It’s that dark, hibernating time of year. We recently moved to a small northeastern seaside city where we know almost no one. We’re writers, but food is our greatest passion. Brendan, a native New Englander by way of Italy and California, is an expert cook who eats with as much excitement and gusto as I do. I cook improvisationally and eat indiscriminately. I lived in New York for twenty years, so this is a strange new land for me, but the rumor that Portland, Maine has more restaurants per capita than any other American city is a bit of a thrill.
As soon as we moved into our house on the West End, we got down to it: Caiola’s, the Back Bay Grill, Miyake — the sushi place and also the noodle house — Petite Jacqueline, J’s Oyster, the Front Room, Artemesia, Bonobo’s Pizza, Boda, Local 188, the schmancy, expensive Greek place on Congress Street, Bintliff’s, Hot Suppa, the Blue Spoon. We haven’t been to some highly recommended places — most notably Hugo’s, Fore Street, the White Cap, and the Pepperclub — but we’ll get there.
Our favorite restaurants in town, so far, are Saigon, a simple, cheap place that makes some of the best beef pho we’ve ever had (and they deliver!), savory boiling-hot beef broth with fresh thin-sliced beef, rice noodles, mint leaves, and bean sprouts; Artemesia for brunch, where you get huge mimosas and cozy, cheerful huevos rancheros; J’s Oyster, a crowded warm little place on the wharf that serves up lots of booze and huge buckets of succulent steamers with bowls of hot water and melted butter; and Miyake Sushi, which is costly but worth it — the $25 lobster roll is the most decadent treat in town, the sushi is sublime, and they make their own gluten-free soy sauce. Boda serves solid, easygoing Thai food, Hot Suppa has authentic, down-home jambalaya, the Front Room’s salads are fresh and good, and Bonobo’s gluten-free pizza is greasy but delicious. The Greek place, Emilitsa, has tender octopus, excellent lamb, and great spanakopita — it’s expensive, but it’s the real thing.
There have been some disappointments. Brendan got sick from the overly rich fare at the Back Bay Grill (although the bartender there, a charming red-headed cutie, makes a wicked, icy martini) – overpriced food that’s too fatty and too salty makes us feel like chumps while we’re eating it and bilious afterwards. And our brunch at Bintliff’s the other day made us stare at each other in consternation — how do you make a lobster frittata that’s literally inedible? Their chef can, and did. Petite Jacqueline’s $21 meuniere was a slab of bland white fish fried in butter and slathered in half a pint of thick cream-and-lemon sauce with 5 or 6 capers. But the steak au poivre was pretty damn good.
We’re off to New York for Christmas to have the brilliant steak tartare at Balthazar and some affordable, excellent sushi at Takahachi. We look forward most of all to a roast and Yorkshire pudding Christmas Eve dinner at our dear friend Rosie Schaap’s. New York eating at its best has a joie de vivre, an expert ease, a feeling of celebration, kibitzing, and excitement. Going to a favorite restaurant in New York is like embarking on an adventure; they’re on their toes down there, they have to be. It has its share of crappy restaurants, but the good ones are memorable, formidable, legendary.
We can’t wait to discover more legendary food in Portland. We’ve only just begun to eat here.
serves 2, with leftovers
Clean and dice a good-sized leek. Mince a shallot or a handful of chives. Dice a red pepper and two medium red potatoes. Saute it all in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat in half high-quality oil, half butter — just enough fat so nothing sticks. Sprinkle with salt and black pepper, fresh dill or tarragon if you have it, and paprika. Beat six very fresh eggs with a dollop of sour cream. When the vegetables are soft and beginning to brown, pour the egg mixture over them. Place 1 cup of cooked lobster chunks into the pan into the wet egg mixture. When the eggs have set but are still wet on top, run the pan under the broiler to finish cooking. Serve with hot buttered toast.
Note: Do not drown the frittata in plasticky, cheap cheese; do not throw the lobster on top at the last minute as if it were an afterthought; do not undercook the eggs so they’re a runny mess; potatoes perk the whole thing up. Bon appetit!