Sunday, May 16, 2010

Maine Line: Fore Star

I'm not big on destination restaurants. After all, my single must-have on our trip to Maine was a lobster roll. But since we had an evening free, I decided to reserve a spot at what is considered to be Portland's best restaurant, Sam Hayward's Fore Street.

Like Greg Higgins here, Hayward is renowned for his dedication to the land and the cuisine of Maine, for his seasonal menus and sourcing ingredients from local farmers and purveyors. ''I think of the menu as almost a narrative of what Maine's foodways are about and where they're going,'' he said in a New York Times interview. ''We have one foot in tradition and one in modernity.''

The tradition part would include the wood-fired oven that is front and center in the open kitchen, an unusual feature in 1996, when Fore Street opened. Rather than being seated in one of the cushy wood-paneled booths against the wall, we were put next to that oven's fiery mouth, with the grill and rotisserie alongside it, the prep area for the salads and breads right in front of us, and with a bird's-eye view into the wood-paneled cold storage locker. I was in heaven.

We ordered a half dozen oysters, comprised of Basket Island, Mill Cove and Damariscotta (right), served on ice in a handled pan with a verjus mignonette. The Basket Islands were the smallest, with a sharp briny flavor, surprisingly meaty for oysters their size. The Mill Coves were equally briny with a touch of sweetness and a much creamier texture. The huge Damariscottas were too much to eat all in one go and I had to cut mine in half, a big no-no in eating fresh oysters, but what could I do? These were the mildest, but must have been doing workouts with the Basket Islands, since they had the same muscle-y texture.

We also shared a grilled sourdough and kale salad, with leaf lettuce, shaved fennel, roasted sweet peppers and olives. I was hoping for a version of a kale salad I'd been working on at home, but this one was made with baby kale and combined with young leaf lettuces, which obscured the other ingredients and, while perfectly good, was uninspiring.

One selection on the menu that shouted my name was the "Chilled Meats and Offal" which gives a choice of three items for $14. We went with the moulard duck pate, rabbit sausage and foie gras and pistachio terrine (left), which arrived with sides of fennel jam, pickled shallots and whole grain mustard. The pate was mild and creamy, the sausage an herby delight and the foie…well…can I just say that, along with Carol Boutard's blackcap jam, this was luscious enough to make a marvelous marital aid.

Our mains were just as amazing. Dave's dry-rubbed pork loin on a bed of braised sauerkraut (right) was astonishing not just for its size but for its succulence. On the menu almost since the place opened, this is an example of the best and highest use of the often-mistreated loin cut.

The hanger steak with great Northern beans and braised oxtail that Mr. B chose was grilled over the wood fire between the oven and the turnspit that had roasted the loin. It was a huge piece of perfectly rare-ish meat, the beans beautifully cooked in the wood oven, and was almost more than even his prodigious appetite could manage.

The wood-oven roasted, whole gilt-edged sea bream (left) that I ordered was stuffed with smoked shrimp and garlic and scattered with grilled spring onions and pakchoi. Served in the pan it was roasted in, it was a gorgeous thing, though nowhere near too pretty to eat, which I did, up to and including tearing apart the head to get to the forehead meat and cheeks.

We all felt it was one of the best meals we've had, and the prices seemed right in line with, or even less than, what we'd expect to pay for a special occasion meal back home.

As a matter of fact, with its wood oven and commitment to local food, it would be a dinner-house version of our own Ned Ludd, with nothing aside from size and an ever-so-slightly more upscale menu in its favor. But on the chance you do get to Maine, make a point of stopping by and getting a taste of the state…without a single lobster in sight.

Details: Fore Street, 288 Fore St., Portland, ME. Phone 207-775-2717.

Check out the other installments in the series: The (Other) Portland, Dinner and a Show, Breakfast and Lunch, Loosening Up, Puttering Around the Old Port and Shackin' It.  


Zawacki said...

As always, a wonderful enticing read. Truly makes me want to head to Maine.

My favorite line is "can I just say that, along with Carol Boutard's blackcap jam, this was luscious enough to make a marvelous marital aid". Awesome.

With a great line like that they should offer to "comp" your meals ;)

Kathleen Bauer said...

Comped meals would be nice (since it's expensive to dine out!) but a) I never know if it's going to be that good and b) who knows where those lines come from?