Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Rabelais Bookstore in Portland, Maine

In an ideal world, or at least mine, there would be more bookstores like Rabelais: independent, specialized and focused with owners that care. Just turning 4 years old, owners Don and Samantha Hoyt Lindgren, offer a combination of new, used and antiquarian (rare) cooking, gardening and wine books. It is just one more reason (besides the great food) to head to Portland, Maine.
And the owners know their books and customers. They pointed me to a lovely gem that is almost impossible to find. In fact, it is representative of the Lindgrens' expertise and the pleasure of a great bookstore that they knew I would love it. It is titled, "A Vegetable Collection" and is a beautiful little hardback. Inside are vegetable recipes designed for children to love. The best part? Not a single recipe is "dumbed down." Instead, you can make "Brussels Sprouts with Walnuts" or "Buttery Grated Kholrabi!" The book is ordered seasonally to take advantage of the best produce. The second part of the book are vegetable poems designed to make children giggle. Throughout are lovely watercolors.

Although the square footage is relatively small (especially compared to nameless chain stores) it would be easy to spend hours peering through the delicate rare copies of out-of-print books, and hard to find magazines.
If, for some reason, you can't find a good enough reason to go to Portland, Rabelais still has a great website for virtual cookbook looking. But I will head back to the store.

Rabelais, 86 Middle Street, Portland, Maine, 207-774-1044

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A First Visit to Hugo's and Why I Will Be Back

It is impossible to look at lists of the best of Portland, without seeing "Hugo's." The chef, Rob Evans, won best chef in the Northeast from the James Beard award last year. One customer who sat next to me at the bar said, "This is the one place in town where you can always trust that each bite will be crafted with attention to detail." After one meal there, I understood what she was saying.
There are two ways to enjoy the food at Hugo's. You can go and sit for table service. Or, as I did sit at the bar. The benefit of the bar? A chance to order the "Butcher Block" as well as other special plates that you can't have at the tables. And that dish alone will bring me back to Hugo's. What arrived was a platter of charcuterie.
Each one was crafted with artisanry. It is hard to choose between my favorites. The coppa (cured pork shoulder) was tender, subtle and gentle, almost nutty. The cured guinea fowl mortadella melted in my mouth, leaving behind the scent of anise. The lomo (pork loin) was the first cut from a pig that the Chef had butchered and cure in February. It was fatty and salty and almost sensual as it dissolved in my mouth. The genoa salami popped with the fresh peppercorns. The goat rillettes were like meaty soft minced meat. My least favorite of the dish? In a heightened glass was a dish of duck rillettes. The rillettes themselves were delicious. But, on the top was aerated mustard so light it tingled, reminiscent of mustard soda! In fact, it was almost overkill to the tender duck beneath. The plate was accompanied by lovely pickled ramps, pepperdews and onions that provided a sweet, vinegary balance to the salt of the other dishes.

I did eat more than that, of course. My first snack was titled, "Cracklin' Jack". What arrived was as playful as it comes: a plastic bag with caramelized pork cracklings and peanuts. Instead of a tattoo there was a rolled up scroll which included the recipe. I can't say I regularly have "fresh pig ears" lying around but is good to know that if I ever want to whip these up, I can.
My other dish, pictured at the top of this post was just as fabulous. It consisted of the collar of hiramasa. In other words the tender meat of yellowtale fish. The outside was caramelized and charred creating a subtle bitterness that contrasted with the soy. The sweet fish sat on bed of ginger scallion sauce. On top, "pork sung." It looked a bit like pork dental floss, but tasted like pork cotton candy but much better than it sounded. Adding one more element was a red cabbage kimchi. Each taste was unique, but together it was pretty perfect.

What also struck me was that all this food, plus a delicious glass of a Rose, cost about $35.00, making it almost a bargain for the caliber of food that was served.

So will I be back? As soon as I can, and hopefully for the "blind tasting," a 6 course dish in which the menu isn't revealed...until the end of the evening!

