FOOD & DRINK
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|TO A TEA:
Sip lets you soak up the atmosphere of Congress Street.
Best Place to Get Gnocc-ed Up
We’re reluctant to tell you about this, as getting reservations on the weekends at Ribolita is hard enough as it is, but the restaurant was your readers’ pick for best Italian joint anyway, so it’s apparently not a secret. Sitting on the very end of Middle Street, it has watched its neighbors come and go (and, in the case of Norm’s, come back again) because people have come to look forward to a meal at Ribolita like it was the last day of school.
There’s plenty to choose from, of course. You can start with a Heart of Romaine Salad (covered in ultra-finely diced, multi-colored peppers), move on to a caramelized onion tart, and wash it all down with a half-liter of their house chardonnay (which comes in rooster-shaped ceramic pitchers last seen by this paper on the Isle of Ischia off the coast of Naples).
But the absolute best meal on the menu — for vegetarians anyway, and we’ll hear arguments for the Eggplant Rollatini later — is the Pan-Seared Gnocci, with fresh, raw pea pods and parmesan cheese (no proscuitto for us, please). Even better is to get someone else to order the Fettuccini Alfredo — possibly the best in town — so that you can dip your crunchy gnocchi in the sauce and make it even better.
That’s right, it’s crunchy. This, after the fact that the wait staff won’t correct you when you order “knock-ee” instead of “nn-yo-kee,” is the absolute best part. Whereas most gnocchi fills you up with a sort of lead-weight mushiness, Ribolita’s offers a crisp crunch when you bite in, which somehow leaves a lighter load in your belly. When combined with the crisp crunch of the pea pods, that’s some seriously satisfying eating for the texture-based eater.
Ribolita, 41 Middles St., Portland, (207) 774-2972.
Best Mall-Area Watering Hole
Alcohol is a natural element in many settings: Clubs in the Old Port, holiday parties, romantic dinners out, stacking wood, at the Sea Dogs game, with a bag of chips during Sunday afternoon football, at the beach, rock concerts, dancing to ’80s tunes, playing pool, shooting darts, company parties, downtown, extreme camping, we could keep going. But, to many, alcohol seems somewhat out of place at the mall.
Maybe it’s all the teeny-bopper mall rats. Perhaps it’s all the shiny new shrink-wrapped toasters and sunglasses and Walkmans. Maybe it’s the soulless Middle-American family-style chain restaurants that stand shoulder to shoulder. Whatever the case, the Disnified mall area just doesn’t lend itself to Old World–style socializing. Or does it?
Sitting in Applebee’s recently, enjoying an Applebee’s Riblets & Chicken Finger Platter with my girlfriend, I noticed a couple lonely souls at the bar, knocking back drinks and watching the game on TV as casually as if they were at Ri Ra or Bleacher’s. Here we were: surrounded by acres of virgin parking lot, next to a Target, an airport, and an office park, in the middle of the day, and people were hanging out at the bar like it was their local pub or something.
As out of place as it may seem, however, alcohol holds an important place even at the mall. Though they may lack the character of many an English pub or downtown bar, and there is the obvious problem of driving to and from them, there are a few good bars in the area.
The watering hole of choice for mall workers and shoppers is undoubtedly Sebago Brewing Company’s South Portland location — in a cinder-block bunker in the parking lot next to Filene’s Basement. Not the most inviting building from the outside, nor the most homey inside, Sebago, nevertheless, delivers local flair as far as food and drink go. The bar area is fairly spacious and offers a straight bar as well as table seating. Folks love their micro-brewed IPA, pilsner, stout, and various seasonal beers, aný where else can you find the owner/brewer on the premises at the mall? At Chili’s? the 99? There’s no shortage of admiration for South Portland’s Sebago on pubcrawler.com, but perhaps the best review comes courtesy of Emily (from Paris, France) who says, “Beers are has good as the one we find in Europe!”
ûhether killing time while your boyfriend/wife/parents/kids shop, grabbing a pre-movie cocktail, or drowning your sorrows after making some sort of credit-draining major purchase, Sebago is the place to go. Don’t be late on a Friday or Saturday, as the place gets packed.
Sebago Brewing Company, at the Mall, South Portland, (207) 879-2537.
