When I landed at Maine’s Portland International Jetport recently, the girl at the rental-car desk told me she’d moved there from Portland, Oregon, and that she thought the East Coast Portland was just as cool. I found that hard to believe. One city has a reputation for great food, wine and bars, and the other has a reputation for great lobster.
To be honest, Portland wasn’t exactly a culinary wasteland before. Chef Sam Hayward’s 11-year-old Fore Street is one of the Northeast’s great restaurants; at Hugo’s, chef Rob Evans (an F&W Best New Chef 2004) prepares a truly avant-garde menu. And then there’s Browne Trading Company, the seafood supplier to many of New England and New York’s best kitchens.
But after my weekend in Portland, I realized that its food scene has gotten all-around terrific. Over at Five Fifty-Five, chef Steve Corry has spent the last four years perfecting dishes that emphasize local ingredients, like fennel-crusted Casco Bay monkfish. Chef Abby Harmon of Caiola’s is obsessed with grains, and I had an addictive dish of grano (pastalike pearled wheat) and carrots in a creamy tomato sauce there. Caiola’s also pours Greek wines by the glass, which are hard to find even in Manhattan.
One of Portland’s best new bakeries is two-year-old Two Fat Cats. The Fat Cats’ specialty is classic American baking—tender apple and cherry pies and marshmallow buttercream-filled whoopee pies. Also notable: Two of those yummy whoopee pies and five large, nutty chocolate chip cookies cost me less than $12.
But the biggest surprise I found in Portland might well be its emerging cheese scene, especially since The Cheese Iron opened last summer. Launched by Vincent Maniaci, who apprenticed at England’s legendary Neal’s Yard, and his wife, Jill Dutton, the sunny store has a small aging cave and an excellent selection, from local Kennebunkport Dry Jack to a European favorite of mine, nutty Tête de Moine. It also carries good-looking sandwiches, sterling silver cheese knives, about 200 wines and even hard-to-find charcuterie like lachsschinken, a German cold-smoked pork. One of the few things the Cheese Iron doesn’t have? Lobster.
Updated August 2009