Shortly after I started this blog a few years ago, I visited Back Bay Grill. It was a disaster. The service wasn’t good, and while I didn’t have any complaints about the food, it was overshadowed by an overall experience that even embarrassed the bartenders serving us that night. Back Bay had long been one of the very most popular restaurants in a city of hundreds of fantastic food purveyors and that fact wasn’t lost on me as the magic of the internet delivered insults and excuses from the restaurant’s fans after I posted my review. It was a little shocking since I’m pretty sure I had more expletives slung at me than I had readers at that point. However, every word I wrote about that evening was true.
Though my first experience at BBG wasn’t stellar, I knew I eventually had to go back and give them another shot. Everyone can have a bad night and I was certain the pristine reputation they’d earned over many years had to be legitimate, at least to some extent, based on the overwhelmingly positive experiences of their customers. I wanted to be part of that too, so when my wife suggested we go back, I was particularly enthusiastic about it. We finally made reservations at the busy Portland St. joint to see if we could erase our last memories of the place and turn them into something more pleasant.
When we got there, we were greeted warmly by the maître d’ and host, our jackets were taken, and we were seated within about three minutes at the far end of the restaurant by the windows. As we sat and began perusing the menus, a waitress came by to offer some water which we gladly accepted. As she left, we discussed what we might want for drinks.The restaurant has a number of specialty cocktails, a bunch of beers, and a seemingly endless, award winning wine list. I decided to go with a BBG Punch – Appleton Rum, Citrus Oleo Saccharum, Pineapple, Grapefruit Bitters. My wife stuck with a sauvignon blanc.
It didn’t take long to get our drinks and shortly after, our waitress came to ask if we had any questions about the food. Not only did we not have questions, but we were ready to order our entire meals. After discussing, we realized we both wanted to order the same foods, so instead of sticking with that, we decided to each order something to share. Mrs. Portlandeater went with Hearts of Romaine – thyme croutons, parmesan, garlic dressing – as a starter and a main course of Mushroom Fettucini – taleggio and roasted garlic creme, roasted mushrooms, arugula, parmesan, truffle oil. I had to get the Maine Crab Cake – pickled Napa cabbage slaw, arugula, smoked paprika aioli. From there, I requested the Sage Marinated Chicken Breast – whipped potatoes, broccolini, crispy parsnip, chicken jus.
As I put on my waiting shoes in anticipation of the food, I tried my drink. It was interesting and quite unique. The sour libation was layered with competing tastes and offered a bit of the unusual. The Oleo Saccharum – simply, lemon oil and sugar – permeated the drink as I also caught a hint of herb from the bitters and only an underlying sweetness from the pineapple. Booze soaked cherries sitting on top added a little extra umph. As we quenched our thirst, we received some warm bread and butter with the BBG logo stamped into it. Fancy!
A complimentary bite came to us before any of the food we ordered as a waiter delivered foie gras and cognac mousse on crostini with pistachio, herb, and strawberry coulis. The tiny bite was pretty good even though I’m not a huge fan of foie gras. The cognac added a nice touch and the pistachio doubled the crunch from the crostini. I’m not sure the strawberry fit well as it was quite sweet, but it didn’t distract too much from the rest of the flavors and it was just a bonus item anyway.
Shortly after the crostini went down the hatch, our appetizers came out. My crab cake was hockey puck shaped, though a smidge thinner. A substantial smear of the aioli and the slaw sat next to it. The layered romaine was topped with the dressing, three lengthy slivers of parm, and a bunch of tiny croutons. I tried the crab puck first. Unlike meatballs and meatloaf which often don’t have enough filler, I find that crab cakes often have too much and lose all the great crab flavor because of it. This beautiful baby was just incredible though. Practically all crab, the lightly breaded crustacean cake fit cleverly with the aioli which gave just a tiny bit of that great smoky paprika heat. The slaw was heavy on the vinegar à la pickles, but delightfully fresh.
