2012 look back, a single pebble restaurant, Eventide Oyster Co., food bliss, Pocket Brunch, restaurant grace, seoul sausage kitchen, year end review

2012–A Very Tasty Year

2012, as stated in the Obscure Holiday Cocktails post, was a very good year, personally, for the Missus and I. It proved to also be a fantastic year for food.

Some of the highlights this year were:

Eventide Oyster Co..   For a ocean side town, the lack of a good oyster bar in Portland has always been puzzling to me. Sure, you can pick up a dozen at J’s, Street and Company and Old Port Sea Grill, but they all fall short of the mark. Then, this past summer, Eventide was opened by the new owners of Hugo’s and it was like the heavens opened up and the food Gods smiled down upon us. Finally.  From the cured arctic char with bagel crisps to the luxurious house mayo based lobster roll, The Missus and I couldn’t stop ourselves from doing happy little food dances in our chairs every time we visited. We’ve gone a handful of times since it opened and not one dish, or oyster, disappointed.  And, when you go, save room (I know, it’s a lot to ask) for an order of their deep fried french toast. You’ll thank me later.

In June, The Food Network, came back to Portland and brought along the second to last stretch of their Great American Food Truck Race. It was a timely appearance as the discussion of food trucks in the city had been a hot topic since last fall. They landed smack in the middle of the Old Port and drew a huge crowd during their brief evening stay (and even more the next when both trucks hit the waterfront).  Seoul Sausage Company, a Korean BBQ truck from L.A., killed it with kimchi. The above pictured ‘TaTa’s’ were a personal favorite, along with the spicy kimchi balls.

In late July, The Missus and I took a work/vacation field trip to Vermont for the 2012 Vermont Cheesemakers Festival and indulged in treats unavailable in Portland. While we were there for endless nibbles of Vermont cheese and spirits, the city treated us to a plethora of hearty, tasty fare. For us, A Single Pebble was above and beyond the highlight. Good, inexpensive and un-Americanized Chinese food seems to be one of the few gaps in town and we were left pining for their ‘Three Cup Chicken” and “Cherry and apple wood smoked Beef Chow Fun.”

It cannot be said that chefs in Portland don’t support, appreciate and love their local farmers. It’s evolved into a relationship where one seemingly cannot exist without the other. Restaurant Grace took this adoration one step further by beginning to offer a menu utilizing a full lamb from North Star Farm. While many restaurants will use a cut or two from a local farm, Chef Sueltenfuss creates an entire 4 course menu for diners. The Missus and I were there for the premier of the menu–along with other area food writers–and had the unique pleasure of sitting across from Phil and Lisa Webster, owners of North Star Farm. You could see the pride on their faces as they watched us enjoy every last morsel served. And they have every right to be proud, their lamb is some of the best I have ever tasted.

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The year was nearly over when The Missus snatched us up a seat at the most sought after table in town–Pocket Brunch. I’ve had a bit of a struggle writing up a review of this because the experience was extremely surreal. We, and about fifty others, gathered at Geno’s on a snowy Sunday for a 4 1/2 hour ‘Game of Thrones’ styled brunch.

I’ve never read a word of the books or have watched a moment of the series. Truthfully, we were there with hopes that there would be suckling pig. It was a truly reasonable thought, I mean, Joe Ricchio and Nolan Stewart were the guest chefs for the afternoon.

We were greeted at the door by the extremely funny and endearing hostess, Erin “McNallica” McNally–who would later lead a very heated session of ‘Game of Thrones’ trivia. She was dressed in full costume and armed with a very real dagger. As we entered the foyer, she handed us all our scrolled up menus and our goblets–mason jars–for the day. She entertained the gathering crowd until she was given the Ok to let us pass through the heavy red curtain that was keeping us from the excitement inside. The people of Pocket Brunch nailed it when they hooked up with her as hostess. She lead the trivia portion of the day and you could tell that she would have aced it. She also stressed to us that if we wished to have our glasses filled, all we had to do was yell “WENCH!!!!” into the air and our needs would be met by one of the servers scurrying around.  We loved her so much that we’re actually thinking of asking her to officiate our wedding this summer. Stay tuned for that one.

After the curtains were raised, we were allowed into the bar area which was deemed ‘beyond the wall’–which really only makes sense if you’ve seen the show/read the books/or immersed yourself in the Wiki for GOT. There we were greeted by Tandem Coffee’s cauldron of brewing Harewa Gatira, their Ethiopian roast. The Missus opted for a “Blood of My Bloody Mary” as it was way too early for her to be around so many people. Thank God for social lubricant.