Hugo's, 88 Middle Street, Portland, Maine, 207-774-8538

Sunday, June 20, 2010

My Favorite Iced Coffee: Bard Coffee, Portland

I went to Bard Coffee on the recommendation from a number of friends. And then I went back again because the iced coffee was so ridiculously good. Or maybe it wasn't ridiculous considering that they did a "pour" (a fresh brew), using excellent coffee and brewing it double strength so it wasn't diluted by the ice. All of their coffees are organic or Fair Trade. The staff is proud of knowing the coffee well. I can just say that it was so very, very good.
Bard Coffee, 165 Middle Street, Portland, 207-899-4788

Friday, June 18, 2010

LeRoux Kitchen as Treasure Chest

There are kitchen stores, and then there is LeRoux in Portland, Maine. They have so many items, that you can be guaranteed to find many items that you know you need, and others that you didn't realize you couldn't live without. In my case, this meant finally getting a kitchen scale and a splatter guard (think flattened strainer that prevents grease from covering your kitchen.) I also bought cute little forks that look like dump trucks, as well as very cool Popsicle molds that look like rocket ships. They have a large assortment of pots and pans, appliances and every possible kitchen gadgets. They also have speciality food items such as baking supplies with brilliant sugars and oils. You can also try many different olive oils and balsamic vinegars to make sure you purchase the perfect one for dipping or cooking. I can guarantee this, though. You won't leave without getting something!

LeRoux Kitchen, 161 Commercial Street, Portland, 207-553-7665

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Two More Portland Spots: Duckfat and Micucci

It is impossible to google Portland, Maine without coming across some suggestion to check out Duckfat. Located diagonally across the street from Hugo's and Rabelais, it is also owned by Rob and Nancy Evans of Hugo's. I tried two items.
The beignets were little, tender balls of fried dough. For my topping I chose "Spicy Chocolate Sauce." It was good, but a topping on the side would have made it easier to appreciate. The best element of the beignet? That they are made with orange zest.
The fries were definitely a perfect indulgence. Frying them in duck fat keeps them crisp and rich. In fact my favorite were the darkest morsels, crisped in the fat itself. Again, you can choose from a variety of sauces. Though truffle ketchup is their most popular, my favorite was the spicy Thai Chili mayo. Their garlic aioli, recommended by my waitress, was also a great salt on salt taste. I was too full to try their "poutine" or fries coated in gravy and cheese, or sandwiches.
Ironically, while I ate fries and beignets, I got a few more recommendations from some local folks. Lucky for me, they recommended the "slabs" at Micucci.

Located a few steps away from Duckfat (and Two Fats Cat Bakery), it is a combination Italian grocery store, deli and bakery.

The "slabs" are huge chunks of Sicilian style pizza. It was pretty fantastic: light on the cheese, tangy tomato sauce and a perfect sprinkling of salt that balance the sweet, doughy crust. It costs $4.95, but is definitely a meal in itself. And it freezes well, too.

Duckfat, 43 Middle Street, Portland, 207-774-8080

Micucci, 45 India Street, Portland, 207-775-1854

Monday, June 14, 2010

A First Visit to the Portland Farmer's Market

On Saturday mornings from May to November the Portland Farmer's Market takes place at Deering Park in the center of Portland, Maine.
It is a beautiful setting for people to meander among plants, organic meats, fresh cheeses, vegetables and crafts.
This Memorial Day weekend offered more herbs to plant than veggies to purchase, but there was still a lovely assortment.
I saw radishes in all shades, fresh sprouts, a variety of greens and fresh turnips.
Farmers assured me that the height of the produce is in late summer and early fall. I promise to return then if this is just a hint of what they have to offer. But for now there was still fresh yogurt, pork, chicken and local honey.
Portland Farmer's Market: Saturdays at Deering Park, 7-12 and Wednesdays at Monument Square from 7 to 2.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Eating My Way Through The Great Bakeries of Portland, Maine

