Five Fifty-Five (Portland, ME)

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(Five Fifty-Five Dining Room)

Five Fifty-Five has been my favorite Maine restaurant ever since my first visit, when I first enjoyed their famous mussel preparation as well as an outstanding dish of cod with chorizo-butter sauce. Over the past couple of years I have dined there at least a dozen times and so each visit carries a strong sense of ritual. It has been a pleasure to witness not only the kitchen’s seasonally evolving menu, but more generally the narrative of the restaurant as it continues to mature. However, it is also difficult to articulate my enthusiasm on the basis of a single meal since much of my fondness derives from their ability to execute skillfully on a consistent basis, be it reproducing past favorites or exploring new concepts. As my brother was in town, we seized upon the opportunity to dine there once again and made an early reservation for Tuesday, July 3.

Proprietors Steve and Michelle Corry met in Napa Valley, California, where Steve worked at Domaine Chandon and Michelle at French Laundry. After moving to Maine, Steve cooked at Grissini Restaurant while Michelle has worked at Arrows and White Barn Inn. Chef Corry was named one of the 10 Best New Chefs in 2007 by Food and Wine. He has characterized the cuisine at Five Fifty-Five as “New New England,” a descriptor that combines farm-to-table sourcing with revisionist interpretations of classical New England cuisine, resulting in a more expressive, bolder use of ingredients than what one finds at more classical farm-to-table restaurants like Fore Street or Primo.

Perhaps because of the less-than-picturesque location on Congress Street, the blinds are always closed and the dining room is basically hidden from the street. This makes it so that they can’t rely on the city landscape to enhance the ambiance; however, the benefit of the set up is that it really amplifies the energy of the interior itself. To this effect, the open kitchen (visible on the right in photo at the top) helps in supplying some of the dining room’s constant energy. There is always an alluring balance between the constant motion of the open kitchen and the tightly regulated service conducted by the wait staff. I think it’s important to not just analyze the cuisine but also place the food in the context of the setting, and there’s a real synchronization between the cuisine, service, and ambiance.

Arriving on time for our reservation, we were led to our usual table next to one of the windows on the downstairs level and given menus. Five Fifty-Five is primarily an a la carte experience, although there is also a chef’s tasting menu and a bar menu for the lounge area. On Sundays, they do an outstanding brunch as well. There are several categories: small plates, green plates (salads), savory plates, cheese plates, and sweet plates. The dishes often have playful titles (e.g. Chef Corry’s famous “knuckle sandwich” from a few years back, made with lobster, basil mayo, and fried green tomatoes.) This is a minor point, but I’m also quite fond of the sinuous font that’s used for both the menu and the restaurant’s signage as it is expressive yet also classy. Although the titles (and font) may seem a bit trivial, they help construct the ludic spirit of the restaurant as a whole.

Although I enjoyed the tasting menu on the one occasion in which I ordered it, its structure of one plate from each category really makes it more of a glorified prix-fixe menu than a proper tasting and so I generally order a la carte. My brother ordered the pork belly as a starter and the truffled lobster mac and cheese for his main dish. While I enjoy the savory plates, I have always preferred the small plates and so I went with three starters: the grilled caesar, mussels, and the foie gras terrine.

Bread service included mini buttermilk biscuits and herb foccacia. The chive garlic butter is made in house; the biscuits are terrific and although I don’t typically care for focaccia, it’s a serviceable vessel for the butter. While I prefer the biscuits at Hugo’s to these, the garlic-herb butter makes up for any flavor scarcity.

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The amuse bouche was crostini topped with blueberry corn succotash; the flavor was a bit muted and if I hadn’t known, I never would have recognized the blueberries. Still, this had an attractive, vibrant summer color.

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My brother was quite pleased with his pork belly starter, which was accompanied by a coddled hen egg, poblano pepper puree, fiddleheads, Cape Elizabeth herb blossoms, and what I believe were toasted bread crumbs. He compared it favorably to the pork belly that we ate a week earlier at White Barn Inn as the meat was cooked less and much juicier. He especially enjoyed mixing the pork with the egg yolk and bread crumbs.

