_by Brian Duff
The greatest American novel was about the original roustabouts – young men prowling the docks of New England, looking for work in a gig economy. Today Ishmael and Queequeg would fit right in, with their tattoos, multiculturalism and bi-curiosity. I think Queequeg had a man-bun. Melville’s roustabouts sought work as oarsmen or harpooners. Today’s version seek gigs as prep cooks, or perhaps mixing drinks. Of course, the whaler sought sperm-oil to fuel the emerging culture of consumption, and at great sacrifice. “He must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men.” Today’s roustabouts might sacrifice a Saturday (and a grass-fed cow) to cater a gay wedding.
Melville asked whether such sacrifices in the name of consumption could find greater purpose. We ignore that question, and imagine there is purpose to be found simply in consuming well. The new restaurant Roustabout, on the rapidly gentrifying southeast tip of Washington Ave., raises the question anew. To what purpose should Portland have another European-American, local yada yada, less-than-expensive but not cheap, nice looking restaurant? There can be none. Should we eat there, anyway?
Sure. For Melville also wrote, “If you can get nothing better out of the world, get a good dinner,” and Roustabout has that to offer. The menu leans toward Italian cuisine, but not in overly familiar ways. The food comforts more often than it surprises. But it often manages to do both at once.
For example, the garlic soup has an unusual pistachio pesto dolloped throughout the bowl. It is a bit gummy, a bit flavorless, and somehow quite pleasant mixed in with the thin tangy broth. The garlic was mellow and seemed more scapey than bulb-sharp, perhaps due to a thorough roasting. Some big floating croutons paired sog and crunch.
A winter-squash lasagna seemed to be of two minds. With its sweet squash, apples, walnuts, and something cinnamony, it invoked dessert. But the crepitating edges of baked pasta, some sharp parmesan, and a topping of shaved brussels sprout nudge the dish back toward the savory. It’s another odd mix, but it works. Roasted root vegetables were unusually varied in flavor, with some pickled turnips adding sharpness, and a good mustardy vinaigrette. A ciccioli-style pate mingled chewy hunks of pork with creamier textures into a rich fatty loaf.
Roustabout was at its best with the arctic char picatta – a nice idea and well executed. The fish was moist and mild, served skin side up, showing off a lovely sear. It was animated by the sharpness of capers and a creamy, buttery, lemony sauce with a hint of spice. The broccoli raab was aggressively bitter, soaked in butter and spotted with parmesan.
Roustabout has what it calls “a well considered bar program,” which is a worrisome bit of jargon, but seems to mean a half dozen cocktails that put a new twist on classics. Their citrusy take on an old-fashioned was quite nice. The wine list is a touch pricey for a neighborhood spot, as are the desserts.
In keeping with Melville, Roustabout has an understated nautical theme, with some knotted ropes and ships about. But the restaurant also seems to misunderstand the roustabout – clipping your bill to a photo of some stylishly distressed early 20th century types, posing for a photographer. These are not roustabouts. They are penurious flaneurs. They are proto-narcissists. They are people like ourselves. In fact in current usage, a roustabout refers not to urban posers, but to those who labor on the oil rigs – carrying on the fuel-burning habits of consumption that will bring the rising oceans forth upon us – as Melville predicted: “However baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment; yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him.”
Roustabout | 59 Washington Ave., Portland | Entrees mostly $17-$21 | Tuesday-Friday: 11:30am-midnight; Saturday-Sunday: 10:00am-midnight | 207.536.4008