Portland, Me.: Locavore in Menu and Décor

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It's hardly a secret that Portland, Me., is a food-lover's paradise. Stroll down the sloping streets and cobbled lanes in the heart of this small maritime city, and you can't miss the evidence: bakeries fragrant with just-baked sour cherry pies; indie coffee shops selling wood-roasted beans; bars where cocktails might be infused with local rhubarb or kale or blueberries; and, of course, restaurants of seemingly every ethnic and gastronomic stripe.

And then there is the port itself -- the heart of it all -- where, beyond the signs touting $4.99-a-pound lobster and whoopie pies, fishermen unload their day's haul beneath a cloud of sea gulls.

The challenge for the visitor is how to navigate Portland's prodigious dining options -- no small task given that there are literally hundreds of restaurants in this city of fewer than 70,000. In surroundings that range from the clubby to the shabby, you can dine on everything from tartes aux champignons and Eritrean foul to braised rabbit ragout and lobster rolls, Vietnamese style.

One thing is certain: In a place where the local food movement got a jump start -- years before the word locavore found a firm foothold in the epicurean vocabulary -- you can bet that much of what you eat is likely to have been raised, foraged or caught in the surrounding fields, forests and waters.

Some restaurateurs, in fact, are taking that emphasis on "local" a step further and applying it to the design of the restaurant itself. "People in Portland have been innovating with food so long," said Anne Verrill, an owner of Grace restaurant, which occupies a restored church, "that now the next step is paying attention to design."

And not just any design, but Maine design, which implies a focus on reclaimed materials, restoration and local craftsmanship. Which is how I decided to organize my own four-day culinary journey to Portland: visiting restaurants where a passion for excellent food is combined with surroundings that won't let you forget what city you're in.

Hugo's

The streets were empty on a Monday night, but Hugo's, a sleek, lounge-like restaurant at the edge of the Old Port district, was filled -- not only with diners intent on their delicate assemblages of, say, braised daikons with summer kimchi, but also with the dozen or so servers and food preparers who take center stage in the bright open kitchen that faces the bar.

You might call it food preparation as performance art, and as we sipped an exhilarating concoction of gin, cucumber shrub, basil, lime and ginger beer, we were transfixed by all the minute manipulations that go into the restaurant's three tasting menus. (The preparers are also more than happy to explain exactly what it is they are dicing, spritzing or torching.)

Hugo's, a mainstay on the Portland food scene, was sold last year to the manager and two chefs who had worked under Rob Evans, a previous owner (who is now an owner of the casual Duckfat). After undergoing a four-month top-to-bottom renovation, Hugo's has just reopened, alongside the neighboring, immensely popular, Eventide Oyster Company, which the three partners also own.

"We didn't want an architect," said Arlin Smith, who serves as general manager. "If we were going to scrounge to buy it, we wanted to put our hearts and souls into it. We wanted to feel like we were part of Portland, and let the place build itself one piece at a time."

One of those "pieces" is a 160-year-old red birch tree that had been pulled from the bottom of Moosehead Lake in central Maine and was used to construct the bar and tables, whose russet and blond tones contrast beautifully with the restaurant's black walnut flourishes. Minimalist chairs and elliptical dinnerware are the work of local designers. An eclectic collection of old china and a tin ceiling temper the overall polish.

The menu has also been tinkered with -- without sacrificing the modernist flourishes that Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor (co-owners, along with Mr. Smith) had already helped establish as a Hugo's trademark. The carrot chawan mushi was a creamy carrot-juice-and-egg custard topped with fried black quinoa, beet chips and pickled white beets. Silky swordfish belly in brown butter was adorned with a ribbon of kohlrabi and tiny pickled beets and sprinkled with marinated mustard seeds. Our favorite was udon salad, a tangle of house-made noodles flecked with peppery shaved radishes and tangy Chinese sausage and accompanied by a miniature herb salad. A cloud of intense tamarind citrus foam topped it off.

Occasionally what Mr. Wiley described as "surprises" arrived unannounced: Parmesan consommé with charred fava beans served in china teacups, tart green strawberry sorbet and, finally, an array of petits fours -- a tiny triangle of sesame brittle, a salted blueberry nougat -- timed to arrive, Mr. Wiley said, "just when you think the madness is over."

Hugo's, 88 Middle Street; hugos.net. A five-course tasting menu for two without drinks or tips, is $180.

In'finiti Fermentation & Distillation

It was only 4:30 p.m., but the breeze off the harbor and the sun bearing down on touristy Commercial Street had a hunger-inducing effect. Ahead, right on the water, was a blue, boxy building. This was In'finiti Fermentation & Distillation, a restaurant, brewery and distillery that opened this spring.

In true Maine spirit, In'finiti's proprietor, Eric Michaud, relied on salvaged materials to create the kind of rustic comfort zones that beer aficionados seem to thrive in. Barn door beams and salvaged ship parts -- including old spotlights that illuminate the black walnut bar -- play a role here, as do whiskey barrel hoops, which have been arranged into airy light fixtures.

