Fuel (Lewiston, ME)

Fuel Dining Room

Fuel Dining Room

In previous blog posts, I’ve elaborated on the dynamic wherein the fanciest restaurant in a college town becomes a kind of ‘default-fine dining’ outpost. That is, such restaurants would not qualify as fine dining were they in large cities, but advance a standard deviation in the (perceived) generic hierarchy by virtue of their relative exclusivity. These restaurants depend on the patronage of students and staff, and are where search committees take prospective faculty to dinner following job talks. Fare characteristically includes baseline luxury ingredients (filets of beef, duck), nicely-prepared but without taking the diner out of her comfort zone.

Perched in close proximity to Bates College, Fuel is the Lewiston, ME example of this genre. While I consider these college town restaurants to benefit from a captive audience, one still has to admire the longevity of Fuel in light of Lewiston’s economically-depressed condition. Expanding the geographic horizon, Central Maine has proven a most challenging region for anything pricier than the pub or chain; neither Augusta nor Waterville boasts a restaurant of Fuel’s (still modest) ambition or price point. As an undergraduate, I twice dined at Fuel, but this was a number of years ago and so the Robert Indiana exhibit at the Bates Art [Gallery] motivated my family and me to venture off-the-beaten-trail to this now well-tenured Lewiston institution.

By Lewiston standards, Fuel claims a prime location, situated on the relatively busy, but not particularly attractive, Lisbon Street. Yet the dining room stands at a far remove from the street—no windowside tables or natural light (a couple of outside tables are available, though I can’t imagine anyone choosing to dine al fresco in such a setting.) This segregation from the street registers as a slightly aberrational gesture, particularly given the undramatic mise-en-scene of the dining room; with its low ceiling and narrow confines, the space feels as if it may have been a banquet hall in a prior incarnation. Decorating the walls are (reproductions of) French lithographic posters in the Lautrec style; this is pleasant-enough (if a trope), but also called attention to the contrast between the dynamic iconography of the posters and the relative blandness of the space.

Fuel bills itself as a “modern French bistro,” but in Maine, “bistro” has become an ambiguous signifier, co-opted to refer to anything from upscale, chef-driven cuisine to gastropub fare. Perhaps as a result of such elasticity,  very few restaurants in Maine serve bistro cuisine in its native context. So, Fuel distinguishes itself from other restaurants in this state by staying relatively faithful to proper bistro fare, offering such dishes as braised pork shank, steak frites, charcuterie, and escargot. Other dishes, such as the burger, French onion soup, and fries, claim French provenance but have obviously been absorbed by American cuisine. Fuel seems to frame the pork shank as its signature dish, declaring “A dish that truly defines our French Country heritage. Using all aspects of traditional French cooking, we sear the shank, then slowly braise it in red wine, aromatic vegetables, and balsamic vinegar. The braising liquid is strained and reduced to make a rich, flavorful sauce. The shank is fall-off-the-bone tender, and served atop Brussels sprout, bacon, and sweet potato hash.” This dish isn’t earning high marks for creativity, but the granularity of the description reflects a serious approach, as well as, perhaps, an attempt to educate the diner uninitiated in French cuisine.

With advance notice, one may order a four-course tasting menu. I understand that the chef may not have the time to compose a tasting menu a la minute, but requiring advance notice also suggests that perhaps the menu doesn’t showcase the best of what this chef has to offer. This suggests that what we have isn’t a case of an auteur chef developing his voice in spite of external constraints, but rather an instance in which the chef’s ambition has acquiesced to the exigencies of surviving in this setting.

For this midsummer meal, pork shank seemed too heavy, although there weren’t many light offerings either. I shared the charcuterie plate with my dad, and my mom chose the beat salad. My dad went with the burger for his main, while my mom and I chose mustard-glazed salmon with lentils. We also added the broccoli appetizer to augment the main courses.

Warm bread with butter made for a great opening.

Fuel bread

Fuel Bread Service

The charcuterie consisted of four cured meats: duck prosciutto, coppa, speck, and fennel sausage. Only the duck prosciutto was actually cured in house, and it was the highlight. The gaminess of the duck shone through, tempered by black pepper that accented the sides of each slice. We were very satisfied with the meats and the generosity of the presentation, although some other textures would have been welcome; I would expect a charcuterie plate to include a terrine or pate, for example. The intensity of the duck also would have benefitted from a berry compote, rather than the texturally-incompatible dried fruits accompanying the meats.

Fuel Charcuterie

Charcuterie: Duck Prosciutto, Speck, Coppa, Fennel Sausage (with Dried Fruits, Cornichons, Dijon Mustard, Crostini)

The beat salad boasted red and golden beets, adorned with a champagne vinaigrette, candied walnuts, blue cheese and baby lettuces. The opacity of this dressing challenged expectations, but my mother expressed her satisfaction.

Fuel beet salads

Red and Golden Beets, Champagne Vinaigrette, Blue Cheese, Baby Lettuces, Candied Walnuts

Here we have the salmon, a generous (~10-12 ounce) portion atop a lentils. The menu listed this as “Glazed with Dijon and bread crumbs,” and while more than serviceable, I’m not sure this was successful. Cooked to medium temperature, the fish was cooked more than my preference, and while the bread crumbs offered textural contrast, they overpowered the mustard. To my mind, a more enticing preparation would forgo the bread crumbs altogether, prepare the fish to a rarer temperature, and achieve a mustard crust. Ostensibly the lightest course on the menu, this became very dense. The heaviness of this course was only amplified by the lentils, and the dish became boring. Ordering the broccoli (pictured below the salmon) proved a savvy move insofar as it lightened the salmon and lentils, although the chickpeas rehearsed the starchiness of the lentils and bread crumbs. On its own merits, the broccoli dish was quite nice and we enjoyed that the chick peas seemed to have been treated with chili oil, but the overabundance of chick peas actually resulted in a rather heavy dish.

Fuel Salmon

Salmon with Dijon and Bread Crumbs, French Lentils

 

Fuel Broccoli

Broccoli, Parmesan, Chickpeas

Fuel offers an 8-ounce, ground ribeye burger. Served with cheddar, fried onions, and horseradish mustard, complementary textures and flavors made this a favorite with my dad.

Fuel Burger

Ribeye Burger, Horseradish, Fried Onions, Cheddar, French Fries

Dessert options included pot de crème, profiteroles, crème brulee, and my choice, apple tarte tatin. I ordered the tarte a la mode, while my parents chose the crème brulee with grand marnier.

The tarte boasted a classic texture, although it was served with maple syrup that proved a bit cloying. My preference would have been to serve this with caramel. The real misstep here, to my estimation, was serving this with chocolate ice cream, which overwhelmed the dessert, as chocolate is wont to do. Considering that the menu did not specify chocolate ice cream but rather mentioned simply that the tarte could be served “a la mode,” why would they serve chocolate? I find this particularly baffling in light of the fact that this was the only fruit-based dessert on offer, so we may conclude that to order this is to deliberately eschew chocolate. A satisfying dessert, but forgoing a la mode would have been wiser and cheaper.

