Emilitsa (Portland, ME)

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Emilitsa has been one of my favorite Maine restaurants for a while now and chef Demos Regas was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Northeast. It is legitimately the only Greek restaurant I’ve encountered that can lay claim to being “fine dining” and because of this, I really don’t understand why it isn’t even better known on a regional scale. I suspect that Emilitsa is a bit victimized by its setting; the restaurant is located next to Five Fifty-Five, so it isn’t able to dominate its setting in the manner of other high-end Portland restaurants. Also, while Portland is a vibrant restaurant setting, it’s possible that people don’t look for high-end Greek fare when traveling to Maine. To me, Emilitsa is similar to what Rick Bayless manages to accomplish with Topolobampo, using high-end ingredients and meticulous sourcing to enhance an ethnic cuisine that doesn’t have much prestige.

In addition to its location, I think Emilitsa is limited by its interior space. The dining room is long and narrow—similar to a hallway—and this prevents it from creating any real drama. There is a tall wine rack that divides the dining room and while it’s visually striking, it also bifurcates the space to the point that the back half of the restaurant is dark and feels a bit like a cave. To their credit, the interior design is vertically-focused, with great emphasis on the walls, and the tall wine rack and exposed brick go a long way toward making the space feel larger than it is. Unfortunately, the downside of the brick is that the restaurant can get quite noisy, and overall, I don’t feel as though Emilitsa has ever really been able to create a particularly stimulating environment.

We were happy to be seated in the brighter half of the restaurant, directly in front of the tall wine rack. The tables are not well-spaced, particularly for a high-end restaurant, but our corner table afforded us enough room to spread out a bit. Still, one of the drawbacks to sitting in the front area is that people entering the restaurant constantly walk through and this was a continuous distraction during our meal. With the door opening and closing seemingly every few minutes, it certainly felt as though the space outside the restaurant was intruding on the environment inside.

Emilitsa offers a standard appetizer-main dish-dessert menu structure. The menu had been slightly modified since previous visits, although the whole fish—which I’d ordered on each past visit—was still on the menu in the same preparation. Unfortunately, one of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the menu is not so much the items as the price—everything looks, on average, about $5 more expensive than necessary. Emilitsa justifies the high cost through large portion sizes (larger than one finds at most comparably priced restaurants at least), although I still think the high price tag would be particularly jarring for someone dining at Emilitsa for the first time. I ordered the duo of beets as a starter and the duck breast as a main dish, while my mother ordered the spanakopita and beet greens as appetizers and the lamb loin for her entree.

The first item from the kitchen was a familiar one—crostini with hummus and onion, which Emilitsa serves in lieu of a bread service. They actually present this as though it were an amuse bouche, which is misleading; however, the small size is reasonable since a formal bread offering would be overly heavy in light of the substantial proper courses. As someone who consumes hummus in vast quantities multiple times per day, I appreciate them serving it. Unfortunately, the onions have always felt overly strong and it would be more pleasant to serve sweet onions as the ones they serve are way too tart and ineffective in priming the palate.

DSCF5986The spanakopita arrived ample in portion yet the plate was even larger than necessary. So, the kitchen garnished it a bit excessively, with micro greens, parsley, and frissee lettuce—perhaps the most redundant garnish I’ve ever encountered. I would highly recommend this starter for two people as the portion is quite large for a single person. The texture was outstanding as the phyllo dough was lighter than any version of this dish I’ve had in the past. One issue, though, is that this was served ridiculously hot—inexcusable for a restaurant of their caliber and it nullified much of the flavor, at least until it cooled down.

DSCF5990 Our next round of small plates involved a study in beets, and we elected to share the two dishes. First, we had a duo of beets, served with grilled bread and hummus, while the other offering was beet greens dressed with garlic and olive oil. Perhaps the most salient aspect of the cuisine at Emilitsa is the liberal amount of olive oil used for everything. Not only does this taste quite nice, but it keeps the large portion sizes from feeling overly heavy. We both agreed that the dish was quite satisfying, although the kitchen would do well to combine the two plates and perhaps title it “trio of beets.” They were perfectly roasted but still retained their characteristic tartness.

