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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.