Fuel Tarte Tatin

Apple Tarte Tatin, Maple Syrup, Chocolate Ice Cream

Fuel Creme Brulee (2)

Creme Brulee, Grand Marnier

My conclusion is that Fuel serves comfortable cuisine free of gratuitous complexification. Certain components, such as the bread crumb crust and chocolate ice cream were unwarranted, but perhaps reflect capitulation to a local palate. As for Fuel’s enduring popularity, the restaurant seems to have hit on lucrative cross-pollination between French cuisine and pub fare. A menu item like steak frites, for example, carries a kind of ‘double consciousness’—existing as both highbrow cuisine (by Maine standards) and meat-and-potato pub grub. Consequently, Fuel purports to provide a certain luxury (through declaring a French orientation) without taking the diner out of her comfort zone. Better appreciated within the college town genre than within the broad category of French cuisine, we emerged from this meal satisfied with the cuisine and content with the knowledge—not at all intended as a backhanded compliment—that this was the best we could have eaten on this evening, in this town.

Salero (Chicago, IL)

Salero Dining Room

Salero Dining Room

Salero arrived in Fall of 2014 and its website announces its mission in clear terms: “Welcome to Spain in Chicago’s West Loop.” Visually embedded within this greeting is an aqua asterisk symbol, similar to the Michelin star icon. This may lead the uninitiated to infer that Salero has garnered a Michelin star (it hasn’t); or we may read this as ornamental augury—a wishful foreshadow of Michelin recognition in the upcoming year. The website, then, begs the following: how, exactly, would Salero transport us to Spain? And is there the promise for culinary greatness?

While this restaurant is a relative newcomer, its chef, Ashlee Aubin, isn’t. In addition to the usual platitudes (an investment in eating local, on the relationship between food and community, and the forth), his website bio indicates that he spent four years at Zealous, which no longer exists but seems to have been a paradigmatic locus for early aughties fusion. Aubin then spent a year at Alinea, and the website credits Grant Achatz as Aubin’s chief mentor. Most recently, he headed the kitchen at Wood Restaurant in Chicago, a respected eatery but without the Spanish concentration Salero declares; this left me wondering whether Spanish cuisine was indeed native to Aubin’s culinary vision.

Locating Salero presented no challenges, since it occupies a small space adjacent to Blackbird and Avec, both of which I’ve dined at in the past. Our early reservation netted us the option of indoor or outdoor seating; arriving before my companion, I chose the former. Were I in Maine, I might have gone al fresco; at Salero, however, to dine outdoor is not to enjoy a prime layer of real estate, but rather to come into physical contact with Blackbird and Avec, the restaurant’s formidable competition. With exposed brick and wood, as well as wooden chairs and tables unadorned with cloth, the indoor dining room registers as fashionable, yet not particularly comfortable (perhaps these attributes are correlated.) One can see from the photo above the substantial variance in luminosity between the blinding sun outside and the dark interior milieu; combined with the nearly empty early evening dining room, the space felt almost cavelike (I imagine, however, that the exposed brick makes for a noisy late evening scene.)

Our server performed an efficient menu description, her presentation made all the easier by the absence of nightly specials. I was disappointed to find that jamon iberico had been replaced by cheaper serrano ham, which is delicious but relatively ubiquitous. Many dishes still caught my eye. Despite the Spanish focus, Chef Aubin accents his menu with touches extracted from a broader spectrum of European fare—harissa, foie gras, and orecchiette pasta, for example. I have no problem with such cultural borrowing; a nationally-specific focus need not entail the outright exclusion of other cuisines. I chose grilled octopus as a starter and whole lubina for my main. My companion chose differently, but I only tried my dishes and so I’ve limited this report to my plates.

A foodrunner stopped by with good bread, which I neglected to snapshot.

The octopus came with radicchio, escarole, and a croquette filled with tete de cochon. I don’t find the composition particularly attractive, perhaps because of the relatively monochromatic interplay between the reddish hues of the octopus and those of the lettuce and croquette. If there was aesthetic overlap, the taste proved just the opposite, and I couldn’t harmonize everything. The croquette wasn’t a bad match for the octopus and while the octopus was slightly overcooked, it remained within the bounds of enjoyability; yet the harshness of the lettuce really besmirched the complementary flavors otherwise at work.

Octopus, Radicchio, Tete de Cochon Croquette

Octopus, Radicchio, Tete de Cochon Croquette

The lubina was the real star of this meal, served with rouille, potato sticks, and charred escarole. I could have done without the latter (especially after the escarole and radicchio from the course prior), but this seems to be the age of bitter lettuces and so its presence may have been inevitable. The fish was cooked perfectly and the kitchen dexterously filleted it so zero bones littered the composition—often an issue with whole fish preparations. This dish had everything: a well-prepared protein, textural contrast, and an appropriate sauce. Given the youth of this restaurant, I imagine that Chef Aubin is mediating between overhauling his menu as the season dictates and hitting upon signature dishes; I hope this course claims signature status as it was a real tour de force.

Whole Lubina, Sauce Rouille, Charred Escarole, Potato Sticks

Whole Lubina, Sauce Rouille, Charred Escarole, Potato Sticks

To conclude, I ordered churros, served with salted whipped chocolate, and milk jam. These lacked the more dense sugar coating of the decorated version at Xoco, yet we may perhaps attribute this to a difference between Mexican and Spanish churros. The churros were satisfying, but lacked the modicum of sweetness that I enjoy in a dessert.

Churros, Salted Whipped Chocolate, Milk Jam

Churros, Salted Whipped Chocolate, Milk Jam

My hasty, one-meal conclusion is that Salero’s cuisine isn’t vastly different from what one finds at other West Loop spots, particularly Spanish-inflected restaurants like Vera and Avec (there may be others as well.) Certainly, those two restaurants remain anchored in small plates, distinct from the 3-course experience of this meal; all the same, Salero’s forte doesn’t seem to involve serving atypical ingredients, but rather configuring those ingredients into a more conventional dining experience than its competition. Salero might do well solidify its niche through offering more luxurious Spanish ingredients. The most high-end ingredient was foie gras—what does it say about an upscale Spanish restaurant when its chief luxury ingredient derives from another cuisine? I have no objection to foie gras being served, but the absence of iberico ham feels like a lost opportunity.

It was also a mistake, I think, not to produce a more distinctive décor, perhaps with more Spanish artwork. In other words: if Salero purports to transport its diner to Spain, national specificity is achieved through cuisine alone (unlike Topolobampo, for example, which represents Mexico through cuisine, décor, stemware, and so on.)

Fortunately, in Chef Aubin, Salero possesses a worthy chef who produces plates that are attractive to both eye and tongue. I can see that the middling octopus preparation has been replaced by a more compelling preparation, and other dishes invite return visits. Salero may not achieve a proper Spanish experience, nor even a singular experience within the West Loop, but the skilled preparation of my fish leaves me optimistic that Salero should manage to avoid getting muscled out of town by its more famous neighborhood competition.

Niche (St. Louis, MO)

An investigation into St. Louis fine dining restaurants won’t generate many results, but the city lays claim to a few high-end destinations. The best-known of these is Niche, whose executive chef, Gerard Craft, stands fresh off winning the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Midwest. My brother and I have eaten at Niche on several occasions over the last 6 months and so have developed a degree of familiarity with the cuisine and staff; unfortunately, the academic year exerted too many demands on my time to chronicle those earlier meals and so this post will have to suffice.