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The grilled caesar is revisionist almost beyond recognition and a great example of Chef Corry’s style: bold and a bit messy, yet with clear intentionality behind the composition. It is one of their most well-known dishes and thankfully never seems to leave the menu. The ingredients are relatively standard, but the preparation and plating style generate a good deal of novelty. As a bonus it is also delicious, with an outstanding interplay between smoky and rich flavors.

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Perhaps Five Fifty-Five’s best-known dish, the truffled lobster mac-and-cheese is a great example of “New New England” cuisine, and representative of the ability that Portland restaurants have in blurring the distinction between fine dining and casual cuisine. Truffled lobster mac and cheese is fairly ubiquitous, but this preparation is distinctive because they use not only truffle oil (like most restaurants) but also shaved black truffles. Even though my brother does not particularly care for lobster, he orders this on every visit and the shellfish works quite well in such a rich preparation.

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The mussels are possibly my favorite restaurant dish anywhere and unlike any other preparation. They are locally sourced and prepared with pickled cherry peppers, diced orange peppers, and chive butter (the same butter used with the bread service), and the pickled peppers supply distinctive heat and acidity that counters the sweetness of the butter. I always enjoy the contrast between the black skillet and the white plate/tablecloth; the visual appeal is also enhanced by the criss-cross motif of the grilled bread, again demonstrating controlled abstraction. In an interview (linked to from the restaurant’s website), one can watch Chef Corry prepare this dish. In said video, he states that this is his favorite dish and it is hard to disagree.

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I had been looking forward to the foie gras terrine, yet the preparation was fairly standard and a bit of a let-down after the mussels. It was supplemented with peaches, micro greens, and peach syrup. I generally enjoy cold foie gras paired with berries or citrus fruit, but this needed more of a textural/flavor contrast—brioche would have been logical in this regard—and the liver wound up being a bit overwhelming.

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As my brother enjoys cheese, I indulged him and we ordered 3: cave aged gruyere from Switzerland, Gore Dawn Zola from Boucher Family Farm in Vermont and Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm in Wisconsin. Accompaniments included crostini, spiced and glazed nuts, apricot chutney, and drizzled honey. I don’t typically enjoy gorgonzola, but this one was outstanding, with notes of chocolate and hazelnut. At $4.50/per, the cheese is also a notable bargain.

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Given that it was the day before July 4th, we decided to go with their interpretations of a couple of American classics: strawberry shortcake and s’mores. I have never been as impressed by the desserts as the savory plates at Five Fifty-Five and pastry chef Erin Swan’s creations never taste as explosive as those of Chef Corry, but the shortcake was one of her best creations. It was prepared with local strawberries, ruby port blackberry sauce, and whipped craime fraiche.

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Although visually striking, the s’mores dish was less successful. Fine dining interpretations of s’mores dishes seem to be taking off since Next’s version on the Childhood menu (for example, Tru has also come up with their own variation.) I wasn’t fond of Next’s adaptation, and this suffered from a similar problem of too many contrasting flavors that never harmonized; it was prepared with chocolate graham crackers, toasted blueberry marshmallow, chocolate sauce, and guava lemonade sorbet. The chocolate graham cracker completely overwhelmed the blueberry marshmallow and the sorbet clashed with the chocolate. It would have been more successful to use blueberry sorbet and a different variant of graham cracker as this would have emphasized the blueberry flavor, which was the most interesting aspect of the dessert.

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Along with the bill came a mignardise of chocolate shortbread. With the cookie crunch, it tasted a bit like a Twix candy. Our bill was about 1/3 the total of White Barn Inn, and while we had a great meal at White Barn Inn, comparing the two restaurants reveals how Five Fifty-Five is a real bargain.

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In any restaurant meal there are contingent factors that can sway an experience, but Five Fifty-Five operates at an elevated level whereby very little is left to chance. Not only do I find the cuisine to be the best-tasting in Portland, but it is the most conceptually compelling as well. While I wouldn’t necessarily expect the restaurant to have the same appeal for others, its playfully elegant sensibility ensures that I will continue to return.

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