1 May 2016
My trip to Maine was coming to a close, and the final night in Maine was spent in Portland. Now Portland has gained a strong reputation for becoming a food mecca — albeit not the same reputation as the city in Oregon that took its name from this place thanks to a coin-flip. But nevertheless this Portland is becoming a draw not just for New Englanders, but folks that want to see that the good produce found in Maine goes beyond the lobster.
As an extra surprise, my good friends Sybil and Simon Majumdar were coincidentally in town, so we caught up for some cocktails at the excellent Bearded Lady’s Jewel Box. Just time for 2 quick ones as I had a reservation to get to for dinner, as did they. So cool our travels converged at the same place at the exact same time, happens so rarely!
I saluted them on their special evening as I headed off in the mist for my dinner at the restaurant that’s getting a lot, a LOT of buzz in and out of the area — Vinland. They took localvore to the next level as the kitchen uses ONLY stuff they get in Maine. Even if that means no citrus, they use whey heavily as an acid replacement. In fact, what they do is using local substitutes for things most chefs take for granted. It’s a fabulous experiment, and I was keen to explore this concept.
I must apologise first of all for the poor quality of pictures this evening. Earlier in the day in the mist something happened to the camera and I think some moisture may have seeped into the lens, giving the focusing a total nightmare. I always take multiple photos of each item, but this evening the camera just refused to focus so many times — so the photos in this review are not doing the food justice. I apologise, especially to the kitchen here, since they put so much into this meal and these photos don’t do their hard work justice…
In any case, the evening begins as Chef David Levy serves the first snack, the salad toast.
If any opener tells you how a night is going to go even before you eat it, it’s this. Clearly Chef is dedicated to his Maine-only concept, and that involves using ingredients that are less common, or used in different ways. Keep in mind that Maine has just entered spring. Nice little snack, then the first dish.
The hearty carrot makes for a good little soup, but once again something interesting. The lack of citrus in Maine gives Chef more limited options in adding acid into dishes, so he uses whey. Interesting, though the balance maybe needs a little more working in this dish. Then we have another snack, a beet chip.
I love beets and thank goodness roots grow well in harsher climates. Nice taste. I also see they are going with the snack-dish-snack-dish progression, which is kind of nice, especially at a kitchen counter. Instead of the rapid-snacks-until-you-surrender tactic at places like Kadeau, this makes for more convivial dining. Nice to chat with the team too between courses. Next up, a fermented oat cake.
Interesting, again using different grains compared to other places, this has a strong texture, with the taste accentuated by shiitake. Went well with a Slovenian pinot gris (well, obviously the wines are not local…). The next snack surprised me when Chef Levy announced it — mangalica.
Mmm, this was a tasty coppa made with mangalica. I was surprised there was mangalica in Maine and indeed — and we chatted a bit about issues regarding butchery and husbandry in Maine. It’s amazing how he’s managed to work through all this to have not just tonight’s menu, but to sustain a restaurant especially in the harsher season that comes with life in Maine. Then we go back to the sea and Maine’s bounty with a crab dish.
Very nice, full of natural flavours here. Chef doesn’t try to overdo anything, letting the Jonah crab’s wonderful taste speak for itself with just minor additions. His use of seaweeds is excellent, one of the more under-used items especially in the US, with a wide variety of them with which to experiment. Then back to another snack, and this got a grin out of me.
Lichen. Very cool. I think you can see the Nordic influence here, from the restaurant’s name to how he uses ingredients that are forged by Maine’s environment — both good and challenging. You don’t see this often in US restaurants, but it works so well here in Maine. His time at Noma may have helped with guiding him here. Then we move on to the roasted lettuce.
Now this is one dish that the photo did no justice. Bad focus, bad lighting, and you don’t get the full effect of this. May not be photogenic, but it’s interesting and tasty, with some local cheddar that actually make this work. I am still kicking myself for the photos from this night…
I kept chatting with Chef Levy and you really see not just a dedication to his craft and concept, but also an inquisitive mind that wants not just to be continually challenged by Maine but for him to challenge Maine itself. It’s like, “bring it on” and I’ll still craft a workable, excellent tasting menu. This is the type of inventiveness — on such a daily basis — that makes me like this place. It’ll be rougher than most tasting menus because of issue of sourcing, but it’s really one that lets the chef shine or flop. So far he’s shining.
We slide back to another snack and it suddenly feels like I’m back in the Nordics as we get some harðfiskur of all things!
This is a nice rendition of the Icelandic dried fish, though the butter added a little more for people who are less familiar with this dish. We stay in the water with the next dish, hake.
Nice little fish done well, with some early spring corn and kelp to add to the overall flavour. Then back to the snack with the dehydrated scallop.
A nice bit, though not as flavourful as the version Chef Evan Hennessey does at the amazing Stages at One Washington in Dover, New Hampshire. Then more from the wonderful ocean bounty, this time monkfish.
Once again sorry for the bad focus! Solidly cooked and meaty, the kelp being a wonderful addition. I love the usage of sea vegetables and fungi in the cooking here, really brings out the earth and ocean to the cooking. This has been a fun and tasty evening so far, and we’re still going!
The next snack was some mussels, as good as you see. Nice and plump. Then we get to the meats, first up focuses on local beef.
Mmm, nice raw minced beef, full of flavour. A touch of horseradish, this did not need the ubiquitous raw egg at all. Excellent. Then a cute little chicken skin snack…
I actually really like the way the snacks are in-between dishes as a segue between items. It’s more interesting than the parade-o-snacks you get everywhere. Then we get to the last savoury dish, the smoked capocollo.
Really sorry for the bad pix here. Again, an interesting taste of one of my favourite pigs, accented by a herbed lardo. The hen-of-the-woods was a nice addition. This was a rather long tasting menu, but I was sad it was drawing to a close…
I chatted with Chef and his sous a bit more as the night went on before we reached desserts, talking the industry, ingredients and places in Europe he’s staged in. Plenty of wine, this was a wonderful evening, and next up was a panna cotta…
Once again sorry about the poor focus! White always gives this thing a problem. But a cute start, especially the seaweed. Next up, the custard.
This focuses on parsnip — which works so well with dessert, like at Stages at One Washington a few days ago — with a nice tumeric touch. Then we have the final dessert, the blueberry semifreddo.
A nice close, adding that bit of fruit acid that is so hard to find here. You wonder why Nordic cuisine uses berries so frequently — it’s the lack of citrus. You take things for granted until you work within certain constraints, and that’s what makes this evening more challenging and interesting than usual. Wow, that was some tasting menu.
I was done with the food and was just having an after-dinner drink when my friends Simon and Sybil were heading back to their place, so I invited them to join me here for a drink. We ended up staying for hours, having a wonderful evening of drinking and conversation, and we enticed them enough for them to book dinner for the next night.
I think the two of them enjoyed the dinner they had sitting in the same spot the next day as I languished at BWI due to a booking boo-boo…
At the end, I was happy and think the experiment worked, that these local substitutes worked well and filled all the holes successfully. Could things have been better with other non-Maine ingredients? At some points, honestly yes. But the point of this restaurant is to feature Maine in a box, and it successfully did that.
Innovative yet tasty, and a wonderful team in addition. It’s a pleasure to spend so much time in this place not just to eat, but also to enjoy every aspect of this evening. Highly recommended!
593 Congress Street