Monday, June 25, 2012

What Portland Needs, Part 1

There's a fatal flaw in the premise of this blog, and that is: With my job requiring frequent travel out of the Portland area, I am now more likely some weeks to be dining out in another state than in Maine, or even than I am to cook in my own kitchen. Last week was one such week, which took me to Washington DC. In the interests of bringing it all back home, I will be starting a new series called What Portland Needs, describing good meals had elsewhere in order to evaluate whether they highlight missing pieces in our thriving, diverse restaurant scene.

District Kitchen: I dined at the bar in this remarkable neighborhood spot near the hotel I was staying. The basic idea: local farm-fresh ingredients, down-home Southern classics rendered with a culinary-school turn, and a well-stocked bar. Sound familiar? It should. It's what would happen if you brought together the kitchen chops of Duckfat, the regionalisms of Hot Suppa and the boozy splendors of Local 188. I started my meal with some deviled country ham, served with toast points, and a sampler of three types of pickled vegetables (rhubarb, asparagus and sugar snap peas). My starting cocktail was a house special called "Kindness and Cruelty," composed of gin, dry vermouth, Benedictine and absinthe, garnished with a generous twist of orange. Since it was so obscenely hot, I limited myself to a bibb lettuce salad for my second course, but what a salad--generously dressed with duck bacon, maple pecans and a "charred scallion - chevre dressing". I'm not entirely sure what that dressing description even means, but it was tasty, and went well with the DC Brau Belgian-style ale.

So does Portland need this?

Clearly not. The fact that I was able to readily define it with reference to the strengths of a few of our most popular local places shows that. But if some alumni of those operations were to come together with a similar concept, I would eat there gladly.

Meskerem: A good conversation with a colleague led naturally to the notion of a shared dinner, and what better food is there to share than Ethiopian? The nearest Ethiopian restaurant to where we were conferencing was Meskerem, an old favorite of mine: It was the first Ethiopian restaurant I ever went to, 21 years ago with my mother while I was competing in a national math competition at the same hotel I was staying in on this trip.

Unfortunately, the Meskerem of today is not the Meskerem I went to then, nor is it the Meskerem Hot Librarian and I went to regularly 12 years ago when we lived in Mount Pleasant, the neighborhood just north of Adams-Morgan. Back then, there were four different Ethiopian restaurants on the same block. Meskerem was the most popular, but the competition kept them on their toes. If I were in the mood for kitfo, for example, I would suggest one of the places on the same block that did it better.

When my mother and I went 21 years ago, we ordered the Meskerem Messob (sampler platter) for two, and got enough small portions of a wide enough range of meat and vegetable dishes to form a comprehensive sense of the cuisine, our likes and dislikes. This time, my colleague and I ordered the Meskerem Messob, and got large portions of four meat dishes and two lentil dishes. The spicing on all was toned down. I suspect, now that they no longer have nearby competition, that the best Ethiopian and Eritrean food to be found in DC is no longer in Adams-Morgan, but in other parts of the city or even decamped to the suburbs.

So does Portland need this? No, we have Asmara.

Jaleo: I saved the best for last. Amazingly, I never went here when I lived in DC, due probably to HL's ambivalent attitude toward Spanish food. Since then, Chef/Owner José Andrés has risen to celebrity chef status, thanks in part to his friend Anthony Bourdain getting airtime for his media-friendly ADHD symptoms. Yet the food has not suffered for it. On this visit, I sampled:

  • A watermelon-and-tomato gazpacho poured over sweet cherries and goat cheese
  • A mixed green salad tossed with pine nuts, capers and an anchovy vinaigrette and topped with toast points, shredded idiazábal and anchovy fillets
  • Arroz negro (rice cooked with squid ink), generously festooned with squid and shrimp
  • A miniature, two-bite cone filled with a soft white cheese and raw salmon, and topped with trout eggs
  • For dessert, a Charlotte Russe-type cake filled with apples, served with fresh vanilla ice cream and a jellied reduction of Pedro Ximenez oloroso sherry.

I had two glasses of a good txakoli with the savory courses and a glass of the same Pedro Ximenez as in the dessert to go with it.

So does Portland need this? It might be a bit much to expect a chef even approaching Andrés's caliber to set up shop in our little town, and we already have Masa Miyake filling the mad genius niche in our restaurant ecosystem. But it would not be at all unfair to expect Portland's otherwise excellent culinary scene to have at least one decent Spanish tapas place. Any young would-be-chefs who love Maine should think seriously about staging in one of Andrés's restaurants, or doing a tour of Spain, and setting up shop somewhere in the Arts District or the Old Port.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Taj Indian Cuisine

The Indian restaurant formerly known as Aroma has re-opened under new ownership as Taj Indian Cuisine. Hot Librarian, Little One and I attended their grand opening on Wednesday evening. The news for lovers of Indian food is mixed.

First the good news: Most of the former menu is intact, all the way down to the mini dosas and mini utthapams on the kids' menu, and the new owners bring some welcome new additions, with an emphasis on dishes from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The onion mirchi bhaji appetizer brings two whole hot green peppers, dipped in a chickpea flour batter and fried, then split and stuffed with a relish of red onion, lime juice and cilantro. Painfully delicious. Also tasty was the "Green Chicken". You know a preparation is authentic when a key vegetable ingredient is described on the menu using its Latin scientific name, which I've forgotten and therefore cannot look up. It doesn't matter. You don't need to know what it is to find it tasty.