Niche has resided in its current location on Forsythe Street only recently, and at our first meal, the GPS led us to the old location. The dining room boasts a spectrum of brownish hues and an attractive open layout. The only aspect of the interior design that leaves me wanting is the floor; in lieu of hardwood floors, I believe Niche uses one of those cheap floor mats designed to simulate the look of real wood. I imagine this fabric goes unnoticed by most, particularly since the lighting is relatively low, and so I doubt they’re planning to overhaul the floor anytime soon.

Niche features a refreshingly transparent menu structure, with no blind tasting progressions. One chooses from either a 4-course prix fixe or a longer tasting menu comprised of dishes from the prix fixe. The prix fixe features a grid of three options for each course, so at any point in time, the restaurant offers 12 courses from which to choose—this is compact enough to suggest that nothing is on offer just to take up room. There are also some ‘snack’ offerings to punctuate the opening chapter of the meal. We always go with the prix fixe as that is now my favorite format in which to dine—long enough for a variety of flavors, but with course selection still in the hands of the diner.

Before ordering, we were served gratis cocktails (mine was non-alcoholic, my brother’s was not.)

Cocktail

Cocktail

One of the big calling cards of this restaurant is their policy of sourcing everything from a 300-mile radius. According to the website:

“To take the common and remind you how beautiful it can be. We look to the past to see what was here long before us and we look to the future to see what might be possible. As chefs we are never satisfied and always evolving. We are more in awe of a carrot or potato, grown by one of our trusted farmers, than we are by a white truffle flown in from Italy. To us, this is what defines cooking in Missouri.”

Conceptually, this is easy to admire and clarifies that Niche isn’t just copying what restaurants in other states are doing. But, this isn’t Conceptual Art we’re dealing with; the high degree of geographic specificity also raises the same question that any other farm-to-table restaurant poses: would the cuisine benefit from a wider geographic base? At any rate, this is not a seafood restaurant (the only fish I’ve seen on offer is trout)—lots of root vegetables, grains, and poultry instead. We began by ordering the potato beignets with a smoked trout dip, as well as house-cured ham and cheese bread. For the prix fix courses, I chose the swiss chard dish, then a mushroom course, and the lamb as my main dish. Dessert was pecan financier My brother went with a butternut squash soup and then the same mushroom preparation. His main course was a local ribeye, and then the same dessert.

The first items delivered were ‘tea’ (a pork broth) and English muffins topped with house-made camembert.) When one is served a deconstructed tea like this, it’s hard to know the spirit in which it is presented. Was this a genuine act of hospitality or an ironic joke? At Alinea, this would certainly have been the latter, served with a sneer. At Niche, it felt more genuine—a joke for us to enjoy, but also a welcoming gesture at the start of the meal. Sadly, while the English muffin was great, I couldn’t handle the tea—way too one-note with the fattiness, and the broth had coagulated anyhow.

Pork 'Tea'

Pork ‘Tea’

English Muffin, Camembert

English Muffin, Camembert

Niche prides itself on its bread offering, which makes good use of local grains. In this article, the sous chef went so far as to claim that “I think where we’re at now, the bread tells as much of a story as any other dish on the menu.” The bread was awesome and enhanced by the accompanying butter and fleur de sel.

Wheat Bread

Wheat Bread

Next were the potato beignets and charcuterie. This latter offering was served with cheese bread, which my brother likes but which became rather redundant with the bread service. I’d still recommend either of these offerings.

Potato Beignets, Smoked Trout Dip

Potato Beignets, Smoked Trout Dip

The complete title for my first plate was “Swiss Chard: egg yolk, fromage blanc, green garlic.” This was plenty rich without the egg yolk (poured tableside), which took everything to another level. I knew from experience that Niche has great facility with vegetables and this was another winning preparation.

Chard, Fromage Blanc, Egg Yolk, Green Garlic

Chard, Fromage Blanc, Egg Yolk, Green Garlic

My brother always orders soup to start and he enjoyed this one. Given that this was mid-April, butternut squash soup was a bit out of season (replaced with asparagus not long thereafter.) Ordinarily, squash soups can get a bit sweet, but this one was spiked with local miso (and pecans), which cut through the cloying flavors. Very good.

Butternut Squash Soup, MO Miso, Pecan (pre-pour)

Butternut Squash Soup, MO Miso, Pecan (pre-pour)

The mushroom are the only plate that never leaves the menu and this execution was great as usual. Oyster and maitake mushrooms are plated on a bed of grits, alongside a chorizo/butter/paprika sauce, carrots, and a superfluous herbal garnish. We love this rich and complex way of foregrounding the mushrooms.

Local Mushrooms: Chorizo Spices, Carrot, Polenta

Local Mushrooms: Chorizo Spices, Carrot, Polenta

Next were blackberry popsicles; my brother’s was enhanced with bourbon.

Blackberry Popsicles

Blackberry Popsicles

My lamb course offered loin and (if memory serves) sweetbread. The composition here didn’t carry the same level of precision as the other offerings and there was a lot going on here. Everything was perfectly-executed; this brought a sigh of relief since on occasion, meat has been overcooked in the past (also, just parenthetically, fish has been over-citrused.)

Lamb Duo: Carrot, Yogurt, Black Walnut

Lamb Duo: Carrot, Yogurt, Black Walnut

The steak was served with potato, onion, malt, and ramp hollandaise (poured tableside.) Niche has always done an awesome job sourcing their beef and this was cooked sous-vide at the requested medium-rare. Very satisfying.

Ribeye: Potato, Onion, Malt, Ramp Hollandaise

Ribeye: Potato, Onion, Malt, Ramp Hollandaise

We each ordered pecan financier for dessert; this was served with a bourbon anglaise, blueberry, and meringue. The preparation sounded interesting, but the anglaise had some kind of elemental technique that solidified the cream—a major disappointment as everything was dry. This preparation rehearsed my frustrations with the pastry program from past meals, as they invariably mar the desserts through gratuitous techniques. To a certain degree, this complaint applies to the state of desserts right now, which seem overly obsessed with techniques and deconstruction. I’ve remarked on this in past blog posts, but pastry programs have become disproportionately more abstract and technique-driven than savory, to the point of diminishing returns.

Pecan Financier: Whiskey Barrel Anglaise, Blueberry, Meringue

Pecan Financier: Whiskey Barrel Anglaise, Blueberry, Meringue

A couple of candies ended the meal.

If the dessert rehearsed extant frustrations with the pastry program, the rest of the meal reprised pleasures that compel us to return every other month or so: a dexterous hand with vegetables, top-notch steak preparations, and gracious service. Remaining grounded in hyper-local ingredients has not compromised the cuisine. I’d also say that Niche’s cuisine and culinary ethos comport with what has come to mean “contemporary American” cooking: on the one hand, a principle of spatiality that involves excavating local ingredients, to the point of also growing local variants of international staples; and on the other hand, a principle of temporality shown through the careful selection of time-honored Missouri ingredients like grains and earthy vegetables. The executive chef seems to be aiming for these principles, remarking in reference to the localism of the recent winter menu that it “gives the restaurant a sense of time and place; it gives a sense of the winter of Missouri in 2015.” Yet as the quote cited early in this post makes evident, the emphasis on time and place is dialectical, bringing past and present together and even placing Missouri ingredients in dialogue with international cuisines through, for example, the Missouri miso included in the soup. Niche might confuse first-time visitors since the uber-local focus perhaps suggests a simple culinary approach rather than the technique-driven cuisine on display at points in this meal, but a clear culinary voice still governed this meal. Of course, we knew in advance that red meat and vegetables were areas of strength and so there is always the chance that ordering other items might have resulted in less sanguine impressions. But with its regional focus and culinary foray into Missouri’s past and present, Niche occupies a worthy place in ‘contemporary American’ fine dining.

