Feed your soul
There’s a reason Portland, Maine, is often cited as America’s best restaurant city.
Thursday 23 May 2019
This article is from
Maine, New England
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There’s a reason Portland, Maine, is often cited as America’s best restaurant city; as Liam the Uber driver wisely puts it when I ask for his recommendations for places to eat, “anywhere really – you’ll struggle to find a bad restaurant here”.
And he wasn’t wrong. From the pointedly voguish Eventide to the traditional, family-oriented DiMillo’s on The Water (which New York-born Rem spent 20 minutes enthusiastically recommending over a whisky one evening) there’s something for everyone, and everything is top-notch.
There are several reasons for this, most obviously the abundance of quality ingredients, in particular seafood. Casco Bay, on which Portland is situated, has a unique geography, with 10ft tides sweeping salt water up into its broad freshwater estuary, creating a cornucopia of marine life. Archaeological finds suggest the bay has been fished for at least 4000 years, and it continues to supply Portland with a steady flow of clams, oysters and some of the best lobster you’ll find anywhere in the world.
But it’s also simply because Portland has grown used to having great food and drink that’s accessible to everyone, rather than restricted to the rarefied world of ‘fine dining’. Whether you’re opening a dive bar or a cocktail lounge, a late-night pizza shack or an a-la-carte restaurant, if the produce isn’t up to the mark, people just won’t come back, because they expect better. In this sense, the most exciting aspect of Portland’s foodie scene is how fantastically egalitarian it is.
We’d need a book to list all the great places you should try on a Portland beer tour, but for what it’s worth, here are some of our favourites…
Pretty much the place to eat in downtown Portland just now, with a menu of Asian-influenced seafood and an impeccable beer list. The warm lobster roll is its signature dish, but the oyster selection (laid out on an ice counter in the middle of the restaurant) is also exceptional. Pair half a dozen sweet and salty oysters with a bowl of horseradish ice and you’ll never look back. The only downside is the limited number of covers, which means it can get crowded, disorganised and a little unfriendly at busy times.
As one wag explained it to me “you take a girl to Eventide on the first date, but Scales to seal the deal”. A little more upmarket (and a lot more spacious) Scales is nonetheless pretty relaxed, with comfy leather sofas scattered among the more traditional bistro tables. Again, the fish of the day are arrayed on ice when you walk in, and whatever you pick from the menu is bound to be stellar. Great wine and beer lists too, naturally – I paired an oyster platter with a classic Allagash White.
Silician-style pizza, served in generous ‘hand slabs’ for around $6, or gargantuan sharing ‘full slabs’ for $50. The dough is light and fluffy, the tomato is sweet and herby, and the cheese (mozzarella and provolone) is clearly authentic. Add various toppings, depending on your mood and wallet.
Another food truck turned static restaurant (though still also a food truck), Mami’s punchy brand of Japanese fusion cuisine makes full use of Portland’s amazing local farmers, foragers and fishermen. Dreamed up in 2015 by Austin Miller and Hannah Tamaki, the truck/restaurant has gone from strength to strength, combining street food fun with serious cheffing chops. The blistered shishito peppers are a simple delight, while the okonomiyaki pancake with pork, cabbage and seasonal veg is a meal in itself.
A former food truck, now occupying bricks-and-mortar across the street from Rising Tide Brewery, Baharat is an unpretentious, veggie-friendly middle eastern joint with a great cocktail list. Large Iraqi flatbreads come with pretty much everything and it works best if you have several people sharing. The devilled eggs, fatoush and succulent chicken kebabs are my highlights.
$1.50 oysters, straight out of the bay, shucked before your eyes and guaranteed the best you’ve ever had. I mean, the atmosphere is great too, and there’s various other enticing seafoodie options, but… $1.50 oysters.
If you’re proteined out from all that seafood, Duckfat will meet all your rich carb needs. Broadly agreed to be the best fries in Portland (fried in, yes, duck fat), it also serves loaded panini, milkshakes and dirty, dirty poutine.
...And the food trucks
It’s hard to overstate the importance of food truck culture to Portland’s relentlessly inventive culinary scene, and to the development of its excellent taprooms. In a typically Portlandian gesture of collaboration, a group of small breweries and food truck proprietors have even worked out a rota, so punters can see which truck will be at which taproom on any given day. This has undoubtedly helped make the city’s taprooms the destination they are today; particularly on the streets with several breweries in close proximity, it can feel like a market atmosphere.
The Muthah Trucker
Toasted sandwiches to make you cry. The flavour combinations in each of the eight or so options are out of this world, and served with a smile and a chat by ex-restauranteur Erica Dionne.
The popular downtown Japanese fusion restaurant, but on wheels. Exactly the same high quality, but in this context it’s easy to understand how Austin and Hannah fell in love with street food.
Falafel, but not as you know it. Goodbye mealy chickpea dumplings and bland humous – hello light and crispy falafel, zingy pickles and unexpected fruit sauces. They say that once you’re in, you can never leave the mob. But with food this good, why would you want to?
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