A seven-stop Portland food-and-drink-around starts now.
It’s getting to be like a daily, non-stop dinner party around here.
Chefs and owners and restaurants keep on popping up, block after block, to cook and pour in Portland. These next-generation hosts of the food and drink scene are inventive. They’re high-energy. And often, their friendships link them to other Old Port kitchens and restaurateurs. As Portland’s food star continues to rise even higher regionally and nationally, here’s a look at seven new(er) places to lift a fork, twirl chopsticks, or sip a cocktail—and some of the people and connections behind the bowls and plates of design-savvy flavor.
On a summer night on lower Market Street a man walks along the sidewalk with a fishing pole over one shoulder and a beautiful woman in step beside him. A group of 20-somethings pass by, and one says to her friends, “The merguez at Fore Street is amazing. Let’s do it again.” At Mount Desert Island Ice Cream, people ask for samples and whole scoops of the spicy Thai Chili Coconut, and at the edge of Post Office Park, musicians playing violins are attracting a small crowd.
This old seaport city is full of life. It’s Portland’s dinner hour—lasting later and longer, especially by Maine standards—and it makes for good urban sport to go people-watching and window-spying, to get whiffs of mussels or dumplings or some other appetizing dish on a fiery stove. When the surroundings look inviting, just step inside. The Fore Streets and Duckfats and Miyakes got this locally sourced party started years ago. Fresh infusions of talent keep it going, often bolstered by social media food buzz.
It all adds up. Big-time food awards and nominations (five James Beard nominees this year, but not a win—yet) are rolling in, along with plenty of attention by local writers and regional and national publications. In the Old Port and downtown Portland, these are good times to be hungry and thirsty.
BAO TO BEGIN
It’s barely lunchtime when we grab seats in the window of the small brick Bao Bao Dumpling House on Spring Street, open since last October. Radiohead is playing in the tall-ceilinged dining room where most everything is a cool black, white, or blue, and all is comfortable and comforting—especially once the food arrives on traditional blue-and-white china. Some of the dishes are serenely simple, like a salad of spicy local greens and thin slices of radish. My favorite is the single miso-steamed oyster served on the half-shell over hot stones. Sitting beneath a pounded copper dragon sculpture and large-scale photographs of modern Chinese street scenes, it would be a shame not to try some of Bao Bao’s pan-fried dumplings dipped in chili oil. The building, owned by the parents of chef-owner Cara Stadler, required a major rehab before she could open last year, and the renovations included digging out a basement to add kitchen and bar space. Still in her 20s, Stadler was a 2015 James Beard Award nominee for Rising Star Chef of the Year—last year, she was a semifinalist. She studied and worked in kitchens in Paris, Versailles, Beijing, and Shanghai before opening Tao Yuan in Brunswick with her mother, Cecile Stadler. The bar had already been set high for younger chefs and owners by the likes of Andrew Taylor, Mike Wiley, and Arlin Smith at Hugo’s and Krista Kern Desjarlais of Bresca (closed in Portland in 2013). These days, Stadler says, Portland is “very much the city to be.”
We’re getting closer to the oldest parts of the Old Port when we arrive at Sur Lie, which opened last fall in a former flower shop on Free Street. That’s where we meet chef Emil Rivera, who’s scrolling through iPhone images of very tasty-looking plates of food, and then some shots from the garden he planted at his house. Some of these images will end up on Sur Lie’s Facebook page, which has 2,600 followers and counting. Originally from Puerto Rico, Rivera first interviewed for the chef’s job with Sur Lie’s owners, Antonio Alviar and Krista Cole, over a Skype call. (Rivera was then a chef in Washington, D.C., and looking to move to Maine.) For a second meeting, he prepared a dinner at his wife’s family’s home in Brunswick that included citrus-cured salmon belly, roasted brussels sprouts, and soy-bacon steamed buns. The match was made, and now he’s serving up cast-iron skillets and plates of tapas, including the roasted summer carrots, which are cozied up to a fried egg and house-made ricotta. The dish also comes with something powdery and black—the smoked-for-hours-and-then-pulverized needles from a spruce tree in Rivera’s yard. The kiss of smokiness is delicious. (I spot a picture of the plate later on the chef’s Instagram page.) “Portland is saturated with restaurants,” Cole says, “but there’s a brotherhood and sisterhood to it.” That gets literal at Sur Lie. Cole grew up in East Millinocket and her brother, Caleb Cole, is the assistant manager. Texas-born Alviar, 31, met Krista Cole, 30, while they both were waiting tables in Bar Harbor, then got his start in Portland dining rooms at Hugo’s and 555. Together as business partners (they’re also a romantic pair), the young couple began dreaming of a place of their own. “When we finally opened,” Cole says, “it felt like we were growing the family.”
At Sur Lie, Cole talked of the Old Port culture of friends at other restaurants sharing ideas and generously referring customers. That includes the instant food hit Central Provisions, which opened in February 2014 in a late-1700s building on Fore Street and was one of the James Beard nominees for Best New Restaurant for 2015. We’ve visited these digs before. Thick beams and brick walls frame a street-level dining room with seats close to the kitchen action, and downstairs there is a barroom that opens to Wharf Street. Cool and delicate plates of bluefin tuna crudo topped with edible flowers is what I remember. But this time it’s the incredibly creamy and crisp, ultra-green Spring Orecchiette with pickled ramps, turnips, and oyster mushrooms that I won’t forget. (Yes, it’s a mouthful, a mouthful of delicious.) After the lunch rush slows, I talk with chef and co-owner Chris Gould, and his phone flashes with a call. He grins and shows me the name. Mike Wiley is a friend and a former employer, one of the owners of Hugo’s, Eventide Oyster Co., and the Honey Paw just a few minutes’ walk east. Gould and his wife, Paige, both 31, just welcomed their first child, and friends have been checking in often. (Before she was five weeks old, baby Lucy had already joined them for dinners at Lolita Vinoteca and Asador, East Ender, and Eventide.) It’s been a busy couple of years for the Goulds. They now employ about 40 staff, recently added a whole menu section of foie gras (sourced from a Maine farm), and continue to get heaps of praise and restaurant accolades that include being featured in Bon Appétit magazine.