Tru (October, 2014)

Charger Plate at Tru

Charger Plate at Tru


My first meal at Tru took place three years ago: same chef, same time of year, same dining companion. That meal has only grown worse in my estimation, lowlighted by a faux caviar course (smoked sturgeon shaped to look like caviar) and a kohlrabi soup that remain two of the most horrifying dishes I’ve had in any restaurant context, fine dining or otherwise—fancy preparations and serviceware (the faux caviar was served in a caviar tin, while the soup was served in its gourd), but each reduced to saltiness and nothing else. An intervening visit in the Spring of 2012, chronicled on this blog, delivered better results, but there were still faulty preparations (a friend’s red meat was dry and the desserts were poor) and nothing that engendered any kind of commitment. It was only after learning of Tru’s whole duck preparation, which actually debuted in 2013, that my friend and I made reservations for an October evening.

The longevity of the chef, Anthony Martin, might signal a kind of stasis, and the restaurant has actually been around since 1999, and so it now slips into the old guard of Chicago fine dining. Still, one of the more interesting developments in Chicago culinaria has been the impulse by old guard restaurants to modernize: Spiaggia is another restaurant that has made even more drastic efforts in this area. In an apparent attempt to keep up with exclusively tasting menu restaurants like Grace, EL Ideas, 42 Grams, and others, Tru has scrapped its 3-course prix fixe and so diners are now locked into tasting menu structures of varying lengths. Martin himself is still quite young and he must feel that an elongated structure is key for his culinary growth. These changes, as well as the duck course, impelled us to return, but questions remained: would Tru remain hamstrung by the conception and execution errors that compromised past visits? And does the dynamism of Martin (and his staff) necessarily correspond with culinary improvement?

Tru is known for its dining room, which boasts pricey Pop, Minimal, and Post-Minimal works by Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol, Ed Ruscha, Yves Klein, and others. The space feels very much like a museal installation, with pieces rationally disbursed against white walls. On the level of taste politics, I understand this connection: fine art (and its public) corresponds with fine dining (and its public.) At the same time, I don’t think the design logics of the 20th-century museum can be unproblematically applied toward restaurants. When a restaurant feels like the modernist white cube, this presents its own paradox: the white walls of a museum purport to isolate vision in the high-modernist tradition, but this is obviously destabilized when food is served and taste enters the equation. Put differently, it’s all very well for restaurants to display nice artwork on the walls, but this becomes disorienting when the space feels more like a museum and less like a restaurant.

Tru offers three menu lengths: 5-courses, 7, or 12. We went with the seven, in large part because our tasting menu from Fall 2011 was not as successful as the shorter meal from Spring 2012. Two of our courses carried surcharges: the duck cost an extra $40 over the other meat choice (filet of beef), and a foie gras dish was $30 over a squash soup (I wasn’t going down that road after the soup debacle of 2011.)

The first item was a comte gougere. These have been served since before my first meal here.

Comte Gougere

Comte Gougere

Next we were deluged with opening bites: this first contained sweet corn in different textures, including freeze-dried, which I suppose allowed them to get away with serving sweet corn post-season. There were burgundy truffles shaved in there, but they didn’t generate much impact.

Corn Amuse

Corn Amuse

Other bites included cold foie gras enveloped in a strawberry shell (delicious) and a raw tuna preparation. Very good.

Cold Foie Gras

Cold Foie Gras

Our first course was dashi custard with California sturgeon caviar and yuzu kushu, a very spicy jelly. This composition signaled that Martin’s eye for style had not evaporated, and the plating and serviceware looked like something I wouldn’t find elsewhere. That couldn’t save this course, though; the yuzu paste wound up overpowering everything else, ruining good caviar. I think my friend liked this more, so one’s mileage may vary depending on heat tolerance.

Dashi Custard, Yuzu Koshu, White Sturgeon Caviar

Dashi Custard, Yuzu Koshu, White Sturgeon Caviar

Next up was an even worse use of luxury ingredients. We were served seared foie gras with chestnut cream, quince, and shaved Alba truffles. I’ve never been fond of seared foie gras since it tends to be quite sweet, and that was the case here as well, although it wasn’t a deal-breaker. The problem lay in layering rich flavors on top of each other: first the foie gras and then the cream and truffle. To my mind, each of those luxury flavors should have anchored a dish on its own, rather than this cluttered concoction. I don’t think the chestnut cream had any business getting involved with either the liver or the truffle. Pairing foie gras with quince made sense, but should have been segregated into its own course. A more dexterous handling of truffle would have foregrounded it simply, with either pasta or risotto. Instead, these first two courses just showcased Martin’s lack of restraint when handling luxury ingredients and this felt like vulgar cooking, with square pegs crammed into round holes in the name of combining expensive foods just for the sake of it.

Seared Foie Gras, Chestnut Cream, Quince, Shaved White Truffle

Seared Foie Gras, Chestnut Cream, Quince, Shaved White Truffle

Between courses, we were served small croissants with black truffle-spiked butter. They were awesome.

Croissant, Black Truffle-Butter

Croissant, Black Truffle-Butter

Our fish preparation was this monkfish, served with chard, matsutake mushroom broth, and smoked pine nuts. It was good but looked and felt incomplete. This fragmental character reminded of the kinds of dishes that comprised my unsteady marathon meal at Sixteen last January. I don’t really see the point of serving this, especially with a substantial duck course to follow—it just distracted us from the main attraction, even if the fish was nicely prepared.

Monkfish, Matsutake, Chard

Monkfish, Matsutake, Chard

Before the duck was served, a runner presented us with this photo-op; it was a ‘dummy duck’ and not the one we were to be served, but it was an accurate replica.

Duck

Duck

Our actual duck was served in two components, delivered simultaneously. The breast was served with caramelized endive and pineapple-ginger chutney. I couldn’t help but contrast this with the shoddy foie gras from two dishes prior: there was evident care here, with everything well thought through. The duck was aged for 8 to 10 days, with the skin containing honey, orange, Dijon mustard, coriander, black pepper, and cumin. This was a marvelous combination, and Martin achieved a perfect skin. I found the temperature to be great (roughly medium-rare); I wouldn’t have minded it cooked a bit less, but I think that might have foreclosed the possibility of crispy skin. The portion was generous, and the thigh meat was included in an apple-potato puree.

Duck Breast, Endive, Pinneaple-Ginger Chutney

Duck Breast, Endive, Pinneaple-Ginger Chutney

This was probably my favorite duck preparation of all time. I also appreciate the Versace plate; this classy preparation reminded me of when Grant Achatz used to serve a traditional course at Alinea, complete with period serviceware, just to break up the progression of more avant-garde preparations; in both cases, the luxury serviceware just brings an extra layer of grandeur.

