In June, I had the pleasure of going to Blyth and Burrows on Exchange St. just before it opened to the public a few days later. The hype of the bar blew through Portland last spring like a tornado. As details emerged, locals were intrigued by its well-thought-out historical theme and especially by its secret door leading to a different bar downstairs.
I waited a while to head back to the popular locale, wanting to get through the initial excitement of its presence in the Old Port and giving it a little time to normalize. Still, I couldn’t forget about the insane amount of buzz it had generated over the summer. Because that ballyhoo was so crazy, there was a part of me that actually expected to be disappointed when I returned. It was too much to live up to, I figured.
One concern I’d had – that it would be overcrowded and impossible to navigate – was put to rest immediately. Yes, it was busy, but not to the point of overcrowding. We took seats at the bar on the upper level and were promptly given menus and some water. The menus were mostly new from when they had opened, so I took careful inventory of what was now available, looking for a beer or cocktail to get the night started.
After asking about the rotating taps and taking more time than we should have to choose a libation, we made our decisions. I went with Agave Navidad – sage infused tequila, Blackstrap Rum, mezcal, roasted pineapple, lime, orange citrate. She decided to get Zuzu’s Petals – Stroudwater Vodka, Genepy, Cappelletti, cranberry, rosemary, lemon, bubbles.
The food menu was small and focused on small plates, but there were several that caught my attention. I wasn’t interested in raw items, but that left both hot and cold dishes from which to pick. Before we could finalize our decisions, the bartender slid the drinks over. My cocktail was fruity with a permeating, but not overwhelming, mezcal smoke that I enjoyed. She found her drink’s flavors odd and quite tart. I agreed, but mostly liked it.
We sipped away and made our final choices on food. I ordered the Charbroiled Oysters – Old Bay, breadcrumbs, butter – and Korean Short Rib Bao – napa cabbage, jalapeno, kimchi. She went for Poke Bao – green onion, sriracha, jalapeno, tuna, sesame seed – and Goat Cheese and Honey – herbed chevre, maple pecans, local wildflower honey, crostini.
Before the plates we ordered came out, we each received a complementary bite from the chef and shortly thereafter, both of our Bao orders made their appearance. We each had three soft, doughy buns that looked like perfectly shaped tacos made of clouds. Hers was darker, mine light. I took a bite and loved it. There was a moderate spice, though nothing painful. A light sweetness rounded out the delicate, tender meat. It was a great start.
As I took my second bite, Mrs. Portlandeater nearly fell off her seat. She repeated the the words “oh my god, this is so good” about five times while eating her first bao. She was mesmerized by the spicy tuna in the bun, eating it while also showering it with praise. She followed up her initial thoughts by letting me know she would need to eat them again in a few weeks, and added that it might have been the best thing she’d eaten all year.
Once the buns were nearly done, the rest of our order came out. I went for the goat cheese, smearing it on one of the crostini. It was a little thin for spreading and broke in two as I attempted it, but I persevered, creating a duo of smaller open-faced sandwiches out of it. Crunchy, sweet, and cheesy, it was an excellent snack with lots of flavor which was only aided by the addition of pomegranate seeds and a little roe.
With cheese done, I dug for an oyster. I had been offered a off-menu version, but took the more traditional ones. Upon consuming the first shucked shellfish, I was happy with the choice. They were mildly seasoned, but as is often the case with seafood, I enjoyed savoring its natural flavor. I consumed all four of my bivalves, relishing the straightforward manner of preparation immensely.
My oysters were eventually gone, but I was still a little hungry. She decided to order a Prosecco, so I went back to the food. I quickly picked out the Mushroom Pate – North Spore Mushrooms, seasonal pickles, crostini. It didn’t take long before it came out with a large log of the pate itself, honey, housemade mustard, and a pickled cauliflower.
Not wanting to break my bread again, I was careful about putting a pat of pate on it. I took a bite and felt it was tasty, but relatively weak. Wanting to jazz it up a bit, I threw on some mustard. The second bite was amazing, assisted by one of the best mustards I’d had in recent memory. A little honey made it even better as the mushroom honey mustard spread created a combination of flavors that made my mouth happy.
Our food and drinks were eventually finished and we were ready to call it quits. Our bill came to about $91 before tip. All of our items were between $7 and $14. That was also the range of food prices on the menu as a whole aside from oysters at $15 per half dozen. We paid and made our way out, drifting into the cold, Maine night.
Blyth and Burrows turned my expectations upside down. I expected little and got everything. The drinks were solid, the food even better and the atmosphere as good as any around. The establishment is comfortable, looks really sharp, and feels like a place one could happily hang out in for hours. My two hopes are that next time I go I’ll spend some time in The Broken Dram downstairs and that at some point my wife will stop telling me how great her bao was.
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