Back Bay Grill was something of a white whale for me as I’d certainly heard of it but had never gotten around to dining there. The restaurant’s existence predates Portland’s canonization as a premier dining destination, and I’ve always frequented Portland’s other restaurants of acclaim instead—Five Fifty-Five, Fore Street, Hugo’s, Emilitsa, Miyake, and others. While I’d never been, I’d often perused the menu online and had a good idea of the cuisine served by Chef Larry Mathews Jr.: items like the crab cake, duck two ways, filet mignon, and salmon have seemingly always been on the menu. On the heels of Nancy Heiser’s recent review of Back Bay Grill for Maine Sunday Telegram, I made a reservation for 2 (with my mother) for 6:00 on March 23.
Upon entering, we were greeted warmly and escorted to a very nice two-top next to the window. After seating, I absorbed the décor; a restaurant’s ambience is crucially influential, often (consciously or subconsciously) influencing many factors—including even the taste—of the meal. The dining room featured a raspberry-colored carpet, while the tables had white tablecloths. Each of the chairs was leather and featured the sort of brown coloration that one finds in cars from the 1980s. There was also a giant, Cinemascope-like horizontal painting of the dining room that looked like a hybrid between a Lautrec caricature and an animated cartoon. It is somewhat unusual to encounter a cartoonish painting in a fine dining restaurant, although any potential jarringness was nullified through the fact that it was more or less a recognizable, figurative (if exaggerated) composition of the dining room. Overall, while I did find the décor to be somewhat outdated and living in the past, it is a selectively chosen, renewably comforting past that was dated without being creepy. What the dining room lacks in novelty it gains in familiarity, as the combination of leather and white tablecloths fulfills a immediately recognizable—if slightly cliché—fine dining formula.
The menu is immediately noteworthy for its sheer size, with 7 starters, 3 salads, and 8 main courses. There is no tasting menu option. While there was a long list of choices, the scope covered is relatively limited and even redundant. There were, for example, two beef dishes (sirloin and filet) and two pasta dishes, albeit one with meat and the other vegetarian. In addition to being somewhat redundant, many of the options were not especially novel; each of the salads—organic mixed greens, Belgian endive, and hearts of romaine—utilized largely traditional preparations, as the former two salads each featured either candied or spiced nuts. I do believe that the decision to have two beef dishes (both paired with potatoes, no less) somewhat reflects a lack of risk-taking on the part of the chef, a concession to please everyone at the expense of developing a more original style.
While the menu did not present any great unfamiliarity, the options were undeniably appetizing. As a starter, I selected the crimini mushroom soup, which featured white shrimp sourced locally from Browne Trading Company and house-smoked bacon. I was somewhat disappointed to note that the foie gras was served hot (seared); I prefer my foie served cold either in terrine or torchon form, and the online menu (not updated recently) had listed a terrine preparation. For my main course I took the back waiter’s recommendation and went with the duck. My mother ordered the crab cake and the hearts of romaine, and then the salmon as a savory course. I should note that our server’s knowledge of the menu was comprehensive, reflecting a thorough grasp of not only the preparations but also their sourcing. The depth of his knowledge of the menu was comforting, and his somewhat flamboyant conduct represented almost a cliché of waitstaff behavior—similar to the décor, the service resonated as though the restaurant had endeavored to present a somewhat standardized experience.
After a brief wait, we were presented with the amuse bouche of the evening (pictured below), a duck rillette on a house made cheese crisp topped with a goat cheese spread. I typically prefer the richer portions of the duck, though the salty notes of the canapé successfully awakened the palate.
With our amuse bouches consumed, a basket of warm whole wheat bread and a shallow saucer of butterwere placed on the table. I asked whether the bread was made in house and was told that it was Cabot unsalted butter, which they had whipped and salted in-house. The bread was pleasantly warm and the butter was easily spreadable, although it perhaps did not have the novelty of the miniature biscuits and herb butter at Five Fifty-Five.
Shortly thereafter, our first courses arrived. I was impressed that my mother’s two appetizers were coursed out, implicitly assuring us that we would not be rushed. She was first given her crab cake, a single, large (roughly 3 oz) panko-breaded cake served alongside thinly sliced cucumber and red onion and a lemon and black pepper crème fraiche. The crab cake was deliciously fresh, and the flavor of the crab was pleasantly explosive. That said, its combination with the cucumber and crème fraiche did not result in a dynamic interplay. Instead, each of the constituent flavors was discernible in isolation rather than achieving a more dynamic synthesis. In fact, the photo below—in which the crab cake is positioned separately from the cucumber and sauce—metaphorizes the way in which the flavors remain separate and the taste is precisely the sum of its parts. While there is value to fresh crab, I prefer menu items like the Bangs Island mussels at Five Fifty-Five, where the combination of pickled cherry tomatoes and fresh mussels is novel and results in a combination greater than the sum of its parts.
My soup arrived in a large shallow bowl, with the shrimp and bacon in the center, enveloped by the mushroom broth. I was impressed by the manicured deliberateness of the plating, and (similar to the crab cake) the kitchen appears to go to great lengths to establish a very composed aesthetic. Although the broth was not poured tableside, by spreading the shrimp and bacon throughout the bowl I was able to taste the ingredients at their initial—and freshest—interaction. The combination of shrimp and bacon is classic, and this dish was a prime example of the comforting familiarity characteristic of the restaurant’s cuisine.