First course was a table set with ‘Pocket Bacon’–which was crisp Guanciale and Fortified Fruit Crispels with a lavender honey coating. Sadly, we were so taken in by the sights and endless looping of the GOT soundtrack that we didn’t realize that the table we had walked past was part of the first course. Then we spotted people walking with small plates and realized that the massive loaves of bread, piles of bacon and crisps were fair game.While I do love me some crispy pork jowl, the crispels and rustic bread were my favorites of the first course. The lavender honey was gently done, not leaving a trace of the soapiness behind that can befall anything containing lavender. They were dainty and enjoyable, especially with the Tandem coffee. The bread, dense and hearty, was ripped off in chunks–as you would expect it to be–and showcased the deft hand that Josh Schier-Potocki (one of the great minds behind Pocket Brunch, along with his wife, Katie, Joel Beuchamp and Nan’l Meiklejohn) is known for with any flour based good.

Second course was a warming, “Dothraki Wedding Stew” that was thick with lamb and couscous and sweetened with prunes and honey.  It was the perfect true start to the meal on such a cold December day in Maine.  One could easily fatten themselves up for the coming winter on a stew like this. This brunch had the added dimension of wine and beer pairings, and a Montelpulciano D’Abruzzo was chosen to pair with the lamb. Sadly, I did skip any alcohol for the day (which was probably a good idea as I would have been overly schwilly at the end of the 4 1/2 hour meal).

 
Third came the Dove and Parsnip pie, served with a side of Dandelion greens and Pomegranate.This is the one time, all day, that the choice of venue may have worked against them. Because Geno’s is obviously NOT a place that serves food, the logistics of keeping several dozen mini-handpies warm without an alto shaam must have been a nightmare for the crew and the dough on the pie suffered for it. It was dry to the point of taking away from any enjoyment that may have been had from the filling. There was also not enough sauce on top to make a difference for it. It was a bit sad because I’m sure, if proper warming units were available to them, it would have been amazing. The small side of greens and pomegranate were a nice touch, though. Dandelion greens can be so bitter, but they were beautifully dressed with the pomegranate. For this one, locally produced Oxbow Brewing’s “Saison Noel” was chosen and I’m going to say that it was well enjoyed by my table mates as it didn’t linger long in their mason jars.

Now, where the pie had it’s missteps, it was immediately forgiven–and forgotten–once the next course came out. Dubbed “Quail Leggs” on the menu, we were served a lovely fried quail egg with a side of watercress and dollop of caraway creme fraiche.

Then this happened:

Joe Ricchio went around to every table and served guests the most succulent quail leg I’ve ever had. I’m not even sure how it was cooked–grilled, smoked, roasted… I have no friggin’ idea. It didn’t stay on my plate long enough to find out. I tore at it like a dog with a new bone. I may have eyed the string to see if there were any left and if seconds were out of the question. The quail egg may had been a tad too cooked, as my yolk was firm and not runny, but–again–logistics most likely played a role. The watercress and creme fraiche were simply done, but nearly as enjoyable as the quail leg. Proving that the simplest of preparations can prove to be the most enjoyable.The pairing for this course was a dry mead from R. Nicoll/Fiddlers Reach in Bath, ME.

It was around this time that little vials started appearing in peoples hands. These were the work of Nan’l Meiklejohn. There must have been at least 100 bottles in the case he carried around–it was truly a case of ‘pick your poison’ as he had no idea which bottles were which, but he knew that there nine different elixirs:

1) gentian liqueur w/green cardamom & allspice
2) cherry eau de vie w/hibiscus & coriander
3) caraway liqueur w/caraway seeds & witch hazel root
4) ginger liqueur w/dried orange & sarsaparilla
5) allspice liqueur w/vanilla bean
6) anise liqueur w/cacao nibs, cassia chips & cayenne
7) elderflower blossom liqueur w/rosehips & pink peppercorn
8) orange liqueur w/schisandra berries & cloves
9) violet flower liqueur w/juniper berries & wild cherry bark root. 

We have yet to open ours, so we may never know what we chose.


The second to last course brought the highlight of the meal, a due of boar leg and belly served atop a rustic hard tack plate with a side of sage and currant compote. For the first time in the day, the crowd grew silent, completely immersed in the dish. The dish before made us feel like royalty, but this made us feel like kings. Both presentations of the boar were juicy and perfectly cooked (in the lot in back of Geno’s on a grill).  The compote was a wonderful compliment, adding a bit of savory sweetness to each bite of the meat. Bunker Brewing’s Boondock Scotch Ale was poured by the wenches, but you could tell that they wanted to abandon their duties and dive mouth first into our meals.