I feel like this duck course could be a real signature for Martin, although this does raise the question: can a course qualify as a signature dish if it doesn’t actually represent a chef’s style? This duck was remarkable, but it worked against what I see to be Martins’ primary qualities: to be sure, there was the ornamental imperative that defines his compositions, but the tendency to overdo everything was mercifully absent, as this presented clear and intuitive flavors. In most cases, Martin’s preparations taste worse than they look, but this wasn’t the case here. I think Martin would do well to structure his menu around the duck and make it his signature, but I actually see that he’s just taken it off the menu—a real error in judgment as I see it. Also: what will they do with the Versace plates?

We were then presented with the cheese cart. I didn’t see many that interested me and so I went with three soft cheeses, which were nice.

Cheese Cart

Cheese Cart


Cheese

Cheese

The pre-dessert was verjus sorbet with mint. I have a low mint tolerance and so this wasn’t as refreshing for me.

Verjus-Mint Sorbet

Verjus-Mint Sorbet

A basket of madeleines was delivered.

Madeleine

Madeleine

One of the peculiarities of Tru is that Martin presides over both savory and pastry, and it’s not hard to see where most of his energies go (not toward the pastry.) There were only two dessert options, neither of which brought any originality: the first was a “plane” of good dark chocolate, and the other an apple-chestnut strudel. This was an easy choice and I went with the strudel, which was paired with pear sorbet. This was an absolutely uninspired dessert, though; I respect how hard Martin must have to work in order to manage each component of the menu, but also wonder whether he may have been more invested in choosing the serving vessel than crafting a memorable dessert.
tru dessert

The closing bites were much better, with a liquid truffle (not shown), pate de fruit, non-liquid truffle, and canele. All were great. A muffin was given as a nice parting gift.

Mignardises

Mignardises

On my way out, I snapped pictures of a couple artworks, the first a light and space work by Ed Ruscha and the second a statue by Yves Klein.

Ed Ruscha, Somebody's Mother

Ed Ruscha, Somebody’s Mother


Yves Klein, Somebody's Mother

Yves Klein, Venus Bleue

This meal was certainly successful, highlighted by a duck preparation that was absolutely one of my favorite dishes of 2014. Even so, the excision of the duck also gives me little reason to return, and this meal also evidenced the less savory aspects of Chef Martin’s style: a reticence to let expensive ingredients speak for themselves, a lackluster pastry program, and overaggressive seasoning. I also wonder whether Martin is actually to be commended for his dynamism, a question that really emerges after seeing that the duck has been removed. Why didn’t he just recognize that he’d hit on something really special and continue to serve it? Most tables in the dining room had ordered it and so the interest would seem to be there. In general, I think we have an impulse to reward chefs who are constantly experimenting and in this regard Martin should be lauded, but I might actually prefer the frozen rhythms of restaurants that don’t overhaul their menus (Everest, for example) if it means that I can count on past favorites.

Martin is also part of a cohort of Chicago chefs who spent considerable time at Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas, with others including Thomas Lents of Sixteen and Matthew Kirkley of L2O. I can’t help but draw similarities between Martin and Lents. I enjoyed this meal more than my dinners at Sixteen, but I think both chefs suffer the same limitations: they select clever serviceware and have great ideas, but overshoot their target and venture into gratuitous complexity. In the case of Lents, I think he executes seafood better than anyone in Chicago, but his talents are undone by wearisome tasting progressions. Martin, meanwhile, would have done well to cap this at 3 courses, without introducing a superfluous monkfish course. I understand that maybe these chefs feel that more courses=a more enjoyable meal, but in both cases diminishing returns materialized.

On a different note, but related at an angle: I was recently curious about the historical context in which Moto was received upon opening and so I browsed the lthforum. Several commenters remarked that Homaru Cantu displayed a firm grounding in classical technique (born out of his background at Charlie Trotter’s), which was occluded rather than enhanced by his experimentation. Moto has since come a long way, and I loved my one meal there. I think Martin and Lents are somewhat like Moto circa 2004; Lents is, in my mind, far more talented with proteins than Martin, but the same struggles to craft a compelling tasting menu manifest across their cooking, to the point that the progressions feel tacky.

To close, I think Tru is in a difficult boat because, as a Michelin 1-star restaurant, it’s both part of and distinct from the 1-star contingent. Part of this group, since Michelin gave it a lone star; and also distinct from this category by virtue of its elevated price point, which begins at $125 (for the 5-course with no upgrades) and can easily cross $200. There is an air of exclusivity to Tru that one doesn’t get from most one star Michelin restaurants, but I can also think of 1-stars whose cuisine I prefer, including Topolobampo, Boka, and North Pond, and it is at that point that a return visit becomes unlikely—that is, unless the duck ever gets resurrected.

Slates (Hallowell, ME)

Slates Signage; Taken from Facebook Page

Slates Signage; Taken from Facebook Page

The Central Maine restaurant scene is as unheralded as they come. Having lived in the region for four years earlier this century, I’m very familiar with the area, and yet I haven’t written about any of the restaurants there during the 2.5 years I’ve been operating this blog. One of the most compelling aspects of restaurants (at least to me), though, is that even if an area isn’t known for its dining, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t restaurants there, or that they don’t mean a great deal to the local population. Put differently, if we want to arrive at the cultural significance of a restaurant, we have to look beyond the food they put on the plate and address the relationship they maintain with their community. Food and cultural significance are related, of course, since a restaurant serving long tasting menus probably won’t survive in this region, but the point remains that even towns that are generally subpar in the restaurant department still maintain a restaurant culture all their own, with their own cherished eateries. An example of such a restaurant is Slates, in downtown Hallowell, ME, which is probably the most beloved restaurant within a 50-mile radius. Several years ago, part of the building burned down in a fire, but it rallied back and continues to enjoy a packed dining room every night. I first started dining at Slates during my undergrad years, when I lived not too far from Hallowell. In the intervening years, I’ve found occasion to eat there 2-3 times per year, not because I find the cuisine challenging but for its nourishing dose of nostalgia and delicious cooking. My family was happy to return on a recent summer evening on our way back from Waterville.

Slates isn’t limited to its restaurant. Next door is a bakery that is open until the evening, where they sell baked goods, as well as signature side dishes, hummus, and salad dressings from the restaurant menu. This means that Slates isn’t just contained within the physical boundaries of its property, but is a part of the daily lunch and dinner spread for many Central Mainers. The restaurant is, therefore, less a restaurant and more a town institution.

One of the challenges faced by Slates and other neighborhood restaurants concerns how to satisfy a varied clientele. On any given evening at this restaurant, one may find business diners (Hallowell stands adjacent to Augusta, the state capital), couples celebrating their anniversaries, families with their children, or people in for a quick one-course meal. This means that Slates doesn’t just mean different things to different people, but may mean different things based on the day of the week or occasion. Because the restaurant flows between casual to special occasion-worthy and everything in between, this makes constructing a coherent menu a challenge. Slates covers its bases by emphasizing breadth, with dozens of menu items. There are burgers, pizzas, and pasta dishes, but also substantial proteins like lobster, beef tenderloin, lamb, and duck. I would generally rather see a more streamlined menu since my interest in menus are typically inversely proportional to their length (shorter menus give the impression that the menu has been pared down to what’s really delicious), yet I understand the commercial motives for doing it this way and in fairness, my family has ordered from each section and never found something that didn’t belong.

