“People who love to eat are always the best people.” Julia Child
Food is a wacky thing. For many – maybe even most – it is an emotional experience. Enjoying a bit of fine dining can bring those people, like myself, memories that will last practically forever and cause us to salivate at the thought of that great spread the fancy restaurant provided for us. But those same people can get a somewhat similar feeling just by going to visit their mom and eating one of her famous – in her house only – fluffernutter sandwiches on white bread for a miniscule fraction of the cost. What is it that makes our sense of taste so conjoined with our emotion despite the scenario? I’m sure someone much smarter knows, but I don’t, and I’m not sure it matters.
Our heartfelt relationship with food is natural, but I think many Mainers, and more specifically Portlanders, also have developed that association with their surroundings. Being in a food mecca and near the ocean where lots of food is produced, adds a different element to just eating good food. It takes it up another notch. Sit outside in the summer at one of the waterfront restaurants we have in Portland and throughout Maine and you’ll instantly feel a sense of peace and serenity that is hard to match. Listen to the waves, enjoy the sun, sip that cocktail or local beer, and chow down on the shimp cocktail recently harvested from the waters in your line of sight.
So what has happened this year in the Portland food scene that’s worth mentioning? Fortunately, more of the same. Breweries, distilleries, wineries, restaurants, and food related business popped up all over the place. More food trucks. More innovation. More Portland food and drink on tv. More of everything good. Of course, there were some closings too, but on the whole, there was lots and lots of the good stuff we’re used to. And 2017 has plenty in store as food entrepreneurs continue to see Portland as the place to be. Who can blame them? We sure do love our food.
That brings us to a review of the best of what happened in 2016. There was no shortage of exciting food happenings and I’m here to tell you exactly what I felt was the tops among them. Use this as a reference to make a list of the next several places you should go eat. I’ve kept the same categories as always and I’ve used similar judging criteria focusing on food, service, atmosphere, value, and how the restaurant compared to others in it’s genre. I’ll reiterate similar sentiments as last year when I state that it’s seems new restaurants are having difficulty providing customers with exceptional value which has little in my mind to do with price and more about overall feeling after the meal is done. I don’t mind paying a high price for a meal that is captivating and of exceptional quality, but if I leave shrugging my shoulders, they simply haven’t hit the mark.
In addition to the judging criteria above, I’m focusing only on restaurants I’ve reviewed on this blog in the past year which means no winners will come from my BDN blog since those are mostly re-reviews to this point. If you haven’t checked out that blog, find it at pppe.bangordailynews.com. Thanks so much for continuing to support me in this food blogging endeavor and please continue to like, share, follow, comment, and subscribe. I very much appreciate your support and look forward to providing lots more food related content for your viewing pleasure. Now let’s get this party started!
Restaurant of the Year – Hot Suppa
My restaurant of the year for 2016 is Hot Suppa. Not exactly an obvious choice and not without some serious competition, they edged out my other choices by a narrow margin. I went there expecting a decent meal, but Hot Suppa was so insanely good, so decidedly flavorful, and just spot on in every way that after I left I had to figure out if my time there was a dream or reality. There’s a reason what they’re always busy and I’m thrilled I figured it out this year on my first ever visit.
If I have any regrets about my stint at Hot Suppa, it’s that I only got to try a few items. But with large portion sizes, I ate all I could handle at a very reasonable price. I started with the deviled eggs which were very good and the meal only went up from there. Their fried chicken won me over with the first spicy/sweet, tender bite, their award winning mac and cheese was practically the definition of comfort food done to perfection, and the cornbread was like nothing I ever had. When I finished off the warm chocolate bread pudding with bourbon butter sauce, I knew I had experienced something special.
I think Hot Suppa needs more noise made about it and I’m making it here. I absolutely can not wait to get there again and attack more of their sensational southern sustenance. Just as impressive as what I ate was their spectacular menu. Diverse, with lots of really stellar options, I was more than certain I could go there a number of times and always order something different without running into any food I didn’t like. Hot Suppa surprised me like few restaurants have, but that’s the kind of surprise I could deal with every day and that’s why they’re my restaurant of the year.
Honorable Mention – Isa
In the beginning of the year, I was lucky to visit Isa. The bistro interior was pleasant, but what makes it my ROTY runner up was its highly laudable food. The escargot, cabbage salad, and potato gratin were worthy of my highest praise and I haven’t forgotten about that meal since. The cabbage salad itself was certainly one of the best salads I ever had. Isa makes magic an an atmosphere that just feels right. I’ve sent a number of people there throughout the year and haven’t heard any disappointment yet.
Best Ethnic Food – Rossobianco
Rossobianco is temporarily closed, but that doesn’t change anything, because the Northern Italian restaurant deserves a heaping helping of praise regardless of their current status. From their truly amazing appetizer – more on that later – to their stunning pasta, they hit the mark. I’m not the biggest Italian restaurant fan, but they made me a believer, mostly leaving behind the tomato dishes and focusing more on cream – that’s the northern part of them. When they reopen, expect the menu to change, but let’s hope they keep the same flavor concepts, because if there’s one thing that stood out, it was the way they created intense, bold cuisine with what could have otherwise been just “meh”.
Honorable Mention – Vignola Cinque Terre
Vignola provided a nice meal and though I didn’t order anything too crazy, I was impressed with what I did have. The tuna stuffed cherry pepper app was a first for me and was not only unique, but delicious and maybe even on the healthier side. Their pepperoni pizza was more exciting than a standard version of the spicy meat pie which was a bonus. Most importantly, they left me wanting more as their cheese and charcuterie options, which I didn’t end up ordering that night, put a bug in my head for the next time I went.
