Monday, December 30, 2013

Maine Trip #1

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!  This is my favorite time of year, despite my recently acquired aversion to cold, because I absolutely love Christmas.  I am, without a doubt, the worst Jew ever, but since I grew up celebrating Christmas in Portland, ME with my step-family, I came to love it not as a religious holiday, but instead as a time to get together with family and friends, exchange gifts, tell stories, and of course, eat lots and lots of great food.  This year, in addition to the great food we had at family dinners, I went out and tried a few new places in Portland and the surrounding area.  I also hit up an old favorite, Pai Men Miyake, which has become a requirement for my Portland trips over the last year.


First up was Local 188, a fairly high end restaurant that specializes in fresh, local ingredients.  Now, before I go any further, in the interest of full disclosure my sister and her boyfriend are both managers there, front and back of the house respectively, and this meal was essentially comped.  That said, I did greatly enjoy it, as I had a classic favorite of mine (steak tartare), a classic Maine dish (mussels), and an innovative take on a true Italian classic (gnocchi with lobster).

I started off with a cocktail, the "Bergeron Sidecar," made with house infused vanilla and fig bourbon, Cointreau, and lemon juice.  Ordinarily I am not a big cocktail person, preferring either to drink beer or straight spirits, but at my sister's suggestion I went with this, and it was really tasty.  The bourbon did not overpower me, nor did it entirely mask the other ingredients, though it was definitely the dominant flavor.  I do not know what kind of bourbon they used, but it was at least decent, though I doubt it was tremendously high end.  The lemon juice added a nice citrus note to it, but since I have no clue what Cointreau tastes like on its own, I could not tell you whether it added anything.  It would probably have been a better option as a pre-dinner drink, but it was fine during the meal as well.

Since I had never been to Local 188 before, despite my sister having worked there for quite some time now, I decided to sample a few different dishes, and they were all successful, though one clearly stood out above the rest.  The mussels in red sauce were incredible, perfectly cooked (and cleaned, which even in a restaurant is no small measure of success) and delicious.  They are plump, juicy, slightly briny delights that on their own would have been delicious, but when served in the incredible red sauce were legitimately delectable, one of the best dishes I have ever had in a restaurant.  I have no clue what they put in the sauce other than that it is tomato based, and according to my sister Moroccan inspired, but my lord, it is delicious.  I ended up using the endless supply of bread my sister kept grabbing for us (also really good) to sop up all the sauce, because there was no way I was letting any of it go to waste.  Everything else could have been terrible, and this dish would have made going there worth it.

Next up were the gnocchi, which threw me for a bit of a loop.  I am used to, and partial to, light, pillow-y, but deceptively dense gnocchi, which soak up sauces and provide just a little bit of a bite, that perfect al dente.  These were definitely not that; they were absurdly light on the inside, but because they are pan seared, they have a little bit of crispness to the outside.  They were extremely flavorful, and the lobster cream sauce they are served in is great, with a pretty significant amount of lobster piled on top of the gnocchi.  All in all, I liked this, but it definitely was unlike any gnocchi dish I've ever had, and I think I would have liked it even more if they were not seared.  That said, it is nice to see a restaurant do something a little different, and the sear was perfect on each of them.

The final dish, the steak tartare, was both awesome and disappointing.  The steak itself was perfect, uniformly diced and formed beautifully into a classic disc, with capers and truffle oil mixed in that gave it the perfect saltiness and umami flavor to go with the clearly high quality steak.  My issue, however, was the quail egg on top; rather than serve it traditionally, with a raw egg yolk on top, they fried the whole egg sunny side up; this created a textural and process issue for me, as I neither enjoyed the texture of the fried white or having to cut through it while trying to get a bit of the egg with the steak.  Soft egg on top of malleable steak does not cut easily or cleanly.  Additionally, who is eating steak tartare, but has an issue with raw egg?  I would rather have just had the steak itself and no egg on top, because the steak itself was amazing, but that egg was incredibly disappointing.

Overall, I had a great experience, I really enjoyed my food, and I look forward to going back in the future to try some more things.  The paella gets raves from the variety of people I know who have tried it.

Local 188 is relatively vegetarian and gluten-intolerant friendly, with several items on the menu that are one or both already, and the ability to retrofit some others to meet dietary restrictions.


