...aka eating my way through Portland ME.
It's been a long time since I've taken a true vacation, so when we finally got the opportunity to go away this summer there was only one thing I wanted to do - eat!
I've been to Portland Maine about 5 times now and every time we've run out of meals before we come close to trying every place on our list. This time we decided to rent a condo and stay for a week which still isn't enough time to try everything, but we did our best. I tried to take pictures of everything, but a few (OK a bunch) of times I was so excited to eat I dug in completely forgetting about the photo op. Since pictures of half eaten food tend to look disgusting, I had to skip those.
We got into town in late afternoon which was perfect timing for a drink by the water before dinner. Ironically our own waterfront in Philly is a place I never venture due to the large quantities of d-bags and tourists, yet I'm always happy to be a tourist in someone else's city. Go figure... So we headed for the Porthole and had a drink on the deck. We decided to skip the "Nderful Food" and instead went to an old time favorite Norm's Bar & Grill. Norm's is the kind of place I'd go a lot if I lived in Portland. I love the mashed potatoes and the cornbread which I realize isn't exactly a balanced meal, but that's what's good about being a grown-up - you can call that dinner.
The place we stayed was literally across the street from Coffee By Design which is another Portland treasure. We went there almost every morning for delicious coffee and an incredible assortment of locally made pastries. This was definitely a contender for best cheese danish ever! One day we opted for brunch instead and tried Local 188 which we had gone to years ago in a smaller location across the street. The new space is beautiful and I had one of the best pancakes of my life. It's kind of like skillet cornbread with blueberries. Super thick in the center with a crispy edge, topped with whipped butter and a sprig of mint. Sadly it's listed only as "Pancake" on the menu. They could definitely do a better job of selling it!
Going to Maine and not getting a lobster roll is like going to Philly and not getting a cheese steak (although I actually recommend getting a hoagie over a cheese steak since most of them are awful) so we tried two different ones. One was at a super touristy place on the water called the Portland Lobster Company where we ordered a lobster roll and a crabmeat roll so we could try more than one thing. Next time I'd stick with two lobster rolls - it was a lot tastier.
The second place we tried was Morse's Lobster Shack in Brunswick which took over a 50's style drive in with car hop service. The waitresses will still bring orders to your car, only not on roller skates anymore. They offered a hot or cold lobster roll, so of course we tried one of each. The hot was sauteed in garlic butter, while the cold had just a touch of mayo. Hot was the winner - you can't beat melted butter on lobster.
We read a lot of opinions about the best pizza, and we figured we'd see for ourselves. We tried 3 different places, and I'm still kicking myself for running out of room at a fourth. We had been to Flatbread before which has a fantastic location on the water, and super fresh ingredients. Bonobo Pizza is a newer contender that some say is even better. We tried a half Talleggio with roasted tomato, leeks and arugula and half Margherita with tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil. The flavor was amazing, and the crust was delicious, but the only downside was too much oil. With less it would have been perfect. The third place we tried was Otto Pizza which kept coming up when we asked locals where to eat. A bunch of people told me I needed to try the mashed potato and bacon slice and it was every bit as good as it sounds.
Portland has a crazy amount of higher end restaurants and we wanted to try some of those too. The culture of using farm fresh local ingredients is everywhere and it was hard to choose among so many incredible menus. We tried The Corner Room for dinner and The Front Room for lunch. At The Corner Room we had an amazing cold seafood sampler that included squid, shrimp, octopus, clams, and smoked mussels. We tried the gnocchi with kale & smoked mozzarella (Yum!) and the Mac & Cheese (OK, but not my favorite version). I would definitely go back again and try some more of the menu. The house smoked salmon bagel sandwich at The Front Room was delicious.
The one restaurant we've heard about since our first trip to Portland 13 years ago is Fore Street. We kind of suck at planning ahead and making reservations, so we never even tried to go thinking there was no way we'd get in. Thanks to the really nice guy from Eli Phant (definitely go to this boutique - they have a great assortment of handmade products, many by local artists) we were tipped off that if we got there just before 5 when the bar opened we could get a seat in the lounge, or put our name in for one of the tables they keep for walk-ins. What we didn't know is that once the doors open the line is only for dining room reservations, and we wanted to eat in the lounge. People bum rushed the bar stools and they were full in about 3 seconds. Fortunately we got lounge seats and had an incredible dinner. My cocktail of choice for the evening was fresh grapefruit juice with vodka, candied ginger and some other infused things I wouldn't be able to recreate at home (though I would pay money for this recipe). We ordered 6 appetizers so we could try as much as possible. The flavors were amazing! Pictured is a tomato tart with goat cheese on puff pastry, some kind of squid dish, and crab salad with sweet corn panna cotta and a tomato & corn side that transcended tomatoes & corn. Round two had mussels with bread from their bakery, quail (which I realized is not my favorite member of the bird family) and fingerling potatoes.
Dessert was house made pepper ice cream and a chocolate & vanilla bean torte and caramel sauce. I was ridiculously full.
On our last day we took the ferry to Peaks Island and rented bikes. The views from the perimeter of the island are gorgeous. You can do the ride in an hour if you go fast, or 3 if you stop to sit and watch the water.
We had one dinner left, and I really needed a vegetable. A few people recommended trying Five Fifty-Five and when I heard they had a grilled Caesar salad I was sold. Who knew grilled lettuce could taste so good? After a week of solid eating I have newfound respect for restaurant critics who seem like they have the cushiest job in the world, but eating so much is hard! I'm decompressing with smoothies and yogurt. So long for now Portland!