Down East 2013 ©
The small-plate blitz continues unabated at many new and established Portland restaurants. But like the matador in the ring, I’m still old school in my dining habits and prefer three solid courses from start to finish. When I dine out it’s the food I’m after not a conceptualized pupu platter.
Still modernist cuisine is good when it’s good and I’ve had some very enlightened meals lately at so-called small plate establishments.
I loved my dinner, for instance, a few weeks ago at Bar Lola , which follows the mini-plate manna religiously. And this week I dined at the Salt Exchange , a vibe-centric eatery in the Old Port that has held terra firma for two solid years.
I won’t keep you in suspense.. The food is exceptional. Small-plate madness aside, the fare at the Salt Exchange is not as strictly diminutive as other trendy strongholds. Only five courses are offered: Small Bites, Soups, Cold Plates, Hot Plates, plus a dessert list.
Yet there is the option, if one must, to eat lightly and less expensively by ordering, for instance, two cold plates, a few Bites, and a sweet.
But who wants to give an inventive menu short shrift?
The two of us shared an amuse, a small bite of grilled crisp apple: three slices arranged on a long plate, wrapped in prosciutto and lightly bathed in lemon Stilton. Quick, easy on the eyes, and utterly delicious, it’s a fitting companion for a cocktail.
We had our dinner at the bar not necessarily by choice. The place was packed, and when I called at the last minute for a table on a Saturday night, all were booked until 8:30. At that hour you can go to any busy restaurant in Portland and get seated immediately. I suppose that’s one advantage to living in a sleepy city.
The bar area, with about 10 chairs, is beautiful, separate from the dining room and right next to the open kitchen. I like the main dining area, too, because the tables are large, well spaced and the well lit décor always changes with different artists works on display.
There’s a new chef at the helm, Jeff Hodgdon, formerly the sous chef, and so far what he’s doing is, as the Food Channel’s  Mo Rocca would say, “deliciousness.”
We skipped the soup course and went directly to the Cold Plates. I had the fennel salad and my partner had the spring rolls. The salad was a big dome of greens in citrus vinaigrette, with spiced candied nuts and a port wine reduction as the underpinnings of the braised fennel. Altogether it had great flavor in a merger of sweet and light.
The spring rolls were stunning to look at, and the filling of cabbage, carrot, sunflower shoots with pickled radish were divine without being contrived.
However you slice it, Hot Plates are main courses. As soon as I saw lamb breast as one of the choices, I went for it immediately. You won’t encounter lamb breast easily in markets. Even specialty butchers rarely carry it.
The cut looks like a cross between pork belly and veal breast. It’s very fatty but with a layer of meat that’s exquisite when braised.
The preparation here had a beautifully burnished crisp skin with a smoked tomato glaze and mint-infused demi glace. It was accompanied by brilliantly orange carrots, a few asparagus spears and crispy polenta fries and skordalia potatoes, which are a Greek style potato with lots of garlic that went perfectly with the lamb. The combination of polenta and potatoes seemed redundant but it worked.
My dinner partner had the spring onion risotto with chive puree, pecorino, olive and parsley juic,e and crisp shallots. The presentation was gorgeous and the flavors were a perfect melding.
We shared a wedge of carrot cake for dessert. But this was no ordinary slice of cake from the hands of pastry chef Patrick Tubbs. It was paired with sweet pea ice cream, which was nothing less than more deliciousness worth having again.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.