The heart of the brewery; those tanks are filled with delicious, delicious beer
Saturday, after a delicious lunch at Pai Men, my sister and I took a quick trip up to Freeport, a town best known for the Maine staple L.L. Bean, but also now the home to Maine Beer Company.  While they do not offer a brewery tour, they do have a small tap room that overlooks the heart of the brewery.  They offer eight beers on tap at a time, and sometimes (including when I was there) have beers that are "Pilot" brews, not offered for sale anywhere else.  Offering 5oz and 10oz glasses, or four and eight beer samplers of 5oz pours, you can try an old favorite or some new specialties.  I went for the four beer sampler, trying three new-to-me beers, and of course, my all time favorite, the Lunch.

Clockwise from front righ:  Pilot 5, Lil One, Lunch, Weez
The new beers I tried were Weez (7.2%, American Black Ale), Lil One (9.1%, American Strong Ale), and Pilot 5 (5%, American Lager).  The Weez was dark, heavy and very hoppy, but like all of MBC's beers, that hoppiness did not manifest in much bitterness.  The Lil One was anything but, an absurdly strong, vibrant ale that even in a 5oz glass nearly knocked me on my ass.  I would not want to have more than one of these at a time, but it is very, very good.  The Pilot 5 was a nice, light, hoppy lager, and I hope they end up producing it, because I think it would be a great session beer, in a craft world sometimes too crowded by higher ABV offerings.  Lastly (and I did save it for last, so I could savor it), the Lunch, that perfect, delightful, hoppily bright and effervescent IPA; as much as I love Ballast Point's Sculpin, Dogfish Head's 90 Minute, or any of the other truly great IPAs I have had in my life, none of them quite match up to Lunch.  I keep saying it deserves its own review, and it does, but its so hard to find, and when I do, I end up just drinking it without taking the time to sit down and write a review because it is just so freaking good.

FYI, just down the street a short ways is Maine Distilleries Inc, the producer of Cold River Vodka.


I always try to grab lunch or dinner with one or more of my dad's old friends when I make it up to Maine, people who have been very, very good to me in my life and were dear to him in his, and this trip I was able to make it to brunch with his old friend Doug and his wife Ann, who are some of my favorite people in the world.  We tried initially to go to Flatbread, a small chain restaurant that Doug swears by, but they had actually had a small fire that morning and were not opening up until after I needed to leave town, so we ended up at Ri Ra Irish Pub, another small chain that has ten locations throughout the east, plus a new Las Vegas restaurant.  Somehow I had never been there, despite their proximity to the Casco Bay Lines terminal, but since they are right next to Flatbread as well, we decided to pop in.

They are definitely a bar heavy restaurant, and with a pretty decent drink selection at that.  We were there right around noon, so we ended up, at the suggestion of our waiter, ordering brunch.  I had the Irish Benedict, an interesting play on the traditional dish wherein the English muffin is replaced by potato cakes (essentially home fries mashed together and then pan seared) and the Canadian bacon with a large rasher of regular bacon, with house-made Hollandaise on top.  It was served with very unremarkable home fries and a thick slice of grilled tomato (a concept from the British Isles that really needs to catch on more here).  The food took a long time to come out, but our waiter did come over and apologize for that and offered us some soup, on the house, to make up for it; as it turned out, the food arrived almost immediately after the soup came out, but it was nice of the restaurant (or just him?) to do that, and the soup, a tomato bisque, was pretty decent, though I make it better.  The Benedict was quite tasty, albeit kind of difficult to get all the components into one cohesive bite, but that was not a big deal.  The potato cakes were tasty, crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside, just like good home fries would be, and the bacon was cooked just right, as were the poached eggs.  I would definitely have it again, or the Lobster Benedict that Doug ordered.

I firmly believe that the average restaurant customer goes in thinking they care primarily about the food, but in reality, people return for the service.  With that in mind, and having had some great waiters, waitresses and bartenders in my life, I have to say that the waiter at Ri Ra was one of the best.  I initially ordered the Irish Benedict, then immediately changed my mind to the Crab Cakes Benedict, a special for the day, and instead of just letting me get the (slightly) more expensive meal, he informed me that the crab cakes were not something that the restaurant does well, and encouraged me to stick with the Irish version.  Not many waiters would do that, and he saved me (and Doug, who was also going to have them) from a poor experience.  Combined with his general friendliness and professionalism, I was very, very impressed by him; even if the food had been only mediocre, rather than actually pretty tasty, I probably would still have written a positive review just because of his service.


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