Christopher Papagni

Christopher Papagni

An easy commute does not mean a smooth road — How David Iovino of Blue Spoon makes it work

There are several kinds of restaurant owners. There are those who thrive on chaos and wouldn’t have it any other way; those who give management over to someone else and detach completely; owners who can turn it off like a switch and back on when they need to; and then there is David.

David opened Blue Spoon in January of 2004. He reflects:

“If I had known how much work it would be and how much money it would cost me, I wouldn’t have done it.”

David graduated from The French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) in New York City in 1997. He had some solid cooking experience in New York before he relocated to Portland in 2000; most notably Savoy Restaurant in Soho — a restaurant that has since closed, but will always be remembered as a Manhattan favorite. A difficult commute from his home state of New Jersey (and a good many doors slammed in his face) brought him to Portland.

A search for the perfect space to open a restaurant took him from Cape Elizabeth to Yarmouth. However, what he wanted from the start was a place on Munjoy Hill. When he was first shown 89 Congress, his current location, David recalls having to see past the disrepair and structural concerns. He did just that, and 13 years later, he continues to own and operate one of the most beloved restaurants in Portland.

Richard Rothslisberger, a frequent diner, shares how he feels about Blue Spoon: "Change is good, is not an axiom that I revere when it comes to some of my favorite restaurants. In the case of Blue Spoon, this means a small intimate space that set out to serve lovingly prepared food, and has done so since its inception. Its neighborhood location, welcoming and in- formed staff, and locally sourced provisions all contribute to a consistently pleasurable dining experience.”

 

David has worked hard to remain true to his vision. He wanted a small neighborhood restaurant and his motto has always been, “Food from friends, family and travels.” His menu is creative yet simple and has always included a favorite of his mom’s. It is his love of fresh ingredients and good food that he strives to convey.

Artist Elizabeth Margolis-Pineo has this to say about David and Blue Spoon:

“David's blue cheese toast has sustained me through five long winters since my move to Munjoy Hill. His fish stew is what I order when I miss my Mom. Everybody has a death row meal, don’t they? Mine is the blue cheese toast and fish stew at Blue Spoon. Seriously.”

If you truly want to examine the success of a restaurant, look no further than the staff. Katie, the bar manager, has been with David since before he even opened, and there are others whose tenure goes way back. His nurturing and easy going management style fosters a hard working and dedicated team. You get a sense of how much his staff enjoys being at Blue Spoon the moment you enter the restaurant. Katie is one of my personal favorite servers in Portland.

David has spent a good deal of time balancing work and home life. He purposely always uses the side door to his building, so that he can enter while avoiding the 24-hour magnetic pull of his restaurant. This year especially has been an opportunity to give his staff more responsibility and thus pull back just a little. His hands-on approach will only allow for measured delegation.

He laughs and tells me about two gentlemen who approached him with an interest in opening a restaurant of their own. He requested they return at closing when he’d have more time to speak to them. When they stopped by later that evening, David was mopping the floor. “You have to mop your own floor?” they asked, and he shot back, “Well yeah, who else is going to do it?”

That’s what owning a successful restaurant is all about. 

 

  • Published in Food

The Brains Behind Portland's Soon-To-Be Dizzy Birds Rotisserie

If I had known as a child that growing up with a dad who worked as a chef would inform food choices for the rest of my life, I might have paid better attention. I admired my father because no other person in my limited universe could cook the way he did.

I fortuitously recently met Tom Peacock quite by accident. His wife, Barbara Peacock, is a well-known photographer I had met with to discuss her work. When Barbara learned of my industry background, she insisted that I meet her husband Tom. Tom soon cooked brunch for me and shared a business idea.

Fortunately for me, he was not looking for an investor — that would have made our first meeting awkward. He was, however, looking for a concept reaction from a fellow food enthusiast.

It’s a lot easier to discuss food with someone while being fed. Tom is light hearted, very articulate, and has a fascinating food background. I was happy to hear about Dizzy Birds Rotisserie, but I wanted to learn more about how and why Tom got into cooking.

