“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” ― J.R.R. Tolkien
Well, well, well. Portland, you sure made the news this year and it’s been a long time coming. After being named America’s Foodiest Small Town in 2009, Bon Appetit decides you’re their 2018 City of the Year. But I’ve been saying you’re the best all along. Of course, I was right, and I’ll also take credit for being ahead of the curve. Don’t let it go to your head. Just keep forging ahead with the best food and drink available and keep making everyone in town – local or visitor – happy and fed.
That Bon Appetit story certainly made it tough to get into nearly a couple dozen Portland restaurants without a pretty long wait, but fortunately, those were just the tip of the iceberg lettuce, because Portland’s list of outstanding establishments is not only long, but ever-changing. And while most of my reviews were from the first three-quarters of the year, I was fortunate to hit a bunch of new openings and also make it back to plenty of my favorites.
So what else went down with the food scene this year in Portland? There were a lot more openings (as usual) of restaurants, bars, breweries, etc. and some unfortunate closings of excellent eateries too, but I suppose there’s always something to take the place of those when that happens. This town continues to be a moving, growing, thriving, vital city, leading the way with its scenery, attitude, and now officially-recognized, world-renowned food.
Yes, you did good, Portland. So let’s get to it and discuss the best places I ate this year. These decisions are never easy, because I was fortunate to eat so much good food, but that’s sort of the fun of it all. Here are the places that truly made an unforgettable impression on me for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s the entire meal or experience, sometimes it’s just a single dish, but regardless, all these establishments are worthy of a mention from me and a visit from you. I already know I’ll be returning soon.
Restaurant of the Year – Elda, 140 Main St., Biddeford
With all the excellent food I eat, choosing the best can be nearly impossible. I mean, how do you choose between two – or 10 – excellent meals? With Elda, there were two differentiators. First, and of lesser importance, was the interior decor. It was so calm, inviting, and just straight-up beautiful, I felt like I was in the right place as soon as I stepped in the door. More importantly was the creativity of the food.
Elda doesn’t just serve seafood, they create flavorful, exciting culinary art that keeps you wondering what every dish will look like, smell like, and of course, taste like. They’re so creative and fun, in fact, that I’m certain there are those with sensitive palates that wouldn’t take a chance eating there. Elda, fortunately, is around for the rest of us.
Mussels with juniper, crab with egg yolk and carrots, roasted chicken with fennel and dandelion, and a dessert of cheeses made up a meal which always had me basking in the sunlight of a glorious dish or questioning what I thought I knew about flavors. Even my drink fit that mold. Add in the attention to every last detail, and my Elda experience was one to remember.
My only compliant about this magical restaurant is that it’s in the heart of the quickly developing Biddeford food scene and not right next door to my house, because I would love to eat there more, trying new plates frequently as the menu changes based on what’s available every day. Nonetheless, I hope Elda keeps doing exactly what they are doing now, because it’s working like a charm.
Honorable Mention – Eaux, 90 Exchange St.
What can I say about Eaux?, Let’s start with the fact that their food is absolutely delicious. My meal there began with the stunning Fried Butter Beans with their salty sweet honey coating and their earth-shattering crunch. Then came the squash with almonds and carmelized whey, which created an outstanding, balanced dish of multi-layered vegetable goodness. But it was the Chicken and Waffles that knocked the last of my socks off.
With ultra-crispy, boneless chicken and cane syrup with fried sage, apples, and pickled fresnos thrown in for good measure, the bird and waffles was just astoundingly good. The cane syrup was intensely sweet, but limited to create a perfect play. The heat was there, but only enough to create a nice rebound. It all worked together like a finely tuned machine.
With Eaux, I’ll likely have to order two main courses in the future, because I’ll certainly want to try new dishes, but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to not order the chicken and waffles. I look forward to that though, because I’m absolutely convinced that everything on the menu is excellent. If you happen to see me there in the new year with two entrees in front of me, please try not to judge.
Best Ethnic Food – Yobo, 23 Forest Ave.
I just went to Yobo for the first time and I’ll most definitely be back, because I had quite an outstanding meal. With their menu full of kimchi and gochujang (among other Korean specialties), I found it hard to choose the right items, but after eating them, I’m pretty sure I did. They transformed rice, chicken, and vegetables – all separate plates – into an incredibly flavorful meal.
