Down East 2013 ©
Portland’s reign in the high art of fine dining rests on a firm, highly regarded reputation indeed; but it may have hit a plateau for a while even as our local chefs keep garnering national acclaim consistently.
And that’s OK with me because sometimes I don’t want to be wowed by the latest chef du jour. Instead I’m after a plain and simple meal out--good food, good ambiance--all at a moderate price. It’s a segment that’s been lacking in Portland until recently.
The newest restaurants in Portland are more casual than the fine dining establishments it has become known for. And as casual as they may be, these restaurants still take their food seriously. The menus are creative and the buzz is laid back, pricing is moderate and you can go as you are without much fuss.
The soon to be unveiled Petite Jacqueline will be a shining example of the new casual. Housed in the former Evangeline space on Longfellow Square, it is being brought to us by Michelle and Steve Corry of Five-Fifty Five acclaim.
What’s in the works is a classic French style bistro. What form and shape it will take remains to be seen, but their aim is to open a moderately priced eatery serving delicious home-style French cooking–braised meats, perfect roast chicken, lentils perfumed with artisanal olive oil, terrines, and game. A March opening is anticipated.
District is the proverbial corner bar and restaurant, located at the base of Danforth Street. It bills itself as an American bar with charcuterie, raw bar, and full menu.
It opened late last year and has been transformed into a very stylish club-like space.
Downstairs is a suave gray bar that commands the room with tables for dining as well. They serve lunch, have a popular happy hour, and offer dinner seven days a week. Upstairs is the main dining room, with an open kitchen. If I have one complaint about the layout it’s this: the very bright kitchen lights are annoying if you’re sitting facing the kitchen. It’s an easy fix—turn around!
I’ve been to District several times for lunch and dinner. The place is fun and the food is more than acceptable, though I find the menu a bit strange. It runs the gamut from charcuterie to Veal Schnitzel, a house specialty. You’d hardly expect an entrée like Veal Schnitzel and extensive house made charcuterie offerings to cohabit with burgers, steak, fish, pasta, and fried chicken with collards. The Schnitzel, with lemon and very good spaetzle was excellent. The fried chicken sampled on another occasion was too salty but crisp with succulent white meat.
The restaurant is a combination dining emporium hangout. I’ll go there when I’m in the mood for a very decent dinner in a fun, casual setting. Entrees tend to be over $20, a price point perhaps too high to qualify as absolutely moderate. Their hamburger, however, may rate as one of the best in Portland.
The East Ender, which took over the space from the former Norm’s East End Barbecue on Middle Street--that mini restaurant row starting with the venerable Hugo’s to the Lilliputian Ribollita --offers more serious food at a very reasonable price.
Like District, the restaurant is also divided into two rooms. The first floor dining room includes an attractive bar, and about 10 tables. Upstairs, somewhat changed from the old Norm’s brick-walled room, there is another bar, fabric covered booths, and butcher-block tables.
For lunch recently I ordered an egg salad sandwich. What can you say about this lunch box staple? In this case plenty. Made with finely minced shallot, tarragon, bacon and capers, the union of flavors is unique. Served on house made bread, lightly grilled and buttered, this was a great sandwich. It comes with excellent shoe-string fries, golden and crisp for $7.
Other lunch items are an excellent hamburger made from beef cheek, topped with cheddar, bacon, lettuce, mayo and mustard and served with fries at a reasonable $10 - also chicken salad sandwich, steak on toast, pulled pork, and mussels and oysters.
A few days later a group of us went there for dinner. Two outstanding first courses we shared were the trout fritters and the rillette of salmon. The fritters were served with a caper aioli. They were light and crispy--a good nibble to have with a drink. The rillettes come in a small cylinder shaped mason jar and were very rich and complex. Spread over homemade crostini and slathered with duck fat, this was another excellent starter.
Entrees that we tried were duck breast and the grilled pork chop. The third member of our trio ordered the pulled pork sandwich. The standout ingredient here is cheddar that cloaks the meat topped with fried onions over the flavorful pork. It’s served with fries and is a very reasonable $9 entrée, served at lunch and dinner.
The very tender and well-flavored duck breast is draped over honeyed polenta, a perfect foil for the gamey breast meat at $17. The most expensive item on the menu is loin of lamb for $20.
The grilled pork chop--very tender and possibly brined first--comes with soldier beans, an addition that should be found more often on Maine menus. These were not the mushy overcooked beans that you might find at a community supper but rather slightly al dente with lots of robust flavor. Braised cabbage and glazed carrots rounded out a perfect entrée offering at a value packed $16.
The East Ender is seriously casual but offers serious cooking in convivial surroundings. If ever the eastern waterfront gets fully developed as a residential neighborhood, the East Ender would certainly live up to its name.