Where to Eat in Portland, Maine

As you may know from my previous two posts, I am an expert on Portland, Maine after visiting only one time. Read up on why I went and the coffee/bakery scene if you feel like it, but now let’s get to what we’ve all been waiting for:

lobster roll

I ate more lobster in Portland than most people would be comfortable with. Being from the Chicago area and living in Texas, it’s odd that I came to love lobster as I do. It probably began on a childhood trip to Alaska when my family ate king crab legs like candy. (And we eat a lot of candy). Now I don’t have many opportunities to indulge this lifelong love and it’s not even worth attempting most of the time. But, when in Maine. (LOBSTER, was the subtext there. In case you didn’t catch it. When in Maine: LOBSTER.)

The lobster roll above is from J’s Oyster and was the fruit of much last minute lunch research. J’s is a dive bar right off the water that smells of beer and seafood. It sports some framed boat paintings and looks like nothing, including the carpet, has changed since the 80’s. When I arrived a couple minutes before noon there were already several blue collar type guys, possibly retired, clearly local, drinking beer at the bar. The middle aged waitress seemed to be laughing at me for some reason (maybe my stupid glasses or turquoise pants? she probably saw me taking that indulgent food plate photo). I am still feeling the victory that was deciding to eat at J’s Oyster.

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If I choose a bad restaurant while traveling, I have the most crippling food regret of anyone I know. I cannot let it go–it will ruin whole days for me; it is what I will remember when thinking about a trip. J’s gave me the opposite. It was exactly what I wanted. The lobster was exactly what I wanted (the best I had)–perfectly complimented by a toasted hot dog bun, one lettuce leaf, and a hint of packet mayo. The beer was exactly what I wanted, perfectly average but local–Gritty’s seasonal, called Vacationland. The atmosphere was exactly what I wanted: I sat in a window looking out at boats, with those guys telling old work stories at the bar, the waitress humoring me, and the lunch crowd only getting started when I left. Everyone go, but don’t be there with your stupid glasses and bright pants, bringing the whole place down with Instagram photo shoots when I come back.

My second lobster experience started with the best seafood chowder that I have ever had. It was so good–full of big, recognizable pieces of lobster and fish. This was at Gilbert’s, a more touristy dive on Commercial Street, with a big deck in back, looking out towards the water:

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Seafood chowder and then whole lobsters. Because we’re on diets. But anyway, when consuming an ocean bug that looks at you while you gruesomely tear its body apart to eat in pieces, Liz and I decided it best to name the lobster. Because we’re adults. So, meet Ernest and Keith: two regular lobster guys who were just trying to make it in the world. They did not succeed.

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The following night, we wanted something light and healthy so we decided to go to a restaurant called Duckfat. It’s basically a little sandwich shop that makes incredible fries, fried in duck fat and served with different kinds of house-made mayonnaise and my favorite: truffle ketchup. Liz, Brian, and I are usually fully capable of finishing an order of fries, but there were more than a few leftover by the time our duck fat shakes came to the table. You heard me: duck fat shakes. The vanilla and Maine honey shakes that Liz and Brian ordered were too sweet for us, but the duck fat salted caramel I got was lovely. I was more than willing to share. Mainly due to my high intake of duck fat, as you might imagine. Our rich food comas did not quell Liz and Brian’s unquenchable love though:

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Portrait of a marriage.

We had a great time perching at their shared high tables, basking in duck fat and the small space’s perfect lighting, inadvertently eavesdropping on our neighbors’ conversation and trying to figure out their (business? dating?) relationship after they left. I could have done with some chair backs, but that might also have had something to do with all the duck fat.

And now I promise to stop saying duck fat. But I won’t stop talking about duck probably, because we ate a lot of it and my favorite extended joke from the trip started with duck. It wasn’t a joke really; we just got stuck on the wording of a dish we shared at the amazing Fore Street restaurant: Duck Two Ways. So, that’s not a strange name, but Liz, Brian, and I can tend towards investigative, Jerry Seinfeld (“what’s the deal with…”) type humor. ‘Finding absurdity in the everyday’ might be a subtitle to the biography of our friendship. Anyway, the ambiguity got us at first: “duck which ways–can’t they be a little more descriptive?”; “how many ways can we get other ingredients?”; “can we have dessert two ways?” And then we just started applying it to everything. I bought Boots Two Ways because the L.L. Bean flagship was having a sale. I’m not sure how funny this is, objectively, but we thought it was hilarious. And it came up a surprising number of times: Coffee Two Ways, Bradbury Mountain Two Ways (via different trails), Breweries Two Ways (which ended up being only one way, since we ran out of time). Sidenote: Maine has amazing beer. I wanted a Maine beer tour, and looked into visiting the Maine Beer Company and Oxbow taprooms, but we only made it to Allagash Brewery for a tour. It was more than pleasant:

