In this city, everybody’s got an opinion. When I’m sitting at a dinner party or a table with friends, I will throw the name a restaurant out there and ask, “What do you all think of Paula’s Place?” (That's a fake name, there is no Paula's Place.)
I’ll get six answers. One person will say that Paula’s Place is the best restaurant in Portland. Another will disagree and complain about the service. Another will say that it was once really good, but not anymore. And so on. Give this a try the next time you’re out with friends and you’ll see what I mean.
So, when I was recently asked to judge cocktails and food pairings for Maine Restaurant Week’s Spirit Quest, I couldn’t help wondering if my opinion about a particular cocktail and/or dish would be similar to the other three judges.
Now, I’m generally a fairly easygoing person. However, when it comes to competition, I’m a white knuckle, stick-to-your-guns, kind of guy. If I feel strongly about something and I believe I have a good argument, I’m not likely to budge. Not long ago, I judged a competition in Portland and one of the other judges, a local food writer who shall remain nameless, told mutual acquaintances that I had decided the winner before the competition began. Some of Portland’s food writers can be disturbingly petty.
But despite strong reservations, I agreed to judge Spirit Quest this year.
gBritt PR, a Maine-based PR firm, founded Maine Restaurant Week nine years ago, and this is the second year of Spirit Quest. Founder Gillian Britt provides some history.
“The Spirit Quest grew out of an event that has been an annual part of Maine Restaurant Week, the Signature Event. That event featured competing bartenders and paired bites in a grazing format. We took that concept and revised it to create this self-guided tour, which invites Spirit Quest participants into the individual restaurants and bars along the route. It was a huge hit last year, people really enjoyed the walk, sip, eat, repeat outing.”
Aside from the obvious excitement that comes from a healthy competition, Spirit Quest is a great way for curious foodies in our area to experience our restaurant community. Chefs and bartenders work together to showcase a cocktail and a bite — an excellent opportunity to get creative and show off.
And show off they did. There were 19 restaurants that did cocktail and food pairings. The other three judges and I had a difficult time determining the winner. After much deliberation, Timber was the overall winner — judges' choice and people’s choice.
Timber’s executive chef is Christian Barrett and their bar manager is Henry Jost. TIQA came in a close second for Judges' Choice and David’s Restaurant came in second place for the People's Choice Award. Timber’s dish was a gravlax and sweet corn blini, with cucumber caviar, meyer lemon, mascarpone, arugula and Maine Sea Salt — very sophisticated and oh so tasty. Their cocktail was a cucumber martini with fresh basil, lemon juice and simple syrup. The pairing was sublime and worthy of praise. You don’t often see the judges choosing the same winner as the participants. That validated the judge’s choice. One of my favorites was the pairing at Solo Italiano. Their focaccino con prosciutto et mielle was light and flavorful. All of the cocktails were truly terrific.
I haven’t been in Portland for long, so I was curious to hear what the Britts had to say about the cocktail culture.
“Portland has more bars dedicated to cocktails then it did when Maine Restaurant Week started," says Gillian Britt. "During this time we've seen cocktails expand to include more local ingredients, more locally distilled products and combine more savory and unusual flavors. Right now we're seeing a huge increase in interest in beer and beer cocktails and a return to classic cocktails.”
Although March 12 marks the final day of Maine Restaurant Week, all participating restaurants continue to be a part of Maine’s unique and exciting food scene. March 2018 is fortunately not very far away.
Christopher Papagni is a Maine-based restaurant industry consultant.
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