A Taste of Two New Portland Eateries
It was downright cosmopolitan. I got to attend the opening night for two new Portland restaurants on the same evening.
First was dinner at The Corner Room (110 Exchange St., 207-879-4747), the third restaurant in the growing empire of chef Harding Lee Smith. He also runs The Front Room, which specializes in comfort food on Munjoy Hill, and The Grill Room in the Old Port, specializing in grilled foods. The new venture, located in the former Salt Institute space on Exchange Street, specializes in Italian food. The renovations maintained the high ceilings and open layout, allowing full visibility of the food preparation areas. There’s the lively drinking bar in front, a dining bar on the side, and tables filling the long space in the back. The atmosphere was bright and pleasant, as was the waitstaff.
Like Smith’s other two locations, the menu is filled with affordable options that make it an easy spot to return to repeatedly, allowing you to try all that is offered. Then again, you can always stick with your favorite.
We tried the eggplant caponata ($4), the marinated squid ($8), caesar salad ($7), truffled macaroni and cheese ($9), and the rigatoni with sausage ($9), with a carafe of Barbera d’Alba ($19). The eggplant was a bit sweet — not unpleasant, just unexpected. The caesar was just as good as the one at the Front Room. There could have been a lot more truffle action in my macs for my taste, but I understand why they went for subtlety. The sausage dish was simple, rich, and good. On my next visits, of which there will be many, I’ll check out the panini and pizza.
Our next stop was drinks and dessert at Grace (15 Chestnut St., 207-828-4422), the former Chestnut Street church-turned-restaurant, thanks to $2 million in renovations.
I am sure I am destined for hell for saying this but my first thought upon walking in was not one of divinity but debauchery. It felt like it could be the ultimate dance club. I blame it on the bar. You walk into this transformed sacred space and the first thing you see is this massive, glorious, circular bar. It takes up a majority of the floor space. Built by a two-man design crew out of Colorado, this is a work of art worthy of worship. The large open kitchen is tucked behind the bar, and the tables are off to the side. Which makes it feel very un-restaurant. The upper loft is home to a second bar and additional tables for eating and lounging, all of which overlook the first floor.
My black pepper parfait and Holy Tea were a lovely combination. The people-watching was great, though pretty quiet for an opening night. The lit candles, stained-glass windows, soaring ceiling, and the waitstaff dressed all in black emit a somber tone. Apparently there are additional function rooms available for rent for weddings and large parties, which would be a great fit and a pleasant alternative to the existing options. I will be curious to see how this establishment finds itself – as a restaurant, a lounge, or a bar.
At both spots, there was the excitement of the new, of the meals to come as these establishments get added to the ever-growing list of places to eat in Portland.