Neither Rain Nor Snow…Well, Mostly Rain

My wife and I had a little overnight getaway to Portland, Maine over the weekend.  We’d been talking about it for a while, and when an old friend suggested we get together, we went ahead and made a hotel reservation.  Unfortunately, a big Nor’easter also decided to arrive at the same time, but we’d already paid for the room, bought tickets to a food and wine tour, and otherwise made plans with our friends, so we forged ahead anyway.  The one saving grace is that this Nor’easter was all rain along the coast, so while we did get soaking wet, at least we didn’t have to drive in a snowstorm.

After a short visit to the Osher Map Library at the University of Southern Maine, we camped out at Tandem Coffee Roasters to get dry, catch up a bit with Tony and Sharon, whom we hadn’t seen in several years, and have a little snack. I scarfed down one of these babies, a big biscuit loaded with butter and strawberry jam:

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The wine and food tour was really wonderful despite having to trudge about in the rain.  If it was that much fun on a washout day, I can only imagine how much better it would be on a nice day.  The tour was run by a woman named Erica Archer, who had all the skills — she was clearly knowledgeable about wine, knew the city and its food scene, and also was relaxed, friendly and charming.

The tour had a couple of points of focus: Mediterranean red wines and restaurants in Portland’s West End.  Both subjects were largely new to me.  When Bridget and I lived in Portland in the early 1990s, there was no restaurant scene in the West End to speak of, but now there are quite a few from Longfellow Square west on Congress Street and up into the neighborhood a bit. And, though I know a bit more about French wine, I know very little about Italian and Spanish wine apart from the major categories.

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Our tour began inside The Francis Hotel, which was a funeral home when we lived there 25 years ago. Their restaurant is Bolster, Snow & Co., and we sampled an Umbrian red called Altro Io along with this dish of creamy polenta. The wine was a big strong red, very tannic and structured, so the rich creaminess of the polenta really worked well to ease the cheek-puckering tannins.  The polenta had sauteed and pickled mushrooms, some toasted breadcrums for texture, and a little truffle for extra richness.  It set the bar very high for the food for the rest of the afternoon and was absolutely the best thing I had to eat all day (with the biscuit being a close second).

We went just a couple of doors down to a long-standing landmark Portland restaurant, Roma Cafe.  Though the restaurant has been there for almost 100 years, apparently it was closed for a few years, then reopened a couple of years ago. I still remember the first time we ever ate there waaaay back when and the waiter we had that night. We sampled a Sicilian Nero d’Avola called Contradanza from a winery called Planeta. The accompaniment was a deviled egg with a sharp mayonnaise, pickled red onion, and a little hint of bacon. Sorry for the picture quality on this one, the room was very dimly lit on a gloomy afternoon.

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From the Roma, we trudged up the hill away from Congress Street and up into the West End proper to a little storefront place called Other Side Deli, more or less across the street from Maine Medical Center. It’s a legit delicatessen with almost all of the products made in-house from locally-sourced ingredients.  It almost made me wish we still lived in Portland and could pop in for provisions once in a while.  We do have plenty of similar things to choose from around the Boston area, but I would have killed for a place like this 20-odd years ago.

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We had some little noshes here — a knock-your-socks-off duck terrine, and some corned beef tongue bites served with a good mustard — and two wines to go with them.  We sampled the only white wine of the entire tour (Saint Peyre Picpoul de Pinet) and a Syrah blend called La Sommeliere from Chateau de Flaugergues, both from the Languedoc region of Southern France. People are a little weirded out by beef tongue, sadly, but it’s actually quite good, and I think both Tony and I went a little weak in the knees over the duck.

The afternoon was getting on, and the rain was showing no sign of stopping, but we slogged back to Congress Street to Local 188.  I can’t quite remember what used to be in this location in the early 1990s, though I kind of feel like it was a bicycle shop.  It’s been this restaurant since 1999, so other than Roma Cafe, it’s probably the longest-lived resto in the neighborhood.  I didn’t get a photo here because we didn’t stay very long, but we had some grilled wild mushrooms that were neither here nor there and didn’t particularly suit the very complex Spanish Grenache blend (2015 Alvaro Palacios Les Terrasses). It was the only miss of the day, in my opinion, but a fantastic wine.

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The final stop was back up into the neighborhood again, this time to Chaval on Pine Street. It was nearly 5:00, and we could tell that the people working in the restaurant were a bit antsy to get us out of there before service started.  We ate another pate, this time pork, served with the seemingly-ubiquitous pickled red onions and a tasty Concord grape mustard.  Bridget, who normally does not eat much meat, actually ate her entire serving of this pate. The final wine another French blend called Les Pampres from a winery called Mas Laval, but I have to say it was a bit unmemorable after so many other red wines and the bum’s rush from the restaurant.

Our day did not end with the tour, though.  We briefly stopped in to visit Tony and Sharon’s youngest daughter, who lives just around the corner from the Other Side Deli (lucky!), and brought her and her boyfriend along to Port City Blue to listen to a fun gypsy jazz group called Blue Fuse. We enjoyed some adult beverages and a few nibbles there (almonds, olives, pretzel bites), then, would you believe we kept on going and went out to dinner?!?!  After all the wine and food and booze and such, dinner was probably the least interesting part of the entire day, but we did it anyway.  We hit a Thai place called Boda, which neither Bridget nor I thought much of, but maybe that was all the other deliciousness talking smack in our tummies.

We said our “good nights” to the Plantes and went to our hotel to change out of our wet things and warm up before hypothermia set in.  Sunday morning, she and I wrapped up our food adventure with our absolute favorite breakfast spot in the Portland area, The Good Table in Cape Elizabeth. Now THIS place we remember from our time in Portland, since we used to go there for breakfast with some regularity (they opened in 1986, the same year we got married). Everything is from scratch, everything is superlative, and we try to get there at least once a year when our occasional trips to Maine permit.  My phone would not charge due to being wet the day before, so I have no final picture to send you off with, but I had a fabulous plate of lobster Eggs Benedict and Bridget had an egg scramble with a ton of veggies, cheese and black beans.  This restaurant is sort of out in the middle of nowhere in Cape Elizabeth, not too far from the entrance to Two Lights State Park, but definitely worth the side-trip.

I really needed a great weekend to get me out of my head for a day, and I got it.  Thanks to Erica Archer’s outstanding tour, all the new places we visited, the food, the wine, and our friends.

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