Monday, March 17, 2014

The Blue Spoon (Portland, ME)

Located right at the intersection of Congress and Munjoy Sts. in the Munjoy Hill section of Portland, The Blue Spoon is a cute little restaurant that offers a Saturday (but not Sunday) brunch.  This is where we wanted to go the previous time I was in Maine, but it was so packed we ended up at East Ender.  With only about twenty to twenty five seats, it is easy for this place to fill up quickly, and though my meal had some disappointing aspects, I can see why The Blue Spoon is popular. 

My sister and I grabbed a late (around 1:00pm) brunch here after my old favorite, Bintliff's American Cafe, ended up being packed with a significant wait anticipated.  Neither of us wanted to deal with that, so we took a shot at The Blue Spoon again, which was basically empty this time when we arrived, though a few people shuffled in after us.

The coffee we were served was both quite good (not La Fiorentina level, but I would say it was equal to Amherst Coffee).  It was hot but not boiling, and replenished often; a good start for any restaurant serving breakfast or brunch.

I went with the restaurant's take on my personal favorite Eggs Benedict, which was completely not traditional but really interesting.  My sister had the classic two eggs, bacon, home fries and toast, which she was quite pleased with.  The "Benedict" consisted of a soft on the inside, crispy on the outside sweet potato pancake; not quite a latke, it was softer than that and was really more like mashed potatoes in pan seared patty form, though that was definitely not how it was constructed.  This was, without a doubt, the best part of the meal, as it was seasoned perfectly, had just the right balance of textures, and sopped up the yolk from the eggs.  On top of this were a couple thick slices of bacon, which somehow managed to be both crisp to the point of nearly crumbling and also chewy; I am not quite sure how this was achieved, but it was great.  The obligatory poached eggs perched atop the bacon, and were nicely cooked.

There ended the positives, however.  Sauce Hollandaise is a delicate, difficult to make (at least properly) item when you are in a restaurant, as you clearly cannot make it to order, and thus have to make sure it lasts properly.  That said, if your sauce breaks, do not serve it.  I would rather wait for you to make more and/or fix the sauce than get a runny, melted butter looking (and tasting) sauce that does not even resemble what it is intended to be.  The meal was good, but that was in spite of the Hollandaise, and quite frankly, I cannot believe that a restaurant of this quality would let something that clearly wrong go out to the table.  It cannot be that no one noticed; it was the first thing I saw when the plate was put down in front of me, and was completely obvious. 

Service was good; attentive but not annoying, and the waitress was there to refill our coffees and waters before either cup ever went dry.  I do not know if they could keep that up if the place was full, but considering how small it is, it would not surprise me.

So, all in all, how did I feel about this meal?  The best answer I can give is, I don't know.  I liked all but one element of the entire experience, but it was a key to the dish.  In fact, while Eggs Benedict is recreated with all sorts of strange ingredients, two things remain constant; the poached eggs and the Sauce Hollandaise.  Failing on one of those two items is difficult to look past, but the remainder of the meal was so good that I really want to.  I think I would have to try the place again, and probably the same dish again, to really form a solid opinion, but I could neither recommend nor discourage going to The Blue Spoon to anyone based off that meal.


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Thursday, March 13, 2014

East Ender Bar & Kitchen (Portland, ME)

On my trip to Maine a couple weeks ago, I finished my trip with brunch at East Ender Bar & Kitchen with my sister and her boyfriend.  Located on Middle St. right next to Duckfat, it is a short walk from Commercial St. and is one of many good restaurants to open in the Old Port in the last few years.  We arrived fairly late for brunch, close to 1:00pm, as our first attempt at a restaurant was met with failure, so it was not too busy and we were seated immediately.  The brunch menu features a good mix of the classics (Eggs Benedict, a standard two eggs, meat, toast, etc option, and a burger for those more inclined to the lunch side of brunch) and some nice surprises (chicken and waffles, pulled pork with johnnycakes), though there are not many vegetarian options on the menu.

I went with the chicken and waffles, because...well, do I really have to explain this to anyone?  I mean, it's fried chicken on top of waffles.  And this was really good fried chicken, despite being boneless breasts; it was crisp, juicy, flavorful, with breading that stuck to the meat and never became soggy despite the delectable maple hot sauce crème fraîche sauce that doused it.   That sauce was amazing, creamy and slightly sweet, with just enough hot sauce to put a little fire into it, but never overwhelming anything at all.  The waffle part was great too, with a crispy exterior on the waffle and a soft, moist interior, that was perfectly cooked.  It was not super sweet, but had just enough to balance the hot sauce and the savory chicken.  All in all, this was one of the best dishes I've had for breakfast or brunch ever.  If not for all the other amazing options to try for brunch in Portland, I would probably go to this place every time I'm in town for a weekend; as it is, I will still certainly come back at some point.


