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Preview: Portland Phoenix - Food

Portland Phoenix - Food





 



Cold cuts

January 13 - 19, 2006

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Cold cuts
Frozen foods warm the heart

Frozen entrees have seen many of us through tough times. Like any good codependent, frozen food’s effects are soporific. It prolongs and deepens our suffering even as it makes it bearable. Not long ago my heart was as icy and tough as a slab of Hungry Man turkey. But this fall, as the weather grew colder, my soul thawed and warmed in the company of a lovely young woman. Now she is gone — moved south. In her absence I have turned to my old friend frozen food to help me cope. Together we repeatedly recreate the drama of the last few months. I perforate the plastic wrap, much the way she pierced my heart, and peer into my microwave to watch what was once cold begin to simmer in a dizzying spin and with miraculous speed.

Amid any grocery store’s frosty alleyways we face important choices. The classic frozen entrée involves a rubbery meat slathered in a salty goop. But within this genre there are real differences. There was a time when the best of the best was the simple, elegant, Stouffer’s fried




Finding the range

January 6 - 12, 2006

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Finding the range
Caiola's goes too far, not far enough, and just right

My neighborhood is the Old Port so there are a lot of restaurants around. But very few of them feel quite like a "neighborhood restaurant." In even the most comfortable of the Old Port’s nice food spots you get a sense that they are trying to get things exactly right — to earn their place as a destination people are willing to struggle with parking to visit. This striving is infectious, and soon you find yourself expecting this perfection, scrutinizing the meal, conscious of too much.

True neighborhood restaurants have a way of setting you at ease. Caiola’s, a new venture on Pine Street in the West End, does just that from the moment you walk up to the door. It is just far enough from Congress to feel tucked away. Inside the space feels intimate and warm. There is a pleasant buzz of conversation from the nook of tables to your right and the modest bar to your left. If you eat in the back you notice that even the doors to the kitchen, salvaged from some old house it looks like, are charming. Once when




Happy meals

December 30, 2005 - January 5, 2006

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Happy meals
Portland has shrimp, needs pizza

Okay folks, this is the last you will hear from me in the food-year 2005. We have seen many new restaurants spring up all around the Portland area and we have also seen a few crash and burn. I was in particularly sorry to see a "for lease" sign in the window of Nile, the Somalian restaurant on Congress Street. I am however, excited to try both Caiola’s on Pine Street in the West End and The Front Room in the other end of town. Looking ahead to the food-year 2006, here are a few of the things that I would most like to see:

More street vendors: Coming up on the coldest, darkest part of the year here in Maine, this may be a tall order. The idea of standing on a street corner late at night (when we most need some good street food) with the wind biting any exposed skin and trying to keep condiments from freezing doesn’t exactly make me want to quit my other job. That said, somebody should do it — hey, spring is right around the corner ... maybe? A good taco stand is what I would most like to see. K




Unbeaten eats

December 23 - 29, 2005

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Unbeaten eats
Four of the year’s finest foods

As we are about to wrap up 2005, I offer you what I consider to be a few of this year’s best and most interesting food finds in Portland:

Lamb Maladair from Haggarty’s: Doing strictly delivery and take-out, Haggarty’s, on outer Forest Avenue, is a real gem. They have carved out a niche in the Portland food scene by offering what they label "Brit-Indie" food. The menu is modeled after the Indian food available in London — a refreshing divergence from the seemingly identical Indian menus available to us here in the Portland area. Though every dish I have ordered from Haggarty’s has been packed with flavor and large enough to split between two people, the Lamb Maladair sends me reeling with delight. It consists of large chunks of lamb meat stewed until tender with pureed spinach, spices which I won’t attempt to identify, and finished with a tiny amount of cream for richness. It comes with a large serving of rice and a sweet and spicy chili sauce. Also try the appetizer sampler and the trad




Schizophrenic dining

December 16 - 22, 2005

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Schizophrenic dining
Slainte caters two audiences

Naming a food business must be stressful. Its not like naming a child, which is easy — just call the kid Leo or Lily like everyone else is doing these days. But in naming a restaurant, a shop, or a product you can go wrong in many ways. Maine's new Cold River Vodka, for example, is a great vodka. But in an industry where the sheer randomness of names like "Ketel One" is a virtue, "Cold River" sounds unfortunately focus-grouped. Worse, Portland's lovely new bakery Two Fat Cats has chosen an execrable name. The only thing more off-putting than a person's affection for their cat is their affection for a fat cat — or, god-forbid, multiples.