The menu hasn’t been overhauled in several years and so I encountered past favorites, including the Cajun seared haddock with jalapeno mayo and the gazpacho with Maine crabmeat. The constancy of so many of these dishes means that people don’t just develop a relationship with this particular restaurant, but also with the specific plates served. One of the questions raised by such a menu is the duration for which a dish can stay before it feels stale? I suppose that there is no clear answer, and that a dish can simply stay until it feels dated. This is an interesting dilemma to me, though, because it speaks to the way in which we expect restaurants to stay innovative while also crafting signature plates of food—satisfying this tension between innovation and distinction seems to me to constitute the goal to which every restaurant aspires.

Collectively, my parents and I ordered from most sections of the menu. For the main dishes, one selects their choice of sides from a template of four possible choices. This is lazier than crafting composed dishes and recalls a critique I had of Street and Company, where I mentioned that the restaurant would benefit from a more careful selection of accompaniments for each dish. Here we ran into the same problem to a degree, but this was better since at least I could choose which sides I wanted. I wound up going with the shaved broccoli salad and Thai cabbage salad. I began with the greens salad because I love the accompanying house dressing, and progressed to the haddock with jalapeno mayo. My dad forwent an appetizer and selected the burger with crispy prosciutto and roasted red peppers. Lastly, my mom began with the gazpacho and crab, and progressed to a greens salad with grilled salmon.

While waiting for our food, we admired the dining room, which has retained its eclecticism. The vitality of this restaurant stems not just from its cuisine but also from the abundant color. The deliberately-unmatching plates and linens are not of great quality, but they keep everything cheerful, which is a particular virtue in the winter months, when temperatures cross the zero-degree threshold.

Following tradition, for bread we were served this crusty offering with garilic-infused olive oil. Because our reservation was at 5:30—the first seating—the bread was still warm.

(Bread and Olive Oil)

(Bread and Olive Oil)

A greens salad is something I almost never order and my decision was prompted by the excellent salad dressing, which has a strong sesame-ginger taste. The pickled beets were good and the red cabbage an unusual treat.

(Greens Salad, House Dressing)

(Greens Salad, House Dressing Not Pictured)

I’ve ordered the gazpacho with crab in the past and so I can speak to the strength of my mom’s dish, which was perfect with the hot weather outside.

(Gazpacho, Maine Crab)

(Gazpacho, Maine Crab)

One doesn’t see haddock too often outside of Maine, I suppose because it isn’t one of the more prestigious Atlantic fish. Here it was given the sort of heavy seasoning one often finds with catfish, but haddock can withstand this kind of treatment and everything was delicious. Both sides presented nice summer flavors.

(Cajun-Seared Haddock, Jalapeno Mayo, Brocolli Salad, Thai Cabbage Salad)

(Cajun-Seared Haddock, Jalapeno Mayo, Brocolli Salad, Thai Cabbage Salad)

My dad enjoyed his burger, which featured good local beef. He appreciated that a grainy mustard was used in lieu of ketchup or aioi.

(Burger, Crispy Prosciutto, Roasted Red Pepper)

(Burger, Crispy Prosciutto, Roasted Red Pepper)

The salad was an enlarged version of mine, with the addition of a nicely-prepared filet of salmon.

(Grilled Salmon, House Dressing)

(Grilled Salmon, House Dressing)

All of the desserts are made next door at the bakery, which makes it easy for the small kitchen to expedite large volumes of desserts. We shared two desserts: a butterscotch sundae with housemade butterfinger and chocolate ice creams, as well as toasted almonds and whipped cream. Supplementing this was a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream. These were traditionally-minded but very New England and perfectly executed.

(Butterscotch Sundae, Butterfinger Ice Cream, Chocolate Ice Cream, Toasted Almonds)

(Butterscotch Sundae, Butterfinger Ice Cream, Chocolate Ice Cream, Toasted Almonds)

(Strawberry Rhubard Pie a la Mode)

(Strawberry Rhubard Pie a la Mode)

I’m not sure how photogenic this cuisine was, but we loved everything we ate. I don’t think Slates places much emphasis on their plating style, but to my mind that isn’t a problem since they only purport to be a neighborhood restaurant. While some people may treat it as a special occasion restaurant, at its core Slates serves more of the kind of food one might cook at home. To this end, I think Slates is successful because they beat the home cook at their own game; the cuisine is relatively unambitious, but chances are that the home cook doesn’t prepare salad dressings, pies, or burgers this delicious.

Slates doesn’t really have a signature style, nor does the restaurant necessarily specialize in native Maine ingredients. Therefore, I wouldn’t designate it as an important restaurant on a statewide level. It is, however, an important restaurant for Hallowell and Central Maine, and one can see why it occupies a central position in the culture of this culinarily impoverished region of the state.

Street and Company (Portland, ME)

Open Kitchen at Street and Company

Open Kitchen at Street and Company


It was only five years ago that Portland was named “America’s Foodiest Small Town” by Bon Appetit. This generated national attention, to be sure, but the recency of the designation belies the fact that some of Portland’s major restaurants have been cooking for decades. One such eatery is Street and Company, which is celebrating its 25th year. At one point, Street was my favorite restaurant in Portland, and I would go almost monthly as an undergrad. My preferences have reoriented somewhat, though, and so it had been about two years since I’d dined there. With its tight-quartered dining room, I think Street is best enjoyed in the cooler months, but I will be out of state by then and so my mother and I made reservations on a recent summer evening.

Street is bifurcated into two dining rooms: one that overlooks Wharf Street and another that gazes into the open kitchen (for this meal, we were seated in the latter.) I’ve dined in both on multiple occasions but prefer the one that’s away from the kitchen. Ideally, of course, open kitchens offer a nice spectacle, but this one is hard for me to appreciate. To begin with, the close proximity to the dining room meant that a forceful billow of smoke penetrated the space. The kitchen also looked overburdened all evening and I felt bad watching the cooks work without a minute’s rest. This made me reflect on one of the differences between dining at a restaurant and watching a film or reading a book: in the latter cases, I think it can be very effective/affective when the audience is implicated, as it gestures for them to reflect on cultural/ideological considerations that are ordinarily effaced in the interests of entertainment. Meanwhile, for me at least, dining out carries the expectation for unalloyed pleasure (maybe because it’s vastly more expensive) and so guilt was not the intended emotion.

Like most Portland restaurants, Street and Company carries an a la carte format. The menu is technique-driven but in a different manner from the typical connotation. Typically, technique-driven refers to experimental or elemental preparations. With Street, on the other hand, the main plates are organized by technique, but they are all traditional: “Grilled,” “Blackened,” “Broiled,” etc. The strangest aspect of the menu is that the tastes (small bites) and appetizers contain a wealth of ingredients and are more experimental and/or unusual than the much simpler main plates. Most of the appetizers change quite often, but the main plates stay unchanged and many, such as the sole Francaise and lobster over linguine, are signature dishes for the city. So, there was a definite schism between the small plates and the main ones; the menu descriptions for the appetizers were exponentially longer than the larger plates—appetizers obviously constitute a different chapter of the meal from the starters, but one would think that a restaurant would want to make sure that the two courses are at least operating in the same spirit and this was not the case.

