Feasting in Forest City: Where to Eat in Portland, Maine
Get your claws on amazing bites that go well beyond lobsters with this guide to the freshest flavors in Forest City.
Photo By: KNACK FACTORY
Photo By: Courtney Elizabeth Theberge
Photo By: Suzie St. Pierre
Forest City Flavors
Though a mention of Portland, Maine still brings to mind lobsters for many, the city offers so much more than seafood. Gone are the days when everyone flocked to the waterfront district of Old Port. Impressive pockets of eateries have sprouted up in places like Longfellow Square, the east side of Washington Avenue and the historic West End. This is your guide to making every single meal count, and in the process enjoying the most diverse array of foods that Forest City has to offer.
Seasoned kitchen veterans Bill Leavy and Karl Deuben, the men behind the dearly missed Small Axe food truck, wasted no time making this place their own, despite retaining the name from the previous owners. The old truck favorites, like their cold-smoked burger with Jack cheese and shishito peppers, came along for the ride, but the new menu is far more than that, spanning from Vadouvan-spiced chicken wings to handmade cavatelli pasta with pea shoot-walnut pesto and locally foraged mushrooms. It is worth making the climb to the second floor for a seat at the bar, where one can indulge in a variety of draft beer paired with exquisite soft pretzels or a plate of braised pork belly with kimchi, grits and roasted peanuts.
The alluring crisp and chew of fresh warm baguette, inundated with crushed tomatoes, garlic and olive oil, eaten in tandem with a plate of salty, melt-in-your-mouth Jamón Ibérico de Bellota and chased down with a sea of manzanilla sherry: These are the basic human needs that Chaval fulfills. It also provides the satisfaction of sliding your knife through panko-crusted Quail Cordon Bleu and revealing a molten stream of Gruyère and a copious amount of house-cured ham. It’s easy to see why Chaval has quickly acquired a hungry following in Portland’s quaint West End neighborhood.
The newly remodeled and revamped Palace Diner has developed a cultlike following for its sandwiches, including a gargantuan tuna melt and the Palais Royale double cheeseburger. Weekends practically demand a special trip for buttermilk-brined fried chicken sandwiches. The holy grail of all breakfast sandwiches may be the Diner's Deluxe, composed of a griddled, buttery and slightly crispy English muffin that's topped with bacon and a perfect square of baked egg omelet, then covered with melted cheddar, mayo and spicy pickled jalapeno. Itâ s perfect with a side of smashed, fried Palace potatoes and coffee from nearby Tandem Roasters.
Much like proper Italian cooking, the decor at Tipo is simple and clean, its wood and chrome accents meant to conjure up Roman Holiday-esque imagery and impart a light, airy feel to the atmosphere. Chef Chris Gould, who also owns Central Provisions, teams up with Chef Mike Smith to offer modern interpretations of classic Italian dishes, such as black pepper tagliatelle en brodo, meatballs and “gravy” spiked with harissa, and luscious rabbit saltimbocca. Their impressive brick oven cranks out an excellent Neapolitan-style pizza whose crust is crispy and charred crust yet fluffy and chewy. The New Haven-inspired white clam pizza with spicy soppressata is not to be missed.
Boda “Very Thai” Kitchen + Bar
The inviting warmth and aromas that permeate the dining room at Boda are the siren song that has been luring hungry patrons to Longfellow Square for years. It is heresy among the regulars not to begin with a cast-iron skillet of the insanely addictive fried quail eggs, and there is no better contrast to the spicy, crispy squid than the bracingly refreshing papaya salad. Regular specials like Mama’s Fried Chicken, served with sticky rice, and the decidedly moreish Khao Soi pay homage to the street vendors of Bangkok. The late-night menu and extensive drink selection make Boda the preferred haunt for the city’s restaurant workers in need of sustenance.
Go to: Boda
If you’ve ever heard that the quality of great sushi is predominantly based on the quality of the sushi rice, there is no better place to find proof of this theory than at Chef Masa Miyake’s flagship downtown restaurant. Sea urchin served still in its shell, custardy chawanmushi flecked with edible gold leaf, and peculiar broiled Japanese river fish are among the many offerings of the multicourse omakase menu, which places the entire meal at Miyake’s whim. The assortment of sake runs the gamut stylistically and includes a few hard-to-find gems. Finally, it would be unthinkable to conclude the meal with anything but the seared foie gras nigiri with warm plum wine sauce.
Go to: Miyake Restaurant
One of the most-appealing things about Central Provisions is that it houses two styles of dining experiences. There is a pronounced difference in ambience between the softly lit upper floor, at the heart of which is the entirely open kitchen, and the more casual tavern feel of the lower level. Regardless of where you decide to perch and down a few Corpse Revivers, you can order the full menu, even the traditional full caviar service. In contrast, the restaurant’s rendition of the chop salad, complete with iceberg lettuce, goes nicely with an order of bone marrow toast. It is certainly worth mentioning that Central Provisions offers weekend brunch, the only time you can get your paws around its Big Foie Burger.
Go to: Central Provisions
Eventide Oyster Co.
