Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Corner Room (Portland, ME)

The Corner Room©
As you probably can tell, I have a bit of a Maine connection; in fact, my (former) step-family is from Portland, and I grew up spending about a quarter of each year splitting time between the mainland and Peaks Island.  In the last couple years, whenever I go up my sister and I go out and grab a bite to eat, and The Corner Room, one of the three "Room" restaurants (the others being the original, The Front Room, followed by The Grille Room), has become a favorite.  In fact, this restaurant caused my sister to give up being a vegan!  Both times we've gone we didn't have reservations and went at fairly close to peak hours and tables weren't immediately available, so we ended up sitting at the small "bar" that encircles the cheese and charcuterie prep station.  This was an unbelievable blessing the first time, which I will get to later.

The menu at The Corner Room changed a little between the first and second time I went, but the basic concept of the restaurant is an Italian inspired (though with a very American twinge) menu with "rustic" flavors.  Rustic appears to be the buzzword of the decade (century?) so far, but The Corner Room does it well; the flavors are strong, ingredients are fresh, and while there's clearly some impressive technique going into the preparation, it's never obviously about the technique rather than the food.  As I've said before, I'm all for fancy food, but the food is the key there, so technique should never come in ahead of taste.  In addition to the pizza, pasta and sandwiches, which you would expect at an Italian inspired restaurant, there are the "secondi," or main dishes, which at the moment I'm writing this include Osso Bucco alla Milanese, Risotto Frutti di Mare, and two Italian chicken dishes.  That's pretty representative of how the menu has been when I've been there.

The first time we went, we started with a platter of a variety of charcuterie, including a duck pâté, a terrine, prosciutto, and a couple others, served with two different mustards and a fruit preserve along with sliced baguette.  Did I mention that when we went in my sister had been living a vegan lifestyle?  Not anymore!  I followed this up with braised pork on a bed of pumpkin polenta and roasted brussels sprouts, and I was truly blown away.  I had never in all my life eaten a brussels sprout and not wanted to huck something at the chef, but they were delicious!  The polenta's texture may not have pleased everyone, I'll admit, though I think the flavor would have; I loved it all, but I like my polenta just the slightest bit "gritty" (I can't think up a better word), which this was.  The pork was falling apart, my knife barely being needed, and while it had a tremendous flavor on its own, it really shined when eaten in combination with the polenta, where the textures and flavors mixed.  My sister also loved her dinner, which was an Italian sandwich (mortadella, prosciutto, salami, smoked mozzarella and a few vegetables), and from the bite I tried, I can heartily endorse it; it was better than any Italian sandwich I've ever had before, and in the upper realms of all the sandwiches, of any variety, I've ever had.  We both paired our meals with beers, and they do have a decent list, including local favorites Geary's and Shipyard, as well as a pretty good looking wine list, though I am nowhere near qualified to truly comment on that part of it.

As good as the appetizer and main courses were, the truly memorable part of that meal was the cheese course we had as a substitute for dessert.  It was at this time that we truly benefited from being at the cheese and charcuterie prep station.  As it turned out, that night the station was being manned by the chef himself, which we didn't realize until later (okay, I never realized it; my sister gets all the credit here), and we'd been chatting with him off and on throughout the meal, so when we were deciding on which of the cheeses we wanted for our platter, we asked him for suggestions, and not only did he gives us the best suggestion ever, La Tur, he also gave us an extra cheese for free, which was incredibly generous.  The other three cheeses were good, but I can't for the life of me remember what they are anymore, two years later.  The La Tur god.  Creamy, sweet, savory, embodying the best of each goat's, cow's and sheep's milk (it's a combination of the three), this cheese is decadence defined.  The last line of the description of it on the Murray's Cheese website, "We recommend you get back-up: La Tur is always the first to go at a party" is entirely accurate.  After buying a couple pounds of it for my sister for Christmas in 2010 (seriously, it's that good that I had it shipped to Maine from New York City), we all burned through that stuff in no time.  It is not only my favorite cheese, but there's really no competition; eating it for the first time is akin to the joy of a first kiss (thankfully without the awkwardness!) with someone you really like.  You really had no idea what to expect, but you're anticipating that it will be good...and then it's more than good; it's transcendent.  And isn't that what you want from all food (and first kisses)?

As a side note, The Corner Room now offers Sunday brunch; I haven't been yet, but I had brunch at The Front Room last year and it was pretty spectacular, so I have no reason to think it would be anything less than wonderful at The Corner Room as well.


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