Arriving alongside her salad, our server set a separate plate for me in case my mother “felt generous.” Basically a caesar but with a dressing that was less creamy and with more pronounced notes of garlic, the salad was refreshing, clean, and about as aesthetically pleasing as it is possible for a caesar salad to be. While it is not necessarily revisionist in the manner of the grilled caesar at Five Fifty-Five, Back Bay Grill’s version was—similar to the ambience of the dining room—somewhat dated, but in an enduring, satisfactory fashion.
Following an appropriate wait, we were brought our main courses. My duo of duck was something of a force to be reckoned; its towering presence somewhat resembled a cassoullet. At the top is a leg cooked in a confit preparation, while the duck breast circled the perimeter. A large mound of chick peas, curried cauliflower cream, and golden raisin duck jus sat in the middle. The chick peas were somewhat overwhelming in number and texture, and perhaps a chick pea puree would have counterbalanced the more chewy texture of the duck. Chef Matthews is apparently fairly proud of his duck breast as the recipe is available on the restaurant’s website. It is lavender scented and prepared to a standard medium-rare temperature. I appreciated the crispy coating of both the breast and leg; having had duck at many famous Chicago restaurants, from a flavor standpoint I can say that this preparation would not have been out of place at a Michelin-starred restaurant. However, the dish’s consumption did not benefit from a relational interplay with the environment.
My mother’s main course consisted of a towering cylinder of salmon that was perched above braised leek risotto and red beet vinaigrette. Perhaps more than any other, the salmon exemplified Chef Matthew’s vertical aesthetic. It was the most visually imaginative of our dishes and looked vaguely similar to a soufflé. While crusty on top, the meat was exquisite and prepared to a medium-rare temperature on the inside. The risotto was toothsome and not overly heavy. Despite enjoying my duck, after sampling this I wish that I had ordered it as it was my favorite dish of the night.
The dessert menu featured five options that were all more or less interesting. However, as I am largely accustomed to tasting menus I do find that surprise is an element that is lacking in a la carte experiences. Therefore, I asked our server to surprise us with whichever option he recommended. He brought us a pistachio parfait with a miniature cranberry muffin and cranberry coulis. The parfait was much more solid in texture than anticipated and I appreciated the way in which its vertical design was very in line with the prior dishes. Also, the plating—in which the major components are easily distinguishable—recalled the plating of the crab cake. At many restaurants the desserts reflect a discordant break from the savory plates and I did not find this to be the case. Chef Matthews’s emphasis on vertical compositions certainly departs from the contemporary, abstract compositions prominent in the cuisine of, for example, Grant Achatz’s edible chocolate centerpiece dessert at Alinea. Unlike Achatz (or even the cuisine at Hugo’s), Matthews makes no attempt to incorporate savory elements into the dessert. For better or for worse, flavors are not repeated from one course to the next and this makes it so that the meal has a clear beginning, middle and end. At any rate, the interaction between the cold parfait and the warm cake and was delicious and classic and I highly recommend the dessert as it is not only great tasting but also a prime example of the restaurant’s culinary style.
With the hour approaching 8:00, I appreciated that we were not rushed. Since the online menu has not been updated recently, I asked for a copy of the night’s menu and was graciously given one. Coffee refills were offered multiple times. Despite the fact that there was likely a later seating to follow, the staff was very considerate in not overbooking, allowing for us to enjoy our meal without compromising the experience of the following seating.
Ruminating on the meal, I am struck by the fact that despite never having been to Back Bay Grill, the restaurant—both its cuisine and ambience—felt very familiar. There is a tight unity between the cuisine and the décor that is valuable and suggests that the restaurant is very reliable and has engineered a finely tuned dining experience that is enjoyable, comfortable, and delicious. Both the food and the environment are quite conservative and comforting; very little risk is assumed by the diner, and the breath of menu options caters to everyone. I cannot envision having a discordantly organized meal there in the manner possible at restaurants like Hugo’s, where I once had a number of soft (mostly sous-vide) protein courses in succession that established a textural redundancy that fatigued my palate early in the meal. While some of the dishes at Back Bay Grill gesture toward more audacious flavor profiles (such as the salmon), the potential for uniqueness is nullified somewhat by the dining room.
Although Back Bay Grill does not resonate as an especially unusual restaurant, I do believe that it occupies a niche within the Portland dining landscape, providing familiar comfort to its patrons. I am sure that, given its long tenure, the restaurant has evolved through its interaction with the Portland dining public. Like any work of art, a restaurant does not exist in isolation but is shaped through its interaction with its audience. However, while it is something of an institution in Portland dining, its longstanding relationship with Portland perhaps accounts for the discrepancy between the restaurant’s cherished position within the local landscape and its relative anonymity (especially when compared with other Portland restaurants) on a national scale. Back Bay Grill reflects the challenge of interacting with both the local public and national culinary discourses: its lack of interaction on a national scale perhaps accounts for why—despite being rewarding on its own merits—it still exists somewhat outside of the circle of Portland’s more nationally recognized restaurants.