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.

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