Despite working in a pretty decent food town (Providence, Rhode Island), and despite being just an hour away from another decent food town (Boston, Massachusetts), when we want to go to a place where we park our car once and can easily walk to dozens of great eateries and bars, where each place is more creative than the next, and where genuine friendliness and enthusiasm for what they're doing shows in every dish, the answer is Portland, Maine.
My wife and I visit Portland at least once a year and it's mind-blowing how many new restaurants have opened since our last visit. Every time we think we've crossed a few off our list, a half-dozen new ones show up! Last year, we hit 10 restaurants in 48 hours. This last visit, it was a mere 6 restaurants in 48 hours. I guess we're getting older...!
Our weekend started on a Friday afternoon with a quick bite at Solo Italiano, near the water on Commercial Street. We really enjoyed a light-as-air Carpaccio di Tonno: thinly sliced yellow fin tuna with stracciatella cream, herb oil, and crispy onions. And after we were told that the chef at Solo won the World Pesto Championship, we had to have the Mandilli di Seta al Vero Pesto Genovese: silk handkerchief pasta in a traditional Genovese basil pesto...amazing! Solo also has some great house cocktails to choose from. Definitely worth a return visit.
Our Friday evening dinner was at Hugo's. Originally owned by chef Rob Evans, a three-time Food Network "Chopped" champion, Rob sold it a few years ago and now runs Duckfat, a small sandwich shop famous for its Belgian-style fries that are fried in duck fat. (Though it gets written up in many magazines, my experience at Duckfat was disappointing.)
The folks that own the nationally-acclaimed Eventide Oyster Bar now own Hugo's (it's next door) as well as The Honey Paw (next door on the other side.) For us, every visit to Portland must include this amazing restaurant trifecta on Middle Street, that, in fact, have connecting kitchens.
Hugo's is fine dining at its creative best. Though we hadn't been there in over a year, Brian, a manager and our wine guru, immediately remembered us and greeted us with a hug, showing us to our seats and treating us to a glass of bubbly. He guided us through the wine list and offered us a bottles that were simply out of this world. Though we've done the tasting menu in the past, we decided to go a la carte when a beautiful fried whole black bass, with roasted mushrooms, cabbage and hoisin vinaigrette, was calling our name. After a few wonderful appetizers that included peekytoe crab, reblochon (a local cheese), and a fantastic lamb tartare, we were ready for the black bass. Even our server, Patrick, was impressed with how well we devoured that amazing fish right down to the bone. Fantastic!
Dinner at Hugo's wouldn't be complete without a discussion about bourbons with bartender, Paul, and he let me sample a couple of special bottles he had behind the bar. A great way to end a wonderful dining experience on our first night in Portland.
The next day, Saturday, our food adventures began with lunch. Don't get me wrong: there are some great breakfast choices in Portland, like the Porthole (featured on Food Network's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives") and Becky's Diner. But when you're in town to feast, you bypass the bacon and eggs.
Lunch was at Eventide, which shows up on every national list of Best Oyster Bars, and the reason is simple: a wonderful selection of fresh oysters, a great bar, and creative side dishes that will blow you away.
An already amazing Eventide brown butter lobster roll is elevated to new heights when it's placed on an Asian-style steamed bun. Blackboard specials change every week, and always include what's right off the boat: from fried squid to pickled lox. If you're less adventurous, you can't go wrong with the buttermilk fried chicken bun, the house pastrami bun or their amazing fish sandwich.
If you go to Eventide during peak hours, you can expect a wait. The place isn't huge and it's wildly popular. Give them your name, tuck yourself into a corner with a drink, and wait, knowing that it will all be worth it!
After our leisurely lunch, it was time to walk off a few calories. Heading down Fore Street, we tucked into several art galleries and shops, slowly making our way across the center of town to the newly redesigned Portland Art Museum. By the time we stepped out of the museum, it was time for more food. Just a few blocks, and we arrived at Boda.
Labeling themselves as a "Very Thai" kitchen and bar, Boda delivers. Though we only had a few apps, like the apple and shrimp salad and a plate of authentic pad thai, it earned two thumbs up. A plate of fried quail...not so much.
The bar at Boda offers the standards (like my Chopin martini) and some interesting Asian herb-infused cocktails.
Definitely worth a return visit, especially when Boda is open until 12:45AM, serving tasty skewers for the bar crowd.
A short stop at our hotel, and it was time for our Saturday dinner. We headed to what many claim is the best sushi restaurant in Portland: Miyake. We soon discovered that the label "best sushi restaurant in Portland" didn't necessarily set the standard very high.
Though we found an amazing bottle of sake on the menu that we've had before, the food was a disappointment. Having had a few great sushi experiences in my life, I wanted this place to be among them. But after trying 2 different 4-course menus that featured tastings of salmon, tuna, uni, duck, and even Miyake's own farm-raised mangalitsa pork--a rare heritage breed--which, though fatty, was very dry...it's safe to say that we won't be returning to Portland, Maine for its sushi.
In a town with many creative restaurants, this one didn't cut it. Some locals told us that Miyake used to be better when they were in a smaller space. The move to a larger space meant a beautiful room, but the food suffered.
Our weekend ended with Sunday brunch. If we wanted a more typical but delicious Sunday brunch, we would've gone to Five Fifty-Five, where we've enjoyed dishes like lobster eggs Benedict in the past. But when we heard that The Honey Paw was now serving brunch, there was no question where we needed to go!
My kind of Sunday brunch: Asian fried ribs, pork and fried oyster potstickers, a bowl of beef shank pho, and a fabulous breakfast sandwich with housemade scrapple and egg on a kimchi croissant.
My wife took advantage of a full bar with creative cocktails. Unfortunately, I had a 3-hour drive home behind the wheel, so I had to refrain from the alcohol.
While we dined at The Honey Paw, I ran next door to Eventide and ordered 2 of their buttermilk fried chicken sandwiches to go. Our 10-year-old daughter was not happy that we went to Portland without her this time, and we knew that bringing her favorite sandwiches home would help ease the blow.
We'll be back to Portland this summer. Already counting the days. For other great places to dine in this town, use my search engine under "Portland." And feel free to drop me a line with any questions about where to stay, eat, visit, etc...