First Trip to Portland--the Post Mortem--LONG
OK, all I can say to you Portland people who slag Fore Street and complain about 555 on this board—fall on your knees and thank the heavens. You are lucky to have such amazingly talented kitchens in your backyard. We spent Friday and Saturday nights in your charming town and ate ourselves silly.
Friday: first stop was Duckfat, where we had duck confit Panini, Belgian Fries with garlic aioli and duck gravy, and Allagash beers. I knew I was going over the edge when I started spreading the duck gravy on the bread and cleaning the container out with my fingers.
A cold, brisk walk from the Old Port to 555 for our 8pm dinner. No wait to be seated upstairs at a table in the atrium area, overlooking the kitchen and main dining room. Not sure if this is considered “Siberia” by trendy Portland people, but it got a little stuffy up there until we asked the waiter to open the window. Also, what is with that unappealing shade of brown on the walls upstairs? Quibbles aside, the “bones” of the room were elegant, and our waiter was a delight. She was unpretentious and attentive, and her recommendations were spot on. We shared a creamy celery root soup with hazelnut infusion that was ethereal. The salmon carpaccio was very good. Lobster popkins—I really wanted to love them, but with the curry sauce, they reminded me of the samosa appetizers that you get in every Indian restaurant. Not worth $13.95 for 3 little morsels of lobster meat. Our waiter recommended the hangar steak with truffled mashed potatoes, and the diver scallops “au poivre”. Both were superb, the steak cooked perfectly rare, and the scallops translucent inside and packing a peppery zing on the outside. 555’s quirky ambience and wonderful staff elevate the experience beyond merely refined cooking; the evening was an exhilarating, fun experience.
Saturday: on the recommendation of a fellow Chowhounder, lexpatti, we took the ferry over to Peak’s Island. The weather was spectacular, so we had a scenic walk to build up an appetite for the Cockeyed Gull: Seaweed salad, shrimp bisque, fresh crab salad, fried calamari. The standout was the seaweed salad—we learned that the cook is Korean and will be doing special Korean dinners in February. This place is a gem, and it must be wonderful in the summer to hang out on the deck. Next time...
Fore St: We arrived on time for our 8pm table and were seated immediately by the lovely hostess. No milling about or waiting, even though the place was a swirl of activity. Our table was on the upper level overlooking the kitchen. The room reminded me of an artist’s studio: the exposed brick walls, worn wood flooring and industrial aspect of the place indicated that the focus would be on the food, not on décor. We were not offered a selection of bottled “still or sparking” waters—they poured straight from the pitcher. I liked this—a refreshing change from all the preciousness surrounding this basic beverage. Our waiter, Lance, made us feel welcome—no attitude, asked us if we’d eaten there before, explained the menu, and took our drink orders. He was professional and informative throughout the meal, and conveyed real interest in our choices and pleasure in our enjoyment of the food. He was there when we needed something, and disappeared when we just wanted to savor our meals. We ordered the wood-grilled mussels in almond/wine broth and the marinated grilled calamari to start. For mains, we had the lamb three ways (chop, smoked shoulder, and steak), and a trio of seared moulard duck breast, quail, and venison sausage. No possible way to describe all this, except to observe that the food here is robust, intensely flavored, and incredibly sophisticated. What some might perceive as “plain” is exactly what makes it good—things “taste” like what they are, and are transformed into what they aspire to be. Meanwhile, we were so fascinated by the view of the salad making that we ordered mixed baby greens after the entrees to clear the palate. By this point, the champagne cocktails and bottle of San Giovese were starting to blur the edges of the room, but we rallied and made room for tart tatin with smoked bacon ice cream—and yes, that’s what it tasted like. An amazing counterpoint to the sweetness of the apples. I was a little apprehensive about eating here after some of the comments on the New England board. I’ve eaten at Fore Street exactly once, but for me, the experience was up there with Chez Panisse and the Union Square Café in its heyday. I think some of the grousing is what happens when the neighborhood place outgrows its roots and becomes the standard by which all else is judged, not only by local people, but by the greater world of food. 555 was very good, but for authenticity and an experience that defines eating Portland, Fore Street has no match.
So, thank you Portland—we will be back to try Cinque Terre, Street & Co, Vignola, etc, etc.
I'm glad you enjoyed Fore Street. I've enjoyed them in the past, although I much prefer their appetizers to their entrees, and have especially enjoyed making a meal of appetizers in their bar area. But last time we were there they were obnoxious and actually hurtful, enough so that we won't be going back. Their walk-in policy (save one third for walk-ins and treat everyone like zoo animals) leaves a lot to be desired. It seems an appeal to populism, but is really just a chance for them to lord their popularity over prospective clients. I don't like it - just reserve the whole restaurant and treat people with civility. At least on weekend nights.
re: Dan S.
I re-read your post about the bad experience your wife had at Fore Street. I don't think a restaurant consciously enacts a policy to make its guests feel inferior. Perhaps the execution of the walk-in policy was bungled in your case, and you would be justified in sending a strongly-worded letter or email to the restaurant. I'm having a hard time reconciling the hostility you encountered with the extraordinarily gracious service we received.
It is so good to hear from someone else who adores Fore Street. I can just taste those mussels. I think we are due for a trip north.
The only problem we have with Fore Street is that we want to eat there every meal while we are in Portland and never try anything else. We always intend to eat elsewhere, but then we can't wait for our Fore Street fix and after one meal, we want more.
We eat at the bar -- as we do in most places-- and have never had anything but wonderful service. My huband loves it as much as I do and he's even fussier than I am.