I don't do cooked carrots. Or so I thought. They are too mushy, too sweet, too one-dimensional. But at Fore Street in Portland, Maine I gobbled them up like chocolate chips. We spotted them on the adjacent table, a mini-abstract expressionist piece in a little Staub iron dish. I wanted to admire them as much as eat them. The miniature carrots, grown locally, were cooked perfectly with a firm bite beneath the soft exterior. The orange carrots were topped with a magenta beat and vinegar puree that added a whole other level to the vegetable and the beauty to the dish.
Beyond the carrots, I was surprised overall by how much my mother and I loved Fore Street. Ironically, all the accolades and TV spots had created, I suspected, unrealistic expectations on my part. But I wanted to give my mother, newly retired from over 30 years of teaching, a treat. And I knew Fore Street, with its wood grilled specialities would be a treat. And it was; at the end of the meal she declared it one of the best she had ever had! And, unlike me, she isn't one for extolling food.
The atmosphere is boisterous, rustic, homey. Our waitress was lovely and helpful without being overly so. The kitchen, in the center of the restaurant gives both an open view of the wood burning oven and stove, as well as a visual into the pace of the restaurant. On the edge, a mini produce market allowed staff to take what they needed to create meals. The daily menu, too, is created with the most local and seasonal of goods.We began, as we hoped, with bread from the adjacent Standard Baking Company. The pain francese was chewy and flavorful, the perfect platform for slathering sweet, creamy butter from Vermont Butter and Cheese.
My mother began with the mixed organic Maine salad greens .Topped with brilliant orange flowers, they were as fresh as could be and were delicious with the aged cider vinaigrette.
I took my typical path, opting for two appetizers instead of a main dish. My first dish, wood oven roasted sardines were large enough for a meal themselves. The trio arrived, meaty and succulent, topped with a creamy Hollandaise-like sauce. I enjoyed nibbling the juicy meat and crisp skin. The fresh sardines bore more resemblance to fresh bluefish than the canned specimen beloved by my grandmother. My favorite part of the dish, however, was the Madeira braised bacon and kale that leaned against the fish. I adore kale and saute it frequently in olive oil. But in this oven-roasted dish, the kale charred becoming crispy and smoky.
For my mother's main, she took a tip from Jasper White who proclaimed June the season of wild Pacific salmon. Hers arrived sitting alongside "wild rice with sweet peppers, almonds and leeks." One bite and we were both clamouring for more. The carefully julienned leeks had melted gracefully into the tiny diced peppers. The crunchy almonds and earthy rice added another dimension. My mother quickly identified both finely chopped capers and olives as adding salinity to the dish. The salmon, cooked in the wood oven, was so moist. The fennel herb sauce, draped over bites of fish made the dish even more unforgettable.
I chose an indulgent treat as my second dish: wood grilled Hudson Valley fois gras. It was the perfect choice and the perfect size-just enough buttery lush goodness to spread on bread. The deep purple plum basil sauce was tart enough to pucker and fresh enough to drizzle over and again on the fois gras.
We struggled to choose among the wonderful sounding desserts, but again chose something we spotted on another table. My mother's dish was listed as a dark chocolate torte. What arrived was the most fabulous of lush and creamy chocolate mousse. Made with El Rey chocolate, the fruity and bittersweet cream sat on top of a small puddle of dark chocolate sauce. Alongside, crumbled graham crackers. Then, the best contrast: mint ice cream made with the freshest of herbs.I was underwhelmed initially by my chocolate crepes. The crepes themselves were cold and devoid of flavor. However, the dish took off with the bitter almond cream that was sandwiched between the crepes. What I reached for most, though, was their homemade apricot marmalade, sour and flavorful. I avoided the chocolate lavender honey ice cream which tasted of too many flavors gone astray. But as we dipped our spoons again and again into my mother's chocolate torte none of it seemed to matter.
We left Fore Street content and eager to return.
Fore Street, 299 Fore Street, Portland Maine