by Ron Bernthal
* Banner Image – Two Lights State Park, Cape Elizbeth, Portland (photo Joanna Tricorache)
During the past decade Portland, Maine, has been going through something of a culinary boom. Travel + Leisure magazine has placed it on its list of the top 10 U.S cities for foodies, stating that “Portland has come into its own exciting cosmopolitan moment, developing an impressive collection of restaurants, bars, and breweries while remaining a historic icon of the Northeast.”
Although lobster accounts for a big part of the city’s food culture, there is now so much more than that. The restaurant Central Provisions was a finalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best New Restaurant Award in 2015; Bon Appetite also named Central Provisions to its list of the hottest restaurants in America in 2014. Other great restaurants include Eventide Oyster Company, with a wide selection of fresh, cold oysters on the half shell, tuna tartare with crispy rice cake, nori, and egg yolk, and lobster rolls on an Asian bun; Baharat, which recently opened a venue in Portland’s East End, offers Middle Eastern favorites like kofta, falafel and shawarma; Drifters Wife chef Ben Jackson offers a constantly changing menu that is built to pair with wine, and includes local lamb with cranberry beans and artichokes as well as fresh swordfish with marinated eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers and basil.
Maine lobstermen brought more than 119 million pounds of the state’s signature seafood ashore last year, and with the Maine lobster catch valued at $484.5 million, the state is again the biggest lobster producer in the country. For the best lobster rolls in Portland I frequent all three outlets that go under the Portland-based corporate name Bite into Maine. The outlets include The Commissary, a small, 12-seat restaurant/take-out site located on U.S. Route 1 in nearby Scarborough, five miles west of downtown; Fort Williams Park is where the company operates its original and summer season food truck near Cape Elizabeth, five miles south; and Allagash Brewing Company (open May-December), on Industrial Drive out by Route 95, five miles north. All three venues have received top awards for their lobster rolls, including Food & Wine magazine’s “America’s Best Lobster Rolls” award. In addition to the lobster rolls, the chain’s thick New England clam chowder is the best I have tasted anywhere in New England.
Close to downtown Portland, in the city’s eclectic and beautiful Munjoy Hill Historic District, stop at the unpretentious Shop at Island Creek Oysters for expertly shucked oysters and a cold glass of lager from Portland-based Fore River Brewing Company. Sit indoors in the large, glass enclosed, ware-house style dining room, or outside on the family-friendly, picnic-tabled wood deck. Maine oysters are inexpensive and arrive on large trays of ice with lemon wedges, horseradish, cocktail sauce, and shallot mignonette. Caviar and Champaign are also available! The tinned fish, imported from Spain, includes silver sardines, octopus and squid, and served with slices of sourdough bread, spicy mustard, butter, chives, flaky salt, sauerkraut, pickles, onions, and saltines.
For accommodations and hotel dining go to the 101-room Portland Harbor Hotel, located in the Waterfront District within walking distance of downtown’s many boutique shops, art galleries, eateries, museums and Portland’s several wharfs where fishing, ferry and sightseeing boats make the harbor a vibrant and exciting place to visit year-round.
The hotel itself was built in 2002, and a new addition in 2008 added six rooms, a fitness center and retail space. In 2018 the hotel completed a new 17,000 square-foot annex, a five-story contemporary steel and glass structure, between the existing hotel and a historic brick building on the corner of Fore and Cross Streets.
After the Four Diamond property underwent extensive renovations in 2017, the interior became more distinctive, with its navy, khaki, and white nautical décor, including custom made Thomas Moser furniture, hardwood floors, and individual pantries on each floor offering Starbucks touch-screen machines with complimentary coffee for guests. The light-filled lobby has floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Fore Street. Original artwork from Maine artists hangs from the lobby walls, hallways and within guest rooms, and Geoff Herguth’s kinetic lobby sculpture in the grand stairway welcomes visitors with abstract elements of fish swimming with the flow of air. Angela Adams created handcrafted nautical flags that hang in frames above the hotel’s beds and spell out DREAM, Thomas Moser designed the chairs in the hotel’s pantry; and Jim Dugan’s monochromatic maritime photography graces public spaces throughout the hotel.
The property’s signature dining venue, BlueFin, offers a varied menu of locally caught seafood and seasonal dishes. When the restaurant announced in 2019 that Gil Plaster will take the helm as the new Executive Chef, and introduced a fresh culinary perspective with a more refined menu items, it was bound to attract more locals and visitors to its cozy dining room, and reservations are definitely recommended for dinners, especially during the busy summer season. In keeping with it’s uniquely Portland point of view, menu choices here strongly highlight Maine’s bounty of fresh seafood and local ingredients.
“I’m thrilled that my career has brought me back to Maine to lead the team here at Bluefin,” said Chef Plaster. “There’s nothing better than locally caught seafood, and we are featuring Maine seafood exclusively on the new BlueFin menu, as well as some fun, new items such as BlueFin bowls, pork belly lollipops and house-made seafood ravioli. Our goal is to create a more refined menu that will appeal to both locals and tourists alike.”
My dinner at BlueFin included lobster salad and a nice halibut and roasted potatoes. My companion had the seared tuna with bok choy and soba noodles, with crème bruleé for dessert. There is an extensive wine list offering an impressive selection of refined classic dishes such as pistachio crusted rack of lamb with herbed fingerlings, halibut with mushroom ragout and seared scallops with parmesan risotto. The BlueFin dining room boasts a fireplace for winter evenings, and overlooks an outdoor courtyard for dining alfresco in the summer months, when the courtyard transforms into a lush garden oasis with an arbor of grapevines, crab apple trees and a decorative pool.
Portland Harbor Hotel
468 Fore St, Portland