Culinary travelers in the northeastern United States do not want for options. Consider Philadelphia’s recent rise to gastronomic gold, or the incredible, incomparable restaurant scene of a little town called Gotham.
Go ahead and add Portland, Maine to that list. In typically understated, utterly New England fashion, this beach town has quietly launched one of the hottest restaurant scenes in the country. Seduced by stellar resources and affordable rents, homegrown heroes and Michelin-star-restaurant-trained NYC ex-pats have moved to this Maine town en masse. Their microbreweries, izakaya-inspired brunch spots, and elegant tasting menus transform the city. With cut-rate airfares (from $79 each way on JetBlue), gorgeous fall foliage, and a seasonal food festival on the horizon, now is the perfect time to get a taste. Here are six places to try in Portland, Maine.
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A pinnacle of Portland fine dining, the elegant bayside institution Hugo’s underwent a soup-to-nuts renovation in April 2013. The updated dining room has a modern feel, with reclaimed birch tabletops and wrought ironwork throughout, and the renowned tasting menus are now more approachable. Menus change daily and are divided into land, sea, and vegetable tastings. Diners can order a one-off from the five-course menu, or make substitutions within a tasting menu. With dishes like rabbit pistou with marafax bean puree, hearty duck Bolognese, and udon noodle salad with Chinese sausage and radish foam, it’s hard to go wrong.
Opened by a Daniel Boulud-trained chef in early 2013, Blue Rooster has quickly become the neighborhood sandwich shop of Old Port’s dreams. Nab a seat by the window in the small but cheery space, and try out some transcendent lunch fare like the Charlie Noble sandwich, made with house-roasted turkey, Brussels sprout slaw, and sharp provolone, or order one of six specialty hot dogs, paired with a side of crispy fried Brussels sprouts topped with queso fresco and sweet chili sauce. Still hungry? Go big with the tater tot poutine, adorably named "tot-tine" and smothered with cheese curds, gravy, sausage, and pork belly. Hey, diet starts Monday, right?
Eventide Oyster Co.
An oyster bar to end all oyster bars, Eventide has the same owners as next-door neighbor Hugo’s, but a more casual, pull-up-a-barstool-and-let’s-get-crackin’ vibe. In addition to the typical mignonette and fresh lemon, the raw bar’s 20 local and West coast oysters can by accompanied by ices infused with pickled ginger, Tabasco, horseradish, or kimchi. Don’t miss the brown butter lobster roll, which is served in a soft, gua bao-esque steamed bun and lightly dressed with brown butter vinaigrette.
Pai Men Miyake
The second of Japanese-American chef Masa Miyake’s three Portland restaurants, ramen shop Pai Men Miyake serves one of the hottest weekend brunches on the eastern seaboard. Grab a booth in the breezy space and tuck into hearty dishes like fried rice with bok choy and poached egg, or the standout Okono Miyake, which combines Japanese egg pancakes with heritage pork (from Miyake’s nearby farm), fried eggs, Kewpie mayo, shredded cabbage, ginger, and scallions. Wash it down with stellar local brew Tandem Coffee, or start your weekend right with a Bloody Samurai, made with delicate sake and wasabi-spiced tomato juice.
Portland & Rochester Public House
Upon its July 2013 opening, this stylish outpost on a desolate stretch of Wayside was instantly filled with convivial industry types, discerning diners, and the people who drink with them. Portland and Rochester Public House spans a 17-seat, industrial-chic bar, a handsome dining room with pine booths and pendant lamps, and a sunny outdoor patio. Inventive, house-made infusions elevate the cocktail list (try the beet-infused vodka in a crisp, earthy martini), and the seasonal, ultra-local fare includes standouts like house-made soft pretzels, harissa-scented lobster cake, and salmon poached in white grape juice and served with Peekytoe crab fritters.
In’finiti Fermentation & Distillation
Curious punctuation aside, this Old Port restaurant and microbrewery means business. Located on a prime corner of waterfront real estate, In’finiti’s sleek interiors, small-but-mighty beer list, and solid pub grub are a welcome departure from the heavily touristed, interchangeable eateries along Commercial Street. The glass-walled bar overlooks the elegant chrome and copper distillery equipment, and the lightly sauced wings, chorizo, and quail egg crostini, and heady IPAs make friends of strangers. In warmer temperatures, grab a seat at one of the coveted picnic tables on the rear patio, and sip a beer while you literally watch the tide roll in.
Photo Credits: Hugo’s: Courtesy of Hugo’s Restaurant; Blue Rooster Food Co.: Courtesy of Blue Rooster Food Co.; Eventide Oyster Co.: Courtesy of Eventide Oyster Co.; Pai Men Miyake: Courtesy of Pai Men Miyake; Portland & Rochester Public House: Courtesy of Portland & Rochester Public House; In’finiti Fermentation & Distillation: Courtesy of In’finiti Fermentation & Distillation