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Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Red House (Cambridge, MA), Machu Picchu (Somerville, MA) and Farmer Brown's Farm Stand (Middleton, MA)

Oysters and 18yr Glenfiddich
As you have probably discerned by now, oysters are just about my favorite snack, so when I found out a few years ago that there is a restaurant in Cambridge that serves them, two for a dollar, from noon to 6:00pm, I was determined to go.  And now, I finally made it!

The Red House is located a short walk from my other Cambridge favorites, Charlie's Kitchen and Crema Cafe (where I also stopped afterwards for a coffee to help wash down the beer and Scotch I had just consumed), down narrow Winthrop St.  During the six hours after noon, your first dozen oysters per person cost just 50 cents a piece, and while that limit is not advertised, I suspect most people do not have more than a dozen by themselves.  No worries for those of you like me who only stop eating oysters after you run out of money or stomach space; they are only one dollar apiece after that first dozen.

The oysters are currently Island Creek's, out of Duxbury, MA, and while they are no Kumamotos or Damariscottas, they are pretty damn good.  Their failing in comparison to those two varietals, which are my favorites, is their lesser quality (and quantity) liquor, which is only a little briny in the Island Creeks.  That said, you could never get Damariscottas or Kumamotos for this cheap even in a good fish shop like Harbor Fish, much less in a restaurant. I paid $12 for the dozen and a half oysters I ate, a tremendous deal beaten only by J's Oyster's freebies, but for those you have to wait until the waiter comes to you with more on their timetable, instead of just ordering them up as you want.  They are served with some mild horseradish and a very ketchup-y cocktail sauce, along with a large slice of lemon and some mixed greens; not sure what the deal with the greens is, since they do not give you a fork.  Maybe they are supposed to be eating with the oysters, but I have never heard of such a thing.

I sat at the small bar, which has maybe eight or nine seats; there are also a small handful of tables for about another dozen people in the bar area, while the dining room seats another 65 according to their website.  The oyster deal is only available in the bar or on the patio (weather permitting, of course, which in New England means about four months out of the year), so do not go expecting to sit in the dining room and receive these prices.  You can start out at the bar and then migrate to the dining room though, or eat from the dining room menu at the bar if you want.  They have a solid list of draft beers available, including the ever more popular Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier from Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan, one of the highest rated beers on BeerAdvocate.  I went with a Founders Brewing Company Breakfast Stout, which has a perfect rating.  One of the best beers out there, it is strong, dark and heavy, without being overwhelming.  It has a definite sweetness and the malt flavors are huge, with some oatmeal flavors that are just plain delightful.  I do not taste quite as much coffee as some other people in it, but that could just be my palate.  They serve it a little too cold, so I let it warm up for a couple of minutes before drinking it; as it warmed the flavors opened up a great deal, and it became better and better as I took my time drinking it.

After finishing my beer, I moved on to Scotch, since they have ridiculously good prices; the 18 Year Glenfiddich I had was just $11, much, much cheaper than I have ever seen it.  Now, this is not the same as the 18 Year Ancient Reserve I reviewed at the beginning of January, but it is a very good, very smooth Scotch.  It lacked the character of the Ancient Reserve, and seemed not to have taken on a great deal of flavor from whatever wood it was aged in.  All in all, a good single malt, and worth trying, especially at such a reasonable price, but there are far better options out there, especially for those of us who like peaty, smoky whiskys, which this was certainly not.


It is always a good sign when you show up at an ethnic restaurant to find a family who appears to be representative of the culture having a meal or event there; upon entering Machu Picchu in Somerville, MA, that was exactly what I saw, a giant table filled with what I deduced was several generations of a Peruvian descended family.  My expectations were immediately raised, and eventually well met.

I went with my best friend from high school, and we decided to split the Yaquitas a la Huancaina (fried yucca with a creamy, slightly spicy sauce) and the Palta Primavera (halved avocados filled/topped with a chicken and nixtamal, or hominy, salad).  Both were delicious, as the yucca was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, not unlike very good steak fries, and the avocado was firm but creamy, with a simple chicken salad topping it.  My only complaint was the abundant use of mayonnaise in the salad, which was unnecessary.  The hominy was a great touch, and definitely needs to be used more.

For my entree, I had the Bisteck a lo Pobre (poor man's steak, essentially; a large steak served with white rice topped by a sunny side up egg, french fries, and a few pieces of sweet plantains), and it was just flat out awesome.  The steak was slightly more done than I like (which is basically not at all), but was a fine medium rare, incredibly tender, perfectly seasoned, with beautiful cross-hatched grill marks.  The rice was fine, nothing special, but once the egg yolk was broken into it it definitely got more interesting.  French fries are among my favorite things, but these were the only real miss for me, being rather limp and unseasoned; the platanos more than made up for that though, and they proved yet again why they are among my favorite things ever.

