artemesia cafe, pleasant street dining, trying new restaurants

Artemisia Cafe After Dark

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.

Artemisia Cafe on Urbanspoon

burger-o-rama, district, new restaurant, o-rama, restaurant week, trying new restaurants

Burger-O-Rama pt2: Fine Dining

I’ve been looking at the lights of District for over 4 months now. Literally a stones throw from our apartment, the Missus and I have found ourselves saying over and over again, “We really need to check it out.” But, as days became weeks and then turned into months, we found ourselves still saying but never going. So, when the ‘Fine Dining’ was the next theme of our reviews, and I saw that District was available, I chose it to finally force our stomachs into going– especially after hearing a friend call their burger one of the best in the area.

I will say that my one regret is that we didn’t go at night, instead opting for a lunch visit late last week. The space, which was extremely quiet at lunch time, has a larger interior than the outside lets on and I could easily imagine the space packed with happy, buzzy diners. I wanted to see it at it’s full stride because it felt like we were seeing it a bit out of context. It’s not that the service lacked(in fact our waiter was very sweet and engaging and obviously loved working there) or that the food was sub-par(nothing could be further from the truth, in fact)–it was just the space itself seemed awkward not full of people. Of course, this desire to see it at it’s full potential just motivates me more to get us over there for dinner sooner than later. The quality of the food also already has me wanting to go back.

Falling at the beginning of Restaurant Week, we had their lunch menu available to us–which included a full offering of their apps and a few sandwiches–as well as a special 3 course (app, entree and dessert) offering for only $15. I will say that I was a bit miffed that my burger cost($12.00) nearly as much as the Missus’ choice for the special menu, but that was soon dissolved when her choice of in house made charcuterie arrived and she cared enough to share it with me.

A perfect quinelle of duck rillette, paired with caperberries, cornichons, mustard and crostini. From the first bite, we were believers. The rillette, one of many offerings of in house made charcuterie, was one of the best we’ve had in Portland–and we’ve had some damn fine rillettes in this town, from the former Evangeline to Bar Lola. It was creamy, flecked with whole grain mustard and cornichons and had the perfect amount of gaminess from the duck. I wanted to walk upstairs to the kitchen and give a giant hug to the chef who made it and ask him for a mason jar of it for the road.

But, you’re here for the burger, right? Now, I will admit that this is probably the first and only time I’ve ordered a hamburger at an upscale restaurant. I don’t equate the two at all in my head. Upscale dining gives you dishes you can’t make at home while it tends to be the greasy spoons that give you the burger you rave about for the rest of your life. However, it can easily be said that District makes a hell of a burger.

House cured bacon, cheddar cheese, tomato confit and the ever popular brioche bun combined with a huge 1 1/2 inch thick patty cooked to a beautiful–just slightly over rare–medium temperature and a whopping side of fries. I assume, because so much of what District offers on it’s menu is house made and local, that the beef was ground on site and traveled less than 100 miles to get to their door. Beautifully marbled meat made for an interesting time of trying to out pace the juices that ran down my chin. Though, I must admit, it was a bit odd to be wiping it away with a crisp linen napkin instead of a throw away paper one. But, it was worth the effort as the burger was beautifully seasoned and satisfying.

The ‘buttered bun’ was a fine vessel for the dense patty, airy crumb and slightly toasted. The bacon, thick cut,slightly smoky and crisp seemed to melt into the fat of the burger and made for the perfect meld of beef and pork. The cheese, a cheddar, was something I actually never order on a burger, was alright though it didn’t seem plentiful enough, or sharp enough, to really stand up to density of the whole thing. But, we know my affinity for cheese and sometimes it needs to be pretty definitive to stand out. The only thing that was kind of ‘meh’ about the whole thing was the tomato confit–which I’m still not sure that was the dressing on the burger– that was below the bibb lettuce leaf beneath the patty. It gave a slight acidic note the whole burger but, for the most part, was lost beneath the richness. After a week of barely eating,the whole meal proved to be too indulgent and half the plate came home that evening to also be my dinner.

Now, was it the best burger in Portland, as a friend mentioned? Sadly, it was not–but I didn’t really expect it to be. I expect them to rock my face off with bone marrow salads, braised beef and Schnitzel–not a burger. In fact, I would say that the pulled pork sandwich that the Missus had as part of her RW menu was a slight step above the burger as far as all around enjoyable. But, because the burger was as good as it was, and because that little taste of the duck rillette sent us over the edge with joy, we’re more likely to pop around the corner for a bite to eat–and you should too. It’s obvious, by the care, flavor balance and presentation, that there’s a hell of a lot of talent in that upstairs kitchen and I can’t wait to see what else they can do.

District on Urbanspoon

Want to read about some other burgers, visit the O-Rama gang and their reviews here, here, here, here, here and here.

555, restaurant week, trying new restaurants

33 dishes, 5 restaurants, 3 days, 2 people–Day Two pt. 2

March 5,2010–late reservation

Five Fifty-Five: Our 1st trip to this much lauded Portland restaurant.
3 courses for $40.10

First Impression: Very loud, very chaotic and very crowded. Space seemed about 3x bigger than restaurants we’re use to dining at. Menu on the door, save for the entree and soup app. choice, was very different from the one listed on the RW website. Items listed below lack the most detail of all the reviews because I didn’t write down the information from the menu and, again, am working from fuzzy memory.
This review will be a bit different because the experience was different then the ones previous and the ones ahead.

1st Course
The Mrs.: Citrus Salad
fresh goat cheese, seasonal citrus, pistachios, baby greens, champagne-pomegranate vinaigrette
Me: Veal Carpaccio: Mache, vinaigrette, pickled shallot

The Mrs: Steak, brioche and great hill blue bread pudding, Brussel Sprouts
seared pepper-crusted local diver scallops… aromatic fennel-potato puree, glazed pearl onions, organic baby carrot-vanilla emulsion

Almond Financier
Dark Chocolate Tart

I’ve really tried to figure out what went wrong during this meal. It started on an off foot, with reservation issues and just never got better. So, to simplify things, I’m going to start and end the review with the ‘Breakdown.’

Ambiance: The layout of 555 is beautiful. Dark, rich woods and we were lucky enough to be seated at the upper tier, lending us a great view of the open kitchen and the odd placement of the women’s room right outside of the open kitchen. Very odd indeed. We were happy when we were seated far from the house-style bass music that was thumping in the lounge. We were deep in a line of people that seemed to have been waiting a bit for their tables and we found ourselves awkwardly getting pushed closer and closer to tables in the lounge as people came in and out.

Service: As I mentioned, it’s definitely a larger setting and crowd than we’re use to, so the frantic energy that seemed to be emanating from the waitstaff made us feel kind of edgey. Yet, while it seemed like the waitstaff was a bit in the weeds, I did see a flawless setting of apps and entrees to a table of 14+ next to us. Kudos to their waitress and the rest of the staff as it was executed like a ballet. Our waiter was fine, but definitely seemed more pleasant when he would take a moment to relax at our table side. We felt bad for him and can’t really blame him for a forgotten glass of wine.

Food: So, this is why we were here, right? From coworkers and friends I had heard mixed things about their experiences with the food here: Under seasoned, overcooked, decadent and creative. I didn’t know what to expect, but whatever expectations I lightly held I can easily say that they were not equaled. Our biggest problem was over seasoned, which plagued both the apps and the entrees. The desserts were odd, mine weirdly textured and hers “off” in flavor.

In the end our experience left us highly unimpressed.


Five Fifty-Five on Urbanspoon