When I asked Tom about his training he replied, “I learned most everything I know at the school of hard knocks.”

I, of course, thought that he was telling me that he was not formally trained; not so. It was at his grandparents’ home on Nantucket during his summer vacations where it all began. He started as a dishwasher at age 13 (probably not legal, but I believe the statute of limitations has run out). His closing duties included bleaching and scraping grease-saturated wooden platforms from the busy fry and grill stations.

By age 14, he moved on to the fry and salad stations. He shares that his parents nor his grandparents had a wide range of culinary skills (think creamed eggs on toast and salted cantaloupe for dessert), but he looks back fondly at the fellowship when the family would come together and close out the day. After he shared this, he laughed and told me about the coffee jello his grandmother made for her bridge club.

After high school, he tried the Hotel School at UMass; however, he knew after only one semester that he was not where he was meant to be. In 1982, he completed a Hotel-Restaurant degree at Paul Smith’s College in upstate New York. From there he went on to take a sous chef position at a small resort in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire. He left this position and moved to Boston, a more culinarily sophisticated city, when he was 23. There he took the banquet chef position for Creative Gourmet at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a cerebral setting for a cerebral chef.

Creative Gourmet was considered a high-end boutique food service business at the time and Tom was learning his craft. They liked Tom and he was ambitious. They quickly moved him into executive chef position at Bay Bank, one generation removed from Bank of Boston which eventually was absorbed by Bank of America. He met his wife Barbara at the Creative Gourmet commissary. In 1986 Tom took a production sous chef position at St. Cloud Restaurant in Boston’s South End — his cooking skills were more sophisticated by this time and he was exposed to the finer “contemporary American” style of food preparation.

If you’re thinking that Tom moved around quite a bit, you’re right. Most people do not understand that the only way to gain knowledge and be promoted is to take a position somewhere else. The opportunities presented themselves to Tom because he was dependable and learned fast; he has admittedly never considered himself a fine dining chef. In my experience, the most modest chefs are usually the most talented.

Like so many these days, Tom came to Portland without a job lined up. He and Barbara thought that opportunities would be in abundance in this food and arts town. Tom’s last 20 years in the food business was 75 percent management, so he was certain he’d land a decent management position; Barbara continued her success as a photographer and that kept them afloat. While Tom looked for a job, he spent a good deal of time in his home kitchen just having fun with food. On a trip to Home Depot he came upon a rotisserie attachment for his Weber grill and decided he should experiment “spinning chickens” at home. While working in the field, he recalls using the term spinning chickens for rotisserie chicken.

Needless to say, Tom was hooked. It was time to gather all his lifelong experience in cooking, management, and kitchen design and do his own thing. Barbara has been very supportive; her own baking background and foodie family history has made this joint venture a new and realistic dream come true. And reality soon set in.

Dizzy Birds Rotisserie concept is elevated comfort food from a scratch kitchen. The food will not sit for long as they will practice smallbatch cooking. The modern brasserie-influenced environment will feature a carvery with sides displayed in colorful enamel clad cast iron pans and the rotisserie oven will be featured. Counter service will make ordering quick and easy. Various ethnic themes will be introduced throughout the week with a staple of customer favorites always available. Flavor profiles will be distinct, unique, and always fresh. Tom knows he would be cooking for our regions educated palate: simple and appealing to a busy lifestyle. Options will include whole rotisserie chicken dinners with sides, plate lunches, and carvery sandwiches of roast beef, turkey, lamb, and occasional roast pork and brisket. Frozen entrees for easy heating up will make life easier for many. Social media will announce the dishes of the day and other specials. Tom and Barbara expect to feed over 150 people a day.

Peacock is targeting early November for the opening of Dizzy Birds Rotisserie.  Lease negotiations are underway for a location just over the Casco Bay Bridge in South Portland that features close to 1600 square feet of space. In addition, he hopes to offer outdoor seating next Spring and drive-through pick-up. Website and app development for online ordering are already underway. 

