Monday, April 21, 2008

A Day in Portland

The east-coast Portland, not that sad imitator over in Oregon, or Oruhgun as those wacky Westerners call it. I was up in town to visit a friend, and it was a momentous occasion for two reasons: it was my first time in Portland, AND it was my first time in Maine. It was also rather momentous since I didn't have to drive. And because it was the first trip in awhile where I didn't have a raging case of diarrhea in the middle of it.

Moving on, Portland is a VERY nice city. The crime rate is well below the national average in most ways, save for property crime and rape. Cold places are frequently like this. For example, rape is practically Alaska's national pastime. I like Alaska. I thought about moving there, once. I just don't think I could deal with at least one neighbor being raped nightly. I also couldn't deal with me being raped, which I assume would happen while getting off the plane.

Other than that, crime in Portland is low, the city is clean, and the quaint-ometer is off the chart. Somehow, Portland has managed to attain many of the benefits of a small city, avoid many of the problems, and wrap itself up in a clean, walkable, and full-featured metro area. Their culture and music scene is impressive, with dozens of small venues filling with revelers and bands every weekend. I saw three the night I was there, with the third, Strange Pleasure, having a phenomenal lead guitarist.

And the food, oh my lord, the food. Considering the size of Portland, it's impressive that such a small city has such an enormous restaurant scene. I guess, since Portland is essentially the economic hub of Maine, that Portland has a small live-in population, but an enormous active population that fills the streets beyond what the numbers indicate. The five colleges and universities in town also lend around 14,000 students to the local population during the school season.

This large, fluid population means lots of restaurants, lots of tastes, and lots of price ranges. Even the hottest ticket in town, the Gayot-rated Hugo's, cost a pittance in comparison to their big-city cousins. Hugo's, for example, charges $68 for a four course prix fixe menu cooked by an alumnus of The French Laundry. An eleven course chef's menu, customized to the diner's likes? $120. Hugo's is one of the great bargains of haute cuisine in America.

And I didn't get to go there. Closed until May 1st. Shitballs.

I ate everywhere else I could, though, what with my bum leg the last few weeks. I had a tasty breakfast, some of the best french fries on Earth, a latte from heaven, some excellent gelato, and bought a jar of very expensive jam.

Duckfat: From the owners of Hugo's, they fully understand that even if you don't cost that much, always offer people something different. Duckfat's menu is all unhealthy, all the time. French fries fried in, what else, duck fat were truly to die for. They took the lowly fry as close to gourmet as it will ever get. Salted ever-so-lightly, these were dynamite. Bravo. The sandwiches, I got roast turkey with cranberry coulee, were some rather good panini. The outside was cracker-crispy, but not browned, and the insides were buttery soft. I felt the sandwich needed something more to really kick up the flavor, but it was otherwise good. They brought out some of the best milkshakes I've ever had.

That's not really all that hard, but just making a freaking milkshake seems to be a lost art, these days. They made it right. I was so happy. The insides were quaint and simple, service was very friendly and quick, even a crying baby in the corner did nothing to dull our mood. The ingredients are also much more interesting than your average sandwich shop, with panini packing duck confit, meat loaf, and cherry-pepper relish. If you really want to have a heart attack, the Duckfat poutine will kill you just by thinking about it. Wines, beers, Numi tea, french press coffee, and a variety of desserts turns Duckfat into a true destination on the cheap.

Maple's Gelateria: A stone's-throw from the local Coldstone is this good local gelato shop. Situated in a small, mall-like building, with music, comic, and other stores, Maple's was recently awarded Best Ice Cream by the Portland Phoenix. Sure, but it's gelato. I make a distinction. Regardless, Maple's was damned good. Again, some of the best gelato I've ever had. I still think our own Roba Dolce! is better, but they're pretty much on equal grounds. Rich, creamy, and full of flavor. I only wish they had a few more, dare I say it, normal varieties. Yes, Turkish fig and Orange is very nice, how about peanut butter cup? God dammit I'm uncultured.