Best New Restaurant – Big J’s Chicken Shack
It must have been the year for fried chicken, because this is the second winner with a fried chicken meal. A trip to Thompson’s Point led us to Big J’s Chicken Shack just four days after they opened their doors and it was well worth it. The food was delicious from start to finish, and the chicken was crispy and full of flavor. Whether you order Portland hot or Nashville hot, you’re in for a treat because both are spiced right depending upon your tolerance for heat. Their sides are also winners with waffle fries, mac and cheese, and the brussels and kohlrabi slaw acting as standout accompaniments.
Honorable Mention – Mash Tun
Mash Tun has added itself to the list of places I’d almost go for the atmosphere alone. The good news is that the atmosphere is just the first awesome part of the place. Add in maybe the best burger under $10 – It’s only $6! What? – in all of Portland, a phenomenal beer list, excellent drinks, a cheese plate that is way better than it looks, and a total mish mosh of customers and you’ve got a place that takes cool to Arctic proportions. If all that isn’t enough to get you there, I’ll throw this in – they’ve got a wicked long bar and a Drew Carey lookalike bartender. Now I dare you not to go.
Best Upscale Restaurant – Northern Union
My wife decided that a visit to Northern Union in Ogunquit for our anniversary would be fun. After all was said and done, I couldn’t have agreed more. Starting with a complimentary glass of awesome prosecco was only the beginning. We chose to sample lots of small plates and ended with the sharing of a brilliantly executed lobster tagliatelle. Everything was first rate. Though we don’t get to southern Maine too often to eat, our trip to Northern Union prompted us to get there a few more times this year than most, because they showed us that that part of the state obviously has some great food to offer.
Honorable Mention – Back Bay Grill
Back Bay Grill really rolls out the red carpet for it’s customers and that was exactly how it felt when I went earlier in the year. The service was perfect and whether someone was there with their wife like myself or with a bachelorette party like the table next to us, it didn’t change the way anyone was treated. Of course, the real draw at the eatery is the food and there was nothing that wasn’t extraordinary. I can honestly say that they fed me one of the best bone-in chicken dishes I had ever tasted. And their apps and dessert weren’t far behind.
Best Eats on the Cheap – 3 Buoys
I criticized 3 Buoys about a couple of minor issues I had with them when I went and it hardly matters. They were awesome. Their portion sizes are so enormous for the price and their seafood so fresh that I’m not sure anything else makes a difference. If you want fish and don’t care if you’re staring at the ocean while you’re eating it, they are a great – and I mean great – place to go. We had the scallops and haddock and both were slightly bigger than a Smart Car so you definitely won’t ever leave hungry. Sure, you’ll need to sprinkle a little salt on the food, but I promise you won’t mind.
Honorable Mention – Rosie’s
It’s hard to find fault with Rosie’s. The popular dive serves food and drinks that are within reach even if your wallet is on the thin side. Their bar food menu has plenty of options and their beer selection is better than it needs to be. Order nachos, wings, a burger, or whatever and a beer that costs less than anywhere else around Portland and you’re guaranteed to be happy. It can get a bit crowded and crazy, but if you’re going, you probably already know that. My only word of advice is to be careful of the patrons playing darts, because regardless of how little you spend there, it’s not worth it if it comes with a hole in your head.
Best Appetizer – Rossobianco
I’ve never had the same restaurant be a winner of two categories, but Rossobianco’s Arancini con Funghi was So. Crazy. Good. that I must give them their just deserts for that app. The crusty ball of mushroom risotto sitting in a cheese puddle was decidedly the best app out of many that I had all year. If you go to Rossobianco when they reopen and they don’t still have it on the menu, demand they bring it back, because it’s just that good. In fact, even if you have reservations somewhere else, go there first, have a glass of wine, and order one of those.
Honorable Mention – Woodford F+B
Woodford F+B’s classic deviled eggs are truly classic. They keep the traditional flavor and other than adding a sprinkle of bacon, they’re pretty similar to what I grew up eating on holidays and at family gatherings. Why are they so good? Because Woodford makes them perfectly. With pickled mustard seed and a paprika base on the plate, these are flawless and keep that great zing for which the evil eggs are known. Sure, pretty much everything at the restaurant is awesome, but the deviled eggs are to die for.
Best Place to Grab a Drink/Beer/Wine and Chill Out – Thompson’s Point
Not a single restaurant, but what has become a destination, Thompson’s Point is where it’s at for hanging out with drinks. It doesn’t matter if you want beer, wine, or liquor, because they’ve got you covered with Stroudwater Distillery, Bissell Brothers Brewery, and Cellar Door Winery. They’ve all got something great for their visitors and when you’re ready for some food, just ring up Big J’s – my best new restaurant – to fill your belly. And one last thing – the cherry bomb at Stroudwater is one of the better drinks in the city.
Honorable Mention – LFK
I went to LFK on a dark, dreary night and felt like I was in exactly the perfect spot. Their dark bar and strong drinks are where you need to be if you just broke up with your significant other and want to have a drink alone or if you want to get away from winter. They also work well for big parties since all their tables are large. I wasn’t thrilled with their mac and cheese, but if you go, pony up 10 bucks for the burger which is well worth it. Though their menu is small, they have some other really good options too.
And that’s the awards for this year. Go to all of these restaurants soon if you know what’s good for you. Stay tuned in 2017 as I bring you lots more to chew on. Have a great year and wherever you go, whatever you do, tell ’em Peterpeterportlandeater sent you.
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