Sunday, July 25, 2010

Culinary Destination: Portland, Maine

During my vacation in Albany I was fortunate enough to be able to accompany my dad on an overnight business trip to Portland, ME. I went to Maine as a child with my parents but they are not times I really remember. Recently my friend The Creative Culinarian moved from NYC to Portland so I also was able to see her briefly which was a real treat. 
 My day in downtown started at the Standard Baking Company, 75 Commercial Street. As per recommendation from Tiffany I enjoyed a ham & cheese croissant. Here they top these delightful French treats with sesame seeds adding a level of crunchy texture that pairs nicely with the pillowy texture of the croissant. The ham inside is meaty and hardly fatty as some sliced ham can be; the cheese is melted down to a sauce-like nature-- not hardened as some cheese croissants can get after sitting. All of this made for a warm delicious breakfast I paired with a fresh iced tea sweetened                                                                              with simple syrup.

Next I was off to wander the small city. Well-fueled by my breakfast I made a big loop to kill some time before Le Roux Kitchen was open. Along the way I saw some fun things like a lobster claw drinking a martini:

Beautiful architecture: 

Sebago Brewing Company with little visages decorating their building:
Tiny dairy street signs:
and a cafe called Mornings in Paris which I did not stop... next time: 

By this time Le Roux was open. As you can probably guess I LOVE kitchen stores. Even Bed, Bath & Beyond with its harsh lighting and white particle board walls full of goodies and gadgets. A few weeks ago on my Market Day I stopped into Bowery Kitchen Supply in Chelsea Market and was stunned and mesmerized by their excessive selection. That day I picked up an olive oil cruet, a small creamer for when I have guests, an egg timer (my new apt's microwave doesn't have a clock or timer!), and a vegetable steamer. 

At Le Roux I selected a few little things for my mom: a small golden "tea" spoon topped with a little tea cup & saucer, an Earl Grey teabag to match, and a krinkle cutter- as per her request. For myself I got a honey stirrer and a kitchen sink drain basket (so exciting). They have a great selection of all the necessities and easy-to-shop displays of appliances, pots & pans, and other cook/bakeware upstairs; also a little closet contains their shoppable cookbook library.
Foodwise they have wines, featuring many local vineyards, and a wide selection of flavored balsamic vinegars-- with encouraged test tasting! As well as gourmet foods & spices (again featuring local seasonings-- like the Casco Bay Seasoning).

Fortunately, I was in town on a day when the Portland Farmer's Market was open! On Wednesdays the market takes place in Monument Square. I found lots of beautiful produce and I wanted to buy something from everyone-- alas I would have been carrying it around all day and it would not have stayed quite as fresh. I did get some baby eggplants and the cutest head of lettuce I have ever seen-- Tom Thumb Lettuce! 
Dandelion Springs was my first stop. The woman selling that day was very nice. Together we tried some Radish sprouts for the first time which were light but peppery. They could easily be used chopped up to season a salad in place of black pepper. 
There are a myriad of stunning bright flowers for sale at the Market. Many bouquets made of wildflowers and other more cultivated flowers, too. Again I'd have purchased a variety of bouquets for my mom and sister but they would have surely been a sad sight by the end of the day in the heat. 
You can see more pictures from the Farmer's Market on The Culinary Librarian Facebook Page.

Next up: A quick stop to the most spacious Whole Foods I have ever been in! Highlights here included a massive skylight ceiling that washes the entire store in sunshine-- nature's lamp; then a bulk section to rival Tribeca's featuring bulk liquids! On tap: Wildflower Honey, Maple Syrup, Olive Oil, and Agave Nectar. Each under $5/8oz. with containers available for easy filling. I definitely wanted to take back some EVOO and Agave to the city-- no room in my suitcase for my trip back on Sunday though-- again next time! (Does anyone know if any WF in NYC has bulk liquids?)

