Monthly Archives: February 2016

Maine Craft Distilling – They’re Crafty

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The drink scene in the greater Portland area has expanded exponentially in the past few years with a number of breweries and a handful of distilleries opening to add a beautiful compliment to our top notch food. Maine Craft Distilling is one of those that is leading the charge. Look around at local restaurants and liquor stores and you’ll spot their liquid loveliness at every turn. I had been to their tasting room briefly once before, but had the opportunity to go again and really sit down to enjoy the “Farm to Flask” spirits they produce. With nine bottles currently offered, tasting all of them will keep you occupied for a while and, if you’re coming in from out of town as many patrons seem to be, they’re a great stop on your boozy tours of Portland.

I was really excited to see what was in store at MCD so I immediately grabbed one of the available bar seats on a Saturday afternoon and got ready to try some of what was in front of me. I reviewed the list of sprits I had been given and decided I definitely wanted to taste all the available options. The bartender noted that the ingredients the distillery used were essentially all from Maine which only added to my enthusiasm. I settled on starting my tasting with their whiskey – Fifty Stone Single Malt. A sip of the small pour revealed the oak from the barrels in which it’s aged and a background of the flavor of grains smoked in peat and seaweed, though there wasn’t enough smoke to be confused with a scotch. I found it to be a solid, smooth whiskey that would fit well on my liquor shelf.

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My next tastings were three from the gin family – Alchemy Dry Gin, Chesuncook Botanical Spirit, and Sprigge Barrel Rested Gin. I’m picky about my gin, and while I suppose true gin connoisseurs generally relish the heavy juniper that makes that typical gin flavor, I like it more laid-back which seems to be unusual in the gin world. I felt the Alchemy was along the lines of what one might consider a traditional gin. Though there were a number of botanicals used in its creation, I still got a lot of the juniper which made it difficult for me to catch the other elements of the spirit. I’m confident that anyone who is generally a fan of gin would enjoy the Alchemy.

Chesuncook presented a much more complex flavor than Alchemy. Not technically a gin due to its lack of grain or potato, the Chesuncook is distilled from carrots with a number of flavors added during its creation. I quickly got a spicy bite from chilis followed by the juniper. I then made my way to the Sprigge. Aged 8 months in used whiskey barrels, I had a feeling that might be the gin for me. I was right. The moderate barrel flavor gave a balance to the juniper that I wasn’t used to. I’m not sure if anyone else ages gin in used whiskey barrels, but it worked really well, taking the Alchemy and making it perfect for the whiskey drinker wanting a different palate placement.

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Three rums and a near vodka were up next. I started with Queequeg Spiced Rum. It was unaged and had strong notes of star anise and vanilla with secondary orange and other, less obvious sip sensations. The Ration Expedition Style Rum was a more traditional tasting rum distilled from molasses and exhibiting the sweetness expected of it. The Tashtego White Rum followed suit with what I felt was a straight, mixable taste appropriate for cocktails. The Black Cap Barley Spirit was among the most basic of the tastes. The not-quite-vodka elicited a smooth, unaltered barley that was pleasant and mild. This was another one I felt would act as a perfect mixer.

Saving the one I was most excited about for last, I had an opportunity to try the Blueshine Blueberry Moonshine. With wild blueberries and maple syrup – both from Maine, of course – the very blue liquid proved to have just the right amount of sweetness and a very ready blueberry taste. I was thoroughly impressed. It was undoubtedly a flavor I would add to pretty much anything, and surmised that it would work really with other berry flavors, some citrus, or possibly even some candied additions like chocolate or caramel. It was also good enough to be perfect on ice too.

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After surviving the full tasting, I had the opportunity to also try the house made ginger beer. Although it’s not normally something I drink, it was hard not to notice the mild, well balanced taste that didn’t have that angry fire some people find to be a turnoff. Once I experienced that, I set my sights on one of the mixed drinks offered by Maine Craft. They had a variety available and also offered one additional chalkboard special. It’s particularly difficult not to take advantage of them since they’re bargain priced for this area at only seven bucks each. Seeing as it was February, I wanted something tropical and the special Tropic of Tego – Tashtego, pineapple, lime, OJ syrup – fit the bill.

When my drink came, it was housed in a ceramic tiki-style glass. A swig elicited some warm weather thoughts as the fruit flavors beautifully complimented the relatively simple rum. It was a drink fit for sun and sand. I enjoyed it and contemplated a potential second concoction as I neared the bottom of my first. Feeling a bit of the buzz already and needing to make it to dinner, I stopped short of ordering a Blueshine and lemonade, but I certainly will have one on my next visit.