The final course came around 3 o’clock and The Missus and I were stuffed beyond belief and ready to drift back home and catch an afternoon nap. Our marathon meal was finally coming to an end, but it did so on a very satisfying note.   The buckwheat crust brought a near savory element to the small slice of fig tart, which was perfectly sweetened. If I had been able to move at that point, I would have gathered myself another cup of Ethiopian roast from Tandem. But, I was too full–and too satisfied–to do so.

As we trudged back out into the snowy afternoon, I quietly reflected on what a unique dining experience we had just sat through. Not only had we just had the longest meal I could recall attending, it struck me as to what made the afternoon so enjoyable–it was fun. People were eating, imbibing and genuinely enjoying themselves without a care in the world. There were no pretentious airs…no shitty attitudes towards the staff (I think you’d have been tossed if you pulled an attitude–this WAS Geno’s, after all). There was a collective appreciation from everyone in the room. Something I feel is lacking in our “Foodie” (sorry for dropping the ‘f’ word) culture. We take so many meals for granted…we forget that the experience should be enjoyable and fun.

Thank you, Josh and Katie Schier-Potocki, Joel Beauchamp, Nan’l Meiklejohn, Erin Mcnally, Joe Ricchio and Nolan Stewart for reminding us to have so f’ing fun. Hope to see you at the next Pocket Brunch.

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o-rama, restaurant grace, second chances

Redemption-O-Rama


I was in a bit of a pickle this past month with posting about Grace and their ‘Whole Beast Feast’ that we attended.  You see, because Professor A. is extremely organized, I knew several months ago that Augusts ‘O-Rama’ would reflect upon ‘Second Chances’ for restaurants. While I thought about venturing back to the site of some unimpressive meals, there is that hesitation that the meal and experience will be a disappointing repeat performance. And, well, it’s hard to part with a good chunk of change when you don’t have it in the first place.

But, sometimes you feel like you’re missing something that everyone else enjoys, that you’re somehow not in on the appeal of a restaurant.  Bresca was actually one of those places for us.  Long before I rocked the hyperbole for Chef Desjarlais, our first dining experience there wasn’t that fantastic. But, one thing to note, is that it wasn’t the service, menu choices or preparation.. it was what we ordered.  When we decided to give it another try, just about a year later, we ordered completely different things and were floored by how much we enjoyed it. It seemed like a completely different restaurant.

I now put Grace up with that same, dramatic change.  My first experience there was a for a launch of a new ‘cocktail’ style tomato from Backyard Farms. The best thing that came out of it was meeting Kate for the first time. Sadly, the second thing I remember of the meal is how painfully undercooked the risotto was. Raw rice crunchy.  I remember thinking that if the chef couldn’t prepare 10 dishes of risotto at even a passable level, then how was he going to execute hundreds of dishes a night?  The Missus actually wouldn’t even let it be a consideration because of prices.

“$40 for Lobster Bisque? In Maine?”

If you mentioned Grace, you incurred her rant.

Then there was a shift at Grace.  Old chef was out, new chef was in, though the menu didn’t really change much. Then Chef Sueltenfuss arrived and, despite our previous notions of the restaurant, we were willing to put that all aside. In fact, we were more than intrigued.

Our first meal there, sometime this past February, was filled with a slew of appetizers highlighting different cuts of pork–from pig ear to belly–and a heavy dose of foie gras. Dessert was a playful presentation of S’mores. I do believe there was even some sassafras in the marshmallows. It seemed like our reward for giving them a second chance.

We’ve been back a few times since then, eating and enjoying our way through Chef Sueltenfuss’ menu. For us, it’s no longer an overpriced, monolith of a restaurant whose food wouldn’t even pass in restaurants that charged one third of the price. For us, Grace is a new restaurant, completely different than the one I was disappointed with a few years ago. It’s one that we’re more than happy that we gave a second chance to.

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dining out, lamb dinners, Maine, northstar farms, restaurant grace, whole beast feast

‘Whole Beast Feast’ at Grace Restaurant

Chef Peter Sueltenfuss joined Grace nearly two years after opening, District (now closed), where he first gained popularity for his Charcuterie and brunch offerings of Chicken and Waffles. For almost a year, he’s been leading the brigade at Grace, changing the menu significantly–bringing back his Charcuterie (HOORAY!)–and turning up the restaurants already existing focus on locally sourced produce and meats.