My mother and I assembled a robust order. We each chose the prosciutto and melon from the ‘tastes’ portion and shared the mussels as a joint appetizer. In the past, I have enjoyed the lobster diavolo, which feeds at least two people, but we were in the mood for other fish instead. I chose grilled swordfish and my mother went with broiled halibut.

Things got started with this crusty bread, identical to that served at Fore Street, the sister restaurant to Street and Co. Excellent.

Bread from Standard Baking

Bread from Standard Baking

The prosciutto and melon arrived in a larger portion than I’d anticipated. Were I to unknowingly guess the cost for this plate of food, I would hypothesize $8-10 and so this was a value buy at $4. Iowa proscioutto was paired with grilled melon, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar and we were quite satisfied. This was a classic Italian combination and the proscioutto and balsamic generated easy color as well.

Prosciutto, Grilled Melon, Balsamic

Prosciutto, Grilled Melon, Balsamic

Street doesn’t mess around with their mussels and one has to watch out ordering them as I know from experience that they can spoil one’s appetite in advance of the main course. With two of us present, we were able to handle it and the broth (butter, white wine, and lots of garlic) was quite marvelous.

Mussels, Butter, White Wine, Garlic

Mussels, Butter, White Wine, Garlic

Here was my swordfish. The portion was more than adequate and they also managed not to overcook it. Yet, the accompanying vegetables were just the chef’s nightly selection. I can’t understand why restaurants resort to that approach, and it seems to me that they should consider the message they’re sending when they serve ‘vegetables of the day.’ As I see it, this approach erects a hierarchy between the protein and everything else on the plate—when the same vegetables are served with the sole francaise, the halibut, and the swordfish (vastly different fishes), the restaurant is saying that the accompaniments really aren’t chosen with the purpose of supporting a particular protein. In other words, what differentiates one dish from the next aren’t the plates as a whole but rather the principal ingredients. The vegetables were also overcooked. Making matters worse, 2/3 of my fish was salted past the point of edibility (and my salt threshold has grown in recent years.) I am pretty sure that this was because the kitchen was swamped by an eight-top in the other room. My mom and I could see the cooks preparing the large party (which was synchronized with ours) at breakneck speed and I suspect this led them to carelessness.

Grilled Swordfish, Potatoes, Zucchini, Tomato

Grilled Swordfish, Potatoes, Zucchini, Tomato

Ordinarily, it might be possible to look beyond oversalted fish, but with the ‘vegetables of the day,’ the restaurant made it so that there was no consolation prize on the plate. In addition, this may seem catty, but the plating just looks so unimpressive; were I to view it out of context, I would guess that a home cook plated it, as the ingredients were huddled together with too much negative space. The lazy plating and ‘vegetable of the day’ methodology just make everything seem as if little effort went into it. This leads to a queasy paradox: on the one hand, this course felt lazy, and yet at the same time, with the open kitchen I could visibly see how overworked the kitchen was all evening. Basically, a situation in which nobody wins.

The halibut was somewhat unevenly seasoned but that didn’t compromise the dish. The overcooked vegetables limited enjoyment to the protein but a nice piece of halibut is quite satisfying.

Broiled Halibut, Potato, Zucchini, Tomato

Broiled Halibut, Potato, Zucchini, Tomato

Street only serves a few desserts and they are predicated around efficient preparation. It was at Street that I first ordered panna cotta and I still consider their rendition to be my favorite. My mom ordered a fruit pie of some variety. We were both happy with them and one can see our plated desserts at the photo that introduces this post.

Panna Cotta, Blueberry

Panna Cotta, Blueberry


Red Berry Pie, Vanilla Ice Cream, Whipped Cream

Red Berry Pie, Vanilla Ice Cream, Whipped Cream

Whenever dining out (or reading an academic article, viewing a presentation, etc.), I think it’s important to first consider what has been done well, and this meal did have some clear high notes. In fact, everything but the swordfish made us very happy and my mother’s meal was pretty great from start to finish. High-quality ingredients were sourced and the mussels are worth return visits. Prices are high for Maine but justified by the portions and sourcing.

Part of me feels that this meal would have been a hit were it not for a cook’s unsteady hand with the salt, but then again, my critique really extends beyond the seasoning. The dish wasn’t just frustrating due to the protein but also because there wasn’t anything else interesting on the plate. It also rubs me the wrong way that the appetizers were disproportionately more creative than the main dishes. I suspect that the main plates are so conservative because they are all signature plates. Maybe they can get away with overhauling the smaller plates with regularity but a face lift to the more substantial ones might alienate the customer base of this very popular restaurant. I’m sure that most restaurants would kill to be as successful as Street and Company, but signature dishes exert their own sort of pressure as they can make it tough for the restaurant to evolve. As long as the appetizers and main dishes continue to operate in different directions, it will be hard to see how much Street is capable of accomplishing. I think it tries to offer simple, rustic cuisine (these descriptors are referenced on the website, at least) and I respect this, but simplicity doesn’t preclude creativity and this is where the main plates disappointed. After a two-year hiatus, I’m glad to have returned to Street and Company, but the apparent struggle to construct a coherent plate of fish makes me wonder whether their skills have grown coarser than before.

Fore Street (June 2014)

Fore Street Open Kitchen

Fore Street Open Kitchen


After spending several months away from Maine, Fore Street was one of the restaurants I missed most. This affection didn’t always exist; when I first dined there four years ago, its reputation as Maine’s most famous restaurant led me to expect a more ‘white table cloth’ fine dining experience. In fact, it was only after spending most of the last few years out of state that it really went up in my estimation—this isn’t a backhanded compliment so much as a testament to the lasting impression that Fore Street makes. The cooking isn’t always the most precise (I’ve had pork belly and arctic char with burnt skin), and my blog post from two years ago wasn’t glowing, but one simply won’t encounter a restaurant that feels like Fore Street anywhere else in the country and that counts for a lot. I’ve now dined there roughly 10 times and my family congregates at Fore Street each December for a holiday meal. Father’s Day was a good excuse for a nice dinner out and I treated my dad to celebrate the occasion.

Our reservation was for 5:30 and so there was the usual nervous energy one finds at the start of a dinner service. We could see the waitstaff slicing the bread and reviewing notes. Natural light circulated throughout the space. Normally, I prefer dining at one of the four-tops that flank the windows, but this was impossible with just the two of us and the bright sun might have been tough to handle anyhow. The centerpiece of the restaurant is the kitchen; what makes this open kitchen so memorable is that there is no boundary between kitchen and dining room, making for a most immersive experience. Years before it got trendy with Joshua Skenes or Sean Brock, Fore Street embraced cooking with fire and one of the pleasures of dining there is watching the flames and proteins roasting on the spit. The fire imparts a cozy feel that is mitigated somewhat during the summer and for this reason I think Fore Street is best appreciated in winter.

