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.

(continued ...)

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.

(continued ...)