I hadn’t been to Central Provisions in quite a while, so I went back with Mrs. Portlandeater, arriving early to get in line since they don’t take reservations. Instead of waiting out front, we decided to go in downstairs where there is a bar accessed by going around the back. We were carded to get in – clearly because we look so young – and joined the already-well-formed line to go upstairs for dinner. Luckily, prime seats at the bar opened up before the line moved and we were able to snag them.
We went for drinks first. I took the Kentucky Witch – bourbon, sweet vermouth, dry vermouth, liquore strega, amaro averna, aphrodite bitters – and she the Cava Brut Rose. My libation was a slightly herbal manhattan, nothing crazy, but a pleasantly strong whiskey cocktail. I sipped it as I looked for some food to get started down the road to satiating my hunger.
With so many small plates to choose from, it was a chore to narrow it down to one or two starters. I skipped past raw items and foie gras, focusing on standard hot and cold foods. She knew quickly that she wanted the Maine Crab Salad – brown butter pancake, miso, mentaiko. I took my time, but finally picked the Bread and Butter – sourdough from Standard Baking Co., caramelized onion, marsala, reisling sabayon, trout roe – and Bread and Butter Pickles – dill, garlic, vidalia onion.
My two bread and butters came out quickly – pickles first and then actual bread. The thinly-sliced cukes were mild, flavorful and somewhat addictive. I got both the dill and garlic as I ate them and the sweet onions added a great touch. The bread came three pieces with a pile of sabayon in the middle and a smear of caramelized onion spread. I preferred the onion, but adding both spreads to the fresh bread worked quite well and the smattering of roe was a suitable topper to it all.
When the crab salad arrived, my wife decided to share it, so after she smoothed it on the pancake, I took a slice. I initially thought its $18 price tag to be too much, but changed my tune after the first bite. The rich, buttery pancake and gently sweet, salty crab mix was simply incredible, nearly beyond words. This is how good it was: there was some orange in the salad that I didn’t particularly love and it was still one of the absolute best things I’ve eaten in a long time.
I could hardly get enough of the oft overlooked crustacean with crazy-right flavor, but it couldn’t last forever. As we ran out of that, we ordered some more, keeping it simple at first with CP Frites – korean chili spice, ketchup and garlic aioli. Then we added Fried Cauliflower – ras el hanout, chickpeas, feta, herbs – and Burgundy Escargot – porcini cream, wild mushrooms, sourdough. My wife ordered another glass of wine.
The frites – can we just call them fries? – were served in a carnival cup with a picture of fries on the outside. I’m tempted to say that’s how I knew they were awesome, but really it was because I ate them. There are a few ways to make fries great, but the korean chili took these to a place I thought might not be possible. The slightly spicy sticks were brilliant and trancended carnival food. The only issue was that they were petite, so dipping in the sauces wasn’t easy, but we made it work.
Our cauliflower was crispy and full of just the right notes. Filled with herbs and spices and well played with the crisp chickpeas and cheese, the cauli provided winning taste and texture. The escargot was accompanied by sourdough squares and mushrooms all sitting in cream. The snails were a bit earthy, but aided by the wine and shrooms, were as flavorful as you might imagine. A high quality dish, the snails had all the making of French fine dining in a small plate.
As we finished our food, I realized I was still hungry and needed dessert. None of the actual desserts interested me, so I decided to get a Chop Salad – bacon, iceberg, pickles, ranch dressing. It seemed like a fine finale and didn’t take long to come out, since there wasn’t any actual cooking involved. The bowl of lettuce and ranch was topped with candied bacon which seemed appropriate.
A chop salad doesn’t sound that exciting, but this one was immediately extraordinary. The beautifully concocted ranch and sweet bacon added outlandish flavor that caused the dish to be about as tasty as I could imagine. The creamy dressing and bacon were perfectly proportioned without being overdone and those two overriding themes layered pure deliciousness over the fresh veggies. I ate it all and was finally ready to call it a night.
After seven small plates and three drinks, our meal came to $137 including tax and tip. I’ve been to Central Provisions a few times since they opened now, trying both lunch and dinner and eating upstairs and down and I can definitively say that they stand among the best restaurants in Portland. The crowd they draw night after night is enough to know they’re doing what makes customers happy. No they’re not cheap, but when I’m there, I quickly go from “this is a little expensive” to “take my money, please”. Yes, it’s that good.
Here’s specifically why Central Provisions absolutely nails it. First, their food parings are spot on. But, the biggest reason is that they have seasoning down to an absolute science, possibly better than anywhere I’ve ever eaten. I can’t imagine fries more perfectly appointed or a crab salad that better combines its tastes. And those are just the start; everything else they serve follows suit. Go early, go often, go downstairs. Go give them your money. It’s well worth it.
Central Provision 414 Fore St.
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