Maine Craft Distilling is a really stellar part of Portland’s drink scene. Their variety, obsessive use of local ingredients, and really cool tasting room are more than enough reason to visit. However, I think patrons will find in their time there that MCD’s biggest asset is their ability to suit any taste in spirits. From the relatively simple rums and near vodka – always with a touch of Maine Craft’s own style – to the complex botanical spirit and one-of-a-kind gin aged in whiskey barrels, you can drive down the highway or stumble down the path less traveled. It’s all up to you. Either way, they put so much work and so many flavors into their processes, you might find yourself with new tasting notes every time you try a sip. I certainly will. Adding to the fun are the exceptionally knowledgeable bartenders who can teach you about the unique distilling process of every spirit. Just be careful about driving afterward; though a couple of the spirits are fruity, all the booze ranges from 80-90 proof, so it’s easy to get a little wobbly without intending to.

Stay thirsty.

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Rhum – Tiki to the Limit

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Rhum is the new tiki lounge in Portland, and before we get into anything else, there’s two things you need to know about it right now. The first is that it is pronounced like “rum”, not like “room”. In fact, there’s a credible rumor that if you say the name of the place while you’re there and it comes out of your mouth as room, you will be delimbed by a drunken pirate using only a spork. The second is that it’s not particularly easy to find, so here’s the best way to get there: take a right on to Free Street from the museum, when you get to Cross take a right, and if you’re walking down Cross, hug the last building on the right before you get to Spring. As you start to wrap around the building to your right, you will see a door the says “Rhum”. Yipee! You’ve made it! Now on to the story…

Portland’s only tiki bar is owned by Fifth Food Group which is comprised of Jason Loring who owns Nosh and Slab, Bramhall owner Mike Fraser, and designer/builder Nat Towl. I thought a tiki bar in Portland was an intriguing concept when I first heard it was being built, though I couldn’t decide if it would warm up the cold Maine winter or if it simply not fit in with the decidedly seasonal culture. It would be a first for this area and with nothing to compare it to, I just wasn’t totally sure it would mesh with the local bar scene.

Despite my uncertainty about the concept, I was excited to give Rhum a spin and told my wife I’d be right there after she texted me a picture of the menu she was looking at. I flew down, parked, and was able to find the place when I quite literally ran into their A-frame sign on the sidewalk. Written in chalk were the words “Welcome to Rhum. Come on in. (it’s warm)”. The combination of warmth on a frigid winter day and my wife sitting in the joint were great reasons to enter. I noticed a skull and crossbones on the floor mat at the entrance and made my way down the hall where a polite woman with a managerial manner was kind enough to card me and assure me that it truly was warm inside. After confirming that I had been 21 since nearly the dawn of time, I was allowed to enter.

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Immediately, I thought the design of entire place was ultra-inviting and cozy. The rectangular bar sat in the center of the room. The non-bar seating areas were comprised of giant U-shaped benches and comfy chairs. One bench/chair combo could easily hold 2-3 parties with probably 12-15 people total, maybe more. Within those areas were cylinder tables for each party. The upper bar trim wore a grass skirt, there were lights housed in colorful balls hanging from the ceiling, and the overall lighting was low. Seating was available, but limited; it was pretty busy for 5 pm on a Friday. I quickly found my wife and her two friends who were engaged in conversation and imbibing Banana Daqueris and Painkillers with reckless abandon. The drink containers were quite a sight to see – ceramic tiki cats and weighty metal skull barrels.

I was the driver that night, so I decided that other than trying my wife’s drinks, I would not be consuming alcohol. I relayed that much to the waitress when she approached, but still took a good look at the menu to see what was going on with the bar program. Rhum had quite a selection of cocktails available and an entire section of them were of the classic tiki bar variety. The menu quietly indicated that there were no alterations allowed to the classics. I had to agree with their stance; customizing them would be the artistic equivalent of creating a statue of Lincoln beardless and shirtless wearing a beret and shorts.

As I was looking at the drinks on the menu, I snuck a sip of my wife’s banana daqueri which was the special daqueri of the day. Sucking from the kitty container, I got some of the banana beauty. It had a dulled sweetness reminiscent of banana bread. I can’t say it was bad. I loved the subdued flavor which I imagined would make it quite possible to drink several of the fruit phenoms without feeling sugary sickness. My wife agreed and preferred that version over the ones we were more used to on vacation.

