Abilene sounds like either the women in a horror movie who sits in her basement rocking chair for months on end or the name of an overplayed southern rock song from the 80’s. In the case of this article, it’s neither, but rather a restaurant that opened mid-2015 on Deering Ave. in Portland. I took a quick look at the menu after seeing that they were receiving some online interest and decent reviews and dragged my wife there for a bite to eat on a Saturday night before we met some friends at a concert.
We arrived at around 6:30 which I thought might be nearing peak time. However, when we walked in, there were four people at the bar and no one else in the entire place who wasn’t an employee. Everyone there, including the bartender/waitress seemed to know each other. We were told by one of the bar patrons to grab a seat anywhere. I thought that was odd, but we followed instructions and took a table off to the side. After a short wait, the waitress brought menus and promised to be back with water.
As the waitress walked away from our table, we noted that the ambiance wasn’t much of an ambiance at all and the lack of a crowd wasn’t helping to create one. We began to look at the drink menu and by the time our waters were poured, we were ready to order some additional liquids. Mrs. Portlandeater went with a Bicudo Vinho Verde from Portugal and I with the Melon Burbon Shrub – Jim Beam, rocks. We then took a gander at the food menu which was divided into four categories – smalls, sandwiches, greens, and mains and started to figure out what we wanted to eat.
Our/the waitress returned with the drinks and we were ready to place our food orders. I went with the app of Manchego Toast – mushroom, garlic, shallots, reduced sherry butter and she requested the Roasted Garlic Caesar – kale, romaine hearts, herb focaccia croutons, parmesan cheese. For entrees, I took the Chickory Rubbed Brisket – crispy potato hash, seasonal vegetables, and horseradish butter and Mrs. Portlandeater asked for the Pecan Crusted Haddock – curry honey yogurt, seasonal vegetables, and citrus herb rice.
Once all the food was ordered, we put our glasses to our lips. Mine came in a small mason jar. We both tried them and gave each other a look for the same reason. Our drinks were fizzy. Although many shrub drinks are made with soda, the menu didn’t list that as an ingredient, so I assumed there wasn’t any in it. My wife didn’t realize that Vinho Verdes could be a bit fizzy and neither did I at the time. It’s certainly possible we should have asked about the drinks, but it seemed that the menu should have noted their bubbly features. Nonetheless, we made them work and continued to consume them.
While we worked on our drinks, someone came in to the restaurant, spoke to the waitress, looked at a menu, and left. When he came in we got a huge cold breeze on us which lasted until just before we got our appetizers about ten minutes later. We couldn’t figure out why the cold air continued long after the door was closed, but it was uncomfortable and felt like there was air conditioning blowing on us the entire time. There was nothing blocking the brisk winter weather, but a barrier of some sort would have been ideal.
With appetizers in front of us and the air just starting to warm, we got to trying some food. I was excited to try mine as I will eat anything with manchego on it. My plate carried three pieces of long, thin toast with melted cheese topped with the mushrooms and butter sauce. I worked on cutting a piece which was challenging because it was so crispy. Upon finally dropping a bite into my toast hole, I bit down onto the super crisp bread with tasty cheese and noted the sherry, mushroom, and garlic flavor. It was awesome. I loved the crispy, crunchy toast and the sherry butter flavor was intense. It was thoroughly delicious and every part of it worked together perfectly. My wife noted that her salad was good, but a bit light on dressing.
After many bites, we finished our apps and waited for our main courses. We got them before long and dug right in. I dissected one of my three thin slices of brisket. As soon as I put it in my mouth, I realized that it was all fat. Taking a closer look, I separated the pieces of fat from the pieces of actual meat. Unfortunately, there was a lot of fat – almost as much as there was meat. There are both fatty and lean parts of brisket, but these slices would have been much better lean. There was just too much fat and not enough actual meat on the plate. The pat of horseradish butter on it had only enough horseradish for me to realize it was there, but didn’t offer a ton of flavor, leaving the lean portion of the beef acceptable, but not exceptional.
Moving on from my beef, I tried the crispy potato hash. It was actually quite solid. As promised in the name, the potatoes were very crispy and salty. I followed up with the vegetables, which were fresh, crunchy, and buttery. They were also tasty. My wife was enjoying her meal and I tried her haddock to confirm that it was indeed good as was the curry honey yogurt that came with it. We continued to eat, finishing our meals outside the part of my beef I had pushed to the side. We passed on dessert and I was ready to get the bill.
The total cost of the meal came to about $70 after tip. It was a reasonable price, but there were definitely some issues we encountered. Abilene doesn’t have much in the way of atmosphere. That may be because there wasn’t really anyone there when we went, but it simply didn’t feel super inviting. The cold air issue we were subjected to was very unpleasant. I’m not sure why it was so prolonged, but even if it had gone away quickly, it was still not good. Probably the biggest cause for concern was my brisket. It wasn’t up to par. I would have liked a lean portion and the horseradish butter could have added much more flavor than it did. Correcting those brisket issues would have really improved my meal.
Despite it’s challenges, Abilene exhibits a bit of hope in that they had good appetizers and sides and my wife’s meal was good. The service was fine though we were the only customers at a table. Still, I can’t imagine they’d be able to stay open for dinner with the lack of business I saw on a Saturday night. I did note after the meal that most of their reviews were for brunch. Maybe that would have been a different experience. Hopefully, Abilene will do something to up their dinner game. If they can succeed at brunch, maybe they can make dinner match that and become one of the go-to spots in the area. It won’t be a easy, but I think it will be necessary to keep up with the rest of Portland’s restaurant scene.
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