Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Long Time Coming: Bresca, Portland, Maine

Just over a year ago I read about Bresca in Portland, Maine. The Chef Krista Kern Desjarlais, had trained at the Gotham Bar in New York and Guy Savoy in Paris. Smitten by the idea of a woman opening her own restaurant, along with the consistent press that raved about the quality of her food, I eagerly anticipated trying it out.

So, this November, I finally decided to treat myself for my birthday and to head, yes, solo, to Bresca to find out what the exclaim was about. And, in fact, each dish left me with a greater yearning to return.
The restaurant itself is defined by a gentleness: the lighting, the service, the music. There are no tablecloths and few decorations. Instead, the dusty rose walls are lined with photos of Italy and other than rose petals and votives, the atmosphere is kept simple. The restaurant itself seats about 18 people and, upon reflection, felt more like dining at a friend's house. There are two staff people and one Chef, so the pace is slower than at most, giving a chance to enjoy the dish and the peace.
Too much on the menu sounded too good, so I asked the Chef to just send out her favorites. And, in fact, I heard the next table insist that my first dish, "Chorizo and Gorgonzola Stuffed Dates" was their favorite bite in all of Portland! The sweet dates oozed with molten cheese and the smokey/spicy smell of the diced chorizo wafted over the table. They were delicious, though a bit rich for my taste. But watching other couples fight for the third date made me suspect I am in the minority.
My second dish was wonderful. The Chef shaved raw (!) brussels sprouts on a mandoline and tossed them with honey (a theme on the menu, and one of her favorite ingredients), olive oil and toasted walnuts. Shards of freshly shaven Parmesan topped the greens. I am one of the few that love brussels sprouts. Roasted with a bit of salt, they are nutty and delectable. But I have never had them raw. This dish was a perfect example of how the simplest dishes, done with stellar ingredients can be so good. The fruitiness of the honey and olive oil heightened the freshness of the raw sprouts. The walnuts added a layer of complexity. And, ironically, though I love fresh Parmesan, I am not convinced the dish needed it. This dish was so delicious, in fact, that I am hoping to replicate it for our Thanksgiving meal sans cheese.
However, it was my third dish that made me swoon. Braised Tuscan Black Kale was served with a 6 minute egg, a swirl of crispy pancetta and charred multi-grain bread. The secret, though? The Kombu butter that covered the plate. This seaweed, that I have only previously had in Japanese Dashi (broth), had been poached in the butter. The result, a heavenly taste and smell that was so comforting and perfect that I longed to eat it again for breakfast. If you have never understood the concept of Umami (the "fifth taste"), go for this dish.

Yet, I will return for the desserts. The Chef was originally a pastry chef and her sweets captivated me. That night she offered four (the next table was smart enough to try them all!) The Chef sent out a small version of her panna cotta for me to try. This dish is typically so cliched. And, quite honestly, I have never understood the appeal of it. Yet, for the first time, I got it. While it is typically served solo, here the Chef placed the buttermilk panna cotta in a passion fruit sauce. It was served with diced pineapple, mango, papaya and berries. And on the side, a small scoop of white pepper-orange flower gelato. This is one of the best desserts I have had. Instead of a heavy dish, it was the epitome of freshness. The interplay of the creamy panna cotta, the bright flower of the gelato and the acidity of the fruit was the perfect end to the meal.
But the Chef went one further, serving me her "Milk Chocolate Soup." Sitting in the molten liquid was a homemade salted caramel gelato. And, next to that, a fresh pastry filled with sliced bananas and marscapone. The gelato, barely sweet and topped with sea salt was wonderful. The pastry was crispy and light. My only change on this dish-I would swap out the milk chocolate for dark to better appreciate the chocolate without the sweetness.

The meal at Bresca was a lovely one. I know I will go back. I know the menu will shift. And I look forward to the chance to try it again. Before next year.

Bresca, 111 Middle Street, Portland, Maine

1 comment:

  1. Bret and I are going up to Portland next month for my birthday. We've done a lot of the great places like Hugo's, Duckfat, the Salt Exchange, J's Oysters, Sebago Brewing Co. and Nosh. We've made reservations for Fore Street but are thinking about Bresca for the other night. Your review is putting Bresca at the top of the list!