Monday, August 30, 2010

Duck Fat - Portland, Maine

We had a couple nice dinners in Portland at Fore Street and Street and Company, but there are of course more meals in the day. When not scarfing down lobster rolls, we had one particularly notable lunch at Duck Fat. Duck Fat is a spin-off from Hugo's, whose chef Rob Evans was the 2009 winner of the James Beard Best Chef Northeast award. While Hugo's appears to play with many contemporary motifs (the menu intrigued but its schedule did not coincide with ours), Duck Fat has a much narrower focus: Belgian style fries, fried in duck fat, with panini and a few other things to eat along with those fries. It is outrageously successful at what it sets out to do.

The restaurant is folded into a tiny space just a couple blocks off the main drag of the Old Port area, with most of the seating at stools facing the wall, a smattering of two-tops, and a couple long tables. I'm not quite sure if these were intended to be communal tables, but that's what they became when we were there. Needless to say, the thing to get is the fries, served up in a cone of paper and with a choice of a half-dozen different dipping sauces. I went with the curry mayo, while Frod Jr., the second in command fry maven, chose a truffle ketchup.

They are indeed classic Belgian style frites, right at a happy medium between shoestring-thin and steak-fry-floppy, undoubtedly twice-fried, perfectly crispy outside and toasty, barely fluffy and potato-y within. We had an extensive debate at the table over whether they were indeed the best fries we've ever tasted. They might well get my vote, though Mrs. F is still partial to the fries at Bourbon Steak. It was a robust debate. You also have the option of having those fries in a poutine (the Canadian border is pretty close, after all) with curds from the nearby Silvery Moon Creamery and duck gravy, but that seemed a wee bit excessive (though not to the petite collegian sharing our table with us).

Panini make up most of the rest of the menu, made with bread that comes from Standard Baking Company (another member of the Fore Street clan). I had a delicious special of the day made with pork belly, pickled radishes and carrots, some spicy mustard; it could have taught a Cuban sandwich a thing or two. The couple regular menu items we tried were equally good - roast turkey with gruyere and a spicy cherry pepper relish, a tuna melt with provolone and some preserved lemon. The beer list was solid, and I chose a locally brewed Allagash White witbier to wash things down.

If you're feeling especially peckish, you can also round out your meal with one of several milkshakes, and/or some duck fat fried beignets, though perhaps that's better saved for a second visit.

Duck Fat
43 Middle Street
Portland, Maine

Duck Fat on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Street and Company - Portland, Maine

Having had such a good experience at Fore Street, the following night we went to its sister restaurant, Street and Company, just a few blocks away on cobblestoned Wharf Street.[1] Street and Co. has a more singular mission than its sibling, with a menu focusing almost exclusively on fish and seafood dishes. While several things we had at Street and Co. were excellent, the overall experience was somewhat more haphazard.

If Fore Street's food is straightforward and honest, Street and Co. takes things even further in the direction of rusticity. Though some small "tastes" and appetizers show a little more variety, entrées are limited to a selection of seafoods simply prepared: grilled, blackened, broiled, or over pasta. Tables are all topped with brass both for decorative and practical purposes, the latter being to provide a safe landing for a number of dishes that are served right in the pan.

I started with a selection of local oysters that were some of the finest I've ever had. Notwithstanding the traditional "Months with an R" rule, because of its more temperate waters, Maine oysters are excellent year-round, and these were good evidence of that. My half-dozen included a couple each from three different sources: Nonesuch oysters from a new producer in the Nonesuch and Scarborough rivers; Pemaquids; and possibly Glidden Points, though the memory falters. Our server wisely suggested I proceed in order of salinity (which she advised of), but they were all just about perfect in their own way, tasting as purely and wonderfully of the sea as almost anything I've ever eaten. The presentation was minimalist - just iced oysters on the half shell with a lemon wedge and some mignonette, but these were oysters that wanted of absolutely nothing, not even those simple accompaniments. Indeed at the time they even inspired poetic recitations from the Walrus and the Carpenter:

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

An appetizer of beets and carrots (more of those wonderfully tasty carrots) came with some creamy, tangy, locally produced feta cheese, and dressed with a light vinaigrette. A calamari puttanesca app was a smart borrowing of flavors from the traditional pasta dish, with capers, olives and garlic in a spicy tomato sauce.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fore Street - Portland, Maine

picture via Fore Street
It was perhaps fitting that our first dinner in Portland was at Fore Street. Opened in 1996, the restaurant appears to have been on the front edge of Portland's emergence as a serious food town. As I noted earlier, the whole farm-to-table ethos seems to come very naturally to Maine's restaurants, and this is on clear display - even literally - at Fore Street.

