Did anything interesting happen last year?
It’s already so hard to remember. You could say the same for the food scene here in Portland, where few developments made people take notice. Folks talked about Drifter’s Wife, thanks to its palatable pedanticism and New York PR connections. But prices there are already climbing, which saps the charm from that particular embodiment of why the rust belt resents the cultural elite.
Other developments emphasized the old over the new: Scales re-emerged after a long hiatus, Petite-Jacqueline moved downtown and Woodfords F&B brought culinary nostalgia to a neglected corner of town.
Even quieter was the transition at Caiola’s, where new owners and a new chef took over this anchor of West End dining. A decade ago, Caiola’s led a wave of new neighborhood spots (along with Blue Spoon and Bar Lola) that expanded the scene west and east of the Old Port. Caiola’s embodied that expansion best, since it was Street and Co.’s long-time chef who opened it — bringing along her magic touch with seafood. The new owners also have Old Port roots, running Piccolo and Blue Rooster.
While following Bresca into that little space on Middle Street has been a challenge for Piccolo, things are going smoothly at Caiola’s. The space is still inviting, the service warm, and the menu still manages the right balance between short and eclectic. Prices hover on the high end of “neighborhood restaurant.” There is less emphasis on fish now, and less pasta. Overall, the approach (especially in winter) has gotten a little heartier, with braises, confits, stews and various preparations of beef.
But it feels like a summer day at the old Caiola’s when you taste the bright seaside flavors of an appetizer of big marinated shrimp on thin whole grain toasts. Celery and watercress kept the flavors light, while the toast lends a hint of earthiness. By contrast, there was a wintery appeal to a dish of soft carrots — super roasted but not a bit dried out — kissed with creamy tart yogurt and spotted with shards of sharp oily olive and crunchy almonds.
Another bit of skill kept the venison tender in a thinly sliced meatloaf ringed with bacon. The result was only a bit gamey, and the pork fat seemed to infuse it all. The spiciness of the accompanying broccoli rabe and radish stood up to the venison’s rich flavor, even as it mingled with creamy egg yolk. An entrée of hake showed that Caiola’s still has a light touch with seafood — the thick piece was tender and flakey. Under it, thin slices of potato and turnip were plopped in a very-sweet sweet potato puree.
Grilled Ribeye "Delmonico" with roast garlic crispy crushed Maine potatoes, scarlet frill and Gorgonzola cheese
So, it’s a relief to find at Caiola’s that change can happen in a way that is subtle and easy to absorb. I am sure the same will be true this year in the larger culture. There will be jarring moments, of course — like when our $3 tea (they were out of cappuccino) turned out to be a dreary bag of Lipton’s. It diminished our enjoyment of the cranberry cake — so thin and dense it was like a tart fruit bread topped with house-made ice cream.
What other changes does the near future hold? Food trend prognosticators have predicted 2017 will be “the year of the egg yolk.” That would be so nice. Even “the year of weak tea” would be okay, if it meant we'll avoid something more horrible or ridiculous. If our politics is about to swamp us with a lot of dubious old ideas hyped as new and innovative, but really just meant to siphon off the savings of the middle class — then our decade of experience as a “foodie city” might be the best preparation. Meanwhile, the best defense might be preserving what works in your neighborhood — and the new Caiola’s has done just that.
Caiola's | 58 Pine St., Portland | 207-772-1110 | Entrees $19-24 | Mon.-Tues 5-9:30 pm; Wed-Sat 5-10 pm; Sun 9 am–2 pm