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As I’ve noted before, the lunch hour used to be a dismal prospect in downtown Portland. The sundry sandwich shops and take-out havens ruled, and the notion of a proper lunch out was like flipping a coin and hoping for heads.
That has changed dramatically as Portland’s restaurant scene becomes exponentially finer.
As case in point is a restaurant like the Salt Exchange
where dinner is more formal with a more expansive menu, but at lunch it's very relaxed. I stopped in the other day at noon, sat at the bar and had a quick and delicious lunch of cioppino — that lovely Mediterranean style fish stew, which included local mussels and hake in a luxurious lobster broth. At $10 for the serving, I was totally satisfied.
On one of this month’s summerlike days, a friend suggested that we meet at Tandoor
on Exchange Street. This long-standing Indian restaurant has had its ups and downs over the years, but I was glad to see it packed with patrons at the noon hour.
I had a dish called Keema Muttar, which is ground lamb with peas, coriander and ginger swathed in a sweet-spicy sauce. It’s served with rice and is revved up by various chutneys from the condiment tray at the table.
I don’t like rice per se so I had the dish on its own, which was sort of like eating a sloppy Joe without the bun. It was tasty, though. I should have ordered a serving of Naan or Poori breads to sop up the delicious sauce. At $8 it was good value and I’ve put Tandoor back on my list of places to go.
Other winners on Exchange Street include restaurant kingpin Harding Smith’s the Grill Room
and the Corner Room
, which is on a far corner down the street. (Get it?) I find the Grill Room too dark at midday and prefer it at dinner. The Corner Room, however, offers the perfect ambiance for a daytime meal. Its storefront of giant windows overlooking the street brightens the dining room into a vibrant, exciting space.
My favorite luncheon dish there is the fish salad — a grilled or roasted fillet of fish (that changes daily) served over crisp, flavorful and well dressed organic arugula (local in season) with beets, almonds and goat cheese. Most of the main course salads are $6 to $8 and this one is priced according to the fish being featured.
Walter's is always busy at lunch. The bar room is a favored room for daytime , and I believe that they’ve modified the bar chairs around the tables so that your chin no longer hovers over your plate as it did when they first opened in their new space.
The most popular lunch dish is the Chicken Pita Tzatziki. Those panko crusted chunks of breast meat swathed in the tangy yogurt sauce are pretty irresistible. I prefer, though,a simiple soup offering available on the luncheon menu It’s a lighter meal, which is sometimes hard to get at Walter's since Chef –owner Jeff Buerhaus favors complex versions of his beloved (and delicious) Global Cuisine
After a long hiatus I finally went to the Old Port Sea Grill
recently. I prefer their Falmouth Foreside waterfront outpost. But for city dining their sleek, well designed dining room is very inviting.
I was surprised that the restaurant wasn’t busier at the noon hour because the food is so good. It could be because entrees are on the expensive side, running about $15. They should offer a prix fixe at $10 for value-conscious Portlanders.
I ordered a very satisfying Cobb Salad served with four perfectly grilled scallops coated with a tangy buttermilk tarragon dressing over greens and accompanying eggs, tomato and bacon. It's a tasty version of this ubiquitous salad, even at $15.
Just outside the Old Port along Longfellow Square Pai Men Miyake
is always packed because the chef is so superb. You can craft a good lunch here with a variety of dumplings, vegetables, ramen noodle bowls and sushi rolls. You never know what combinations Miyake will offer on any day, but I’ve yet to have a bad meal there. In fact, lunchtime in Portland is about as good as it gets anywhere.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinions. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org