A block off the waterfront in an old warehouse, the restaurant's physical layout is a fine preview for the straightforward honesty of its food. As you enter, there's a glassed-in pantry that holds a bountiful display of fresh produce, mostly sourced from local farms. But even more striking is that if you're not careful, you will walk right into the garde manger station, which is set up in an open kitchen right as you walk into the main restaurant space. In its own way, it was one of the most dramatic and effective restaurant entrances I've ever experienced, in part because it feels uncannily as if you're walking into someone's home and kitchen.

The seating areas are arranged in two tiers, one at the height of the kitchen and filling the center of the room, with more seating around the walls opposite the kitchen, raised stadium-style a few steps higher. We had a cozy spot right in the corner which gave a fine vantage for that open kitchen.[1]

My recollection is that the menu was divided up by preparation methods as much as by typical "appetizer" "entrée" "side dish" groupings, though candidly my memory is a bit fuzzy.[2] Throughout, the menu showed a strong focus on seasonal and local ingredients, both from the ocean and the ground, as well as a section devoted to charcuterie and offal, which of course I found alluring.

I started with a dish of grilled squid, cut into wide curling ribbons, paired with a variety of pickled zucchini, peppers, and carrots, and spinkled with snipped chives. It was a simple dish with the tart pickled vegetables pairing well with the super-fresh squid. We also had a tomato soup with corn, its bright vermilion hue matched by a real intensity of fresh tomato flavor. The only miss among starter-type items we had was a salad with cold, slippery mushrooms that didn't highlight their flavor or texture. The bread, I should note, was fantastic, all crusty and chewy: the restaurant is part of a family that also includes a couple bakeries, a happily symbiotic relationship.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

And Back Again

Ten days in Maine. So what have I learned?

While other areas along the Eastern seaboard contemplate five-year lobstering moratoriums due to depleted fisheries, Maine has an abundance, likely largely due to forward-thinking, stock-preserving industry self-regulation which has been incorporated into state law since 1933. Healthy supply and lower demand due to the economy have driven prices down: Maine lobster retails for as low as $3.99 a pound - good for consumers, tough for lobsterers. This is actually an improvement for the industry from last year, when prices were so low, and tempers so high, that some lobsterers resorted to gunfire to settle disputes over rules both written and unwritten. Even if not priced like a luxury item, it still tastes like one.

The whole farm-to-table (or ocean-to-table) thing has taken hold quite nicely in Maine. Indeed, one gets the sense that it's not seen so much as a current trend as just the way things always were and continue to be done. Aside from the ubiquitous lobster, wild blueberries and "native" sweet corn dotted both roadside stands and menus throughout our travels along the coast. We ate at multiple places that literally had their own farms supplying produce, and of course there are still lobster docks where the buggers go pretty much straight from the boat to the boiling pot. Though I suspect eating seasonally and locally may be a lot more interesting this time of year than the dead of winter.

That kind of tradition and independence manifests in other ways too. Maine turned out to be quite an off the grid experience, as cellphone reception apparently is considered to be highly overrated by the locals, the 3G variety basically unheard of, and wi-fi networks functioning, as often as not, about as effectively as they would have been a hundred years ago when the places we were staying in were built.

Some of the more memorable tastes from our trip: blueberry-blackberry shortbread with sweet corn ice cream at Fore Street in Portland; the fries at Duckfat; Pemaquid Point oysters, on the half shell at Street and Company, wood oven roasted with chanterelles, corn and coriander butter at Primo in Rockland; tomatoes from the Squire Tarbox Organic Farm; a whoopie pie at Moody's Diner; General Tso's sweetbreads with ramen noodles and bacon dashi at The Edge in Lincolnville; Thai chili ice cream from Mount Desert Island Ice Cream. More details to come - I've got my work cut out for me.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On Vacation

Off to Maine for a little vacation. Portland, ME looks to be turning into a pretty food-centric town, some interesting stuff going on there. Fore Street is on the agenda, hopefully a stop at DuckFat, with a few others on the list too, plus maybe a trip out on a lobster boat. A couple days at an inn and organic farm near Wiscasset, likely some lobsters on the dock in Boothbay Harbor, then off to Camden, with a side trip to Primo in Rockland. Mrs. F also has fond memories of Moody's Diner in Waldoboro from a meal there about fifteen years ago. Then off to Bar Harbor for a few days. Do we follow in the President's footsteps to Havana and Mount Desert Island Ice Cream (a/k/a "Black Power Ice Cream")? Which is more implausible: black militants in Maine, or good Cuban food?

