No, I'm not talking about Silver Spring. I guess on the scale of 1-5, SS would get about a 3 (good) in my book. Now that's not metro DC, just SS. If I rated the metro area, I think it deserves a 3.75 or 4 (great). A couple weekends ago, I visited another 4 star food town, Portland, ME.
But the major difference between here and there is size. Portland's population is just over 60,000 and even metro Portland is only slightly more than 500,000. The city here is more than that, getting close to 600,000. However, Portland does rank high in the country for restaurants/bars per capita and just a few months ago, Bon Apetit ranked Portland as the top foodie small town in America.
And because of its compactness, if you live in Portland you don't need to drive 30 minutes or longer to reach any one specific place. We know living here you need about a 45 minute drive to dine at Volt, or 30-odd minutes to eat in downtown DC and even longer if you're hankering for some top-notch Korean food. So for me, Portland is very appealing because of its small size and great dining options. Moreover, we still felt it worth the trip in mid-February assuming we'd have to confront mounds of snow and freezing temperatures. But guess what, we left that behind here! Portland is having an unseasonably warm winter. Walking around town was very comfortable. And while all the tourist destinations weren't open, there was still enough going on to keep us busy - and I mean busy eating and drinking.
I won't list all the gluttony in which we were involved, but I will mention some of the highlights. First off, Paciarino. This is a small restaurant located on Fore Street, one of the main drags of town. While it's been open just over a year, they really seem to know what they're doing. We were startled a bit after we walked in and the server greeted us, quickly showing us the daily specials and then asking that we order before being seated. OK, wasn't expecting that but we'll roll with it. All the pasta was homemade and there were about 6 choices. In addition, the meat used at Paciarino, like many restaurants in Portland, was sourced from local farms. My kinda place. We ended up with 2 ravioli dishes - mine with a ricotta and bolognese and my wife's with goat cheese and a simple pomodoro. We also split a small salad (big enough for two) and a bottle of red. Needless to say after the wine it wasn't the most productive afternoon, but talk about a great start. The pasta was outstanding. In addition, the prices are reasonable and the serving sizes were much bigger than expected.
Before heading to dinner later in the evening in a neighborhood called Munjoy Hill, we took a short walk from the hotel since we were both in the mood for some bivalves. The short walk led us to a restaurant where we've snacked on oysters previously - Street & Co - located on a charming cobblestone alleyway. The restaurant has a major focus on seafood so we expected some oysters to be available even though we technically were past oyster season on the east coast. But I thought with aquaculture, maybe the month didn't matter as much as it once did. I'm not sure if I was right or not, but there were 3 types of oysters being offered, 2 varieties from Maine and one from Massachusetts. We started with some of all three and the winner - hands down - was the Island Creek oyster from Duxbury, MA. They were not the best we ever had, but they were right up there. They had good size, a nice meaty texture and a good level of brininess. You definitely had a taste of the sea. We then got serious and ordered up a dozen more - had to have something to accompany our 2nd bottle of vino for the day. And who can fill up on oysters anyway, right?
OK, now on to our 8:30 reservations in Munjoy Hill at Bar Lola. The restaurant does a lot of small plates, so we knew going in if the oysters did fill us up, we could go light on the small plates. And while the missus was not as thirsty as I was for round 2 of dinner, we both still had decent appetites. We enjoyed our meal pretty thoroughly, but there definitely were some higher points than others. My highest point was the Cavendish Farm pan-roasted quail from Vermont. It was a knee-buckler. In my book quail is the #1 bird - to eat that is. It came with wilted greens and a pine-nut puree; it was dreamy! But for some reason we don't have a pic of that. We do however have a pic of the piece of heritage pork belly I devoured. As you can see it was a nice, big chunk of belly. And while it was good, it could not compare to the quail. I think the size of the piece led it to be overcooked (for me) in the middle. I would have liked it a bit more rare. But hey, I didn't complain and cleaned my plate. For my better half her top dishes were the fennel and pear salad, gnocchi (not as good as mine though) and the piece de resistance was the sticky toffee pudding. This was by far the best one we've had on this side of the Atlantic. It is an English specialty of a sponge cake topped with a toffee sauce. This might not sound to die for, but done right, it is. And hats off to Bar Lola for their version. We would have ordered a second had any been left. But we realized, enough was enough.
I've gone on kinda long and I just finished the first day - and we didn't arrive till noon. All right, brevity. Day two - Valentine's Day - we actually only consumed two meals, brunch and dinner. But brunch was a feast. It was like eating 2 meals - get it? A small attempt at humor. Anyway, we had 11:00 AM reservations at Vignola. This is maybe a 2-minute walk from the hotel - very convenient. Of course we started with a couple bloody mary's - virgin ones though - need a little recovery. One of the mary's was your standard fare, but mine had the addition of clam juice with the rim lined with an Old Bay-type salt, and the garnishes included a carrot, celery and 3 Maine shrimp. Almost like a meal.
For the eating portion of the brunch, we started with some simple polenta cakes - again, nothing elaborate, but oh, so good. Then the missus could not resist the dish that included a couple lobster claws - and I'm glad she didn't. The lobster was joined by a couple poached easy eggs drizzled with hollandaise, along with some sauteed kale and mushrooms. I tell you right now, Maine lobster tastes better to me in Maine. Once it leaves the state it loses something. My brunch was not as fancy - over easy eggs and crusty bread covered with a turkey sausage gravy. Quite filling and quite delicious. Definitely a good start to the day.
Needing to walk off some of the brunch, we headed for a local bookstore which only sells books on food/spirit-related topics (only in Portland). The place is called Rabelais, as in the quote, "When I drink, I think; and when I think, I drink." It's a wonderful little independent bookstore with both new and used books on a wide array of subject matter - again all connected to food. We browsed for quite a while, communed a bit with the store pooch and I ended up purchasing a couple books on the business of food. I still need more convincing that it's a crazy idea to sink money into opening a restaurant/market. Hey, maybe I'll be the SS Mario Batali? OK, you can unroll your eyes now.
For our Valentine's day dinner, we hit one of the more well-known places in Portland -- Fore Street. This restaurant is very much a farm to table kind of place. Unfortunately because the lights were dimmed so much - they said it was for something called atmosphere - we didn't take any snapshots of our meal. So I won't go into too much detail, but I will say I we had a great meal. However, having dined at Fore Street in the past, I had set the bar very high and do have to say I don't think they reach the level I was expecting. Similar to Bar Lola, there were some high points - again, the quail - to be specific, a wood-grilled Harlequin quail, and the wood oven roasted mussels. Both were stupendous starters. And surprisingly, my wife actually liked my lamb entree more than her fish entree. I ordered Maine lamb cooked two separate ways - one was a lamb shoulder which had the consistency of pulled pork, and the other was more of a chop. While the dish was tasty, it again did not meet my expectations. This is possibly because I'm so enamored with a well-cooked rack of lamb that other preparations can only fall short. But even though I have these criticisms, I would still say the experience was wonderful when combining the excellent service, atmosphere and food. You'll pay for these things when dining at Fore Street, but even though I have had better meals, it still felt worth it. If you're interested in finding out more on the restaurant, check out this clip.
We did do one more day in Portland after Valentine's and continued to gorge ourselves, but besides mentioning my lobster omelet and lobster pizza, I'll skip the rest of the details. It was a fab trip and can't wait to go back in August for our annual summer lobsterfest. Hold on, maybe I don't have to wait till August. I see Big Red's got one going on right now. OK, out of my way.