After a couple bites of my app, I started to share with my wife as I took some of the romaine from her. I chopped the crisp lettuce into bites appropriately sized for my unusually large mouth. As I gathered all the flavors into my taste tentacles, I noted a mad rush of strong, core notes. The sizable cheese chunks gave me potent parm while the dressing was really heavy with creamy garlic goodness. The croutons just threw little noise into the party. There was no reinventing the wheel on this one, just upgrading it to handle a drive at warp speed. Between the crab and the romaine, I thought I died and went to heaven. The garden-grown and pond-plucked app combo was food fantasy. We finished it all and waited impatiently for our main courses, quite possibly expecting too much since we were already feeling fed like royalty.
It probably only took several minutes after our apps were done to get our next course, but it felt like forever. Two pieces of chicken breast – one with a bone – relaxed in a pile of mashed which were in a puddle of jus. The crispy parsnips were placed on top and the broc finished the plate. I sliced a mouthful of the bird and went to work. Oh my! The tender meat was housed in a well-marinated, outer shell and contained an unbelievable amount of sage-laced savory salivation inspiration. I eat a lot of chicken breast and I can honestly say that BBG served one of the best I ever had. It was absolutely outstanding. Another slice of it with the jus proved even better as the strong chicken gravy upped the ante on the herby, aromatic poultry plate. The potatoes were like butter clouds and paired well with the parsnips to add a bit of crunch, while the broccolini was crisp and butter braised.
After a few nuggets of our own meals, we again tried each other’s food. My wife felt the fettucini wasn’t as flavor heavy as the rest of the food we had and that was true, but the pasta was very fresh and the mushrooms were plentiful, providing a solid and central taste to the dish. The cheese and garlic occasionally provided a punch, but overall were mild throughout the plate. I was neutral about the inclusion of arugula, though it did provide some color which added to the presentation. While it wasn’t bursting with flavor like the chicken, it was still another wonderfully put together item with multiple flavors which worked together very well.
Not in any hurry to rush out, we took our time and enjoyed our meal, eventually finishing everything in front of us. I wasn’t too full for dessert if something that struck my interest was available. After a review of the menu, we decided to share White Chocolate Ice Cream, Chocolate Sauce, Chocolate Spaghetti. It seemed like a reasonable finish to our night and sounded suitable to my tastes. When it came, the ice cream was topped with the sauce and wore a wig of the spaghetti. I might be splitting hairs here, but I believe it was actually chocolate linguine. Either way, it didn’t matter as I dug in to see what the grand finale was going to give. It turned out to be a lesson in masterful simplicity as the very accessible ice cream was given a choco-buzz by the sauce with the curious coco spaghetti/linguini adding a bit of texture up front. There was nothing in particular that stood out, but everything together did as we dove deep into the delicious dessert.
Post triple chocolate treat, we received some complimentary Gran Manier, white chocolate, toasted coconut truffles. They were as soft as snow and as tasty you might imagine with a body of white chocolate and a good bit of coconut on the outside. Even though they were quite sweet, they weren’t overly so, and another white chocolate taste was just fine with me. After those spectacular little tidbits were done I most definitely had all the sweet stuff I wanted that evening. We asked for the bill as we were ready to make our way home, full of food and drink.
Our final tab came to about $130 after tip. I think it would be accurate to say that Back Bay Grill’s food was WOW-worthy and the service this time around was what I expected it to be – just brilliant. Now I see the reason why they are a well respected leader in the ever-growing, ever-outstanding food world that Portland offers – because they do pretty much everything right. The atmosphere is also relaxed and appropriate for both a chill, romantic dinner or a slightly more festive “girl’s night out”, as the party sitting next to us seemed to be having. So what more can I say? I guess I should tell you to go there, because they’ve convinced me that they clearly know their way around awesome food and providing a meal that ranks among the very best in the area. Thank you Back Bay Grill for erasing the memory of my first time there. I don’t think it will be three more years before I go back.
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