Best Egg and Cheese
The ability to wake up and get to work in the morning is largely aided by consistency. In that state of semi-consciousness, functioning often happens by rote. And a key element in any mad dash to work is a good, cheap egg-and-cheese. For those who work downtown, Patricio’s is your best bet.
Unlike some other Congress Street breakfast places, Patricio’s is not staffed by a slack-jawed gaggle of teenagers who slothfully screw up your order. The staff is on the ball, delivering the same quality sandwich day after day. You’ll note this when, safe in your cubicle, you unwrap the tinfoil parcel and feast on perfectly toasted English muffin, just-melted-enough American cheese, and tasty fried egg. After sampling breakfast sandwiches from Longfellow Square to Franklin Arterial, Patricio’s egg-and-cheese is the clear winner in both quality and price ($2.25).
Patricio’s is one of those places that is easy to miss: You could walk by it every day for years and never feel compelled to set foot in the place. In fact, the cozy café has a lot of character. As you wait for your order, wander around and check out the original artwork, frames, and furniture for sale (you know, the artist Duane Patricio owns it). A bit expensive, but nice to look at. Once you get familiar with the place, it’ll quickly become part of your well-worn routine.
Of course, you could break from your morning tradition one day and try something new, like their muffins, for instance. The blueberry ones are especially pleasing and they all seem extremely fresh and moist — no need for butter, these are good as they are. Another option, if you’re in the mood to add some zing to your dull morning routine, is to swap out the OJ for a nice, cold bottle of Orangina. After all, it’s 12-percent juice!
Make sure you get your order in before 10 a.m., though. From then until 11 a.m., they’re hard at work getting the lunch menu ready, which you’ll find just as simple and delicious as breakfast.
Patricio’s, 579 Congress St., Portland, (207) 775-7827.
Best Place for Cheap Pints
It is a rare pleasure to get a pint of Guinness for two dollars, since Ireland’s finest export (aside from the hard-drinking storytellers who’ve sozzled up the bloodlines of many an American family) is usually full cost — even at happy hour. At the Brian Boru on Sundays, however, you can add the low price of beer to the debaucherous joy of passing the Lord’s day swilling pints and smoking cigarettes.
If the thought of doing something productive occurs to you, even better — nothing like a little guilt to spice up a binge. You’ll be in the entertaining company of Portland’s bumper crop of starving artists, disgruntled restaurant workers, and professional moonlighters, all of whom will say, at some point, “I’ve really got to go [print, rehearse, write, call my mom, call my girlfriend, deposit my check, walk the dog] . . . okay, just one more. Did I tell you about . . .”
At big, trencher-style tables, upstairs and down, people ranging in age from 21 to 65 trade stories and draw pictures, complain about their troubles and crow about their achievements in an unusually congenial, unhurried way — with a week’s work behind them and another not quite begun. It’s one of the few environments in which entrepreneurs, sporty types, and artists commingle — apparently the combination of bargain-priced vice and the long, aimless stretch of Sunday afternoon helps to blur social boundaries. (And for those who aren’t a fan of the black gold, Bass, Harp, and a bunch of local brews are two bucks, too.)
Brian Boru Public House, 57 Center St., (207) 780-1506.
Best Non-TGI Friday’s TGI Friday
Can we even list all the reasons why we love the Great Lost Bear? Much like GLB’s beer selection, the list is long and varied, and strong on local flavor. No mall crowds. No suspender-clad wait staff, giddy with flair. No pre-fab kitsch plastering the walls. Just good food, huge portions, low prices, a huge vegetarian selection (even some vegan options), a mellow but efficient staff, and down-home, authentic kitsch plastering the walls, goddamit. And did we mention the beer?
With 54 choices in 20 different categories, the Great Lost Bear’s draught selection is a beer-lover’s dream come true. Fancy a pale ale? GLB has six varieties on tap, four of which are local brews. In fact, 32 of the beers currently offered at GLB are Maine-brewed, and many of the rest are from elsewhere in New England.
And like any good local hangout, GLB gives its customers the perfect excuse to start the weekend early: Thursday is happy hour! Each Thursday showcases “a brewery, a style of beer or . . . a battle between rivals,” where the featured beers are $1.99 a pint from 5 to 9 p.m. For the never-ending-weekend crowd, 23-ouncers can be had at pint prices on Monday and Tuesday nights.