Suggestions welcomed.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Norman's 180 - Coral Gables

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

I'm going to come right out and say it: I don't think I can be entirely objective about Chef Norman Van Aken's new restaurant, Norman's 180. Some of the reminiscing in my last post previewing the restaurant's opening might give some indication why. A dinner nearly twenty years ago at his South Beach restaurant A Mano was one of my first truly memorable meals. His "Feasts of Sunlight" cookbook, published in 1988, was one of the first cookbooks I recall cooking from. Very simply, Chef Van Aken's food has played a not-insignificant part in my personal culinary history.

In the interest of complete disclosure, I should also add that I've attended a (free) friends and family dinner as well as a (free) media preview event at the restaurant,[1] and the chef and I have chatted at those events as well as chance encounters in local tapas bars. Since Norman's 180 officially opened, I've been back a few more times as a paying customer. But try as I might, I've been unable to do so without being "spotted," since Chef Van Aken seems to be working seven days a week. So take this all with as many grains of salt as you deem appropriate.

With that said: Norman's 180 is putting out some delicious, exciting food. It's not perfect. It's not as elegant an experience as the original Norman's in Coral Gables used to be. But it's fun and flavorful, and a welcome return for a South Florida legend.

I won't recite Chef Van Aken's whole biography here. Aside from being a famous chef, he's also a great storyteller, and his life stories are scattered all over his website, from his first gig as a long-haired line cook in 1971, to applying for a job with Charlie Trotter and being mistaken for a truck driver, to Louie's Backyard in Key West, to A Mano on South Beach. But South Floridians probably remember him most fondly for Norman's, his flagship restaurant on the quietest end of sleepy Almeria Avenue in Coral Gables. In its time, Norman's was one of the best restaurants Miami had ever seen, and before it closed almost exactly three years ago in May 2007, it was one of the last local bastions of true "fine dining" still around.

Things change. If you're a proud property owner in Miami, your house is worth about half of what it was worth in 2007. These are not the times for "fine dining." And so it was clearly time for Chef Van Aken to do something different. "Norman's 180" is not "Norman's," with a name that not only conveniently indicates the street address of the restaurant but also suggests a 180 degree turn from the past. Norman's 180 embodies all the current gestalt: it eschews white tablecloths for bare wood tables, it embraces the farm to table ethos, it exalts all that is porcine.

But it is also clearly a Norman Van Aken restaurant. In fact, it's a family venture, with son Justin Van Aken working side by side in the kitchen with the old man.[2] Though he is best known for bringing classical technique to Caribbean flavors and ingredients as a prime instigator of the 1980's "Mango Gang," Chef Van Aken's food has always been globally influenced, willing to draw inspiration from Asia or Africa as readily as South America and the Caribbean if it tastes good. What twenty years ago was called "fusion cuisine" now ought really need no nametag. It's just food, and it's either tasty or not. The menu runs in several directions at once, and sometimes it gets lost amidst all the globe-trotting, but for the most part I've enjoyed the journey so far.

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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Spiceonomics 101

As mentioned peripherally in my last post, it's become increasingly common practice to kvatch about Miami Spice season, and to bemoan the absence of "values" among the $35, 3-course offerings. I'll be the last person to defend the ubiquity of the "Spice Trifecta" (farmed Atlantic salmon, chicken breast, churrasco); but I'm equally underwhelmed by complaints about restaurants not offering their "signature dishes" as part of the Spice menu, or the suggestion that restaurants are generally raking in money through their Spice deals.

As to the latter issue, it's one that Lee Klein of New Times seems to be pushing in his latest Spice post, "Five Annoying Things About Today's Herald Story on Miami Spice." Among other things, he points out that Florida restaurant sales totaled $27 billion last year, a statistic that prompts him to ask: "You kinda have to feel sorry for this industry, right?" It goes from there to a brief rant that restaurants whose non-Spice price points average higher than the typical Spice bill have an "effete, elitist, could-care-less-about-locals" attitude.

This faux populism is really rather unbecoming, particularly from someone who just recently praised a restaurant with $17-23 appetizers and $40-50 entrées.[1] The implicit suggestion that restaurants are getting rich off your precious $35 seems an unlikely premise, particularly for restaurants where the average bill is usually higher.

Let's do some math. I've never run a restaurant, so my assumptions here do not come from experience but rather from some haphazardly researched educated guesses based on reported industry averages. Nonetheless, the information I came across was reasonably consistent. Let's assume that at the typical full-service restaurant, food cost averages around 30%. That means that if the average bill per person is $50, the restaurant's food cost for those items is around $15.[2] So where does the other $35 go? Mostly payroll, then rent, utilities, insurance, maintenance, marketing, financing costs, tattoos, recreational drugs, and ideally, some profit. With a little more guesswork, it's reasonable to hypothesize that the average profit margin (pre-tax) is around 5%. So out of that $50 bill, the restaurant is actually making ... $2.50. And that's for a successful, profitable restaurant.[3]

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