 

I asked Tom how he will measure success and he replied, “When the players and individuals in our industry make Dizzy Birds Rotisserie a regular choice on their day off, that will be all the success I can hope for.”


This article has been edited to more clearly state the state of progress on Dizzy Birds Rotisserie. Christopher Papagni can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. 

A Life in the Food Scene — Photojournalist and Food Writer Diane Hudson On Portland Past and Present

Cookbook writer, restaurant critic, food writer, photo journalist, painter, world traveler, and lover of all things Maine, Diane Hudson is not cagey about her thoughts and opinions.

She's also a woman with more wisdom in her pinky finger than I possess in my entire brain. I felt privileged to spend some time with Diane over coffee and donuts at the new HiFi cafe. 

I think you’ll find her candor refreshing and her insight provocative.

Tell me about yourself, Diane. Where are you from and how did you get here?

I moved to Portland in the early '70s following completion of a graduate fellowship in English at the University of Maine at Orono. I had never been to Maine, and was teaching in Vermont at the time where I had been doing graduate studies in English at Middlebury College at the Bread Loaf School when I got this Fellowship.

A year in Maine was the only appetizer I needed to know I wanted the full entree . . . at least a lifetime, here in this wondrous state, and primarily, here in Portland where I was drawn immediately by the architecture and charming cobblestone streets.

You’ve written a cookbook. How did that come about?

I ghost wrote a Greek cookbook, called Greek Cooking for the Gods in the mid-'70s while living in London. I had never been to Greece. In researching for the book, I developed an appetite for that exquisite country. So I went and lived there for a year. Writing about food opens many doors. It is, after all, a most essential part of being.

I have never seen you without a camera hanging from your neck. What role has photography played in your professional life?

My first foray into editorial photography happened quite by accident at Portland Magazine. I have been taking photos since I was seven when my Uncle gave me a brownie camera. Back then I was doing pen and ink sketches and oil paintings and I would go out and take pictures at various times of day to get different lighting effects and then work with those on my canvases. I was working at the magazine in the early 80s (not in the photo-journalist capacity) when the editor, Colin Sargent, was in a bind and asked at deadline if I just happened to have any photos of Portland. I gave him a shoebox full of photos I had taken and he exclaimed, “Why didn't you tell me you are a photographer?” and used one of my photos for the cover of the issue that particular month.

How did you get involved with food writing?

The food writing started in earnest with monthly reviews for Portland Magazine sometime after my life partner opened his restaurant the Pepperclub. There was no way I could convince him to go out to eat, him being a chef owner of a restaurant, and I could not convince him to take us there to dine either. I was working at a law firm at the time and he said to me: “Okay, why don’t we go have dinner in your office then, would you like that?” So, I decided if I were to be required to go out to dinner for my work, he just might accompany me. That’s how it got started. 

How has the Portland food scene changed since you arrived here?

The Portland food scene has changed drastically. There were a number of Italian eateries and I miss some, like the Village Café at the foot of Munjoy Hill, a very simple, straightforward, traditional Italian place, with down-to-earth and entertaining wait-staff. And of course DiMillo’s, before the boat in a tiny setting on Commercial Street. There was a top-notch French restaurant, The Gaslight, on Exchange and that was a real treat. I'll never forget my first Pink Squirrel there, Coquilles St Jacques and deliciously garlic laden escargot. Divine.

Then along came a couple of restaurants in the Portland area that actually spoke to this sophisticated palate. And the collective consciousness of what could be done created a non-stop interest in seeing more. One of them was Hu Shang, a tiny place when it first opened on Congress Street before expanding to Exchange and Brown Streets. I don’t believe I have had better Chinese cuisine anywhere. 

Then there was Alberta’s, with sweet, generous Jimmie Ledue. Experimental but far from haute cuisine, just damn good fare and wildly popular. Also, a haven for artists as Jimmie would trade his unsurpassable chef’s skills for artworks by the likes of Howard Clifford and many others. It was a unique time in Portland’s food scene history. There has never been anything quite like it again.