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Allagash Brewery

Anyway, more importantly: Fore Street Restaurant. To preface: Liz, Brian, and I have a tradition of an extravagant Fancy Dinner once a year. The rules of Fancy Dinner are simple: order everything; share everything; try things you wouldn’t normally try; don’t think about the money just this one time. It’s a ‘spare no expense’ situation, but without any any man-eating dinosaurs.

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She’s just a beautiful person; in all the ways.

Fore Street was a great choice for Fancy Dinner. The space is what I’d call industrial-rustic-classy; there’s a lot of wood, exposed brick, and iron fixtures. It feels really open, with tall ceilings and short walls around raised seating areas, but the lighting is warm and intimate. It’s got a good vibe. And they have a really cool open kitchen–basically in the middle of the restaurant, with a beautiful wood oven that winks at you as cooks pass in front of the flames.

I think I’d hate working in an open kitchen–you have to look calm and like you’re enjoying yourself all the time without swearing or laughing or yelling too much–but I enjoyed watching the cooks. Some sous chefs probably thought I was flirting with them, but I was really just flirting with the food. Their menu is not experimental or flashy, but everything is made really well. We ordered quail, soft shell crab, duck (two ways), scallops, hake, fiddleheads, parsnips, mashed potatoes, lemon herb creme brulee, chocolate torte, and several Maine beers. See what I mean about Fancy Dinner?

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I think this was towards the end of the evening, when our eyes started crossing post-quail/duck/scallop/hake/etc./etc./etc.

The quail was heaven in the form of a tiny bird. I don’t usually order quail due to the price/riskiness of overcooked poultry, but oh man. This quail. The only thing better was the scallops, which were the best scallops I have ever had. I tend to over-use the “best I’ve ever eaten” compliment (which is easy, while eating something good), but this time the compliment is just clear fact. They earned the nickname butter-meat (or meat-butter).

That said, the side vegetables were delicious in theory but disappointing in experience. They were either not made to order or something went wrong with ours because they had clearly been sitting around a little too long.

For dessert, I was far more excited to try a weird new creme brulee than a boring chocolate torte; but even after eating to the point of pain and having no genuine interest in dessert aside from Fancy Dinner rules, I couldn’t get enough of the thing. The creme brulee was good and unusual but that chocolate torte was inappropriate noises good. Like, food seizure good.

In the past, Fancy Dinners have occurred at restaurants with a little more swank, or at least pretension, but Fore Street was the perfect place for the Maine edition: it’s fine dining in a flannel button-down. I’ve thought about the restaurant many times since leaving and I’ll probably make Liz and Brian take me there (and order fewer dishes/spare some expense) when I visit again.

…Which I will do as soon as possible. Though I hate having most of my favorite people scattered in so many strange cities all across the country, it’s less painful when they live in places I love to go.

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Morning in Portland, Maine: Coffee and Bakeries

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I already wrote a bit about visiting my friends Liz and Brian in Portland, but I’m going to post a couple more times on the food and drink aspects of the trip. First coffee and bakeries; next time restaurants and breweries. As someone who has visited Portland, Maine one single time, I consider myself an expert on their restaurant/coffee/bakery/brewery scene. My credentials are clear: I eat a lot, I love beverages, I have been to Portland, Maine one time, and I have this blog. So.

Let’s start at the beginning. The best coffee  in Portland, Maine (trust me I’m an expert) comes from Tandem Coffee Roasters on Anderson Street. My friend Liz and I came here before breakfast on my first morning and I was officially sold on Portland. The shop part of the building (which seems to be primarily dedicated to roasting) is bitty but just perfectly done–most of the room is taken up by what seems to be a hand-built, wood coffee bar; what isn’t old exposed brick is clean, minimalist white and wood; a few plants on windowsills, a few books lying around, and lots of natural light in the morning at least. I can’t speak to the espresso (though it looked good coming from a La Marzocco machine) but one sip of my morning pour-over elicited the first “OKAY, fine, I’ll live here” of the day. There were many.