Some of Rhum’s drinks are available in bowls for sharing. As my wife and her counterparts came to the bottom of their beverages, one of them left and the two remaining drinkers considered ordering those larger concoctions. After discussion, they agreed to go with the Mai Tai for 2-3 – Mount Gay Eclipse, lime, house orgeat, rhum curaçao. The bowls were also available for 4-6 or 7+, though none of them came cheap at $32, $48, or $90. Soon, the bowl arrived and was reminiscent of the typical scorpion bowl I was used to. There was a half lime on fire in the middle and three toothpicks of pineapple and maraschino cherry garnish protruding from ceramic scorpions. I took a sip. It was a pretty standard Mai Tai – delicious and fruity – and carried a serious kick.

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With the ladies doubling-down on drinking, I was starting to get real about eating. Upon our waitress’ return, I ordered the Rhum House Salad – cabbage, carrot, ginger dressing, sesame – and we agreed to all share the Pupu Platter – chef’s inspiration of classic pupu fare – which was listed at market price. I was excited to be able to try a bunch of different foods in the platter and appreciated the Asian inspiration from which the menu was clearly created.

After what was quite a long wait, we received our pupu. We were given a brief description of what was in front of us and I immediately dug in. I started with Pork Riblets prepared pineapple char siu. I’m not a superfan of ribs, but if they’re Chinese style, I’ll dig into them without hesitation. I grabbed a sticky hunk of the boney meat and ripped off a piece. The notes of pineapple and soy sauce combined to make an excellent barbeque glaze on the tender treat with some sesame and scallion garnish adding a nice finish to the flavor.

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I thoroughly de-meated my rib and moved on to a Rhum Rangoon with dirty sauce, scallion, and garlic. My first bite was a moment of discovery as I immediately got the coconut chili sauce which provided a clear caramel flavor first and then a bit of the coconut with a hint of lime and spice. The rangoon itself was also unique to Rhum as they balanced the crunchy outer wonton with the creamy, crabby innards. There was no excess of cheese or fried dough as is often the case. I washed that down with some edemame which provided the expected experience and continued to move through the platter.

Next came a piece of Bak Kwa or Chinese pork jerky and prawn chips. The jerky was thin, light, and easy to chew. The dehydrated meat was not overly salty or sweet, but still provided the intense, reduced flavor that jerky lovers desire. The chips were nice and light with a mellow shrimp taste. Following those, I tried the only remaining untouched food of chicken liver toast with tamarind chutney, parsley, and black pepper. I took a slice of slightly crisped toast, dumped some of the pate and chutney on top, and took a large bite. The smooth, salty pate gave some liver flavor and was complimented perfectly by the sweet tamarind which added a fruity contrast that said “take me home tonight”. It was a great combination which I hadn’t really expected and had melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Post-pupu for three, the girls were ready for another bowl, fearing that any element of sobriety would ruin their evening. While deciding on what was next, the waitress came to get our dirty dishes and I asked the whereabouts of my salad which I hadn’t yet received. After giving a reminder that I had ordered one and that it was specifically the house salad, she assured me that it was still coming. The ladies followed my inquiry with a request for a Junglebird for 2-3 – Black Strap Rum, campari, pineapple, cherry bitters.

Again our wait was a bit lengthy, but we did eventually get our salad and bowl of booze. A quick sip of the drink proved that the Junglebird was even stronger than the Mai Tai as I gulped and let out a “Woo!” I felt the campari really stood out when I got a sweet, herbaceous flavor in my sinus region. As the women drunkenly engineered extra, extra long straws so that they could drink without leaning forward, I grabbed my salad and enjoyed it, particularly the thick ginger dressing which provided enough zing to flavorize the entire cabbage and carrot concoction.

I eventually finished my conglomeration of vegetables and was ready for additional sustenance. I noticed the alcohol consumption slowing and my wife seemed eager for some more food too. When the waitress made her way back to our table, we decided to go with a full order of the rangoons in addition to a Kimchi Croque Madame – béchamel, white American, fried egg – for me and Jackfruit “Crab” Salad Tostada – avocado mash, cucumber, black vinegar aioli – for them.

Once again, it took some time, but I got the rangoons along with my croque madame. The croque was made with two pieces of focaccia between which was the kimchi. On top were the American and egg. I sliced a piece and drove it at warp speed into my face. It was magnificent. Cheese and egg make anything better, but the soft bread and perfectly spicy veg gave me all the awesome I could handle. The egg was a little runny but not so much so that it was dripping everywhere, which was ideal. As I continued eating it, I just couldn’t get enough of the kimchi which permeated the dish with mild, but ever-present heat. It was an elevated egg and cheese sandwich with the perfect “salsa”.