In choosing the name Slainte for the new pub that has taken over the space previously occupied by the Meritage Wine Bar, it seems the owner has either embraced or exacerbated an identity crisis. In the universe of conceivable names for a somewhat Irish pub, Slainte (a toast to good health, pronounced Slahn-chah), with its nonspecifically-Eu




Gourmet ghetto

December 9 - 15, 2005

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Gourmet ghetto
Nosh in the Middle of India

A nice gathering of great food spots has developed at the intersection of India and Middle streets at the bottom of Munjoy Hill. Of course there are some revered restaurants in this corner of Portland. But just as important to any neighborhood’s culinary gravity are places to grab good coffee, bread, cheese, wine, and dessert. India and Middle has those too, in the form of Micucci Grocery, Coffee by Design, Foodworks, and the new Two Fat Cats Bakery, creating the sort of area that Californians would call a gourmet ghetto.

It’s a label which, in that California way, manages to exploit the unfortunate living conditions of the destitute in the service of the cute lingo of self-congratulatory bourgeois bohemians. But hey, poor people have bigger problems to worry about, and "gourmet ghetto" feels oddly right. Besides, in our Maine way, even our gourmet ghettos manage to maintain a working-class authenticity.

The key to the working-class food vibe in the neighborhood is Micucci Grocery




Dining dilemma

December 2 - 8, 2005

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Dining dilemma
Too much of a good thing in Freeport

A conundrum is defined as a paradoxical, insoluble, or difficult problem, also a dilemma. If you’re a wine lover, the only dilemma you’ll encounter at Conundrum, a cozy bistro on Route 1 in Freeport, is how to choose from their vast selection of 700 wine offerings. They have more glasses of wine to chose from than any other restaurant in the state, and they offer 2.5 ounce tastings as well.

 The sophisticated yet relaxed atmosphere is exemplified by soft jazz and candles flickering on each dark wood table. The walls are blue, with the trim a darker shade of blue, Persian-style rugs adorn the floor, and leather sofas lend a comfortable feel to the dining room. Conundrum has creatively softened the acoustics of the room by lining the underside of their tables with egg-crate foam.

 The extensive menu is loaded with wines, appetizers, cheese plates, pates, salads, entrees, and desserts. The wine menu, all six pages worth, includes a sparkling Mumm Napa Brut Prestige, which is a br




Alt-turkey

November 25 - December 1, 2005

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Alt-turkey
A foul breed

Growing up in a carnivorous family, my perception of the holidays consisted of the extended family brought together to exchange stories over a large piece of meat. With the rare beef roast taking center stage at these functions, all of the other dishes could definitely be considered sides. Tradition dictates a turkey dinner for thanksgiving; however, I vaguely remember one year the "turkey" came from the hindquarters of a cow. Nevertheless, a well-cooked turkey dinner is about as delicious and comforting as any meal can be. If tradition is just too traditional, and you want to try something new over the holidays, your best bet is to dish up a triple-decker dinner: turducken.

Turducken is an aptly-named Cajun specialty, otherwise known as a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey. When you slice the big bird, you can see the layers of stuffing between each fowl. All of the birds are de-boned except for the wing bones and drumsticks of the turkey and trussed and roasted in the oven. Ma




Theatrics of dinner

November 18 - 24, 2005

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Theatrics of dinner
Hamming up the flavor

Everyone knows that most new restaurants struggle. Then they fail, resulting in bitterness, debt, and divorce. The flipside of this truism is that in certain segments of the restaurant business there is a tyranny of the new. If a new place arrives and takes off, it gets all the attention for a while. This is currently the case in Portland’s semi-fine dining scene. These are the places where the entrees run in the $15-$20 range, most wines are just a little more, and where innovation and solid preparation trump exotic and expensive ingredients.

Depending on how far east you find yourself on Congress any given night, you have a good selection in this category. Right now the two that get the most attention are the one farthest east, the Blue Spoon, and the one farthest west, Dogfish Café. But if you find yourself at the bottom of Munjoy Hill, you can get a meal that is just as good at Ribollita, and if you find yourself in the arts district you can head to Bibo’s Mad Apple Café, just off C




Cold comfort

November 11 - 17, 2005

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Cold comfort
Vodka from Maine potatoes: So sweet

Potatoes will eventually kill us all, one way or another. Eat them after frying them up, recent studies suggest, and you get cancer. Eaten any other way, they are another step down the long sad path to bloat and heart failure. It’s enough to make you wish you could just get drunk on them — to blot out, at least for a few hours, the horror of creeping toward mortality. Now a coalition of Mainers has made it possible to dance towards another potato-related fatality with panache and a buzz.

Cold River, the latest entry into the premium ($30-plus) vodka market, was launched last week at an elegant "first pour" event. It was a thoroughly Maine launch for a thoroughly Maine product. Most vodkas, including fancy ones, result from an unholy alliance of massive Midwest grain conglomerates and toney coastal distilleries. Trucks full of undistinguished alcohol made from barley or rice crisscross the country before submitting to the particular distillation that makes it Belvedere, Grey Goose, or Hangar 1. Cold R