A Happy New Year: 48 Hours of Food and Fun in Portland, Maine

7 Jan

Welcome back to the few but faithful readers who have followed the adventures of Tortefeaster, and welcome to any new readers that 2012 may bring to my door! Besides this constituting the year’s inaugural post, I’m writing on a particularly significant day for me. It is an anniversary of sorts, although not in the typical sense. Three years ago today is the day that I was laid off and the first day in a long process of rediscovering who I am and what I was meant to be “when I grow up.” At the time, believe me, I felt as if my world was crumbling, but after having made some rather  unconventional decisions, I couldn’t be happier with how I have redirected my career. I’m having so much fun now: I am living life, life is not living me.

It was a practially “balmy” 50 degrees in Portland on New Year’s Day (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

New Year’s has always been a special time for me and my husband. We don’t celebrate Christmas (usually we end up spending a quiet day at the movies and either making dinner as normal, or grabbing some Thai or Chinese food at one of the few open establishments). Maybe for this reason, we love a good New Year’s eve celebration.

This year, we decided to head to Portland, Maine–a city that I had previously only spent a few hours in one night in September when we were staying in Ogunquit and made a brief dinner excursion.

My father-in-law grew up in Portland, and in the short time we wandered its streets that fall night, my husband seemed to be having trouble reconciling the Portland of his childhood with its reincarnation as a  food and art mecca of the Northeast. What follows is my illustrated time line of our roughly 48 hours in Portland. I’m already planning my return trip, because it truly wasn’t enough time to explore this special city.

New Year’s Eve

1. Lunch at the Public Market House

We arrived in Portland around lunch time and had a little time to kill before our chocolate tour in the Old Port. We decided to explore the  Public Market House at 28 Monument Street and get a light lunch. Portland’s original Public Market House, built in 1825, has since been torn down, but its latest incarnation is a space celebrating and promoting small, independent, locally-owned businesses. Besides housing regular vendors, it also provides commercial kitchen space in its basement for small business owners, hosts the Portland farmers market, and supplies outdoor space for day tables where only Maine made, produced or value-added products may be sold.

Vendors Kamasouptra and Granny’s Burritos in the Public Market House (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

Taking care of business first, we split a sweet potato quesadilla from Granny’s Burritos. Despite my adoration of sweet potatoes, I never thought about putting the root vegetable in a quesadilla. It is a great alternative to a heavier meat-laden or cheese-driven one, and  because the serving is quite generous, one was perfect for the two of us.

Once we were sated, I scoped out more of the Market’s impressive offerings, which included an awe-inspiring cheese case with every kind of fromage imaginable, and beautiful beckoning loaves of English muffin bread from Big Sky Bread Company.

Say cheese! An impressive array of fromage at Portland’s Public Market House (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

2. Chocolate in the Old Port

When we settled into our well-appointed but cozy digs at the Morrill Mansion B&B (formerly the private home of B&M baked beans co-founder Charles Morrill), we headed over to the Old Port, where we were expertly guided on a chocolate walking tour. Jesica of Maine Foodie Tours certainly knows her chocolate. She not only regaled us with sweet samples, but entertained us with stories of Portland yore and educated us with discussions of the chocolate making process, chocolate’s health benefits (e.g., antioxidants, flavonoids, and theobromine) and Maine’s role in the triangular trade of slaves, rum, and sugar.

Surprisingly, of our six stops, not one was a chocolatier, but that didn’t mean a dearth of decadent options. We commenced with a savory sample of chocolate balsamic-dipped angel food cake at Vervacious, a specialty gourmet food storefront filled with beautifully packaged and fragrant spices, spice blends, balsamics, and spreads. Stop two was across the street at Browne Trading Company, known for its fresh and smoked seafood. Well, turns out it is also a purveyor of  Sweet Marguerites Artisanal Chocolates, a South Portland chocolatier. (Admittedly, it is a little odd to catch a waft of fish when you have chocolate on the brain, but you get over it fast.) One taste of Marguerite Swoboda’s comely dark chocolate fleur de sel was enough to convince me to buy a box of her assorted handmade chocolates. (Her chile star is my favorite, although I’m looking forward to trying her new Umami line, which includes green tea & ginger, sweet potato caramel, and sesame tahini truffles.)