Have there been changes in the food scene that have surprised you?

Another change that has been occurring over many years now is an increase in ethnic eateries, many of them experiencing success over the long term. Like Tu Casa, the Salvadorian place on Washington Avenue, there long before the current proliferation of eateries all around them. And this increase in eclectic cuisine has created a much more interesting and sustainable character for Portland’s food scene.

Another interesting and enjoyable phenomenon, to me, is the ever increasing number of neighborhood bars and dining destinations. Where I live, for example, there is The Front Room, The Blue Spoon, Lolita’s — all wildly popular. Each offers very different options for the palate and pocketbook, so there is something to suit everyone. Similarly, on the West End, you have Local 188, LFK and Hot Suppa, among others. And Woodford’s has long enjoyed JP’s and now I frequent the newer Woodford’s F&B. Soon, where BreaLu Café operated for many years, the Palace Diner (Biddeford) folks are opening yet another neighborhood destination, to be called Rose Foods and featuring ‘New York Jewish cuisine.’

  • Published in Food

The Green Spot in Oakland is a Camp Favorite

Scheduling an interview with Brenda Athanus, owner of the epicurean grocery store The Green Spot in Oakland, Maine, was no easy task. The Green Spot operates six days a week and she’s there from dawn to dusk. I was able to pin her down for a Tuesday meeting — her only day off. Brenda suggested we meet at the A-1 Diner in Gardiner; she adores diners and loves fried oysters.  

I have a copy of her memoir — Life, One Tablespoon at a Time — on the table for quick reference. Brenda is a storyteller and many of her fondest memories are in her book — a book that reads more like a journal than anything else. She has also written a cookbook and she has had articles published with Huffington Post and the Chicago Tribune.

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Before the food comes to the table, I ask Brenda a few questions about her life, the things she fancies most, and The Green Spot:

When did you decide to open The Green Spot?

While at the Modern Gourmet, a cooking school in Newton Center, Massachusetts, we would receive deliveries several times a day from Blacker Brothers’ green grocer, just across the street. Madeleine Kamman was my brilliant teacher. Blacker’s was a beehive of activity with farmers and Chelsea market trucks going in and out carrying the most beautiful produce. It was the beauty and smells of Blacker’s that made me want to have my own market.

The Green Spot is a family business. What’s that like?

I was 18 years old when I said to my older sister Tanya, ‘We should do this.’ And in the same breath I said [to myself], ‘You don’t know enough about food, yet.’ As it happened, a month and a half later we rented the space for what became The Green Spot. As my sister and I were driving by I saw the then-empty space in Oakland and thought it was perfect for a store. My mother named it for us. At that time people didn’t use the word ‘green’ for a food market. My mother was always way ahead of her time. People would come into the market and ask, ‘What does The Green Spot mean, and I would tell them, ‘You know, things that grow.’ My sister and I have been in business for 41 years. Tanya has a passion for working with the public and I’m the back of the house.

Why did you write your memoirs and what is your favorite story?

Wherever I am, a good story finds me. I knew the stories were interesting and I started writing them down. After getting a few stories published, I decided to put them all into a book. My favorite is, ‘Chloe’s Apricot Jam’: ‘ . . . The following week, she arrived with a piece of paper and announced that she had a special present for us. There, on a lined piece of notebook paper, was her apricot jam recipe. She wanted us to carry it on . . . It was her grandmother’s from Marseilles in the late 1800s . . .’

Who are your mentors/role models?

My first mentor was my mother. She taught me to reach for the stars and never take no for an answer. She had poetry in her heart and always smelled like Shalimar. Madeleine Kamman, my cooking school teacher, changed my life. I learned from Madeleine to always do it right the first time and to pay attention to what was happening in the bowl.

Who are your customers?

There are epicureans everywhere! Although at first customers were apprehensive of two sisters in business, but over time we won them over. Our customers know we make, buy and sell the best products on the market. We know what our customers like because we wait on each and everyone of them and we listen well. Our customers come from the Belgrade Lakes area, Waterville/Augusta area and Colby students.

