Trying to Stay Hungry in Portland Maine
The cobblestone streets of Old Port, the vibrant waterfront of Portland, Maine are busy with people, shops and restaurants. Restaurants with national reputations for being on the forefront of the local and sustainable food movement. We had a day and a half there, vacationing with friends. We looked for casual places with good food — and we found them. The only challenge was trying to stay hungry.
The creative energy in Portland provokes associations to Brooklyn, N.Y., which is annoying to people living in Portland. Sure, some people have moved from Brooklyn to Portland. But Portland has a rugged energy and intimacy all its own.
Duck Fat serves irresistible fries. Belgian-style, hand-cut Maine potatoes fried in duck fat and served in a cone with a choice of dipping sauces. But why order the fries alone? Go for the poutine. It’s lathed with duck gravy and dabbed with soft, melting cheese curd.
This hip little joint serves sandwiches, fries and milkshakes. Everyone seemed really happy to be here. We started lunch with Brussels sprouts fried in duck fat and tossed in mustard vinaigrette with minced pickled apples and bacon.
Duck Fat’s famous milkshakes are made with Portland’s Gelato Fiasco. A gelato soda, pairs a scoop with the house-made soda of your choice. The soda Roots, Barks, Sticks and Leaves has a root beer like flavor, yet avoids the cloying sweetness of commercial root beer.
Duck Fat has a good list of ciders and beers. Dry Cidah, made in Portland at Urban Farm Fermentory, had an old-world fermented funk that I love. Duck Fat, 43 Middle St., Portland, (207) 774-8080, duckfat.com
Eventide Oyster Co.
Eventide Oyster Co. has a raw bar specializing in Maine oysters. John’s River, Basket Island, Dodge Cove — the names evoke cold pristine waters. Oysters are served with ices. Kim Chee ice, Tabasco ice or pickled ginger ice. Traditionalists say the briny Maine oysters need lemon only, and I’m with them.
This bright, pale blue storefront has great energy, an interesting menu and young staff. From the small-plates menu, lobster stew in coconut green curry with maitake, had a terrific flavor, spicy and sweet, but was more like soup than stew. Servers are helpful with advice on what to drink. We drank Muscadet with our oysters. Eventide Oyster Co., 86 Middle Street, Portland, Maine, 207.774-8538.
Perennial “Best of Portland” winner, this clean white shack on the wharfs on Commercial Street, has a large patio over looking the port. Be forewarned. Portland Lobster Company is a stop on all the tours.
One pound of lobster meat is stuffed between a toasted top-split bun, and dressed in butter. Lemon and mayonnaise are served on the side. Sturdy fries, peels on, tasted like potatoes, and a fresh coleslaw, sprinkled with celery seeds, was neither too sweet nor sour.
Our only complaint, an unmarked and unexpected change in floor level next to the self-serve water dispensor sent me crashing to the floor, where I banged my arm and broke the handle my pocketbook. The bartender admitted it wasn’t the first time he’d seen it happen. I hope they’ve fixed it since then. 180 Commercial Street.
Deans Sweets smells of intoxicatingly of chocolate. That’s because Dean, “Mr. Chocolate,” is in the back of the shop, crafting truffles, butter creams and caramels in a range of adult flavors like scotch, champagne, and chocolate stout.
The former architect hand-dips these well-proportioned, rich and textured chocolates, beautifully packaged for gifts. The Maine mix features blueberry truffles made with Maine’s Cold River Vodka; Maple Buttercream; Maine Sea Salt Caramel; and Needhams, a traditional Maine candy made with coconut and Maine potatoes.
Dean’s Sweet’s, “Extraordinary Maine-Made Chocolates,” 475 Fore Street, Portland Maine, 04101, 207.899.3664, www.DeansSweets.com
If you’ve got kids in tow, Old Port Candy Co. is across Fore Street. The store is packed with colorful gummies and jelly beans. Chocolate-covered bacon and fudge is made on site. Maine and Vermont-made chocolates, include over-the-top chocolate pretzels rolled in crushed toffee.
422 Fore St., Portland, ME (207) 772-0600 http://oldportcandyco.com
The Holy Donut is another spot for kids. Potatoes are the Maine (couldn’t resist) ingredient in these fluffy cake donuts. Flavors like bacon maple sell out early.
Maine Craft Distilling
Maine Craft Distilling charges a nominal amount ($5) for a tasting of four of its “farm to flask” small-batch distilled spirits. The signature Alchemy Dry Gin is infused with juniper, coriander, cardamom and lemon peel. Ration Rum, aged in oak, had a note of vanilla. Chesuncook Botanical Spirt, distilled from carrots (!) and Maine-grown barley, is infused with juniper, corriander and mint. Black Cap Rum, distilled from molasses and Maine barley, is for sipping or mixing up a Dark ‘n Stormy. 101 Fox St., (207) 798-2528
Where to Stay
Outside touristy Old Port (about a 10 minute drive), the Pomegranate Inn feels like staying at the home of the elegant, eccentric and well-off aunt we all wish we had. The breakfast of curated small plates was lovely and special, in keeping with the atmosphere.
The sideboard in the sunny dining room presented a deceptively delicate feast. Grilled pineapple in shot glasses, yogurt and strawberry parfaits, banana-berry smoothies, strawberry almond feta salad, mini three-cheese muffins and orange muffins, and cookies. And a nice selection of tea (I’m a tea drinker, so I loved this).
Then the lovely young couple cooking in the kitchen asked us what kind of omelette we’d like. Okay! Hold off on that adorable muffin. (But, can I take one for later?)
After breakfast, we walked to the Portland Museum for a shot of culture from Winslow Homer to Warhol. In the excellent gift shop, I bought earrings made from hand-blown glass by Atlantic Art Glass, based in Mount Desert Island.
For evening drinks, LFK is a cool neighborhood bar and restaurant within walking distance through the Pomegrante Inn’s historic residential neighborhood. It’s in the former Cunningham Books, and looks like it’s been there forever. After spending the day in the tourist-filled streets of Old Port, it was good to be with people who live in Portland. Across Longfellow Square, Boda serves real, spicy Thai food until 12:45 a.m.! That’s how you stay hungry in Portland, Maine. Eat again at midnight.
Portland, Maine is a four-and-a-half-hour car drive from my house in Fairfield, CT, and a two-hour flight for our friends from Washington, DC. Portland International Jetport is a 15 minutes car or taxi ride outside the city.