That evening we’re up near City Hall at an addition to the scene that’s so shiny new, the slate floors squeak when you walk. Opened in June, Union Restaurant is airy, mod-urban, and spotless. It’s located inside the Press Hotel, former newspaper offices that still feel like a hub for writers—revamped with street-level lounges, comfy seating, and urban views through big windows all around.
Chef Joshua Berry, 39, is originally from the Sebago Lake area and helms the center-stage kitchen in chef whites, assisted by a busy line crew. He says getting to cook here is a dream he first had while in culinary school in New Hampshire. At the time, he would visit various Commercial Street-area kitchens and ask to work for the day, just to learn, and did the same routine later while traveling in Italy. He’s a fan of Fore Street, Eventide Oyster Co., Street and Co., and many others around the Old Port, and his own menu features Maine and New England seafood, produce, and products prominently. I notice generous use of local and regional yogurt, cream, butter, and cheeses throughout the menu—I’m still thinking about the amuse bouche of greens, olives, and watermelon that was mellowed by a super-creamy Bonne Bouche from Vermont.
He’s in plaid, she’s in stripes. The bar is filling, and from the long tables to the softly glowing light bulbs on long wires at Portland Hunt and Alpine Club, a modern cool pervades. This early-30s pair is the popular cocktail club’s owners, Briana and Andrew Volk, who moved here from the other Portland (she hails from a small town in Oregon). I follow them into the wood-paneled Lodge Room at the far end of the Market Street space, and inside it’s decorated like a spare, midcentury den, including a vintage mountain landscape painting that Andrew notes was passed down from Briana’s Finnish family. Her lineage is the inspiration for the Scandinavian-leaning fare of the snack menu. There are community tables, and the scene here is definitely social. Andrew stirs the chunky ice cubes of his House Old Fashioned with his fingers, and Briana tells an amusing story about once seeing Wayne Newton sing “Danke Schoen” in a Las Vegas show. The Volks married on New Year’s Eve in 2012 at Portland (Maine) City Hall, and then went with friends for champagne
and oysters at Eventide to celebrate. They like to bring people together. Before opening Hunt and Alpine, they held invitation-only speakeasy nights in their apartment, where Andrew would make cocktails to pair with a guest chef’s menu. Chris Gould did the cooking one night prior to the opening of Central Provisions. Next up for these two is the hatching of a new restaurant—and while it’s still in development, they say it’ll be a collaboration with pals in the Old Port food scene, of course.
Creativity and collaboration are in full effect at the Honey Paw, where we visit at lunchtime the next day. Here, the charred octopus and watermelon in the poke salad is like cubed Hawaiian sunshine, and the Wok Fried Rice Noodles with mussels and squid is as hearty and comforting as any winter stew. A turntable spins complete album sides near a life-size painting of a standing bear with jaws wide. “The Boys” is what some of the other chefs around town call them, and the three owners in their early 30s, Arlin Smith, Andrew Taylor, and Mike Wiley, are known for getting the details right—here and at their ever-busy Hugo’s and Eventide Oyster Co. next door. Taylor and Wiley were nominees for Best Chef Northeast in the 2015 James Beard Awards (Smith is general manager), just before the Honey Paw’s spring opening. Other chefs and owners mention them time and again for being an inspiration and a resource for asking questing and sharing ideas. It’s easy to notice the good-natured ribbing between Wiley, Smith, and sous chef Thomas Pisha-Duffly, who says the team’s willingness to experiment is remarkable—to let the kitchen create new menu items as well as to choose the next LP to play. (That day’s sounds included the Rolling Stones and Hall and Oates.) These guys have connections all over town—including a lasting friendship with and appreciation of Rob Evans and Nancy Pugh, who previously owned Hugo’s and still run the wildly successful Duckfat just across Middle Street.
Our last stop is a little further afield, in the West End on Danforth Street. Tempo Dulu opened in June inside the Danforth Inn, and it’s gorgeous. I want to go home and return wearing something more fine—something silk and maybe with a Mandarin collar. I would also like another taste of that icy cold, jasmine-infused gin cocktail capped by a generous puff of foam. It sounds over-the-top and maybe it is—served in a teacup of eggshell-thin china and garnished with a pink rose petal—but it’s also delicious. Lovely comes to mind at every turn in the white-painted parlor rooms of this mansion-turned-inn that dates to 1823. Owners and partners Raymond Brunyanszki and Oscar Verest, both originally from the Netherlands, bought the place last year and composed the interior mostly with European and Asian art, lighting, and furniture they’d seen in their travels. They’re the same duo who spent much of their 40s transforming the Camden Harbour Inn and its restaurant, Natalie’s (now in the foodie-elegant Relais and Châteaux portfolio). Brunyanszki says they wanted to be in Portland as the city’s cuisine and culture continually “gets more layers and becomes more interesting.” Among others, he’s impressed by chef Masa Miyake’s energy, and the dedication to do something different by David Levi of Vinland. Tempo Dulu’s kitchen is led by French-trained Lawrence Klang, a former Natalie’s chef who traveled around Indonesia, Bali, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand to gather menu ideas. Meanwhile, bar manager Trevin Hutchins is a Portland native who concocts drinks at a freestyle, curved bar inspired by an Hermès counter in Paris. It’s another new addition to today’s Portland—and tonight’s dinner possibilities.
The party rolls on.