It’s highly probable I travel as much as I do because of my mom. I grew up hearing about her travel stories to Germany and the Philippines, and traveled out of the country for the first time to Manila when I was 10 for a family wedding. The bug got me early. I had never seen anything as truly wondrous as walls of jungle, waterfalls to veil myself behind, and flowers as big as my head, bathing me in sampaguita; a scent that brings me back every time I smell it, 17 years later.
Last year, the two of us took our first trip together to India. This year, we stayed a bit more local, taking just a three hour drive from my home town in Connecticut, to Portland, Maine.
I don’t believe I’ve ever had so many back-to-back meals that weren’t so flavorful, fresh, creative and substantial.
I’d be hard pressed to find a place in Portland that wasn’t off-the-charts. To me, ingredient pairings and dishes that embody a chef’s full heart and soul, unafraid to think outside the box in order to evoke emotions from bites and visuals is a talent near godliness. Portland has found those with the true love of love of food and harbored them in a laid-back and charming port-city. Chefs here are able to express their styles in an unpretentious way, avoiding stepping on else’s toes and allow each spot to stand out on its own for everything that it is: from fish to duck to pig and crustacean, farm-to-table and deep-fried.
Eating our way through the city was intentional, acknowledging Portland’s award by Bon Appetit as best food towns in America in 2018, but aside from the dining options, there was tons to explore, popping our heads into boutique shops and artist havens.
The Press is located conveniently a few minutes walk from anywhere we wanted to pop into. The first boutique hotel in the area houses rooms which reside in what was once the Gannett Building, (offices and printing plant of the Portland Press Herald, the state’s largest newspaper) until 2010. Many of its artifacts have also been fixed as decor, including a scale used for weighing the rolls of newsprint right down to the ounce.
Important to note: free coffee is offered every morning at the Inkwell bar, which also serves hand-crafted vintage cocktails, Portland microbrews and small plates when the lights of the city dim. The lobby space, as well as the walls of the hallways feature tables emblazoned with Press Herald headlines spanning 150 years.
Chef Josh Berry added some mid-winter additions to the menu with imaginative culinary dishes like starter courses of Poached Duck Egg with soft polenta, hazelnut brown butter and shaved farmstead cheese and Bangs Island mussels with green curry, lemongrass, Kaffir lime and chili. While there are other stand out new main dishes to the menu, we opted for breakfast of hash and eggs, a warm chai-spiced quinoa with coconut milk, bruleed banana, pecans and cocoa nibs, and an unreal vanilla brioche French toast, local maple syrup, whipped butter, grated cinnamon and kick-starter cleanse juices.
In addition, the new Chef’s Table experience at UNION is an unexpected twist on ‘private dining.’ Directly in front of the open kitchen at the Chef’s pass, this reservation-only countertop is seated for up to three persons to experience a tasting menu created on-the-spot with three-or five-course options. For locals or visitors craving a more intimate culinary experience, the Chef’s Table is both a relaxed, lively and educational dining event.
Where to eat:
A winner times over from most beautiful designed bar to twice James Beard nominated for Outstanding Bar Program, this spot was a three minute walk from our hotel, and had the perfect amount of food if you’re coming craving a snack to tide you over, or a full fledged smorgasbord.
Clams, bathing in a chorizo and pilsner soup sponged by night moves bread whet the palate, coaxing and enticing the tongue with the complexities and array of flavors.
Pretzel rolls, handmade and still breathing new air from the oven, were stuffed and overflowing with fresh crab meat for one hand, and slathered with Cabot-cream spread, ham and beer mustard dripping off the sides for the other.
After a full day of driving, a bit of a personal detox, and the fact my mother doesn’t drink, I opted out of the cocktails, but on my next trip back to Portland, this will be my first stop and I vow to work my way through the drink menu.
A recommendation from many around the area, we stopped at Central Provisions for dinner after being stuffed to the brim a few hours prior. The tapas style easily accommodate two small humans such as my mom and myself, but had we not indulged at lunch, would have done a lot more damage to the menu.
The restaurant offered a detailed menu of eclectic Asian-inspired combinations that were bold and powerful, like Bone Marrow toast with toasted fontina and horseradish creme and red onion jam, Maine crab and maple syrup and chili waffles, topped with ikura, suckling pig sitting on a bed of brown butter and apple cream with marcona almonds, smoked carrots with cinnamon and housemade goat cheese and pistachio… all as extravagant and tender, as full of piquancy and umami as they sound.
Once a gas station then laundromat, Tandem Coffee Roasters + Bakery is now a bright spot to pop in for quick coffee or embrace the slow pace of Portland in the company of a treat made by Brianna Holt, whose early beginnings saw her baking donuts at the age of 13 in Martha’s Vineyard.
Briana and the rest of the baking team have a commitment to building strong relationships with Maine farms, featuring as many locally grown grains, fruits, produce, and meat as possible. In 2015, Tandem Bakery was among Bon Appetit magazine’s 50 Best New Restaurants in America with Briana touted by the editors as a “pastry genius”.
Sourcing beans and working in partnership with small growers and specialty importers, Tandem now also brings their passion to sustainability and environmental responsibility to their customers, charging 25 cents for every throwaway cup, encouraging those who stop in to bring their own refillable mugs, while reducing the cost of those pours a 25 cent discount for incentive.
I can’t say enough about how much I love this company, and while trying to stay unbiased in my reporting, I will allow myself to have a pass with this one. (This is my blog, I do what I want.) Last summer, I joined a lunch with the brand team in partnership with Gotham Greens on the roof of their Greenpoint warehouse space. If that sounds hipster to you, allow me to elaborate on the cushion seats and live band overlooking the New York skyline. You couldn’t really ask for much more on a summer afternoon than the pairings of crisp beer paired with cheeses and desserts. When I knew I was heading to Portland, I had to hit up the team to come say hi and see where they produce and thrive in a style paralleled to my Brooklyn experience.
This is a team that with their full hearts, love their brand and what they do every day. The emotions were evident as they walked us through each step for brewing the beer, from inception in 1994 to today. Selfishly (though, understandable) they constantly are creating new brews, some of which are only available at the storehouse, making it all the more reason to come and visit.
They take care of their team, the planet, and those who have helped them grow to be all that they are today, using locally grown and organic grain, with efforts in lighting, repurposing used grain to feed animals and constantly find new homes for used material, keeping 99% of waste out of landfills.
Also, it’s fair to mention that they were also nominated for a James Beard award in the beer, wine or spirits producer category.
For a last dinner, we were recommended time and again to go to Scales. The restaurant is hidden down an alleyway, greeting patrons who walk in with a view of the harbor through floor to ceiling windows, nursing sailboats in the safety of the Maine State pier. A silver machine shoots chipped flakes of ice from the ceiling to a trough chilling fresh caught fish as guests wrap around to the warehouse style dining space, rustic in its decor with lightly sanded wood furnishings and nautical homages.
We started with oysters (of course), steamed Maine lobster with cornbread and drawn butter, and pan seared Arctic Char with du Puy lentils (small, blue-green marbled), guanciale (Italian cured meat from pork jowl or cheeks), glace root vegetables and cipollini (wild onions).
Other things to do:
If you’re looking to do a few activities in between stopping from restaurant to restaurant, there are rows and rows of boutique stores, whose product are only found behind the salt stained doors.
There are tons of lighthouses and beaches for summer, but if you’re hoping to avoid the cruise crowd, head over in early Spring or early fall and enjoy no lines to get in anywhere, and have the streets to explore and patrol on your own.