incident, The Velveteen Habit was virtually perfect. Both their food and drinks provided me with everything I could have asked for in a meal and the fact that a lot of it came from their garden is cool as hell and added an element of unparalleled freshness to their food. Their tots were to die for and the crabapple rye infusion was like nothing I ever had. I wouldn’t hesitate to go again and even though their location is a little remote, it’s still worth making the trip to the beautiful location in Cape Neddick.
Best Eats on the Cheap – Tomaso’s Canteen
Despite hearing some reviews to the contrary, my wife and I experienced nothing but stellar examples of bar food at a great price from Tomaso’s Canteen. Their fried mozzarella balls were the most beautiful presentation of fried cheese I’ve ever seen and their sandwiches were both large and very tasty. The cool neighborhood atmosphere certainly adds a fun element to what they offer and it’ll be nice to see another successful restaurant/bar in that location. Next time I go, I’ll definitely sample something from their ample list of beverages and try some additional food items.
Honorable Mention – Taco Escobarr
Taco Escobarr produced some great Mexican food for little in the way of cash. Their margaritas were also first-rate. A fun atmosphere only added to the experience. I was particularly happy with the massive amount of sausage in my large burrito which packed a ton of flavor and a nacho app which could compete with the nachos at any Mexican joint. It’s a great place to eat or drink, but you earn bonus points if you’re doing both.
Best Appetizer – Enio’s
Enio’s food was very good all the way around when we were there, but the Imported Bufula Mozzarella must have been created by the Italian god of awesome. The crisp bread base was only the start of a killer app which we topped with the garlic-loaded sweet tomato confit, basil, and balsamic. Easily the best buffalo mozzarella we ever had, my wife and I still talk about it to this day. If you go, you can be sure that anything you order will be yummy, but you’re truly doing yourself a disservice if you don’t try the buff mozz. It’s to die for.
Honorable Mention – Five Fifty-five
I’ve long been a fan of the grilled Caesar salad at Five Fifty-five. It’s always a bit of a surprise when I haven’t had one for a while and then take a bite and am reminded how great they are. My most recent visit didn’t differ from those experiences at all as the unusual preparation which adds a slight char to the romaine came through once again. If you haven’t had the longtime menu staple, you need to get one. I haven’t seen one prepared that way at any other establishment.
Best Place to Grab a Drink/Beer/Wine and Chill Out – Shay’s
Shay’s is a fun place with great drink specials and very good bar food. With their neighborhood feel and excellent bartenders, it would be easy to spend a lot of time sitting at the the bar soaking in the atmosphere and a number of drinks. My pineapple martini was amazing, so I would recommend that, but they also have a strong beer selection and whatever else you can imagine in the way of drinks. Find a bar stool, order a beer, follow it up with a sandwich or some nachos, and call Shay’s “home” for a few hours.
Honorable Mention – Tiqa
Tiqa has serious food and drink, but what struck me as truly exceptional was their brunch menu harissa bloody Mary. I don’t like bloodys normally, but this one was the best I ever tasted. The skewer of extras only added to my satisfaction with the drink. Looking to nurse a hangover acquired from an overabundance of Saturday night sangrias? Make your way to the Tina brunch on Sunday morning for a little food and as many of those spectacular bloody Mary’s as it takes to be hungover on Monday too.
There it is, my favorite restaurants of 2015. I suggest you run out and start going to them all right this very second and be sure to tell them Peterpeterportlandeater sent you. In the new year, I will bring you more reviews and more of everything you love about this blog. I’m going to try to add more pictures too because I care about your visual experience. Stay tuned for lots of fun food discussion and remember who’s your Portland Maine food hookup.
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