What do you bring to Oakland and this part of Maine that is different from others?

When I was growing up, we took a trip to Paris every year. I realized at an early age that these were my people. I wanted The Green Spot to be a lot like Paris where you can find beautifully baked breads, fresh pastries, local vegetables and delicious wines. My customers are like family; Tanya and I know 95 percent of the people who walk in the door. The children’s children of my original customers come into the market. Often we recognize family members in their features and smiles and ask them if they are related to so and so. We operated seven days a week for 25 years and then our mother got sick and we cut back to six days a week. Mom left us before we could begin our new schedule, but because of her we have a day of rest.

Take a trip to The Green Spot and say hello. You may just find Brenda in the kitchen making pickles or jam in a heavy copper pot, and Tanya by the register talkin’ up what’s new today. This is no ordinary grocery store and these two sisters are no ordinary grocers.

The Green Spot | 818 Kennedy Memorial Dr, Oakland | Wed-Mon 9 am-7 pm | 207-465-7242

 

  • Published in Food

Albanian Pastries and Smiles: The Coffee ME Up Experience

Coffee is the only beverage, that I have tried and failed, to give up. When sleep has been elusive, I have always attributed it to caffeine, and I don’t see the point in drinking coffee without caffeine. I have since decided any attempt will be futile, so I drink coffee every day and I do it in moderation – never after 2 p.m. The other gripe I have with coffee is that when I drink it, I want something sweet or breakfast savory to go with it. That usually means a croissant, coffee cake, a biscuit with butter and jam, a donut, an english muffin; you get the picture. I recently caught wind of quite a lot of buzz about a coffee shop that opened in late January, on Cumberland Ave. (unfortunately very close to my gym). I gave in to my urge to stay away and made a stop – Coffee ME Up is not like any other coffee shop in Maine.


What sets this gem apart are three things: First, the owners, Alba Zakja and Mateo Hodo are two of the most beautiful humans I have encountered. Their smiles are warm, welcoming and real. Second, their pastry offerings are homemade and Albanian; Albania is their birthplace, although they have both become American citizens. Two of their pastries are especially delicious: Byrek is a traditional phyllo savory pastry. It’s light, unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else in Portland, and if you're lucky, there will still be some left during your visit. The other is Alba’s mother Simina’s Baklava. Alba can make all of these Albanian pastries as well, but seeing Simina in the kitchen and knowing she taught Alba how to bake these delicious pastries is extremely satisfying to this customer. What makes Simina’s Baklava different from any other I have tasted is how not-so-sweet it is. It’s syrupy and nutty and melts in your mouth. Lastly, these two beautiful individuals have a mission and that mission is to spread love and kindness throughout Portland, as well as their commitment to quality and an excellent customer experience.

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The owners of Coffee Me Up Alba Zakja and Mateo Hodo.


They get to know their guests in ways that are immediately embracing. You’ll feel like family by the second visit and if you don’t feel this way, trust me– it’s you not them. Alba and Mateo have many stories to tell, but I will share one, that in these divisive times, warmed my heart.
Mateo is a hugger. He doesn’t hug everyone mind you, but if he thinks you need a hug or want a hug, it’s part of his spreading love around philosophy. So recently a customer comes in and Mateo hugs him. This fella's companion is pleasantly shocked and Mateo asked why. The fella says that he hasn’t had a hug in 10 years. The guy comes into the shop soon after and gets another hug; only this time he hugs Mateo back. This seems to make Mateo very happy. I ask him about this so called “love.” I naively wonder what he means by “a ripple effect of joy and happiness.” He very innocently replies, “If someone leaves here a little happier than when he or she came in, they’ll go out and spread that love around.” I’m touched by how deeply he believes he and Alba can inspire change in their own small way.


