Commissary comes downtown
By Joan Lang
Commissary, 25 Preble Street, Portland, 228-2057, 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. for breakfast
11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. for lunch, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. for dinner, except Sunday and Monday
when the restaurant closes for dinner at 9 p.m., Full bar. AE, Visa, MC.
Five minutes into my first meal at Commissary, the brand-new restaurant in the Public Market, I says to myself, I says, “Joanie, you’re not in Portland anymore.”
Commissary offers sophisticated urban polish.
Thank Matthew Kenney for that. Though he’s a native of Maine — Searsport, actually — Kenney has spent years making a name for himself in New York City, with a series of high-profile pan-Mediterranean restaurants like Matthew’s, Mezze, and Commune. In the process, he’s crossed over into foodie celebrityhood with the likes of Emeril and Mario and Wolfgang, part of the chef-as-brand phenom that has totally changed the American dining scene. Having Kenney and his partner Mark Wood open a restaurant here in Portland is a Very Big Deal.
I’ve eaten in most of Kenney’s restaurants (now you know my dirty secret: I’m from New York) and this one’s right up there. He brings a level of sophisticated urban polish that you don’t usually see in a place like Maine — the high-concept food, the gleaming state-of-the-art exhibition kitchen, the exquisite Bernadaud china.
It’s all been a smash hit. Four weeks into its life, you couldn’t get a reservation at Commissary after 6 p.m. on a weekend night. A midweek lunch is practically full. Commissary just opened for breakfast, and a weekend brunch, and late-night hours are planned. And the effect on traffic at the market, praise God, is probably incalculable.
I love the look of Commissary, all that clean blond wood and stainless steel and glass, high-energy yet inviting day or night. The banquettes and surprisingly comfortable chairs are upholstered in embossed, gray-beige leather, the floors are polished wood, their dark-and-pale rhythm picked up in the two-tone jerseys of the waitstaff. Classy touches abound, in details like the hefty silverware and a chalice full of feminine products in the swanky terrazzo-floored ladies’ room.
I love the smart wine list, chock full of interesting choices selected from all over the world to complement the food, with many bottles priced under $30 and a nice selection of wines-by-the-glass. Kudos to wine director Sam Governale for that.
I’m fascinated by the machinations of the kitchen, with its well-oiled brigade of chefs bent to their task — I counted no fewer than a dozen of them one weeknight, boning rabbit, plating salads, flipping mushrooms in a sizzling pan. There’s even a “runner,” a fellow dressed in waiter’s garb who takes the plates from the line, carefully wipes up any spills and splatters, then whips them to the tables before they can be missed.
And I love the menu, which changes on a daily basis to accommodate whatever’s fresh and seasonal. Kenney and Co., including chef de cuisine Ray Weber, have designed the food to showcase local products and to utilize the fruits of the market’s own producers and vendors wherever possible. Not all of it works equally well, but you’ll still have a splendid meal.
A salad of Maine crab, avocado, kohlrabi, and baby greens is a celebration of clean, bright-tasting ingredients: sweet rock crabmeat, rich and perfectly ripe Haas avocado, improbably crisp matchsticks of kohlrabi, and peppery greens, all lightly anointed with a bit of herbed oil and flecked with fresh cilantro and chives. White bean soup is smooth and powerfully flavored, garnished with a float of chopped lobster and a drizzle of lemon oil that might be a bit much. An appetizer of grilled quail is luscious, the gamy meat offset by a sweet-savory braise of red cabbage and apples.
A plate of arugula pasta, tomato confit, golden beets, and oil-cured olives is a Van Gogh painting of color — verdant green pasta, richly yellow beets, deep-red tomato, glistening black olives. Can it possibly taste as amazing as it looks? Nah. It doesn’t add up. But the thick, chewy handcut pasta itself actually is pretty amazing, and would be wonderful with a more dumbed-down sauce, even just butter and cheese.
Venison loin tastes like beef would if it could, with a deeply flavorful, almost mineral edge that makes you wonder how anyone could be a vegetarian; when we had it, it was served with delicious sauteed wild mushrooms and killer pumpkin gnocchi. Huge wood-roasted scallops were perfectly, delicately cooked — just gelled, really — and served with crispy parsnips and a bit of caper brown butter, oversalted is all. And at lunch, the wood-oven baked chicken and broccoli pot pie will cure whatever it is that’s ailing you: the chicken tender, the broccoli and carrots and celery still just slightly crisp in a rich and comforting cream under a beautifully browned and buttery crust.
Best advice: Save room for dessert. Presented on whatever big, dramatic, over-the-top plate strikes the kitchen’s fancies, these things are showstoppers. Vanilla-bean crème brulee is perfect, toothsome yet silky under its crackling “burnt cream” top. Chocolate profiteroles are a riot of crisp pastry, cold ice cream, hot fudge sauce. I promised myself just a taste, but the sweet potato cheesecake with a tart, spiced Port sauce is impossible to stop eating. And something called a chocolate peanut butter Napoleon with caramelized bananas is simply unbelievably delicious.
Joan Lang can be reached at email@example.com.