Though the Great Lost Bear may seem a little off the beaten path for downtown denizens, its Forest Avenue location is really only a short drive (or better yet, cab ride) away. And come spring, when the Maibock is flowing, hoof it down and grab a seat on the deck. Cheers.
The Great Lost Bear, 540 Forest Ave., Portland, (207) 772-0300.
Best Gorgonzola in a Leading Role
Lunch in downtown Portland is always a struggle. Do you go for a sit-down meal at David’s or Michaela’s? Hit the Monument Square Deli for a dose of Zach’s acerbity? Go the cheap chain route at Subway or D’angelo’s?
When all else fails, we hit the Public Market, but that’s no easy decision either. Pizza from Anthony’s? Sushi from Oishii? Soup and a sandwich from Stone Soup? Well, as if to add to a difficult decision, consider Horton Specialty Foods (also known as “the cheese place”) for a little known delight. There, you can order up a bagel sandwich with ANY of the cheeses available, some lettuce, tomato, even cucumber, and go away satisfied. It will only run you $3.49, and you can get some really delicious combinations.
As an example, we offer up the Phoenix favorite: a poppy seed bagel, with picante Gorgonzola (it’s not really spicy, but has a super zing), lettuce, and cucumbers. With the lettuce and poppy bagel as firm foundation, the juicy, crisp cucumbers offset the tang of the gorgonzola beautifully, like a rocket-launch of taste. The taste buds revel at the thought alone.
If you wander over to Maine Beer and Beverage, pick up a Stewart’s Key Lime soda and a bag of California Dill chips, the result can only be described as what green tastes like. It’s like the cold Maine ocean washing over you, laying in a bed of new ferns, and early-morning golf course all rolled into a package designed to be eaten on a bench in Monument Square during Wednesday morning’s farmers’ market.
We can only imagine the possibilities of working with Roquefort, Stilton, Brie, or a good smoked Gouda.
Horton Specialty Foods, Portland Public Market, 25 Preble St., Portland, (207) 228-2056.
Best Avocational Vocation
Right down the street from the vocational school in South Portland, Allison Reid and Josh Potocki are practicing their avocation. And the whole town is rejoicing. Both come from families that revolved around food, and all that love in their blood has made them really good at what they do. They are busy at One Fifty Ate Bakeshop, but they are their own bosses, and they can set the pace. Which means slower. Everything is made by hand with no machinery, “So there is lots of love in it” Allison Reid smiles. Sometimes they even run out of things.
“You can’t buy five dozen bagels at a time, unless you order ahead of time,” she states. “People had a hard time with it at first, but now I think they are starting to like it. It feels more special. In our society, where we are used to having everything ready any time we want it, there is a sense of a never-ending supply. It’s good for people to learn that resources sometimes can’t be replenished.”
“There is a lot of psychology to it,” quips Josh Potocki.
Their style runs the gamut from Del McCoury to Desmond Dekker to DJ Shadow; from Saveur to Transworld Skateboarding to Popular Woodworking. They smoke their own salmon and, soon, their own cheddar. Their bagels are all made from their original starter named Lulu, who has even gone on a road trip with Potocki. They have a seasonal garden where they grow some of their own herbs and vegetables. And, for their winter menu, they plan on adding a PBR (peanut butter & raisin) triple-decker-tallboy and a spinach salad with a warm bacon dressing and fried egg to their signature cinnamon buns, blueberry muffins, and coffee cake.
As quoted in the bathroom: “What if I was walking home from doing work that I love and that benefits us all? What if I knew that the powers moved to provide for all of us and how would that be? What would we feel and think and create?”
One Fifty Ate.
One Fifty Ate Bakeshop, 158 Benjamin Pickett St., South Portland, (207) 799-8998.
Best Place to Eat with Your Fingers
|EZO DOES IT:
Florence Olebe cooks up traditional Sudanese fare.