Tasting menus are out of the picture at Fore Street. Instead, the menu is organized primarily by preparation method, with 11 categories that include “Garden,” “Grilled, Pan Seared and Oven Roasted Meats,” Turnspit Roasted Meats,” and “Vegetables to Share.” This latter category refers to vegetable side dishes that one can order to supplement the main plates. The menu is much larger than it needs to be and invariably overwhelms, but that is just part of the experience. Many of the ingredients, particularly the vegetables and seafood (including the halibut, as well as the Seussian duo of redfish and bluefish) were sourced from Maine, but I wouldn’t categorize Fore Street within the legion of elite Maine farm-to-table restaurants—a category which included the late Arrows and is now spearheaded by Primo. One senses that Fore Street seeks the very best of a particular item, embracing Maine’s premium ingredients while celebrating other ingredients as well. For example, the superb Columbia River King Salmon was on offer, and they also source Kansas beef, which I know from experience is excellent. I like this approach more than a dogmatic approach to farm-to-table. I’m not the first to say this, but one of the issues with treating farm-to-table as if it were an article of faith is that it forecloses many of the best seasonal ingredients that one can find elsewhere (this has hampered my dinners at Primo, for example.) At Fore Street, I feel like ingredients are chosen discriminatingly rather than because they are readily available.

Fore Street should also be commended for offering ingredients that are at least one standard deviation from the norm in Maine. One can find roasted sardines, veal sweetbreads, esoteric offal, and foie gras, none of which enjoy much visibility in this state. When Fore Street opened its doors in the mid-1990s, I believe that the menu was much more conservative. The restaurant’s success seems to have given Chef Sam Hayward the confidence to branch out, with his demographic growing more ambitious accordingly. It is in this sense that Fore Street could be said to have constructed the palate of its audience.

For this meal I returned to some of my favorite proteins. I knew from experience that the mussels come in a Ruthian portion and so my dad and I split them as an appetizer. For our main plates, I chose the halibut and my dad ordered the hanger steak. We also chose the ‘grilled and chilled’ asparagus to supplement our more substantial offerings.

Breads were sourced by Standard Baking, which is owned by Fore Street. This has always been my favorite bread service and I’m glad that there isn’t a supplemental charge.

Bread from Standard Baking

Bread from Standard Baking

While enjoying our bread, we watched the cooks in action. Open kitchens seem to be popular now but I don’t always find them enjoyable. This is because oftentimes they just expose how overworked the kitchen is, to the point that each cook is not so much an ‘artist’ as a laborer. I think this kitchen overcomes this on two counts: first, the cooks face frontally, which makes it look more as if they are performing. When kitchens are viewed in profile, by contrast, there is more of an alienated feel as they seem to work in a separate spatial register. Second, there is the awesome spectacle of the kitchen equipment, particularly the spit, the grill, and the giant oven. Of course Fore Street is as invested in maximum efficiency as any other kitchen, but these aspects at least made the action seem less like a Fordist assembly line.

Cooks

Cooks

We’d ordered these mussels many times in the past and so we knew what to expect. The fantastic recipe contains lots of butter and garlic, which is pretty standard, but also almonds. They are cooked in the oven, which makes the mussels very easy to open. Serving them in the skillet is a trademark of this restaurant and reflects the Fore Street style. On the one hand, this is a minimalist approach, since the dish is served exactly as it was cooked in the oven, but the novelty of the skillet is also quite showy—this is the balance that makes Fore Street so distinctive. An outstanding dish.

Oven-Roasted Mussels

Oven-Roasted Mussels

My halibut was also cooked in the oven and so it arrived in its cast-iron pan. The halibut is sourced from Maine, and I ordered this as I wanted to take advantage of the narrow East Coast halibut season. Accompaniments included yellow lentils, broccoli, onions, and good chive blossom butter. This is not manicured cuisine; as with the mussels, the intent, I think, is to serve everything as it appears while cooking. This rehearses the same paradox that we saw with the mussels, in which the dish looks quite stunning even though no trace has been left of the chef’s hand. Everything looks so simple, even though lots of thought went into it.

Maine Halibut, Brocolli, Lentils, Chive Butter

Maine Halibut, Brocolli, Lentils, Chive Butter

The hanger steak was cooked to the medium temperature that my dad had specified. This is a preparation that Fore Street has served for several years and the beef is served with cipollini onions, chard, and an oxtail reduction. Hanger steaks are ubiquitous now but Fore Street distinguishes themselves through excellent butchering, as there is none of the connective tissue that one often finds with this cut.

Hanger Steak, Chard, Cipollini Onions, Oxtail Reduction

Hanger Steak, Chard, Cipollini Onions, Oxtail Reduction

We also shared a side dish of asparagus. These were the most pristine asparagus I’ve ever seen and the ricotta salata was just right in this context. With Fore Street, side dishes are never an afterthought. In the winter months, they often serve butternut squash with molasses, for example.

Grilled and Chilled Asparagus, Ricotta Salata, Olive Oil

Grilled and Chilled Asparagus, Ricotta Salata, Olive Oil

Dessert was amazing. I ordered cherry tarte tatin with caramel sauce and coconut chocolate chip ice cream. In the past, I’ve never been that impressed with Fore Street’s desserts since they’ve always seemed like gussied-up versions of the pastries at Standard Baking, and I guess this fit within that vein to some extent. What made this so special, though, was the fresh caramel and it was hard not to feel inspired. Coconut is normally something I stay away from but it mixed with the chocolate nicely—if anyone has ever wondered what German chocolate cake ice cream would taste like, this was a decent approximation. I’ve had some strong desserts this year but this might have been my favorite.

Cherry Tarte Tatin, Fresh Caramel, Chocolate-Coconut Ice Cream

Cherry Tarte Tatin, Fresh Caramel, Chocolate-Coconut Ice Cream

My dad ordered the “Bite Size Dessert,” which on this evening was bourbon chocolate cake with dark chocolate glaze and needhams ice cream. It was good but not in the same league as my dessert.

Chocolate-Bourbon Cake, Needhams Ice Cream

Chocolate-Bourbon Cake, Needhams Ice Cream

As a veteran Fore Street customer, I thought I knew what to expect but this meal blew us away. The ingredients were well-sourced as always, but this meal displayed a level of precision that I’ve never seen from this restaurant and so this was my favorite meal of the year to this point. Past favorites were perfectly executed, while new plates confirmed that the kitchen’s creative faculties remain intact. The one clear area for improvement is the vegetables. Considering the kitchen’s facility with the vegetable side dishes, I would love to see what they could do with proper vegetarian main dishes (here I’m not talking about pasta plates but rather courses that are predicated on bringing out the best in a core vegetable.)

This meal was contemporary, and American, but I wouldn’t give it the “Contemporary American” label, at least as the label is commonly constituted. Indeed, there was none of the inappropriate fusion that characterizes so much of American cuisine these days. This was food that was grounded in New England but with a glance, rather than a fixation, toward other regions of the country. Also, after months of railing against the overabundant garnishes that seem to be everywhere in contemporary dining—specifically pea shoots, micro greens, and edible flowers—it was nice to be served food that I could actually discern. Everything looked very blatant but in the best possible way, and what the cuisine may lose in complexity it gains in lucidity. Whether or not Fore Street is a fine dining restaurant is open for debate, but it’s refreshing to dine somewhere with such a clear and confident approach.