With my croque finished and the big drink level barely changing, we all decided it was time to move on though we still hadn’t received the tostada that was ordered. We asked our waitress to close out the tab and she didn’t mention it, so I assumed that it was another forgotten item. The bill was presented in a Spam can, which is always a winning method of presenting anything to anyone. I quickly checked it for the damage. The total was about $170 with tax. Three regular drinks at $12 each and two bowls at $32 was a hefty bar bill, but I was curious about the cost of the “market price” pupu. I scanned the receipt and saw the pupu at $31. We were a little shocked and felt it was a $22-25 item. It’s unclear to me why the price wasn’t on the menu or why the wait staff didn’t relay that as they might a daily special, but it definitely would have tempered my reaction. We paid the bill and left.

Overall, the experience at Rhum was good and it has a lot going for it. The atmosphere was outstanding and they replicated a true tiki feel like I never could have imagined. The food was very good, and the drinks even better. The place was so popular that there was a significant line for seating before 6 pm and they stayed absolutely jammed while we were there. There were some issues which I imagine will work themselves out in time; the service was pretty slow and two items we ordered were forgotten, but those were relatively forgivable since they were so new and so busy. I felt the prices were high, but maybe patrons will like the atmosphere so much that they won’t care. Either way, they should make the price of the pupu platter clear so it’s not a surprise.

Rhum’s popularity isn’t going away any time soon. They are on to something that is clearly already a hit with a cold, shivering, and bundled up Portland population. I know I’ll be back, just maybe a little more aware of what I’m spending. Nonetheless, it is a fun location and will transport you – if only temporarily – to a warmer, sunnier place. You should probably go to take the chill off, especially since you can now both find and pronounce it.

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or post your thoughts below. Also, like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook.

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C Squared – Two Chefs, One Menu

I reviewed C Squared a couple years ago, but was recently invited to take part in a media dinner to try the new menu created by their two new chefs. While my wife and I enjoyed the meal we last had there together, it’s always fun to see what a new set of culinary minds can offer. I had no idea what to expect, but some investigation seemed to indicate a more local cuisine focusing on the small plates which are becoming a huge thing in the food world. It makes sense, especially for those who enjoy sampling many foods during the course of a meal and for visitors trying to get a true sense of Maine’s rich and multifaceted production of top notch eats.

Upon arrival, we were greeted and led to a specially created champagne and herb bar. There were five fresh herbs to choose from and whichever one was chosen would be dropped into my glass of champagne. I selected mint as did my wife and we were on our minty way to socialize with the crowd before dinner. In addition, during the pre-dinner fun, we had the opportunity to try tastes of a couple dishes as a warm up to our meal. After some time mingling, we were asked to take a seat because the food was about to start coming out. I sat and finished my last sips of champagne noting that I didn’t get any hint of mint, though the bubbly itself was very good. A mint muddling certainly would have elicited a more distinct herb emanation.

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We soon sat as directed and wine was poured for my wife; I passed since I was designated driving that evening. A quick glance at the night’s menu indicated we were to try ten different items as part of a thorough tasting of what the restaurant had to offer. Before receiving anything from the menu, we were brought some crusty bread and herbed butter. I ripped a piece and a pat. I like herbed butter of pretty much any type and thought it was good. However, I was ready for more substance and waited with great anticipation for the main meal to begin.

The first course to come to us were the Crispy Cheese Croquettes – Pineland Farm smoked cheddar, pâte â choux. We had already tried them while socializing, but I was more than happy to pop additional balls of cheese into my mouth. The crispy outside, melty inside, and light smoke flavor made for a treat worth consuming in multiples. Smoked cheese holds a special place in my heart and these were presented in an interesting manner that said “eat lots of me”. It’s certainly difficult to mess up the dairy delight, but they were a little more than your everyday fried cheese. The next app was to be was Baby Beets – house crème fraiche, poached cranberry – but those were served only pre-dinner and never made it to our table. Unfortunately when I did try them, I had a difficult time taking one off the tray and didn’t get to taste the beet accessories. The beet was fine, but the crème and cran were mostly left behind in a smear on the serving tray.

After the first apps, we were the recipient of a vegetable plate and another app. We tried Caramelized Heirloom Carrots – toasted walnuts, honey vinaigrette, and following right behind was Oxtail Poutine – braised oxtail, house fries, fresh cheese curd. The heirloom carrots were very much similar to the carrots I make at home and, not to toot my own horn, but they were great. The addition of crunchy walnuts was actually a nice touch which made them stand out from my home cooking. The carrots were perfectly caramelized and the honey gave them that light sweetness that made them oh so delish. The oxtail was next. I’m not a huge fan of traditional poutine, but I was ready to try a different version of it than I was used to. I meticulously grabbed a bite with the beef, cheese, and potato in perfect proportions and drove it right into my tongue tunnel. It was awesome. The fry base was a great holder for the cheese and the oxtail braise was excellent and gave a surge of sweet seasoning to every bite.