Good manners are relative. In Japan, it is imperative that you slurp your noodles loud and wet from your soup. In France, one must gracefully pull one’s spoon toward oneself and daintily tap it upon the edge of the bowl so as to avoid dripping upon the lip. Some cultures bite from bamboo, some wood, some metal, and some just delicious bread and fingers. In the Sudan, breaking bread and sharing food with family is a way of life. It is customary to eat together, scooping a variety of shared dishes from a joint platter lined with kisra, a steamed flat bread of wheat and corn that is a staple in East Africa.
Florence Olebe and her seven sons brought this tradition with them when they came to Portland four years ago as refugees from the Sudan. Noticing a lack of authentic African cuisine, despite southern Maine’s large population, they opened Ezo African Restaurant in January of 2001, named after her father-in-law and the village where he had been chief.
Her recipes are typical Sudanese fare, the type of food she would prepare in her own home for her family. The Sukuma-Wiki vegetable platter consists of an “ancestral bean stew,” lightly spiced spinach and collard greens, and a vegetable medley. The Unity Platter, which generously serves four people, has all that plus chicken and beef stews and a choice of Moto-Moto marinated grilled chicken or Shwarma spiced chicken or beef strips. Everything is served with a choice of kisra or rice — but be adventurous, get the kisra. It is fantastic.
Although the Olebes like Portland and enjoy meeting new faces everyday in their restaurant, Florence misses her home and her former job with the United Nations as a coordinator for programs for women and children, and the craft store she owned in Khartoum. She was not a restaurateur in the Sudan, but likes to cook and, “it was the only business I thought would be successful.” Her magnificent food and warm hospitality have been very welcome by Portlanders, and she is currently looking for a space to expand her dining room and combine the restaurant with other African activities.
“The restaurant is another way for people to know about us and our culture; one of its purposes is to teach the community about us.” she says. “Many people thought we were immigrants seeking work, when we are refugees of war.”
Ezo African Restaurant, 51 Oak St., Portland, (207) 772-1796.
Best Thing Since Sliced Bread
When Celia Bruns graduated a few years ago from Syracuse University art school, with a degree in printmaking and photography, she had no idea she would soon be the owner and chef of one of Portland’s hippest gourmet sandwich shops, Artemisia Café.
“I thought I’d do art photography and people would pay me to look at my pictures,” she laughs. “Unfortunately, in the art world, you have to be a really good salesperson, and that was hard for me.”
Fortunately for everyone in the vicinity of Pleasant Street at lunchtime, her food sells itself. Grilled sweet potatoes and avocado on homemade multi-grain bread, crispy slices of thick-cut bacon with lettuce and tomato on fresh, cornmeal-topped toasting bread, roast turkey with stuffing and cranberry mayonnaise tucked neatly into a comforting sandwich, chocolate chip cookies with ginger — all served amid a cozy orange glow filled with spidering plants and eclectic artwork.
Bruns was working at a local restaurant when the space that formerly housed Zygote Café became available in May of 2000. She had not planned on opening a restaurant, but when the opportunity presented itself, she conceived, gestated, and birthed her creation in a mere two weeks.
“I had incredible friends who helped me do all of the painting and enabled me to get it all together. We stayed up all night two nights to get all of the painting done, and they even painted the table tops,” she recounts.
Bruns has gleaned her inspiration from her extensive 200-plus cookbook collection and her love of the 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, an artist known for her graphic display of a woman’s perspective in the male-dominated sphere of biblical art. Artemisia is also the Latin name of an aromatic group of herbs that includes tarragon, and it reflects the fact that the building that the café is in is otherwise filled with art studios — one of which will house Bruns’ kitchen when the café expands in May.
Bruns was a 15-year veteran of the restaurant industry, in primarily managerial positions, when she turned to art school to help unleash her artistic potential. By combining her passions, Celia Bruns has found her true medium in food.
Artemisia Café, 61 Pleasant St., Portland, (207) 761-0135.
Best Hot Spot
Without fail, as soon as the waitress takes our order, my boyfriend gets up from the table. And no matter how many times we go to the Bayou Kitchen for Sunday breakfast, it still catches me off guard. He gets up and makes his way in-between the tightly seated patrons at the counter. “Excuse me,” he says as he squeezes his arm between a couple seated at the bar stools in the corner. That’s where the Bayou Kitchen keeps their plethora of hot sauces.
