Fore Street (Portland, ME)

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(Fore Street Exterior)

Fore Street is an important Maine restaurant; not only is it the state’s most famous restaurant, but it manages to rely on the landscape while at the same time distancing itself from prevailing stereotypes concerning Maine fare. The restaurant began in 1996 and a few years back Executive Chef Sam Hayward won the James Beard award for Outstanding Chef in the Northeast. Fore Street has also made the Gourmet Magazine list for America’s Top 50 restaurants on more than one occasion. While it is not my favorite in Maine, I do find the restaurant compelling and this was my fifth visit in the last couple of years.

We had a 5:45 reservation but arrived 20 minutes early. However, our table was not ready yet and so we waited in the lounge. This was a bit disorienting since the lounge is overcrowded and was standing room only. There is a real discrepancy between the expansive dining room and the cramped lounge; the benefit of this is that it makes the dining room feel more rarefied, although I still don’t enjoy feeling so cramped.

At Fore Street, seasonality pertains not just to the ingredients but also to the physical act of dining there, as I find that the restaurant is much different in the winter than in the Summer. My all-time favorite meal at Fore Street was in the winter, when we sat directly in front of the kitchen and I watched my rabbit roasting on the spit; the warmth and overwhelming activity effectively countered the frigid climate of the Maine winter. Conversely, in the summertime I prefer sitting near the window since the center gets oppressively hot. Thankfully, our table was a nice window-side two-top near the entrance to the side dining room. Here is the view from our table:

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The atmosphere and décor at Fore Street are among the most interesting everywhere. There is always a small army of servers ambling about and the kitchen is firmly entrenched within the dining room, less separated than even most open kitchens; the vegetable cooler is on full display and the bread slicing station is in the center of the dining room. I would describe the overall vibe as “regulated chaos” because while it’s a noisy, busy space, the action is moderated by a clear sense of purpose.The space was previously used as a warehouse, and they make no attempt to mask this heritage. This is important because it gives the impression that the space is highly authentic, despite the fact that it’s just another facet of their rigorously constructed identity. Here is a  view of the dining room:

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Fore Street is different from a stereotypical Maine restaurant because it doesn’t have a great water view (our table offered probably the best “view” in the restaurant), nor does it embrace lobster—in fact there was no lobster entrée on the menu. With an enormous menu consisting of 8 soups and salads, 3 raw seafood offerings, a charcuterie and offal selection, 6 other appetizers, 13 different main plates, and 6 side dishes, it is enormous. The menu font is neat and restrained—a deadpan delivery of one of the most remarkable menus one will ever find. The different sections are organized according to their preparation method, for example “Wood Oven Roasted Sea Food” and “Turnspit Roasted Meats.” Because of its enormity and the fact that it changes every day, choosing what to order is somewhat analogous to going to the market (for each menu item, the purveyor is listed, reinforcing the market feel.) Typically I abhor large menus because they suggest a lack of specialization and obscure the authorial voice(s) of the chef(s), but the flagrantly gratuitous menu coheres with the loud, busy ambiance. Fore Street capitalizes on the potential for the menu itself to function as a spectacle, a quality that is perhaps underutilized by most a la carte restaurants.

The sheer number of options does necessitate a lengthy decision-making process, and unfortunately, the staff has been overly brusque in past visits (it is amazing how much the personality of the server can affect a dining experience.) They have a tendency to be mechanical, and I’ve often found the restaurant to operate as a sort of mechanical, gastronomic apparatus that’s efficient yet very uncongenial. Thankfully, our server was gracious in granting us extra time and we arrived at our informed decisions: I chose the Wood Grilled Vermont Quail and the Wood Oven Roasted Atlantic Hake Filet, while my mom chose the Roasted Tomato, Garlic and Summer Squash Soup and the Wood Oven Roasted Whole Atlantic Black Bass. We also split a side dish of Garden Chard with Bacon and Red Verjuice.

The bread service is sourced from the Standard Baking Company, a subsidiary of Fore Street that’s actually located downstairs from the restaurant. Standard Baking is revered by locals and tourists alike, and from our window-side perch we actually noticed a few sets of people visiting the bakery, only to notice that it had closed for the evening. It was crusty and fluffy, and served with sea salt, black pepper, and a rich, whipped butter that had a notably high fat content.

I had ordered the quail on two other visits, but the benefit of a menu that changes daily is that I was treated to a new preparation: this was served with boar tasso, sweet corn, cavendish, fresh coriander and caramelized red onion butter. This pungent dish was a great example of the cuisine at Fore Street; the restaurant is known for their very simple cooking technique, and as a result they rely on ultra-fresh ingredients and explosive flavor pairings. The smokiness of the quail was nicely offset by the corn and the rich boar ham and butter.