As the name implies, a platter of raw oysters is a prerequisite for any visit to Eventide — there are generally at least a dozen different types, both East Coast and West Coast, served with an array of condiments, such as Tabasco ice. What most of the tourists do not know, however, is that this place serves some of the most-impressive fried fish in the state, lightly pickling the hake to impart a touch of acidity to balance out the ethereal batter. Lastly, the most-critical thing to know is that you are going to want more than one of the Asian-style steamed bun lobster rolls, so order wisely.
Go to: Eventide Oyster Co.
The Honey Paw
Drawing on culinary influences from all over Asia, The Honey Paw is the breed of restaurant that is best to go to with a large group. There are two reasons for this: First, you can taste your way through the entire menu; and second, if you bring enough of your friends you can fill the entire communal table and not risk having to dine with strangers. Dishes like the Vietnamese masa crepe, served with fried mussels and maple sambal, or the over-the-top smoked lamb khao soi noodles, will never disappoint. The beer list features a who’s who of Maine’s small breweries, and each of their selections will pair nicely with a plate of the fried chicken wings with chile, lime and coconut.
Go to: The Honey Paw
Emilitsa thrives on modernizing Greek cuisine while staying true to the same delicious ingredients found throughout Greece. Dishes like seared dayboat scallops in tomato and ouzo cream sauce with Dodoni feta, as well as whole roasted daurade brushed with high-quality olive oil and lemon juice, embody the true flavors of the Mediterranean with uncanny finesse. The all-Greek wine list is thoughtfully put together and serves as a great intro to a wine culture that most people associate primarily with retsina. The appetizer of chicken livers sauteed with Greek oregano and white balsamic beurre blanc is truly a landmark dish and not to be missed.
Go to: Emilitsa
When Chef Lee Farrington closed her beloved East End restaurant, Figa, in 2014 she vowed she would be back. She kept that promise by opening LB Kitchen, an oasis of cuisine that both tastes good and is geared toward making you feel good. This is apparent from the menu’s invitation to “Drink. All. Day. Long.” from an assortment of freshly made juices, superfood smoothies and high-quality coffee. The food offerings include a variety of bowls, such as The Saturday, made with pesto farro, fried egg, housemade ricotta, bacon and coconut oil, while one of the most-popular dishes is The Avocado Addiction, which is essentially avocado toast on (natural, good-for-you) steroids.
After fighting traffic on your way up Forest Avenue toward one of Portland’s busiest intersections, the words “Food & Beverage,” brilliantly illuminated in neon, will act as the beacon to signal a much-needed pit stop at Woodford F&B. Settle into one of the cozy booths and enjoy French brasserie staples like mussels and fries, country pâté, and frisée salad with poached egg, which blend seamlessly with the pure Americana of the thick, smoky brisket cheeseburger and classic deviled eggs. The sleek, urban feel of the bar makes it the rendezvous of choice for those in need of a post-work, icy-cold martini alongside a plate of equally chilled, briny oysters.
After beginning its life as a food truck called CN Shawarma, Baharat has recently gone brick-and-mortar in Portland’s East End, where it has expanded its repertoire of Middle Eastern favorites like kofta, falafel and, obviously, shawarma. This expansion entails a full selection of pickles, like turmeric cauliflower and harissa carrot, as well as the more snack-driven meze, such as za’atar deviled eggs and crispy fried chickpeas. Those who can’t decide can opt for the All-In, a shareable platter that encompasses the entire menu. Cocktails follow suit, such as the Manhattan Bazaar, made with fig-and-date bourbon, Cardamaro and fig bitters.
While Tandem Coffee Roasters had already established its presence in Portland — offering a wide range of highly complex, single-origin coffees — the arrival of pastry chef Briana Holt took its recognition to an entirely new level. Situated in the West End, the bakery completely redefines the level of pleasure one can attain from biscuits with butter and jam, while producing equally superlative pies, cakes and scones, to name just a few selections. Most Portlanders have memorized the best times of day to procure their breakfast sandwich on a biscuit, which goes quite well with one of the lattes steamed with housemade almond milk.
Go to: Tandem Coffee Roasters
The Highroller Lobster Co.
Of all the places that you can find a lobster roll in Portland, what makes The Highroller Lobster Co. stand apart? First, one of the owners worked on the docks for years prior to opening this spot, so he has a connection to the freshest lobster, shucked daily. Next, the team commissioned Southside Bakery in South Portland to make custom brioche hot dog rolls, which are, of course, griddled in butter. The sweet, succulent lobster meat is piled high, undressed, with fresh lettuce, and then drizzled with your choice of flavors of their fresh mayo, with choices such as roasted red pepper and jalapeno. Now that, my friend, is a lobster roll.
In Japan, an izakaya is fundamentally a low-key pub, geared toward drinking, that just happens to have an assortment of tasty snacks to accompany said drinking. Minato serves all of the benchmarks, from okonomiyaki, a griddled cabbage pancake, to kara-age, the traditional style of fried chicken made popular in Japan. The small, unassuming bar is true to form, and while regulars can’t get enough of the sashimi plates or kimchi fried rice, most will tell you that the first time you visit, the preferred way to fly is the Omakase. This chef’s choice menu, the low price of which borders on the obscene, serves as the perfect Izakaya 101.