At any given time, you can find roughly 30 varieties of the fiery condiment. Some from right here in Portland, others straight from the Louisiana Bayou. “We have a lot of regulars that go on vacation and think of us and bring them back from Mexico, and Barbados, but most of them come from New Orleans,” says co-owner Yvette Faulkner. “The local brews are what we go through a lot of. We buy them by the case. Canceaux Sauce and Lost Woods are the big ones. The others we buy by the bottle in Westbrook from Mary at Firegirl.com.”
Hot, volcano, lava, sweet, raspberry, whatever your desire, there’s a bottle to accommodate you. Almost as good as the flavors are the packaging and names that accompany them. Take for instance the Hot & Horny sauce. It made such a stink that the owners made up a T-shirt that read, “I got hot and horny at the Bayou Kitchen.” Unfortunately, this classic novelty item is a thing of the past and no longer available.
“Then there’s the top-shelf hot sauce,” says Faulkner. “We don’t keep it on the counter.” You’ve heard rumors, surely, of the ones that are so hot they require a rating and a warning label. “We have to keep those one-drop wonders away from the customers, so they don’t get hurt. We keep those behind the counter. They have to ask for them.”
Bayou Kitchen, 543 Deering Ave., Portland, (207) 774-4935.
Best Tea Cozy
When customers walk in to Sip, Portland’s only tea house, chances are owner Stacy Troubh knows their name, or what kind of tea they want, or both. Stacy, along with her husband and co-owner Mike, has created a snug nook of a tea shop that offers patrons the comfort of soothing herbal teas, perky black and green teas, homemade baked delights, and caring owners who are always there.
“Comfort is a big thing for us,” says Stacy. “There are a lot of rules with teas, like which get milk and which don’t, and a lot of Americans don’t drink tea because it’s not as accessible as coffee. But we encourage people to drink their tea however they want it.”
Not only do the Troubhs encourage customers to doctor their tea to taste, they also listen carefully to suggestions and are usually willing to order any tea that the “serious tea drinkers” of Portland request. Their selection rotates on a monthly basis and is always fresh. Currently, Sip offers 24 varieties of tea, from the traditional black Earl Gray, to fruity herbal infusions, to Gyokuro green tea from Japan, the absolute high end of teas. And if you’re a Chai lover, Sip is the only place to go, with a spicy blend that is made specially for the store. You can buy any of the teas in dry bulk, by the cup, or by the pot if you feel like hunkering down in the store and watching Portland’s art community shuffle by on upper Congress Street.
Even if you don’t love tea, Sip’s selection of sweet treats is more than enough reason to visit. Seasonal breads, blondies, crumb cakes, whoopie pies, and short breads have all developed an avid following among Sip’s regulars. Stacy makes all of the food on site, giving each bite that homemade goodness, but she was also trained at Le Acadamie de Cuisine in Washington DC, which gives each bite that special gourmet touch grandma might have lacked. As for Mike, he has his own place in the food chain.
“He likes to eat,” Stacy says with a comfortable chuckle.
Sip, 576 Congress St., Portland, (207) 774-2593.
Best Asian Restaurant: Seng Thai
Best Bagel: Mr. Bagel
Best Bakery: Standard Baking Co.
Best Barbecue: Norm’s
Best Breakfast: Becky’s
Best Brewpub: Gritty McDuff’s
Best Brunch: Bintliff's American Cafe
Best Burrito: Granny’s Burrito’s
Best Cheap Restaurant: Granny’s Burrito’s
Best Coffee House: Coffee by Design
Best Cuts of Meat: Pat’s Meat Market
Best Fresh Produce: The Green Grocer
Best Ice Cream Parlor: Beal’s Ice Cream
Best Indian Food: Tandoor
Best Italian Restaurant: Ribolita
Best Late Night Restaurant: Denny’s
Best Lobster: Lobster Shack
Best Local Beer: Shipyard
Best Mexican Restaurant: Margarita’s
Best Natural Food Store: The Whole Grocer
Best New Restaurant: Michaela’s
Best Pizza: Flatbread Pizza Co.
Best Wine List: Fore Street
Best Seafood: Street & Company
Best Service: Fore Street
Best Splurge: Fore Street
Best Sushi: Benkay
Best Vegetarian Restaurant: Pepperclub