Yobo does spicy perfectly in that it doesn’t overdo the heat and also incorporates it with mounds of flavor. If you like Asian cuisine like I do and haven’t yet added Korean to your wheelhouse, Yobo is the perfect place to do that. It will be one of the locations I send people to repeatedly as I don’t feel their name recognition is quite where it should be to match the quality of their food.
Honorable Mention – Benkay, 16 Middle St.
Benkay moved to a new space early in the year and it really works well. With a beautiful interior and easy to read fish and bar specials boards, everything just feels streamlined and clean. It’s definitely worth a visit if you liked the old version, because this one is better in every way. Try the create-you-own-dinner for $25 or just pick and choose what you want from their extensive menu.
Best New Restaurant – Lio, 3 Spring St.
Yeah, I thought Lio was a bit pricey, but it was also very, very good. The beautiful space, interesting menu, and well-executed food made for a thoroughly enjoyable experience. A free app plate was provided with my excellent drink because we were there early (between 5-6) and that got us off to a good start, but things only got better from there. Both my Potato Chips and Caviar and my Napa Cabbage Salad were top of the line appetizers.
The Seared Scallop entree was done so well that I could taste virtually every ingredient. The cake I had for dessert was a work of art. It turned out to be an outstanding meal with every item a winner. So despite my one concern, Lio was good enough to be my favorite new restaurant this year and I can’t wait to eat there again.
Best Upscale Restaurant – Fore Street, 288 Fore St.
There’s nothing I can’t say about Fore Street that hasn’t already been said. They change the menu every day, you can watch the food being cooked in the open kitchen, and it’s always great. I recommend it for special occassions, because my budget doesn’t necessarily allow for that type of a meal all the time, but it’s definitely worth a visit, especially if you want to impress someone.
While you can’t go wrong with anything there, I like an interesting cocktail or a glass of my favorite wine, then one of their charming salads or the mussels which are always on the menu. I generally prefer a seafood or chicken – watch it turn on the spit – dish because they’ve always turned out perfectly along with a side of whatever potatoes look good. Then I finish with a great dessert for the total Fore Street experience.
Best Eats on the Cheap – Bob’s Clam Hut, 111 Cumberland Ave.
I might be stretching on “cheap” here a bit, but I did find Bob’s Clam Hut to be a good value and was really impressed with their food – namely the clams. Those aren’t the lowest cost items by any means either, so you can eat there for less than I did and they’ve got an extensive menu for whatever seafood or casual food you’re feeling that day.
Bob’s has been a staple of Kittery tourism since 1956 and its nice to finally have them here now. I greatly enjoyed the outdoor patio since it was summer and I recommend eating there, weather-permitting. You really can’t lose regardless of where you eat their food though, because even if you’re a local, it will make you feel like a tourist who’s just found a really great spot to enjoy the regional delicacy.
Best Appetizer – Central Provisions, 414 Fore St.
Central Provisions is a restaurant that could be considered the best in Portland on any given day of the week. I’ve said more than once that their use of seasoning on the whole might be the best I’ve ever laid my pouty lips upon. They transform mundane items into world beaters and create masterpieces that have flavors which are quite often exceptionally deep and layered.
I’ve debated before if fries are even an app, but for the purposes of this, Central Provisions’ CP Frites with korean chili spice and served with garlic aioli are the best. I could hardly believe how good the carnival cup of fried potatos were the first time I’ve had them. Now I order them pretty much every time I’m there. Go and taste for yourself.
Honorable Mention – Izakay Minato, 54 Washington Ave.
Izakaya Minato’s – my 2017 ROTY – brilliance shines through in every dish and drink they serve, but I didn’t make enough of the app I had there earlier in the year. Their special of Fried Smelts with spicy sauce were simply perfect. The somewhat brittle, crisp fish was excellence of execution and the spicy dipping sauce to accompany it was just as great. If you like smelts and they have them while you’re there, I implore you to order them. They are to die for.
Best Place to Grab a Drink/Beer/Wine and Chill Out – Emilitsa, 543 Congress St.
Emilitsa is one of my favorite restaurants in the entire state. It’s nearly flawless in every way. And starting in early 2018, they debuted a bar menu which I had the great honor of trying in advance of it’s official unveiling. So with that, I can’t see any reason not to go sit at the bar and just start ordering apps and drinks. To be fair though, it’s hard for me to imagine a better way to enjoy Emilitsa than getting a table of your own and eating a full meal there. Maybe do both…in the same week…just to see which you like better?
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