By Karen Feld
I’ve always looked forward to traditional Maine summers with lobster bakes in seaweed on the beach or picking up a “lobstah” roll local style with mayo inside a packaged hot dog bun or the whole boiled crustacean tossed live in a pot on the kitchen stove. September in Maine is when the magnificent colors begin to appear as well as country fair season – agricultural products and livestock are proudly exhibited. Folks walk around chewing on deep fried turkey drumsticks and bloomin’ onions. But Maine, today, is way more than that.
The coastal city of Portland, especially the Old Port area, has grown into a vibrant food mecca. Young talented chefs are using Maine’s fresh products to show off their “wicked” culinary skills taking farm to table to new depths.
Follow the Indonesian shadow puppet logo to Portland’s newest restaurant, Tempo Dulu, in the Danforth Inn which opened in June after Camden Harbour Inn owners Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest spared no expense in renovating their newly purchased Portland property. They transformed the historic property to an enchanting and plush Asian inspired hideaway. It takes the guest out of Portland.
There’s no pretense or signage outside the Federal style Inn. Tempo Dulu beginning with a signature cocktail –both silky and floral--topped with Rose air (Combier Rose liquor foam) in the bar surpasses all expectations. My dinner partner selected a Seminyak Sling with house-made Falarnum, a clove liquor served in a Tiki glass.
The presentation was incredible and you could actually taste the layers of ingredients. Bar Manager Trevin Hutchins, wore a black shirt designed after the Han Dynasty, reminiscent of a chemist, as we watched him in front of purple LED lights, spray toasted oak bitters mist to finish the cocktail.
If you’ve never tried a Smoked Manhattan, you’re in for a surprise. Hutchins uses a blow torch to smoke the artichoke liquor finished with Cynnar Averna for a spice note. Or try a refreshing sake snow cone with yuzu juice, salmon caviar and ginger smoked sea salt. Even the bitters are locally sourced. We sampled -- deviled quail egg with aioli shallots and mint--to whet our appetite at the bar. An upmarket second bar is planned for the lower level, an original speakeasy.
The Southeast Asian themed restaurant harks back to “the good old days” in Indonesia. To ensure authenticity, the owners treated Chef Lawrence Klang to a culinary tour of Southeast Asia.
A Norwegian moss lamp from Norway hangs in the cocktail lounge feeding off of the moisture in the air, creating a comfortable humidity free space. The original century old floor and molding contributes to the warm contemporary feel. Guests enjoy the true dining experience seated on comfortable suede couches and white linen tablecloths in the 36-seat dining or sun room.
Restaurant manager Liz Totzeck and staff are well-informed raconteurs on Indonesian history. The menu offers three prix fixe options. I chose the five course, two pound lobster tasting menu ($109); and my friend, the chefs tasting ($87) served family style, which of course meant there was plenty to share. But first the chef treated us to wok-charred chili-pickled eggplant on a Pemaquid oyster with a dash of anise and peppercorn. Totzeck recommended a bottle of 2012 Mannequin from Orin Swift Cellars, a well-balanced, buttery artisan blend of unoaked Chardonnay and Syrah, which paired perfectly with the spicy lobster. Fresh flowers and pastel colored shrimp crackers with peanut and chili sauces added to the colorful presentation. A surprise smoked tomato shooter with lightly fried Jonah crab and smoked tomato and coconut with yellow curry exhibited a delicate blend of flavors finished with a bit of spice. It was truly unique to stimulate the palette.
Each course – from the smoked lobster, to exceedingly light lobster and carrot dumplings, fried lobster with cured Foie Gras and the half chili lobster in the shell stuffed with scrambled duck eggs--was plated artistically, simply and elegantly. The varied Chef’s menu delighted us as well—steamed halibut in banana leaf and Sumatra lamb curry with condiments. We chose the peanut butter gelatin panna cotta topped with fruit puree to finish. We couldn’t leave without a delicious chili pineapple lollipop for the road. Tempo Dulu at The Danforth (163 Danforth Street, 207-879-8755) tops my list of favorite restaurants not only in Maine but around the country.
Others I recommend:
Union (119 Exchange Street, 207-808-8703), another newcomer to the scene located in the newspaper themed Press Hotel, formerly the home of the Portland Press Herald newspaper, opened in May. Chef Josh Berry, 39, a native Mainer was lured back home from the Stowe Mt. Lodge to oversee the open kitchen because “the Portland food scene is really hot.” Berry added, “You can’t hide anything here.” He laughs about stealing garlic scapes out of the planters to pickle fish. He stresses professional service and a notch of elegance in the 60-seat dining room rather than what he terms “the hipster scene” found in much of Portland.
Owner businessman Jim Brady encourages his entrepreneurial spirit. Berry views his menu as evolving and inspired by seasonality. He relies on some 50 local purveyors. Food is plated with tweezers so that a potato has as much eye appeal as a truffle. I recommend the corn and shrimp stew with truffle oil and the Burratta with sweet peas.
Five Fifty-Five (555 Congress Street, 207-761-0555). You can’t go wrong with any of Chef Steve Corry’s imaginative small plates or savory dishes. My favorites are seared sea scallops with fennel and lemon puree and the Truffled lobster mac and artisanal cheese with black truffles and white truffle oil. The bar/lounge is comfortable to pop in for a bite before or after theater.
Hugo’s (58 Middle Street, 207-774-8538) has evolved to mix ‘n match tasting menus with ingredients foraged and farmed from the sea, forest and field is priced from $45 to $90. The red birch tasting bar opposite an open kitchen caters to vegetarians, pescetarians and omnivores. They also own the ultra- casual, uncomfortable but delicious and always packed Eventide Oyster Co. next door. The wait is long for a seat at the raw bar.
Duck Fat (43 Middle Street, 207-774-8080) is a glorified diner with mostly counter seating but it’s worth the queue for lunch or a mid- afternoon break. Chef/owner Rob Evans, who has worked in top kitchens including The Inn at Little Washington and The French Laundry, gets creative with everything “duck.” Try the duck confit and duck fries with a flight of mayo.
Back Bay (65 Portland Street, 207-772-8833) has been around longer than the others, but Chef/owner Larry Matthews maintains the quality. Slightly off the beaten path, it’s consistently good, well run and won’t disappoint for lavender marinated duck breast or fresh fish and a relaxing dining experience.