I was happy to hear that neither of them has experienced discrimination since they opened the shop. People are curious about their birthplace. Some even come in and happily share that they have been to Albania; others have no idea where it is. Alba and Mateo are open about where they are from, where they have been, and where they are going. They’re way too consumed with their new venture to contemplate another shop, but I did hear a slight pause when I asked. Their playful and loving banter leads me to believe that these two truly enjoy working together. When I asked her about Mateo and their future, she said, “Mateo doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up.” To which Mateo replied, “Who says I want to grow up?” Then he tells me that he enjoys working with Alba because it enables him to shower her with affection all day. The couple designed the warm, contemporary interior together, and Mateo did most of the construction. Alba designed the logo, and Alba’s brother Ksenis, came up with the name; clearly a family with loads of talent.


While I was getting a latte and pastry on my last visit to Coffee ME Up, and by the way Alba hopes all will understand that “ME” has two meanings and the second stands for Maine; I noticed a sign announcing soft serve ice cream. No way was I leaving without a taste. For now, vanilla is the only flavor they serve; however, that is soon going to change. This ice cream is smooth, creamy and fulfilling, unlike other air-filled and too-sweet soft serve you’ll find in other places throughout the area. Soon to appear on the menu will be their version of an afagado – ice cream drowned by espresso. Coffee ME Up is open Monday to Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and weekends from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Alba and Mateo mentioned they might close for July 4th. I encouraged them to take some time off; I want them to be with us for years to come and running a business like this takes its toll.

  • Published in Food

Mezcal ... the Finer Tequila?

Mezcal has been in the news a lot lately. Perhaps it’s becoming the kale of the spirits world.

 

I recently had the good fortune to attend a "mezcal dinner" at Sonny’s in Portland. Misty Kalkofen, who represents Del Maguey, introduced us to the rich history and variety of tastes of mezcal.

 

I asked Misty when she realized that she wanted to be involved in the mezcal business.

 

“To a certain degree, as soon as I tasted it!” she said. “When Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey, world class artist and James Beard Award winner, introduced me to mezcal, he shared all of the ways in which it is involved with the culture of the people who make it and the ritual ways in which it is used in Mexico. As someone who studied spirits, the quality and the complexity grabbed me. As someone who has a Masters of Theology, the culture and history of it intrigued me as well. I knew I would be an advocate for the spirit, but I didn't know how deep my involvement would become.”

 

Misty currently works with four different families (Del Maguey actually represents 12 different families; 11 in Oaxaca and the other in Puebla) — mezcal production appears to be a family business. How mezcal is distilled very much depends on where it is distilled and the family doing the distilling.

 

We cannot begin without a simple explanation of the agave nectar: agave nectar, also called agave syrup, is most often produced from the Blue Agave plants that thrive in the volcanic soils of Southern Mexico. Agaves are large and spiky. They resemble cactus and yucca in both physical likeness and geographic surroundings. What many do not realize is that the agave plant is a succulent, closely related to aloe vera and similar in taste to honey.

 drink MoquecaCustard

The moqueca custard with coconut, chile, and octopus, pairs perfectly with mezcal. 

In the distilling process, the agave is harvested and returned to the palenque (a small, family owned distillery). The agave hearts, or piñas, are roasted in an earthen pit over stones that have been heated by a hardwood fire. This roast is covered with earth and can stay in the ground anywhere from five to 30 days. Once roasted, the piñas are milled either with a horse-drawn stone called a molino or by hand using heavy wooden bats. Once milled, all juices and fibers are put into open-air fermentation tanks with a small amount of the locally occurring water. Fermentation can last anywhere between five to 21 days depending on the location, climate, weather, etc.

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Tradional vessels used for drinking mezcal.

The majority of the mezcals Misty sells are distilled twice. First, distillation occurs with all of the roasted agave fibers; the second takes place without the fibers. Different types of stills and variations in methods produce different flavors and textures.

 

According to Misty, more and more restaurants and bars are featuring mezcal, especially if they have a progressive bar program. In addition, the use of mezcal in raw or cured seafood dishes such as ceviche, is gaining in popularity. Her passion for mezcal was clear when I asked her what made mezcal different from other spirits.

