The Caf? at Pat's Portland
Stevens Avenue is the Main Street of Portland's Deering section, home to nearly all of the residential neighborhood's landmarks, from big old brick schools to park-like Evergreen Cemetery and Baxter Woods preserve. Here, too, is a local institution, Pat's Meat Market, a small butcher shop, grocery, and deli operated by the Vacchiano family for seventy-eight years. Pat's reputation for quality meats and hard-to-find cuts extends citywide, but neighbors also love it as a gathering place. When night falls, the Vacchianos stack the stools atop the storefront tables and dim the lights, but they don't lock the doors.To step inside the shadowy entryway after hours is to pique one's sense of curiosity. Just ahead, an enclosed stairway rises. Soft light can be seen twinkling above. Newcomers may experience a Jack-in-the Beanstalk sense of enchantment: what are they going to find when they poke through the clouds?
"The first time I walked up the stairs, I fell in love with the space," says Karl Ronhave, chef and co-owner with Morey Fontaine of the Café at Pat's Meat Market, a rustic retreat carved into intimate dining nooks with salvaged barn wood. Lanterns hang from rough-hewn beams, casting warm candlelight. String lights sparkle on the bay windows, which are the perches of choice on snowy evenings.
Of course, it isn't just the unexpected snug elegance that endears the Café at Pat's to its Deering neighbors and other regulars whose loyalty sometimes verges on proprietary (Pat's is their discovery, and they're not so sure they want to spread the news). It is, first and foremost, Ronhave's consistently splendid cuisine — he calls it European comfort food — that brings them back, along with the friendly and efficient wait staff, managed by Fontaine. The Café's warmth is enhanced by servers who seem genuinely enthusiastic about sharing the delicious food.
The food is indeed comfortable and comforting. The menu mixes offerings creative enough to tempt an adventuresome diner (Parmesan gnocchi in an exotic mushroom-tomato-marsala ragu) and unpretentious enough to satisfy a meat-and-potatoes man (a juicy, two-inch-thick maple-cured pork chop topped with sweet apple chutney). "I want to present food that is traditional," Ronhave says. "You will be getting something that some farmer in the south of France is going to eat at home after he comes out of the vineyard."
Ronhave and Fontaine, both in their early thirties, are college buddies acting on a shared fantasy. As students, they imagined retiring in their fifties and opening a beachside eatery in the Caribbean. The Café at Pat's is that dream realized, without the sun and sand. They could not resist the opportunity in 2004 when they learned that Chef Greg Gilman, who launched the restaurant, was moving on. Serving southern Italian, Greek and Mediterranean specialties, Gilman had built a devoted, mostly local, clientele, Fontaine and his wife among them.
Ronhave, by contrast, leans toward the cuisines of southern France, western Spain, and northern Italy. He learned by apprenticing, working his way from "roadhouses to white tablecloths," notably in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he cooked at a popular pub, then brazenly applied for a job at the swanky Del Raye Bar and Grille. "I embellished some of my skills because I really wanted that job," Ronhave admits with a chuckle. When Chef Casey Douglas found him out, he grabbed the much bigger Ronhave by the ear and demanded the straight story. Amazingly, Douglas kept him on, and the two hit it off. "He was a great teacher," Ronhave says.
In Maine, Ronhave was chef at Freeport's elegant 15 Independence and, in partnership with Fontaine, he ran a suburban satellite of Portland's Black Tie Café. In Portland, he opened the kitchen for Bull Feeney's, an Irish pub, and he was executive chef at the Eastland Park Hotel. Though the hotel experience was invaluable, Ronhave missed restaurant cooking, which placed him closer to his customers. The Café at Pat's offered a way back, and a unique setting, too.
Having a butcher who is effectively in-house allows Ronhave time to make good use of whole fresh meat and fish. An oven-roasted sole may be served with lobster-chive stuffing. Swordfish may appear with a shallot, caper, and balsamic sauce. There is always a fish stew whose ingredients vary with the day's catch. Recently it was Italian cioppino, combining haddock, halibut, and shellfish in a light, savory tomato sauce. It was served atop orzo. This winter it is paella, the saffron-spiced Spanish rice dish. Ronhave uses Maine shrimp, mussels, chorizo sausage, and chicken.
Entrees ($15-23) come with a choice of griddled, maple syrup-sweetened polenta, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, or risotto, which on a recent night was richly flavored with roasted tomatoes and Parmesan.
Starters and salads ($5-11) bring other bright flavor combinations. Crisp ravioli appetizers, with distinctive fillings like prosciutto, beef, and Roquefort, are customer favorites. The caramelized pear salad is gorgeous — sweet fruit pieces arranged around a pile of crisp greens and sprinkled with sharp Gorgonzola cheese and toasted pecans.
The comfort-food theme extends to the homemade desserts ($7-8), especially treats like apple and cornmeal pannetone pudding. Moistened with light custard, it is served warm with maple gelato.
Several months ago, the Café began serving Sunday brunch, surely one of the best bargains in town with most entrees priced at $7-8. The menu includes egg and meat dishes, French toast, cereals, sandwiches, and salads.
"We're not here to be showy," Fontaine says. "We're not here to be pretentious. We want comfortable food, a comfortable atmosphere, comfortable service. You can come in, kick back and make yourself at home, but you're also going to eat some really great stuff."
The Café at Pat's Meat Market is located at 484 Stevens Avenue in Portland. It serves dinner Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 p.m., and Sunday brunch from 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. 207-874-0706.