They have a few beers on the menu, including a couple from Peru, one of which I had, though I cannot remember its name; it was pretty good, but nothing super interesting, reminding me of a Czech pilsener.  They also had a pan flute band playing, which, once I got over my initial reaction of amusement (thanks to South Park's Pandemic episodes) was actually kind of nice.  All in all, this is a pretty great restaurant, and I look forward to going back in the future.


I spent three days in Middleton, MA this past week as part of a training, and since it was close and cheap, I went to Farmer Brown's Farm Stand each day to pick up some lunch.  They offer a large salad bar that appears to be filled with fresh vegetables and lettuce, as well as nearly a dozen soups, which is what I decided to partake in.  Over the course of three days I had the Hungarian Mushroom, Cream of Broccoli with Aged Cheddar, and finally the Italian Wedding Soup.  That last is served every day, one of four such, while they rotate through a dozen or so others; all are homemade, and you can really tell.  The Italian Wedding Soup was my favorite, with delicious little meatballs in it, but all were great.  Prices were spectacular, as a bowl of soup and a roll (all the soups were also good for dipping bread) ran about six bucks.

They also have some specialty items, including olive oils, balsamic vinegar, and dried pasta from Italy; I picked up a bag of cavatelli that looks great.  Their deli is stocked with Boar's Head, which is about the peak of normal deli meats, and there was plenty of meat and fish portioned or marinated and ready for the grill or oven.  If I lived close to this place, I would probably be a lot poorer and a lot fatter (the soups were pretty fattening) but it made my training days a lot better.


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Maine Trip #2

Needing a few days away from western MA and work, and with the promise of raw seafood, I hopped in my car for the not quite four hour drive to Edgecomb last Thursday.  I grabbed a beer, some cold sake, and an order of the addictive Brussel's sprouts at continual favorite Pai Men Miyake with my sister's boyfriend on the way, before arriving in Lincoln County just in time to take a very brief nap before my step-mom finished making a creamy broccoli soup and a platter of croque monsieur sandwiches.  I highly suggest this combination, as it bears a lot of similarities to my personal specialty.

I spent a lazy day in Edgecomb before heading south to meet up with my step-mom to select oysters and clams for the night.  Harbor Fish has been featured on just about every television show that filmed an episode on food or fish in southern Maine, and for good reason; it is where the locals who know fish go, because they have the best, freshest, and most reasonably priced fish you can imagine.  We grabbed 18 oysters deriving from Maine to Massachusetts, along with six clams.  If you like cooked clams, you should try them raw; not everyone enjoys the texture, but the flavor is incredibly powerful and delightful.  If you do not like them cooked...well, then you definitely won't raw.

Thankfully it was cold enough to just leave the oysters with some ice in the car for a couple hours, so we adjourned to J's Oyster, a bar on the Portland Pier that, during the month of February, offers free oysters to its customers beginning at 4:00pm until they reach a certain amount.  They are initially given away three on a plate per person, then it drops to two per plate as more people pack the bar, and are served with a wedge of lemon, some oyster crackers, and a dollop of cocktail sauce.  The oysters are by no means top of the line, and they don't do much more than open them (in fact, the oyster meat itself is still attached to the shell), but hey, they're free, and they're fresh, and they taste good.  We left before they ran out of the freebies, so I can't tell you how many you can end up getting, but I would definitely suggest going with someone who either does not like raw oysters, or at least likes them in limited quantities.  My step-mom likes them, but not more than a couple a night, so I had the majority of hers, ending up having 18 myself.  This was, of course, just the prelude to the couple dozen other raw mollusks we had when we got back home.

After polishing off the oysters we got at Harbor, we went to dinner at The Cockeyed Gull, but the experience was nowhere near as impressive as on the Fourth of July.  I liked my meal (sesame crusted salmon with a Wasabi aioli, seaweed "garni" aka seaweed salad, mixed vegetables, and white rice), but I was really the only person who was not completely disappointed.  We started with a scallop appetizer that was actually pretty successful, and reasonably well cooked, but things went downhill from there.  My salmon was tasty but overcooked, the white rice was beyond boring, and while the seaweed salad was good it was nothing better or worse than what you could get in any sushi joint in America.  In fact, the best part of the meal for me were the carrots in the mixed vegetables, which consisted of them and some broccoli florets.  Their beer options were very limited, with a Baxter Brewing Company Stowaway IPA being the only really local and craft option.  It was good, but nothing special; I have had better from Baxter before.  The beer was canned, not on tap, and while this is one of the many breweries doing the canned thing right, it is just not the same as a good draft beer.  Apparently during the winter the Gull loses some of its staff, and the owner does the cooking; she is a nice lady, and has some interesting ideas, but is not as creative as some of her summer chefs and not as talented either.  I would say this is still a great summer destination, but I will be avoiding it during the off-season.


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