Sourdough bagels. Buttery croissants with salty prosciutto and nutty Gruyere, topped with sesame seeds. Tender cinnamon buns with fresh, toasted pecans. Moist orange, olive oil and almond cake. All of these are perfect examples of the fabulous treats available at the great bakeries of Portland, Maine.
I started at the Scratch Baking Company in South Portland. It has limited seating, but Scratch makes up for that with a range of great treats. Customers made a bee line for the bagels.
Doughy, tangy from a long ferment, and completely covered with toppings, I quickly understood the passion for these bagels. The salt bagels were the best I have had with just the right amount of salt to bagel itself. Scratch also offers bread, and so many different baked goods.
I tried a perfectly delicious strawberry-rhubarb cookie, as well as the olive oil cake.

Just a few blocks away, 158 Pickett Street focuses on two things: bagels and bagel sandwiches. On this trip, despite many recommendations of customers, I skipped the sandwich and headed for the bagels.
They were thinner than those of Scratch, but more nuanced, too. Their everything bagel is better than any I have had, with so many sunflower, sesame and fennel seeds that you could barely see the bagel! And while this place was more minimalistic, they had seating inside and out.

On the edge of downtown, Portland, Two Fat Cats has many appealing elements. You walk directly into the kitchen and can watch bakers decorating cakes.
Next time I will be trying out their blueberry-rhubarb pie (pictured at the top of this post) and those fabulous looking cupcakes. But on this trip, I focused on their cinnamon buns.
And they were hands down the best I have had. Just a perfect ratio of gloppy, sweet, cream cheesy frosting to dough. The nuts are done with a heavy hand-and I mean this in the most positive sense.
Set on Commerical Street in the Old Port, The Standard Baking Company has the rich buttery smell of the best Parisian bakeries. Except that this place offers views of the Atlantic. I was lucky enough to procure a brown butter and dark chocolate financier. Still warm, the chunks of chocolate were worth a trip up to Portland. But, to my surprise, my favorite sweet was the hazelnut pastry. It was filled with chopped hazelnuts, (rather than a hazelnut spread) a style that is unfortunately atypical at bakeries.(check out the second picture at the top of this post to see close ups!)
But my favorite savory item? The croissant filled with prosciutto imported from Italy. The sesame seeds alone were a perfect twist. I also bought a loaf of their Organic 5 Grain Maine bread. This bread makes an nutty grilled cheese that much better. Their levain is the result of a long ferment and their miche combines rye and wheat flour.

Scratch Baking Co., 416 Preble St. South Portland, (207) 799-0668

158 Pickett St Café,158 Pickett, Portland, 207-799-8998

Two Fat Cats Bakery, 47 India Street, Portland, 207-347-5144

Standard Baking Company, 75 Commercial Street, Portland, 207-773-2112

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why I Would Move to Portland, Maine If I Could

As an outsider, I am not quite sure what Portland, Maine doesn't have. The air is crisp and clean. The architecture combines playfulness and history. There is greenspace galore, as well as ocean beaches, a harbor and islands. The arts scene offers so much for visitors. The Portland Museum of Art is a lovely space to look at a range of art. There are independent coffee shops, a stellar kitchen store and, yes, a cookbook store. And then there is the food. Oh, the food. (Pictured here are Whoopie Pies from Two Fat Cats).
When I decided to head up to Portland for 24 hours, I asked friends, colleagues, Twitter followers and local bloggers where to eat. I also checked out recent articles in Yankee Magazine, Bon Appetit and the New York Times. My vision of eating my way through Portland in one day disintegrated as my list of places to eat got longer and longer.
On top of that, what quickly became clear is that the phrase "local food" isn't just a catch word. But it is a commitment that is important to chefs, grocery stores, people, etc. In fact, as Don and Samantha Hoyt Lindgren, co-owners of the amazing Rabelais bookstore pointed out, the Portland Farmer's Market is the oldest in the country and the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association is the oldest of its type, as well.
Ultimately, I let my obsession go and settled into a vision of having this trip be the first of many. So, just like my series on cooking through cookbooks and the summer garden, I have decided to write this up as a series of post, if only to show off what makes this city so least to day trippers!