HL and LO each ordered old favorites, and this is where the news gets more mixed. I should begin by stipulating that they each found their meals "tasty." Nonetheless, they were not quite up to the marks that Aroma had been hitting regularly. I hesitate to judge the dosa because it is a dish that can easily go awry when a kitchen is in the weeds--as they clearly were on this grand opening day. If it does not come off the flat top at just the right moment, it can either be wan and bland, if a bit undercooked, or crunchy yet unpleasantly flavored, if even slightly overcooked. This one was a bit undercooked. LO enjoyed it nonetheless. I sampled the sambar with it, and it was good--not as subtly spiced or generously festooned with vegetables as Aroma's, but fiery with dried red chilies and including the welcome addition of drumsticks. (A South Indian vegetable that eats like an artichoke leaf but tastes even better.) HL got the chole batura--the batura was thick and doughy, not airy and crispy, and the chickpeas with a bit too much tomato and not enough spicing in the gravy. Again, at least in the case of the batura, this could have been a result of the kitchen being in the weeds.

This is family-owned and -run restaurant, I suspect with the older generation working in the kitchen, and the younger, fluent-in-English generation working the front of the house. I have more than one soft spot for that kind of restaurant. Nonetheless, it could be the restaurant's Achilles heel if they don't work out the kinks in time. Clearly, there are some good cooks at work there. It is still the best Indian restaurant in Cumberland County. But good cooks do not necessarily make good restauranteurs, and even good restauranteurs don't necessarily find commercial success.

The opening day seemed to be going well for them in terms of numbers. The local South Asian community had come out in force, and many non-South Asian regulars of the old Aroma, like ourselves, showed up as well. But that also meant that the inexperienced front of the house staff was fumbling in so many textbook ways. So much so that I asked the young man who seemed to be in charge if this was the family's first restaurant--which it is. As the first-born son of an immigrant former-restauranteur, I more than sympathize. I remember the day I was in his shoes, a day that was only made tolerable by slow business and the fact that it was not my parents' first restaurant and I was mostly playing back-up to my consummately professional mother. So I offered him a lot of well-meaning, unsolicited advice, prefaced by the proviso that "I know exactly what you're going through."

Whether you were a fan of Aroma, or never got around to visiting, be sure to try Taj. Give them multiple chances. Tip generously and be open and honest with any criticism. Help them work out the kinks and find the success they deserve. You will be rewarded with delicious food.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


With no posts in over a month, I suppose this blog lapsed into dormancy. There are legitimate reasons, none of which I care to share. In that time I have eaten at some very good restaurants, and some not-so-good ones. I have cooked some very good meals, and some not-so-good ones. Rather than attempt to recount them all, I'll just detail my most recent success.

On Saturday, one of the vendors at the Deering Park Farmer's Market had some cute baby summer squash with their blossoms still attached. Another had some gorgeous-looking rainbow chard. My first thought was chard-and-squash-blossom quesadillas. I mean real Mexican quesadillas, made fresh with corn masa and folded over themselves, not their norteamericano namesake--grilled cheese between two flour tortillas, also known as sincronizadas.

Unfortunately, the Bodega Latina on Congress Street does not appear to stock Mexican masa harina, which was not a surprise, as the proprietors are Dominican. (They did, to my surprise, have Venezuelan masa harina, for the making of arepas, which I will have to keep in mind, since Venezuelan arepas are delicious.) They did have, in their freezer case, some think Salvadoran-style tortillas, which in a pinch are great for making sopes, and they do also stock Mexican-style queso fresco. So that is what I made.

Sopes with Chard and Squash Blossoms


  • 1 bunch rainbow chard, leaves removed from stems and chiffonaded; stems reserved and coarsely chopped;
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2-3 jalapeño peppers (optional--see note on preparation below)
  • baby summer squash with blossoms--the squash thinly sliced, the calyx of the blossom finely chopped, and the petals chiffonaded, each separated from each other
  • chopped cilantro (optional)
  • 7 thick tortillas
  • grated queso fresco, to taste

Note on preparation of peppers: Hot Librarian and the Little One have such a low spice tolerance that I had to omit these entirely. I made up for it by eating too many of the La Costeña brand canned pickled whole jalapeños--I ended up eating five alongside my three sopes! If you are using fresh peppers, heat a large non-stick skillet or griddle over high heat. Put the peppers in when the surface is very hot. Turn them as needed so the skins brown and blister all over. Put them into a paper bag and fold over the top. When the peppers have cooled enough to handle but are still warm, peel off and discard as much of the burnt skin as you can (it need not be perfect). Remove and discard the tops, slice them lengthwise into thick ribbons, discarding most but not all of the seeds and ribs, and then chop into squares.

Cooking instructions:

  1. Heat 1-2 Tablespoons of cooking fat (olive oil, a neutral cooking oil, or good quality lard--I used olive oil) in a large pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add onions and chard stems. Saute until onions are translucent and stems are softened, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add garlic and peppers (if using). Saute another minute.
  3. Add squash slices and saute until just softened, 1-2 minutes, then the calyxes and do the same (another 1-2 minutes).
  4. Add the squash blossom petals and the chard leaves and cook until thoroughly wilted.
  5. If you are using the cilantro (which I can't, because it tastes like soap to HL), you can stir it into the still-hot chard-and-squash mixture after removing it from the heat, reserve it as as a garnish, or use it as both, as I would. Put a lid on the pan to retain the warmth and set aside.
  6. Place a large non-stick skillet or griddle on high heat until very hot. If your tortillas are fresh, you will need to work very fast, so you may want to do one at a time. If they are frozen, they will need to heat through, about 90 seconds on each side. Heat and lightly brown tortilla on one side, then flip it and add the chard-and-squash mixture and a handful of cheese. When the cheese has just begun to melt, it is ready.

Makes 7 sopes. Serving size for an adult: 3 sopes. Serving size for a four-and-a-half-year-old: 1 sope, plus an extra tortilla on top to make it into a "Mexican grilled cheese sandwich".