Pleasant Street is a quiet path wedged between the chaos of The Old Port and the bustle of Congress. Most people wouldn’t take notice of it except when they drive down it in search of parking for the Civic Center or the yearly Greek Fest held at the end of the street. Its only real traffic comes in the summer when basketball players occupy the courts in the park or when hordes of drunks make their way from the Old Port, to the West End, and stop to either piss in the park or throw their empties into the street. But, aside from this little seasonal blemish, the street lives up to its name. It’s quiet. It’s quaint. It’s damn near perfect.
The one thing that The Missus and I have been missing, particularly since Chef Peter Sueltenfuss left the now defunct District, was a neighborhood spot for dinner. Since we moved to the neighborhood three years ago, we’ve always been quite lucky to have Artemisia Cafe for a weekend Brunch together or when my family has come to visit. The food, particularly their biscuits and sausage gravy, has always warmed and comforted our bellies, but I was always puzzled why they never served dinner.
Then, very quietly, at the beginning of May, they started to.
When I returned home from a work trip to Wisconsin, we walked in and noticed that the interior had changed a bit. Booths filled in what had been the side waiting room and the eclectic, funky art was gone from the walls. The bohemian seemed to have grown up since our last visit. Then, it all made sense when we were seated and noticed little cards at the tables announcing dinner service, Wednesday to Saturday, after 5pm.
Not long after that excursion, and a nice post from Professor A. about his dinner at Artemisia, we found ourselves heading out across the street with high expectations. When we entered, we were greeted by the front-of-the-house half of the couple behind the endeavor, Heather. She kindly greeted us and showed us to one of the booths facing out over Pleasant St. At the time, there were two other tables sat, but as our meal went on, her work tripled.
The menu is not overly expansive, a handful of small plates, some salads, four pastas and five entrees offered the evening we went. It can be best described as a hodgepodge of French, Mediterranean and Italian dishes, with little touches in other influences for good measure. After we settled in, Heather brought us a basket of bread and cute crock of butter and The Missus ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio to sip while we perused the menu.
After we ordered, our hostess surprised us with their nightly amuse from the kitchen. She presented two teardrop shaped bowls of the potato and fennel soup, which was also their soup offering that evening.
This was one hell of an introduction. The soup was nicely balanced with the spice of the fennel and earthiness of the potato. Fennel, at least to me, can always be a tricky little bugger, but this never threaten to drown out the other elements in the tiny bowl. And, while there was obviously a bit of cream present in the dish, it never coated the tongue, which always makes me think that the person in the kitchen is trying to hide a mediocre soup. This was superb and raised our spirits on such a grey evening.
The pork rillette, on the right side of the picture, was less stringy than traditionally prepared. It was presented more in the style and consistency of a tartar, minced up and spread atop some slightly over grilled slices of bread. The flavor was herby and clean; it was also nicely warmed from the toasted bread. The departure from tradition, in both texture and temperature, was a welcomed treat and the chef, in our eyes, had already won us over.
The country pate, in the center, was more akin to what we were familiar with for the style, which is a meatloafesque shape and smooth consistency. It had more of an upfront pork flavor than the rillette, but that was pulled back with the addition of a balsamic drizzle on the slices. As it always tends to be with charcuterie plates, the ratio of crostini to meat was lower than required, so we finished the last nibbles plain.
The last item on the plate was a brandy infused duck liver pate, a richer and more flavorful cousin to the familiar chicken liver variety. It had a bit of mineral to it, though not overly so, which can be the downfall to some nice attempts at liver pates. It also lacked any gaminess and came off smooth, fatty and sweet. I would easily put it up there as one of my most enjoyed liver pates (Farmhouse Tap and Grill still holds top billing for me).
Our entrees were a bit ‘land and sea.’ Our eventual choices were the two dishes that we both struggled between: the lamb meatballs with muhummara sauce and the lumachine pasta with lobster. So, we ordered with all of the best intentions of sharing. In the end, however, I do believe I stole more tastes from The Missus’ plate than she did from mine.
The lamb meatballs came four to an order, a sizable serving for dinner, atop a good dose of muhummara (roasted red peppers, breadcrumbs, walnuts, lemon, pomegranate molasses and a few other bits making up the unbelievably concentrated sauce). On the side was a light yogurt based raita, grilled pita and a cheese I was unfamiliar with (WHAT?!), queso De Freir (a cheese from the Caribbean, very similar to the better known Halloumi from Cyprus). The first bite I stole from The Missus’ plate had me closing my eyes in bliss. The herbs and spices (A bit of mint? Oregano? Cumin? Coriander?) in the meatballs was delicious and each one in the bowl was succulent and juicy. And, while they were perfect on their own, combined with the other elements on the plate, it was a dish I kept going back to until there was nothing left but a few onions in her bowl.
That’s not to say that my entree, the lumachine pasta and lobster, was not worth my full attention.
When it was placed in front of me, I was impressed with the generous portion of lobster that occupied the center of the dish. It was dressed in a cream and sherry sauce with a chiffonade of tarragon and drizzle of truffle oil. I imagine this is what a lighter version of 555’s famous “Truffled Lobster Mac and Cheese” would be like. It wasn’t drenched in the cream sauce and the truffle oil was just enough to leave a lingering earthiness in each bite without muting the sweet lobster meat.With the warmer days coming up, when we tend to shun cream based sauces, this is just light enough to make it a favorite during any season.
Though we were satiated at that point, we thought we would be remiss if we ended the meal without trying one of the five selections of the evening. The Missus settled on the mascarpone triffle with berries and I went with the Mexican chocolate mousse. I stole a quick bite of hers before digging in to the dark chocolate mousse, seasoned with cinnamon and chile. Both were perfunctory, but I wasn’t blown away by either one. Truthfully, though, it would have taken a Bresca or Grace level dessert to equal the meal we had just dined our way through. But, from what I hear from Professor A., the lemon cake is absolutely divine and on my list for the next time we head across the street for dinner.
With it’s quiet location and quality food, Artemesia Cafe is poised to make a name for itself outside of the weekend brunch crowd with Chef Guy Frenette, and his wife, Heather, at the helm during the evening hours. It’s one of those quaint, near extinct spots in Portland, that make you feel at home.