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No less aromatic was my mother’s soup, served in a cast-iron pan—the iconic Fore Street serving vessel. The cast-iron pan is another example of Fore Street’s purported transparency; it makes the diner feel as though they are consuming the cuisine in the most pure way imaginable, unadulterated by any “artistic” plating techniques. That said, I think it’s worth noting that despite the apparent attempt toward simplicity, this is still a very calculated aesthetic that would not be utilized if it weren’t visually striking, albeit in a different way from the pristine techniques one finds at other fine dining restaurants. The soup was among the best I’ve ever tried (although this is in part because I love garlic), and the bold orange color metaphorized the intense flavor.

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My main course also arrived in a cast-iron pan; the hake was sourced from the Gulf of Maine, and supplemented by summer squash, hen of the woods mushrooms, and sweet corn broth. Everything was very simply prepared and well-executed, although the flavors were not as enrapturing as the quail. The corn flavor was indiscernible and its absence was certainly felt; this dish exhibited what I see as the main drawback of farm-to-table cuisine—the ‘less is more’ attitude can result in relatively muted flavors.

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I love swiss chard and so I was disappointed to find that the oven-roasted preparation had dessicated the cutting flavor that I usually enjoy. The bacon was quite good, however.

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My mother’s whole fish was filleted tableside. Our server was more gregarious than the one I had last summer and provided a running commentary delineating her filleting technique. This was an outstanding dish; I ordered whole fish at Fore Street last summer, but I felt this was a superior rendition as the horseradish butter worked perfectly with the bass and it was a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the carrots and the kohlrabi.

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Electing to share one dessert, we chose the Lemon Poppy Seed Bundt Cake, mainly because I was interested in the accompanying house-made raspberry jam, black raspberries, and ginger ice cream. The ice cream was quite nice, but the “jam” was not thick enough and the portion of it too meager, so the dessert was dry. Our server mentioned that this was a new dessert and I would not be surprised to see the jam modified before it reappears on the menu.

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The quail and the whole fish, as well as the warm service and our nice table, made this one of my favorite meals at Fore Street. The cuisine is not characterized by a dominant flavor profile so much as their oven-centric preparation method; this is not a problem, but our meal did reveal the limitations of a strict adherence to minimalist preparations. Most notably, the flavors of the dessert and the hake were more restrained than what one would find at a more experimental restaurant.

It’s always interesting to speculate as to why a particular restaurant is privileged by the public over other highly qualified ones, even though this is of course an impossible task. I do find it remarkable that Maine’s most famous restaurant does not emphasize lobster or offer much in the way of a water view, which is suggestive of how—despite its national acclaim—the restaurant has always focused on appealing to the local population as much as with the tourist crowd. In lieu of a lobster focus, Sam Hayward’s cuisine is a capable guidebook through which to explore other indigenous proteins like bluefish, hake, or rabbit. Most likely, the restaurant is so popular because it satisfies a romantic desire that people (locals and tourists alike) have for simple, “pure” preparations, and people are drawn toward the singular atmosphere. Indeed, Fore Street attempts to be authentic to the severe degree that I almost feel as though it tries to efface its own artifice as a restaurant, a motif that resonated through the ambiance, menu, and cooking preparations. While I find that the flavors are not as explosive as other Maine restaurants, the dining room—constantly toeing the line between order and chaos—is quite stimulating and I continue to find that it’s a great space to spend an evening in once or twice a year.

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4 thoughts on “Fore Street (Portland, ME)

  1. Sounds like a memorable atmosphere. I like the presentation in cooking vessels – it conveys the philosophy of the restaurant. The presentation of the dessert, on the other hand, looks oddly contemporary.

    The whole fish course looks amazing.

  2. Yes, the atmosphere is the main reason that I’m always compelled to return to Fore Street, and presenting the food in the skillet is nicely in synch with the ambiance. The dessert was a disappointment–not just in the presentation but also in the execution (too dry)–which was a shame since given the ingredients it could have been much more interesting.

    • This is not necessarily relevant, but the whole syncing the cookware presentation to the ambiance discussion reminds me of this Michelin one-star restaurant in Tokyo called “Les Enfants Gates.” It has a huge display of terrine cookware at the entrance. And sure enough, the entire menu is terrine/pate-inspired (including an all-terrine tasting menu).

  3. That is an amazing anecdote! I’m having a hard time visualizing what a terrine-inspired menu (and tasting) would look like, but that’s incredible that a restaurant with such an unusual concept could earn a Michelin Star.

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