Dark Chocolate Fleur de Sel (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

We also made a visit to the 12-week old GoBerry, which sources all its dairy for its low fat frozen yogurt from Maine’s own Smiling Hill Farm. The tangy original flavor (which Jesica topped with cocoa nibs) was appealingly light and refreshing, and was honestly good enough to stand alone. The tour ended on a celebratory note at Havana South with an effervescent flute of pink cava paired with a cayenne chocolate torte.

Go Berry Yogurt with cocoa nibs (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

We needed to walk off our chocolate a little bit before our late dinner reservations, so we took a stroll.  We admired the multi-hued seasonal lights designed by local artist Pandora LaCasse (I’ve never seen anything like them), and ducked into the addictive Stonewall Kitchen store for a little window shopping.

3. Bringing in the New Year

Dinner at five fifty-five was quite an indulgence. We had reservations for 9 so that we would still be there when the proverbial ball dropped. My approach for special dinners like these is to order things I rarely eat. I ended up choosing two fowl courses (a duck tart and stuffed quail), while my husband picked two fish courses (a beet-cured salmon and sturgeon with forbidden rice). Perhaps it is debatable whose choice was the fairer. My husband’s salmon appetizer was very artfully prepared and presented.

Beet-Cured Salmon Appetizer at five fifty-five (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

However, the highlight of the night for me was my stuffed quail with black mission figs. We sipped champagne at the end of the meal to welcome in 2012.

Stuffed Quail at five fifty-five (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)


January 1st

4. Brunch and Mimosas

Sunday was an impossibly beautiful day in Portland (it was close to 50 degrees). And not surprisingly, we didn’t have much of an appetite after waking late from the previous night’s adventures. I walked around with my jacket unzipped (and for the most part) without my ear muffs. We didn’t have much of a plan for Sunday, other than dinner reservations and catching part of the Pats game. So we took quite a stroll, and enjoyed the weather. Not much was open for business, but when we were finally hungry enough to eat after last night’s dinner, we ducked into The Farmer’s Table for brunch. Despite our best intentions, our waitress successfully cajoled us into ordering mimosas (a pear for me, a pomegranate for the better half) with our “sensible” breakfasts. My bagel with cream cheese, capers, and Duck Trading Company smoked salmon was just the thing to start the new year off on the right foot.

5. Fore Street’s Finest

Dinner at Fore Street that night couldn’t have been better. The heart of the restaurant is the wood-burning oven, grill and turnspit used to prepare vegetables, game, and seafood. As soon as you open the front door (even before) you are greeted by the most pleasing of aromas: the scent of hardwood and apple wood fires working their magic. If you are able to sit in the front of the restaurant, you can watch all the action, but the backroom where we were seated was a little more low key and quite comfortable. I’m not sure if you could go wrong with your menu picks here, but something told me that if I stuck to the Maine seafood, I would be rewarded, so it was Maine mussels in a mustard and white wine sauce for an appetizer,  and for entrees, Maine scallops (for me ) and hake (for my husband).

Maine Mussels at Fore Street (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

The accompaniments to the meal were arguably better than the main (or Maine) proteins (and these were superb): a Bibb salad with a dream of a blue cheese, a side of sweet squash mash (as much as I love Brussels sprouts, it was fortunate that the kitchen had just run out and that we ended up ordering our second choice vegetable), a cabbage with mayo as a surprisingly perfect complement to my scallops, and good glasses of French Viognier and California Chardonnay to wash it all down.

Best Squash Ever at Fore Street (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

Fore Street is not only for the seafood lover. The dessert menu was punctuated with several delights, including a  peppermint baked alaska and a take-home box of handmade chocolates (barks, cassis bonbons and truffles). We chose to cap off the evening by splitting the rum baba. Again, the accompaniments win the day: a silky honey-hued scoop of brown butter ice cream combined with perfectly caramelized banana slices and citrus jus made for an unbeatable trio.