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One prominent aspect of dining at Emilitsa is that the coursing is a bit slower than one finds at other upscale Portland restaurants. I generally appreciate this in an a la carte restaurant as it helps with the digestion process and typically creates a more leisurely pace. However, the commotion resulting from the exposed brick and the fact that arriving customers ambled in close proximity to our table detracted from a more leisurely feel. To this end, synchronizing the pacing with the environment would create an even more pleasing experience.

The main dishes arrived in every bit the sizeable portion I’ve come to expect from the restaurant. Again, the plates were huge and it was interesting to observe the lengths that the kitchen takes to fill space on the plate. My duck breast was pan roasted atop duck fat fingerling potatoes, grilled asparagus, feta, and a balsamic reduction of Attiki honey, Metaxa, and wild fennel pollen. I appreciated how the color of the balsamic rhymed with the duck, but the swirling motif wasn’t very elegant to me and appeared almost like a children’s drawing. However, the execution was amazing; I order duck on a regular basis as it’s my favorite protein, but this was one of the top 2 or 3 preparations I’ve had all year. The honey was a great complement to the inherent sweetness of the duck, but the balsamic and fennel kept it from becoming overly cloying. My only reservation was with the asparagus as they are a bit out of season by now and should be replaced.

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The lamb dish was also perfectly executed to a medium-rare temperature, and I found the taste to be on a par with the lamb loin I had recently at Arrows. Accompaniments included sauteed baby spinach and feta-parsnip potato mash. The composition was a bit more tempered than the duck although it was also garnished effusively. An additional characteristic of their plating technique is that every entrée that I’ve had at Emilitsa includes feta cheese, a kalamata olive, and a castelvetrano olive; I’m not sure if the purpose is simply to fill up space on the plate or whether the chef feels that feta and olives punctuate every dish. At any rate, they inhabit a hybrid function that’s somewhere in between a garnish and an active component of the dish, and it’s also too mundane to constitute a signature of the restaurant. I would suggest coming up with an alternate accoutrement or doing away with it altogether as I find it a bit overplayed and ubiquitous that they serve these accoutrements with so many of their dishes.

DSCF6004 By this point, we were pretty full but agreed to share a dessert. Unfortunately, the dessert menu offered four suboptimal choices and so we took the waitress’ recommendation and went with the flourless chocolate cake. I was pretty surprised when she mentioned this as her favorite dessert since flourless chocolate cake has become something of a cliché by now, but she assured us that the ouzu added some depth. Unfortunately, this was not the case—the ouzu was indistinguishable and what we received was dry and one of the worst desserts I’ve had in a while. In fairness to the kitchen, the main courses were so outstanding that most any dessert would have been anticlimactic, but I still feel like they aren’t directing much effort into their pastry program. For a restaurant at their price point, it’s probably time that they hired a formal pastry chef.

DSCF6007Emilitsa is certainly one of my favorite Maine restaurants and from a taste standpoint, I would say that only Arrows, Primo, and Five Fifty-Five on a good night can match their protein preparations. However, the restaurant still has a couple of detracting attributes, namely that the interior doesn’t contribute any excitement and that the pastry program is so mediocre. As a result, they place a burden on themselves to deliver with the main dishes, and it’s to their credit that they are so strong in that regard. The large portion size of the entrees pretty much drowned out my memory of the appetizers and so I don’t think that the main dishes are enhanced by the preceding course(s) the way one finds in a good tasting menu—I actually think one could have a satisfying experience ordering only one course. Ultimately, I would prefer it if they reduced the portion size and cut the price down accordingly, but so long as one is aware of the portions, they can limit the amount of food consumed in other courses and organize their meal around a true centerpiece of a main dish. It’s easy to get excited for their duck and whole fish, so even though the atmosphere isn’t very exciting, I will definitely return to Emilitsa.

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