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.

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