January 2

Some of the mead varieties you can sample in the Maine Mead Works tasting room (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

6. A Taste of Honey

We felt a bit like stalkers or drunks pulling up to the operation five minutes before its 11:00 opening on Monday, but we wanted to head home at a reasonable hour, so sometimes you do what you have to do. I’m talking about our visit to Maine Mead Works, which was my favorite stop in the Portland itinerary, hands down.  As much as I enjoy wine, I confess that I had only had one glass of mead prior to my visit to the Maine Mead Works tasting room. Upon hearing the word, I had perhaps a single and rather dusty, dull association: Beowulf. Groan.

Mead is anything but dull, at least at Maine Mead Works. It is a fermented beverage made with honey, one of the world’s oldest sweeteners. The Works has been making mead for the last three years. (To get some Mead 101 straight from the experts, click here).

The cheery tasting room at Maine Mead Works (Image: Johnisha M. Levi)

The HoneyMaker Mead produced by the Works may first draw you in with its good looks. The colorful bottling makes you eager to “taste the rainbow” of varieties (we sampled 11 varieties during our visit, including three reserves). What is more is that the mead here is not just about style, but substance. The Works talks the talk AND walks the walk when it comes to sourcing locally. The mead is produced using 100% Maine wildflower honey, English lavender from Glendarrargh Farms, Heath Hill Farms elderberries, Maine’s coastal wild blueberries, and Maine McIntosh apples, to name a few of its essential components. (By necessity, the Dry Hopped Mead is processed with hops originating from outside of Maine).

In addition to having the opportunity to taste a splendid and unique Maine made product, we  also had a great time talking shop with co-owner Ben Alexander and one of the mead makers Andrew (who helpfully explained the nuances of the different varieties and gave us some useful Portland restaurant advice). It would be difficult for me to name my favorite varieties, but if hard pressed, I would probably say:

  • Lavender because it surprised me. I normally detest the soapy quality of the flowering plant. Here it contributes a perfect note of spicy interest to the beverage–slightly resinous without tasting like a mouthful of perfume. Andrew suggests mixing the lavender with lemonade and mint for a bright summer cocktail.
  •  Apple Cyser because of its crisp lightness that perfectly captures the essence of the fruit
  •  Semi Sweet because it is a good alternative to a sweet white wine that avoids being cloying (like a nice Gewurztraminer); and
  •  Spiced Mead, redolent of clove, cinnamon, and orange, and extraordinary because it exhibits the warmth of a mulled red wine

We have already heard about some of the restaurants in our neck of the words putting HoneyMaker Mead on their menus (besides being highly drinkable on its own, mead is easily incorporated into innovative cocktails), including Craigie on Main (yes, main, not Maine), but we hope more in the Boston area will follow suit (for obviously selfish reasons).  Course if we have to, we are all too happy to make a field trip . . .

7. Food for Thought

Our final stop on our Maine itinerary was the culinary bookstore Rabelais on Middle Street. I was particularly glad we dropped into this store devoted to fine wine and food books before heading back home. It turns out that Rabelais, owned by a former pastry chef and her bookseller husband, is closing its Portland doors after January 7 in order to get ready for its move to a larger space in Biddeford’s North Dam Mill.  The shop is a culinarian’s dream. You’ll find both new titles in addition to collectible and rare cookbooks. I resisted adding more baking and pastry texts to my home collection (at least until I have the time to “catch up” on my latest purchases), but because we we couldn’t leave empty-handed, we purchased Betty Rosbottom’s Sunday Soup as a very useful souvenir.

Portland, we were sad to leave you, but we are looking forward to many return visits. I’ve already made a list of places for trip number three, including  Petite Jacqueline, El Rayo Taqueria, Emilitsa, Standard Baking Company, Duckfat and Miyake. Let’s just hope my stomach can keep up!

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2 Responses to “A Happy New Year: 48 Hours of Food and Fun in Portland, Maine”

  1. Ofoe January 8, 2012 at 1:42 am #

    Great post, Johnisha. Happy 2012.

  2. Jesica January 17, 2012 at 5:28 pm #

    Thanks for the positive review of the chocolate tour. You and your husband were a pleasure to have on our tour!

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