But nothing held our attention like the shiny copper vessels, which along with other contraptions for brewing beer and distilling spirits (the first batch of vodka and rum is expected this fall) are arrayed behind the bar. In'finiti's micro-distillery -- a rarity in a restaurant -- reflects a wider, growing enthusiasm in the state for locally produced spirits. As we sipped the tangy De La Sour-Wit beer (a collaboration between a visiting Belgian brewer and In'finiti, and one of several house-brewed beers) and bit into our chewy pretzels sprinkled with crunchy Cyprus salt and served with IPA-spiked mustard, we watched brewers poke around the vessels, lean over tanks, switch knobs on and off.

Too early for dinner, too late for lunch, we turned to the imaginative pub menu, and soon a raft of small plates arrived, among them flash-fried bites of cured pork belly in a heady chimichurri sauce, and just-caught hake in the lightest of beer batters. Lobster mac and cheese was laden with Gruyère, Parmesan and Cheddar, and a pretzel crust pizza with arugula and house-made duck prosciutto was paved with zesty fig and lemon paste. And how could we not try the beer-infused gingerbread with black pepper ice cream, salted caramel sauce and, you guessed it, candied bacon? It was the perfect finale to another over-the-top Portland meal.

In'finiti Fermentation & Distillation, 250 Commercial Street; infinitimaine.com. A dinner-size sampling from the pub menu, without drinks or tips, is about $60 for two.

Grace

The massive circular bar planted beneath Grace's soaring cathedral ceiling is remarkable not only for how big it is but also, paradoxically, by how modest it seems in comparison to the vast ecclesiastical square footage that surrounds it. Here, you can lean back in cushy bar chairs, sip potent cocktails with names like Cardinal Rule and contemplate the idea that you are about to spend the next two hours drinking and dining in a church.

Anne Verrill, who oversaw the scrupulous restoration of this early Gothic Revival-style Methodist church, said that when she opened the restaurant in 2009, "the only worry we had was people feeling uncomfortable with drinking alcohol in a church." As it turned out, she said, "everyone was happy that the building was kept from crumbling."

The only worry I had as we were led to the upper dining gallery (the former choir loft) was that the surroundings would outshine the food.

That didn't happen. Somewhere between a starter of roasted beet and horseradish ravioli drizzled with pungent arugula pesto, and a main course of tender halibut, pan-seared to a light crisp, I almost forgot that I was dining beneath the gorgeous, if slightly intimidating, gaze of multiple stained-glass windows.

One after another, the executive chef Peter Sueltenfuss's uncluttered, artful dishes arrived: cabbage and snap-pea salad with crispy bits of pork belly; seared chicken wrapped around foie gras and chicken sausage, and blanketed in thyme-scented maitake and oyster mushrooms.

"He just came out of the water today," said our server, as she arrived with the halibut, which was encircled by peas, fava beans and smoky quinoa. The chilled yellow tomato soup, topped with a colorful heap of pea shoots and rosy chunks of lobster, could have been the subject of a still life. Yet there were no complexities -- only the summery freshness of tomato against the briny sweetness of lobster and spoonbill caviar.

In a city where critically lauded restaurants might involve dining at a picnic table, dinner at Grace feels like a let's-get-dressed-up night on the town.

Grace, 15 Chestnut Street; restaurantgrace.com. A three-course dinner for two, without drinks or tip, is about $150.

Fore Street

Sam Hayward, Fore Street's James Beard Award-winning executive chef and co-owner, once described his approach to preparing his turnspit-roasted and wood-grilled meats and seafood, and other regionally sourced dishes as "unembellishment." The same word might be used to describe the décor of the 17-year-old restaurant, one of the first on the city's food scene to emphasize homegrown design.

"We wanted the place to be as organic as possible," he said in a recent interview, explaining how Fore Street's design -- much like its daily menu -- took shape according to whatever was available on a given day. Reclaimed wood from old Maine barns and farmhouses became tables, coffee stations and wine racks. Narrow-plank boxcar floors became dining room floors. "When I think of the cultural characteristics of the Northeast in general and Maine in particular," he said of the sentiment that guided him, "improvisation is what comes to mind."

It must have been that improvised authenticity that lured me across a quiet street in the Old Port a few years ago, when I first happened across the restaurant. Two gas lights on either side of double doors suggested a secret-club kind of space. Inside lay a cavernous room -- all aged wood and glints of copper. In the sprawling open kitchen, a fire roared in a brick and soapstone wood stove. Servers sailed this way and that, bearing trays that trailed one irresistible aroma after another. The place, alas, was packed.

On this visit, my dining companion and I were armed with reservations. "Consider ordering the wood-roasted lobster," our server said with quiet authority. "You won't get it anywhere else." We didn't hesitate to follow her instructions.

Fore Street's hearty servings are appealingly unpretentious. Fat, smoky chunks of lobster, out of the shell and accompanied by wild chanterelles and sweet corn pudding, were bathed in a buttery bourbon sauce. Duck leg confit, also wood-roasted, was smothered in a rich Bing cherry and walnut conserve. A roasted peach and rocket salad was strewed with honeyed pistachios.

Obviously not the meal for the calorie-obsessed. Nor was dessert: blueberry crisp with sweet corn ice cream, and vanilla panna cotta, and a two-fist-size chocolate torte.

"It's too much, it's just too much!" my dining companion cried, relinquishing her spoon after a few bites.

Certainly not the worst complaint a restaurant could receive.

Fore Street, 288 Fore Street; forestreet.biz. A three-course dinner for two starts at about $120, without drinks or tip.

Suzanne MacNeille is an editor in the Travel Section.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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