In defense of simplicity, The North Point finds its middle ground

Now, I’m no food critic, and I’m not about to pretend to be one. I’ve been called a lot of things before, not all of them nice, and I’ve pretended to be a lot of things, too, but a foodie is not one of them.

Not that I have anything against foodies, or food, for that matter, categorically speaking, anyway. Sure, there are foods I am not fond of and there are some foodies I find equally questionable. Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. Maybe the whole foodie phenomena makes me a little uncomfortable, but that’s probably more my fault than anyone else’s. When I’m around people with sophisticated tastes, or even people who can make their otherwise banal tastes sound sophisticated, I get insecure and worry that deep down I’m just a barbarian, devoid of all nuance. Give me the food and let me put it in my mouth. Wrap it in bacon. That sort of thing. And I don’t want to be a barbarian. You understand.

But I digress. What I’m trying to do here is recommend a little restaurant in the Old Port, a restaurant that, I think, has a great deal to recommend itself. I’m talking about The North Point, on 35 Silver St. I went in there last week to talk with the owner, Dan Talmatch. He looks a little like Wyatt Earp, but without the mustache. Or if not Wyatt, than a cowboy of one stripe or another, which is a compliment. Who doesn’t want to look like a cowboy, at least some of the time?

Anyway, we sat in a comfortable, corner table recessed into a nook by the window. It was all very cozy: the snow outside, the inky, coal sky, the windows occasionally flexing against a gust of wind. The scene highlighted one of the things that I already like about this restaurant: The North Point feels comfortable. It’s not pretentious, but neither does it lack taste. It strikes a balance between formal and informal, and balance of any variety is always a virtue. But this was also part of Dan’s vision when he and his brother, Noah, opened the restaurant three years ago: “We felt the need for a place in Portland that wasn’t a sports bar but also wasn’t a five-star restaurant. … We wanted to keep it simple but elegant. First class food, but simplified.”    

As Dan expanded on this vision — a kind of everyman’s restaurant with “no one type of clientele” — a pleasant server brought us a couple appetizers: grilled chicken skewers wrapped in prosciutto and portobello mushrooms stuffed with tomato, garlic, olives, feta and mozzarella. Now as I said, I’m no food critic and, with you, dear reader, I will not pretend to be, but in the heat of the moment, trying to sound professional and appear fluent in culinary discourse, a wave of anxiety washed over me. I feared Dan would sense the food-barbarian in me. I stuttered out a question: “So this stuff is all … the chicken is baked?” I sounded like a Cretan.

Luckily, Dan was quick to take the lead. The kitchen, as it turns out, shares this pared-down, elegant but simple vision, he told me. The cooks work with only an oven and a grill. Other than that, no flame. “It makes it very easy,” Dan said, “but it certainly has its limitations, too, so we try to stick with the things we can do, and, again, keep it very simple.”

And what can they do, exactly? Besides appetizers like chicken wrapped in prosciutto and stuffed portobello mushrooms — which happened to be, as it turned out, well, simple but not lacking in flavor — and a wide selection of charcuterie, The North Point has mastered the flatbread sandwich. If you’re not familiar with The North Point’s flatbread sandwiches, consider first, the bread: “We have this beautiful, fresh bread delivered to us daily from Tandoor bakery,” Dan said. The stuff is called Tenur bread, a Middle Eastern bread that’s “like Naan but with perfect consistency. There’s no holes. It doesn’t crack or tear when you fold it. So we put the ingredients in the middle, fold it over, and press it in the Panini press.”

As the main entrées on the menu, these sandwiches range from the Havana Cubano, with smoked Cajun pork, ham, swiss, pickle, Dijon mustard, and a chili sauce, to the Smoked Local Salmon, with herbed cheese, Vidalia onions, tomato, cucumbers and capers, and a number of other unique options in between. Now, my inclination here is to champion these sandwiches by lauding the bread (which, truly, should not be conflated with your typical sandwich bread, not when you consider the way the Panini press seamlessly brittles the top, tortilla-thin layer of the Tenur while warming the inside dough to an oven-fresh, fluffy texture) and praising the way the fillings complement each other (which they do, no doubt, especially the Smoked Local Salmon — the way the cheese melts, just warming the salmon but leaving the tomatoes and cucumbers and capers still crisp and cool) but, I’m no foodie, would that I were, and I don’t want to pretend, as you know, to be something I’m not. So I’ll say this instead: They’re good and simple, these flatbread sandwiches. Go eat them.

Now, I should add one other thing, too. The bar at The North Point is rumored to have some of the best drinks in town. When I asked Dan about this, he said, “The main thing is that all of our juices are fresh squeezed. We squeeze lemons and limes and oranges, and we don’t use any premade mixes at all.” But, again, not unlike the food and the overall vision Dan has for The North Point, he’s seeking a balance: good cocktails, high quality liquor, but he doesn’t want to overdo it. “Not to take away from people who find a drink’s added pretentiousness to be fun and wonderful and all those things, but we want to keep it simple. Make it simple.” This isn’t a criticism, and Dan made this clear. It’s just that there are other people in town that are already doing the highly specialized drink thing. So, they’ve got cocktails, good cocktails, wine and 12 local beers on tap. But don’t go to The North Point expecting to have your drink made with an eye-dropper.

But for me, this is the appeal. And this isn’t a criticism of Portland, but yes, sometimes a restaurant can feel too pretentious. Sometimes I want that balance between formal and informal, a place that feels welcoming, but isn’t a sports bar. A place where you can sit at the bar and read a book, or take a date, and what’s unique about The North Point is that it strikes this balance. It’s not trying to be something it’s not. But then again, what do I know. I’m no foodie.