Tucked into Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood, Isa is an urban oasis of sorts, co-owned by husband-and-wife team Isaul Perez and Suzie St. Pierre. St. Pierre brings with her not only extensive front-of-house experience but also an impressive background in wine, while Perez impeccably combines training in French and Italian cookery with dishes inspired by his Mexican heritage. This means dishes like tagliatelle Bolognese, lobster tostada and their shaved-fennel salad with grapefruit, pecorino and mint.
Though the name seems somewhat vague at first, after your first meal here “Hot Suppa” starts to make a lot more sense. The menu is essentially the definition of comfort food, inspired by places as varied as Maine, Montreal and Louisiana, and it is a rare occasion to arrive for brunch — served seven days a week, at any hour — and not experience a wait for a table. Eggs Benedict with velvety BBQ pulled pork, sweet Belgian waffles, and country sides like fried green tomatoes and proper stone-ground grits anchor the brunch offerings. Dinner features equally bold choices, such as fried catfish and the nuclear inferno that is the Nashville Hot Chicken.
Empire Chinese Kitchen
There are few things more enjoyable than the opulent, focused essences of a great Cantonese stir-fry, resulting largely from what cooks from this region of China refer to as wok hay, which translates roughly to “the breath of the wok.” This is evident in Empire’s kale and noodles, which essentially takes four ingredients and transforms them into magic, as it also is in their chicken and salt cod fried rice. The dim sum menu is best enjoyed with a Dragon Milk, made with jasmine-infused gin, cream of coconut, pandan syrup and club soda. If you order the hot-and-sour soup, be sure to ask for a side of the housemade chili sauce.
The space that now houses Drifters Wife was formerly co-owners Orenda and Peter Hale’s wine shop, Maine & Loire, which was known for its slant toward natural wines. Now, after moving the shop just beyond the edge of the dining room, the Hales have teamed up with Chef Ben Jackson to offer a small, constantly changing menu that, as you may have guessed, is built to pair with wine. A sampling of dishes includes local lamb with cranberry beans and artichokes as well as fresh swordfish with marinated eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers and basil. It did not take this restaurant long to attain national recognition, and with good reason.
The Back Bay Grill
Chef-Owner Larry Matthews is revered among diners and colleagues alike, as there are few restaurants as iconic in Portland as The Back Bay Grill. Although the menu changes with the seasons, there are certain elements, like seared Hudson Valley foie gras, that always remain (albeit with different accompaniments), lest their disappearance start a riot among the loyal patrons. Technique-driven dishes like the sausage-stuffed chicken leg and the grilled rack of lamb conjure up a lost era of supper club dining that befits the supple leather banquettes, and the level of service and hospitality here is second to none throughout the city.
Cong Tu Bot
The minimalist space, highlighted by the muted pastels that are quite common in the many noodle shops of Saigon, provides a perfect backdrop for updated Vietnamese classics at Cong Tu Bot. Bun cha, chilled vermicelli noodles, are augmented with umami-rich sausage patties laced with bacon, burnt caramel and mushroom powder, plus a hint of chicken schmaltz to make it extra rich, while the pho ga (chicken pho) is built in a style more typical of ramen, using a very focused, intense chicken broth and — you guessed it — more schmaltz. A wide variety of vegan-friendly options do not fall short on decadence or intensity of flavor, like the ca ri chay, rice noodles in an aromatic yellow curry with roasted vegetables and miso-caramel mushrooms.
The Purple House
Though it may seem off the beaten path, nestled out in the woods of North Yarmouth, the consistent line spilling out of the door at Chef Krista Desjarlais’ small wood-oven bakery should signal that it’s worth the drive. Her Montreal-style wood-fired bagels go fast, but those who wait patiently for another batch to come out of the fire are rewarded. In the meantime, nibble on one of the day’s superlative pastries, such as chocolate financier cakes and blackberry-peach galettes. As the lunch hour approaches, the kitchen turns out formidable slabs of Roman-style pizza al taglio with numerous toppings, as well as housemade ice cream.
The key to great gelato is truly capturing the essence of the main ingredient and, in turn, making it so decadent as to cause your eyes to roll back in your head after every bite. With so few ingredients involved, it goes without saying that they have to be of very high quality. Gorgeous Gelato sources the best milk from local farms while procuring other ingredients from the places where they thrive. This means pistachios imported from Sicily and hazelnuts from Piedmont, for example. In the tradition of great Italian gelaterias, there is a full selection of aperitifs, and espresso to pull it together afterward.
Named after a small mining town in southwest Texas, which just so happens to be the home of America’s foremost chili cook-off, Terlingua focuses on small-batch BBQ and Tex-Mex fare. The ribs, pork shoulder, brisket and chicken are rubbed down with the house spice mix and slow-smoked until insanely tender — and have become so popular that the locals know to arrive in the early evening to make sure they get their fix before it’s all gone. Others come for the house chili, served in both a green and a red variety, as well as tamales, tacos and flaky empanadas filled with mushrooms, greens and fresh local cheese.