The insides were sparse, but wide and airy. I especially liked the lighting. Beauitful, wooden tables make the place feel even more artsy, and a corner full of games and toys for kids makes this place emminently family-friendly. A stack of more adult-oriented board games and cards mean the grown-ups have something to do as they nurse their espresso or affogato. I got a chocolate affogato, and the espresso was dark and earthy, but they didn't put very much gelato in the cup. Consequently, it melted a bit too fast and the last half was more a coffee-ish milkshake.

Big Mama's Diner: We broke our fast at Big Mama's Diner, a popular local breakfast place that has more customers than seats. Not as bad as, say, the Brickway (GAH!), but we had a few minute wait. Diner inside, Diner outside, there's nothing to surprise you at Big Mama's. Everything was well-priced and well-cooked. I was very happy with my omelette, which was cooked with fresh ingredients, and was still moist inside, as opposed to the dry husks that I so frequently get. French, FRENCH, do you people know what a French omelette is? It's only lightly browned and still wet on the inside. This wasn't a true French omelette, but still better than most I've had. All in all, Big Mama provided us with an affordable and good breakfast.

Breaking New Grounds Cafe: My cafe experience was fantastic. There were tons of cafes along seemingly every street, and I knew I had to try at least one. On the way back from Big Mama's, Breaking New Grounds seemed good. Nothing special. Austere interior, with a few mis-matched chairs. Sitting area in back. Some pastries. All of the things you would expect of a normal cafe was present and accounted for. The La Marzocco machine gave me my first hint that this place was a very serious shop. We ordered a peppermint mocha and a latte. The peppermint mocha was too strong on the peppermint syrup, and it left an oily residue floating on the surface of the coffee. Nothing was wrong with the texture, but the peppermint flavor was overpowering and, at that level, tasted artificial. Not a bad mocha, happy enough with it, but I've had much better. The latte was where the fun began. Deep and flavorful. They used a light roast for their espresso. I prefer the darker stuff, but whatever they chose was perfectly roasted.

The milk was a masterpiece. Thick, velvety, and rich, all topped off with a leaf. Yes, a leaf. I got latte art. In all of Providence and the surrounding area, I've never gotten latte art. This guy was a true barista. He didn't fuck around with a spoon. He free-poured like a rock star. I must say, I've had better lattes, but that's probably associated with the roast. But none of those other lattes were made with the degree of skill that is required of latte art. Coffee by Design won the Phoenix's award for best coffee, and being their own roaster that may be true, but the barista makes the drink, and they'd be hard pressed to beat the athlete at Breaking New Grounds.

Stonewall Kitchen: I finished my visit with a quick drop into Stonewall Kitchen. Manufacturers of gourmet jams and jellies, they have an excellently appointed interior and a friendly staff. They win you over with their sheer variety. It's actually a bit awe-inspiring. They have jams made from just about every fruit known to man, as they do jellies. Toppings for sundaes, spreads for sandwiches, and tools to make your own. I bought some strawberry jam which was very good. Sweet, thick, and with perfect texture, it's some of the best jam I've had. It is expensive though, $7.50 for my jar, and enough so to make me think twice about this over, say, Smuckers, which I also think is pretty darned good. I mean, come'on, with a name like Smuckers, it has to be good. Just not as good as Stonewall. They have a selection of utensils, like spoons and spatulas. They also sell other things, like over-priced bowls, storage nooks, hand soap, moose-shaped doorknob bells, catnip, and gardening supplies. This is... weird. I can't tell if they're trying to be Linen's & Things or Williams Sonoma. This isn't a place to decorate your home. This is a place to buy jams, and a damned good one at that.

And in closing, a really creepy flier I saw.

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

I was in Portland in February and love it too - the poutine at Duckfat was delicious.

I also haven't seen latte art in Providence, but I did once find some flickr photos of some that I think may have been from Javaspeed, the combo scooter store / cafe on North Main St. I don't know if it's a regular thing there, or if someone was just playing around, but if you're in the neighborhood you should investigate!