It was around 11am after my Whole Foods visit which means another of my culinary stops was open, Rabelais Books. Now I wrote my ode to Kitchen Arts & Letters in May, which is arguably the best cookbook bookstore in the country, so I went to Rabelais, another cookbook devoted bookstore with some lofty ideas of what a cookbook-only store should be like. I can't really say I was disappointed with the store but I was not overly impressed. One of the things I found throughout the day in Portland is that their focus when it comes to food writing is certainly based on farm-to-tables type literature; gardening, canning, and largely how to use up your bounty before it spoils type books. Naturally this makes sense for a city with a wealth of sustained farms around it and a place that is able to hold farmer's markets on three different days within Portland proper. 
Needless to say, I find myself well versed in the cookbook market due to my frequent stops to Borders, B & N, the Strand, cooking stores, and when I'm around on a Saturday (rarely) getting to Kitchen Arts and didn't find anything too compelling at the store. I did finally purchase Amy Cotler's The Locavore Way at Longfellow Books, located in the square across from the Wednesday Farmer's Market. 

Rabelais features a variety of American cookbooks dating back decades and decades, which can be interesting in their own right, but from a desirable collection of recipes usually seem to be lacking. I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for culinary Americana. All that being said, it was a good stop and judging by their website they seem to hold great events: Ina Garten will be at the store this coming Friday, the 30th, the store is featuring a reception where guests are given a signed book, photo, & lunch for a cost of $250 campaign contribution for Independent Governor candidate Eliot Cutler (However mixing gourmets & elections? I'm not so sure). 

Down the road from Rabelais is one of the best things I did all day in Portland: Duck Fat. For how often I mention duck in this blog I think I might have to rename is the duck-loving librarian! Duck Fat is a wonderful little restaurant serving up a menu highlighting the beauty of that precious animal by-product, duck fat. Their fries are cooked up in it, their graviest are based on duck stock, their menu items feature duck confit paninis. What better place for me to eat? 

It was still early in the day at this point so I wanted a hefty snack more than a full on lunch. I decided on the duckfat poutine and an Allagash White beer, made in Portland. If any of you are unfamiliar with Canada's crowning culinary delight, poutine is fries covered in gravy and topped with melted cheese curds. If you ever find yourself hungry in Montreal, this is definitely a snack to seek out. 
The key to this dish was by far the duck gravy. The fries on their own were delicious, flavorful, crispy outside and tender inside without tasting too much like potatoes (a tenant of any good fry for me). The cheese curds were fresh and gently melted, adding a creaminess to the salty fries and the gravy. And the gravy... a luscious little puddle I discovered about 10 fries in, almost hiding under the stack of fries. Flavorful with all the elements of why I love duck; meaty without tasting early, fatty without being heavy, and salty without being overpowering. I think I could drink a few ounces of it and feel real good afterwards. The local brew was a great pairing and just the kind of beer I like. Lots of flavor, citrus notes without being hoppy or bitter. Refreshing & filling. If you're a duckhead like I am and you ever go to Portland, Duck Fat is a must for you!! Order a side of extra gravy and pour it right over the top of your fries or poutine!

To finish my trip I met up with my friend Tiffany, or as some of you may know her The Creative Culinarian, and we went for a quick visit to the Portland Head lighthouse in South Portland. The lighthouse is made of textured stone painted white and is quite a sight to see. With the rocky Maine coast and the cadet blue waters of the Atlantic for a backdrop this spot a great place for pictures or to go with your sweetheart. 
After the lighthouse we went for a bite to eat at the Portland Public Market House. We ate at Pie in the Sky, sharing a BBQ Chicken pizza. The pizza was delicious but a little sweet for my liking. Topped with well slather pulled chicken and red onions. The Market House serves as a complete food destination with small specialty shops below and a food court style prepared food area on the second level. It is a cool place and would be good for a group of people with unique cravings to come and sate everyone.  

My day in Portland was enjoyable and culinary filled! Between recommendations from Tiff and help from the Portland, ME visitors website I was able to plan out my day without an ounce of boredom. There is plenty more I didn't have time to see or taste and will hopefully head back soon-- and I will have a lobster roll the next time! Without fail. 

To see all my photos check out my Facebook Album: Culinary Destinations: Portland, ME

Happy travels!


Kathleen said...

I so look forward to your food writing. You are so insightful.

Food and cooking look so much better through your eyes.

Parisbreakfast said...

Mon deux!
this is too much for me
I am not a duckhead.
But a very well rounded review of Portland's stuffings indeed.