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Next in line for our table were Pan Seared Monkfish – lentil mash, braised leeks, olive vinaigrette – and Crispy Kalettes – banyuls vinaigrette, pecorino romano. The monkfish was clean, tasty, and not particularly potent which gave the benefit of keeping the true flavor of the ocean occupant. I liked it on the softer side with a taste closer to its natural flavor. The kalettes – actually baby kale reminiscent of Brussels sprouts – were very flavorful. The vinaigrette and cheese added a light acid and a bit of sharp and the crisp, green veg gave a perfect crunch on every bite. They seemed to be a particular hit at the table and when we got rewarded with a second plate, they went just as fast as the first.

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While the wait staff poured more wine for the guests, we were the lucky recipients of Smoked Duck Breast – roasted grapes, rosemary, garlic confit – and Atlantic Scallops – dulse collards, bacon. I’m not a huge duck eater, but it turned out to be a solid option with great flavor. The grapes were a bit of a surprise to me as they did compliment the dish well with just the slightest sweet fruit touch. I grabbed a scallop as soon as I could after the duck was finished. It was good as scallops are, but the bacon was soft. If I had my way, I’d revamp the bacon and give it maximum crispness to add a texture that contrasts with the soft scallop and get the best of both textured worlds. Just when I thought the scallops were the final piece before dessert, we were given an extra taste of Steamed Maine Mussels with horseradish butter and grill bread. I grabbed a couple of the shellfish and split their jaws so I could fork out the innards. Biting into one, I got a creamy sauce with just the right amount of horseradish. It wasn’t enough to sting the nostrils, but did give an interesting jab to the mouthy mollusk’s meat.

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Nearing the end of the road, our meal took a detour and we were invited into the basement. I wasn’t clear on the purpose of our trip, but it seemed possible that we were going to be held hostage in a secret underground lair beneath the Westin. It turned out our walk was actually to see the original boiler for the building. The massive, beautiful boiler is quite a looker. Though I’m sure it’s completely unrealistic due to it’s location, there is space for a speakeasy in the room and if they ever do figure out a way to make that happen, I’m going to publicly request here that I be the first customer to order a drink. The boiler was definitely worth a look and would certainly make a great backdrop for a bar. boiler photo courtesy of Axelrod Photography

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Back upstairs after everyone was corralled, it was time for dessert of Blueberry Brioche Doughnuts – Maine maple syrup, nut crumble – and S’mores – house made marshmallow and nutella, spiced cookie. I grabbed a doughnut like it was trying to run away with my wallet. The blueberry, maple, nut conglomeration was a rock solid display of dominance over my taste buds. The fruity, sweet stuffed bread with the crunchy finish was outstanding. I reached my grubby paws for a s’mores and tried that too. It was good with the cookies adding a little something s’more to the traditional sweet sandwich. I rarely eat them, but I appreciated the unique take on a real campfire classic.

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After all the food was eaten, I was full and ready to roll from dinner to my bed. It was quite a meal with a lot of plates tasted. All of it was good, but if you’re going, I think my favorites were the cheese, carrots, oxtail, duck, and doughnuts. Try those and let me know what you think. I’ve also taken a thorough look at their full menu and am convinced there are plenty of other great options to suit any taste. Might I suggest the Smoked Gouda Mac and Cheese, Cast Iron Forest Mushrooms, or Maine Crab and Smoked Gouda Dip? I’ll certainly be trying those upon my return. Plus, they have a great bar with plenty of local spirits to drink too. I recommend the Ingenium Gin from New England Distilling.

C Squared has the challenge of being a hotel restaurant, but as I discussed with some of the other dinner participants, in Portland that is becoming less of a challenge. Hotel restaurants seem to be getting a lot of interest and the small plate trend is growing too. C Squared has a perfect opportunity to engage a captive audience and capture a segment of Portland that is looking for what they offer on any given night. The chefs appeared to be enthusiastic about doing just that and their moves from Boston and the West Coast seem to indicate a level of commitment to taking ownership of the restaurant’s success. I’m confident they’ll put a shine on C Squared and give it the glimmer they’re trying to achieve.

Stay hungry.

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or post your thoughts below. Also, like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook.

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