He and his staff recently took this to a completely different level than any other restaurant in Portland by offering a ‘Whole Beast Feast’ four course menu.  The menu, designed for a group of six to eight people, utilizies an entire side of lamb from Northstar Farms in Windham. They also offer an optional beer/wine pairing for dinners.

On the night that they premiered the menu, the restaurant invited some local food writers, and their guests. We were lucky enough to have the owners of Northstar Farms, Phillip and Lisa Webster, join us for dinner as well.  Because of my job, I get to spend a good amount of time with local food producers, but I have never had the unique opportunity to sit down at a dinner with the people who were responsible for providing the main ingredient. I can tell you that they are two of the most passionate, dedicated farmers I have met. Their connection to, and love of, our local food community runs deep and they take great pride in the animals they raise.  Clearly, Chef Sueltenfuss shares that same connection and respect as he displayed it across four thoughtfully composed courses during the evening.

The amuse brought over by the Chef to start the evening was a lamb tartare, The raw lamb was blended with a smokey and spicy harissa paste, sesame seeds and cucumber. The flavor was much more assertive, both because of the harissa and inherent flavor of protein, than your average tartare and I appreciated the spice the harissa lent to the dish.  The flatbread, served to the side, added salt to the main component purposefully and the combination made for a delightful start to the evening.

The next plate showcased some of the Chef’s Charcuterie skills with a ‘bresaola‘ served on top of a brush of charred fennel and balsamic with anise hyssop and arugula. It was extremely mild for cured lamb and the brush of fennel and balsamic brought on an intensely sweet punch. Not sweet enough, though, to stop me from stealing every last bit from my plate.

After that came a course of house made rigatoni with smoked lamb shoulder, sun gold tomatoes, goat’s milk ricotta, Castelventrano olives with a bit of Ouzo. I’m mad that I couldn’t get a good picture of the plate because it was one of my favorite of the night. The lamb was so tender, and so beautifully smokey, that the meal could have ended with this dish and I would have been more than content.  But, there was also such a fantastic layer of acidity and sweetness from all of the other components that the lamb never felt or tasted heavy.

The fourth course was the showpiece, a giant lamb leg stuffed with corn and pinenuts, served family style with sides of tempura milkweed pods (!) and fresh corn polenta.  I have to tell you, those milkweed pods were absolutely fantastic, tasting like slightly bitter fried green beans. While we were all first a little unsure of their presence, there wasn’t a single one left at the end of the course.  Nor was there any lamb, either. Phil was asked if he was ever tired of lamb and he replied, “Nope,” as he scooped up his third piece of lamb leg.

We thought the leg was the last of the main courses when Mariah, our very knowledgeable and friendly waitress of the evening, brought out lamb chops.  Meredith and I looked at each other with disbelief. The table had just finished off a generous leg of lamb and now we were going to have to muster up the gumption to trek on through another course. Once Mariah told us what was on the plates before us, I knew the table would have no problem meeting the task.

The plate consisted of a sumac and spruce spiced lamb chop served with a squash puree, pea greens, marinated summer squash and a lamb neck stuffed squash blossom.  Lisa, who sat across from me for the evening, taught The Missus and I how to easily remove the eye of the chop from the bone.  Well, it was easy for her as she had done it so many times before, but we needed a little more practice and reassuring words before ours rolled out of its fat cap and off of the bone. And, while the rib chops were cooked to a perfect medium rare, it was the singular stuffed squash blossom that stole it all for our end of the table. Delicate things like squash blossoms are usually stuffed with equally delicate things like ricotta or fresh chevre. While they’re always nice, this was like a richly developed lamb demi glace contained in a fried blossom. It was unexpected and immensely enjoyed.

Sadly, I had stopped writing down the courses by the end of the meal and didn’t get all of the ingredients on the dessert. I know there was ginger and blueberries, but could tell you nothing more. The Missus said it was one of her favorite dishes of the night because it was so light and refreshing compared to the rest of the meal. I completely agree that it was the perfect note to end on, but I more inclined to say the leg and shoulder were my favorite plates of the evening. 

It was a truly enjoyable evening, from the company to the food, and we cannot thank those at Grace enough for inviting us along for this adventurous dining experience. I enjoyed more lamb in one evening than I have over the course of a year. And, while you may not be as lucky as I was to sit across the table from the owners of Northstar Farms, you can still book–with 72 hours notice–your groups own feast by contacting Grace directly at (207) 828-4422.

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