Harding Smith’s restaurant kingdom is an empire built in fits and starts. Each one comes out of the gate magnificently, spirals to a declivitous edge momentarily — like catching one’s breath — only to return to glorious heights, which is where, more or less, his three establishments have remained.
Since they’re all named as rooms — The Front Room
, The Grill Room
and The Corner Room
— I often ask myself in a muddle of memory perturbation, which room is which? But what does distinguish all of them is some very good cooking served in stylish, contemporary settings.
In 2005 when Smith's first restaurant, the Front Room, opened on Munjoy Hill, it was a revelation: finally someplace hip and casual with good grub at a reasonable price.
A frequent fan myself, I ultimately stopped going there because the noise level was untenanble. The food was consistently good but hard to digest in such high octane buzz.
The Grill Room, his second “room,” which opened in 2008, was another immediate success. There were, however, some foodie murmurs that Harding was copying the Fore Street formula with his wood-fired grilled fare. The sauté of three livers, for example, a signature dish at Fore Street
, sounded too familiar on the Grill Room’s menu. But, there’s no patent on this didactic trio of livers, and it’s a dish that is nearly a national treasure on trendy menus.
The Corner Room, the final room — at least so far — which opened in the summer of 2009, was yet another triumph bringing together simple Italian cooking and creative pairings of Mediterranean flavors into a nice gustatory sampling. Here, again, the setting offered high style and décor. One could close his eyes to imagine an ascendant SoHO in the 1980s if one perceives a city like Portland as trendy after the fact.
I never succumbed to the Corner Room’s fleeting charms, however. In the early days, the food from a large menu was good and the place was fun. But the service staff and the kitchen seemed out of sync. The kitchen was slow and the wait staff unreliable. In fact, the last time I was there, about a year ago, I walked out because not a single wait person came to the table after we’d been seated more than ten minutes.
But restaurants struggle with growing pains like every other business, and if the core is strong success will follow.
So, I thought it was time to revisit The Rooms and see where they ranked in 2011.
I’m glad to report that the cracks in the armor have basically been repaired. At the Front Room I ate dinner at the bar recently and the scene was so relaxing and the food so good I vowed to come back soon. What impressed me was the relative calm and lack of noise that I had experienced before. It was as though everyone was too preoccupied enjoying their meal to make a racket. Back the second time, there was more hustle and bustle, but I lapped up with gusto Harding’s robust braised barbecued brisket with baked beans and corn bread. For American comfort food, The Front Room has no equal in Portland.
I visited The Grill Room, which I always thought was the best run of the three with the most sophisticated menu, on a recent Saturday night. When I called for a reservation early in the day I was told that they were booked through 9 p.m. and my 6 ‘o’clock request couldn’t be met. But the hostess handled it well and urged that I come anyway and she would do her best to accommodate our party of two.
When we arrived it was evident that even on such a frigid night with zero temperature readings the restaurant still managed to pack a crowd. The hostess remembered our phone conversation, and we were seated in a few minutes.
We weren’t given the best table in the house. In fact, it was the worst: pushed up against a brick wall protruding into the traffic pattern. I couldn’t complain and felt fortunate to get any table.
Our meal began with a shared platter of local seafood: lobster, local oysters and clams, shrimp and a delicious herb-flecked crabmeat.
For a main course I ordered grilled duck breast steak and my companion had the grilled sirloin. Entrees are either a la carte or offered as specials with interesting side dishes. I chose oven roasted carrots and parsnips; they were well burnished and caramelized from high heat roasting.
The medium rare steak, perfectly done as ordered, was an entrée special served with mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus, which were good even though out of season. It was an enjoyable dinner all around, and I have no qualms about returning again.
On to the Corner Room a few days later, I was hoping that the old bites and scars inflicted in earlier days would be a thing of the past.
I sat at the bar and chose a salad of baby arugula topped with oven roasted local haddock in a vinaigrette dressing with finely chopped beets and candied walnuts. It was a delightful mid-day meal. The fish was perfectly roasted, not dry but very flakey and flavorful.
Several days later I ventured there for dinner for a 6:45 reservation. The hostess, however, informed me that we had no reservation.
That was odd. I had reserved earlier in the day. I suggested that perhaps I mistakenly called one of the other rooms instead. Since the only other room in the repertoire that takes reservations is The Grill Room, I asked that she call the restaurant to cancel if one had one been made.
After we were seated, I noticed that the hostess had not called the Grill Room so I did myself and there was no record of a reservation there either. Strike One!
The menu is fairly large at The Corner Room. There is a set list of first courses, pizza and panini and entrées that are always on the menu. Some of the mainstays are steamed mussels, Spaghetti and Meatballs, Chicken Parmigiano and Lasagna. The weekly specials that evening were a compelling list of antipasti, pasta, and main courses.
I was going to order Chicken Cooked Under a Brick that was accompanied with potato terrine and shaved fennel salad. In retrospect I should have, but I had eaten a lot of chicken recently. Instead I tried the Pork Saltimbocca with olive oil mashed potatoes. My dinner mate loves spaghetti and meatballs, which he chose for his main course.
I started with an arugula salad with roasted squash, burrata cheese, toasted walnuts and crispy prosciutto. I loved it — the sweetness of the squash played beautifully off the savory elements on the plate.
My friend had the roasted beet salad with arugula, ricotta salata cheese and white balsamic vinaigrette. That was another winning first course.
My pork was dry, if not bland, and the problem that I have with mashed potatoes moistened with olive oil is that unless enough oil is used the potatoes tend to be dry, which they were.
Still, the fare at The Corner Room is like no other Italian-inspired menu in the city. Vignola has its own more regional Italian niche, and its sister restaurant Cinque Terre offers very fine Tuscan, Northern Italian cooking. Lesser examples like Casa Napoli or Espos are very distant relations.
If anything, there needs to be a firmer hand in running The Corner Room so it can be as dependable as the two other Harding Smith outposts.
Casual seems to be the trend these days in Portland restaurants, which is a good thing since that segment is very underrepresented. The successful restauranteurs in Portland all have their “second” tier dining rooms: Hugo’s Duckfat ; Fore Street’s Street and Company ; and Cinque Terre’s Vignola . Does that mean that Harding Smith should ponder a new guise or buck the trend to open a haute cuisine rendition of the Rooms? Who knows, maybe a L’Avenue Gloire Room is in the stars.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion, if you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.