The second best coffee in Portland comes from Speckled Ax on Congress Street. The coffee might actually be just as good. They had all the third wave coffee gear and snootery you could ask for, but the interior is trying a little harder and accomplishing a little less than Tandem with burnt orangey-brown walls and uncomfortable chairs. This is where you’d go to stick around and work, though, as it has over twice the space of Tandem and more than just a handful of stools at the bar. Liz and I went early my last morning, before she had to go to work and I had to catch a bus, and there were already a couple be-suited yuppies working at tables. Here’s Liz and a glimpse of Speckled Ax’s cute tin ceiling:

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Honorable mentions go out to Bard Coffee and Crema Coffee and Bakery, which seem older and were both sprawling and comfy with a 90’s/Central Perk vibe. I ducked into Crema for at least an hour after a long walk, returning from the Eastern Promenade on a drizzly day. I had a good enough cappuccino, researched lobster rolls, read a book, and was treated to pleasant live piano music that some old guy was playing in the front. I like to think he just waltzed in and started playing, but he might be a regular feature at the place.

When I travel, I love bringing home a pound or two of local coffee as a souvenir. It makes the trip seem to last longer, and the first day back at work is less painful with vacation coffee easing the way. That’s science probably, because smell is linked with memory so brewing vacation coffee makes you remember vacation. Science. Anyway, this time I bought Tandem’s El Higueron, Costa Rican, and a pound of something or other from Bard, where I stopped on my way out of town. They were a perfect combination to have available at home–the Bard being a good, solid, darker roast option (which I honestly prefer most of the time), and the Tandem Costa Rican being a fresher, frillier, more complex (and more expensive) treat. I liked the Tandem logo so much that I cut it off the bag and taped it to my storage jar like a nerd.

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But enough about coffee. Let’s talk about breakfast. First, let’s talk about bakeries. Specifically, the best bakery in Portland, Maine and probably all of Maine and maybe the Universe: Standard Baking Co. Their baked goods will cause enthusiasm and perhaps hyperbole. But I think I went every single day I was there, without exaggerating. And they do have the best pain au chocolat I’ve gotten in the states. I mean, look:

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Flakes for days. I can’t even remember everything we tried, but I impulsively ordered a spare roll just to check out their bread skills and immediately wished that I had gotten a whole loaf. The crust was crisp but tender, the crumb light but substantial and chewy. Damn. It’s clear they know what they’re doing and I kind of want an apprenticeship.

We also went to Rosemont Bakery Shop, which was delightful. I have no idea how their baked goods are, as Liz and I just popped in to the market part for a few things, but the cheese counter is worth a trip either way. We ogled and asked questions and were unable to restrain exclamations upon tasting a French double cream brie. So, we were generally obnoxious to the patient man working the counter, who chose to laugh (at) and humor us rather than be annoyed. Or maybe he was still annoyed. Either way, he offered samples. They have a good selection and offer a lot of information on the kind, source, and history of their cheese. It was another example of this Portland, Maine thing of caring a lot about quality and putting a lot of effort into doing simple things well. I’m for it.

If a donut place counts as a bakery, I also went to one of those. The Holy Donut makes potato donuts and they are so right to do so. I had never had a potato donut before and I loved them; they’re like cake donuts with a serious side. I got a cinnamon-sugar and a dark chocolate/sea salt to share with Liz and Brian when they got home from work and accidentally ate most of them. I have no regrets. Plus it’s a cute little shop across the street from Deering Oaks Park, where duck couples stroll in dewy, deep green grass.

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The only breakfast-breakfast we ate out on this trip was at Hot Suppa. I think mainly because Liz really enjoys saying Hot Suppa. Luckily, Hot Suppa makes some good food. The interior is small, which made for a long wait on a drizzly day, but a patio behind the building looked like it would double their space on a nice day. My trip was in the spring so there were fiddleheads and ramps everywhere. Living in Texas, I get none of that and loved every minute of it. Liz and I split a veggie and rice hash, which I’d say was better than it sounds, and a fiddlehead and bacon Eggs Benedict. I always want some sort of vegetable with Eggs Benedict and usually the only option is a pile of limp, soggy spinach. This was so much better than that. And their bloody mary is more than respectable, as a side note.

If my loquacity has not tipped you off, I am loving this opportunity to re-live my trip to Portland. I had only planned on one more Maine post, but didn’t want to make you sit through my entire personal Portland Zagat guide. So I apologize/you’re welcome. More Maine to come.