 

“First, mezcal is an agriculture product. The raw material matures in seven to 35 years depending on the type of agave. Secondly, after the plant is mature, it can still take two and a half months or more to harvest and ultimately complete the process of making mezcal and getting it into a bottle. Also, each mezcal has a specific flavor representative of the family who produces it. The techniques of how to create the flavor and style of your family are passed down from generation to generation. When you drink mezcal, you are drinking history and culture.”

 

There were three featured mezcal drinks on the day of the tasting. My personal favorite — and I admittedly had one too many — was the Diablo, which had mezcal (of course), chili-infused tequila, cassis, lemon, ginger beer and cardamom. This cocktail was a great pre-dinner drink; definitely awakened my palate. There are others, too — however, you’ll have to visit Sonny’s to taste them yourself.

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Chef Paul Tuck cooks up excellent Mexican inspired dishes at Sonny's.

Chef Paul Tuck is very excited about featuring Mexican food at Sonny’s. All seven dishes we sampled were paired with a different mezcal. The moqueca custard, coconut, chili, and octopus was very tasty and had a nice spicy kick — though I’m not sure why it was called custard it was creamy, smooth and broth-like. Dinner ended with a beautifully plated mole dessert made with almond, tortilla, smoked chocolate, fruit nixtamal (from the Nahuati word meaning "unformed corn dough"), and paired with a final mezcal called Tobala.

 

I’m pleased that Sonny’s and Chef Paul are bringing us these Mexican-inspired dishes and offering up some fine mezcal. For a city filled with outstanding food from all over the globe, excellent Mexican food is difficult to find in Portland.  

 

My Top Five Dishes from Portland Restaurants

With over 300 restaurants in this little city of ours, there is no shortage of mouthwatering, memorable dishes.

But despite our many choices and the respect I have for chefs, I don’t usually rush to restaurant openings. Even if it’s a chef I know and food I love, I wait. Because I prefer to allow a chef to work out the kinks in her or his menu. I think some people rush to new restaurants just to be one of the first a position that will give them bragging rights; and that’s only, of course, if the restaurant is a success. Perhaps I’ve been around the block too many times to care about bragging rights. I just know what I like and I return to my favorites again and again.

 

People who dine out a lot will tell you that there are a handful of restaurants they consider their go-to places. They know exactly what they like on the menu. The food is consistent, and consistency is what all restaurants strive for. I am fairly certain most chefs have a favorite dish, a dish that they either worked on for years or a dish they created by accident. As long as customers continue to order that dish, either works.

 

Knowing this means a great deal to me. It feeds my fantasy that my favorite dish at a particular restaurant is also the chef’s favorite. I’m fully aware that this is unrealistic. However, it is after all, my fantasy.

 

Many lie awake at night with real life worries:  Will I have the money to pay the electric bill this month? How can pay my son’s college tuition this year? Are Trump’s ties to Russia going to be his undoing? My current nightly thoughts are much more superficial. When I am stressed out about life and politics, I turn to food. When I lie awake at night, I think about Lolita specifically their Torchio dish  and I wonder if they’re open. There are dishes in Portland that are so delicious, I want to eat them no matter the hour.

 

With that in mind, here are the five dishes I lie awake thinking about:

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The Mother Clucker from Hot Suppa 

1. The Mother Clucker from Hot Suppa | I’ll start with my favorite breakfast dish. Often, food is all about memories and certain foods have the ability to take you back to a particular time and place. I discovered Southern food during my college years in North Carolina. Some dishes were an acquired taste, to be sure. My first exposure to sausage gravy left me feeling ill and disgusted. Two or three more tries and I loved it. Hot Suppa's Mother Clucker includes fried chicken breast, buttermilk biscuit, cheddar curds, and sausage gravy. Then you get to choose a side, from hash browns, Geechie Boy grits or baby kale. I go for the grits or the hash browns. Kale might be in conflict with the rest of this dish. | Hot Suppa, 703 Congress St., Portland | www.hotsuppa.com | Mon 7 am-2 pm; Tues-Sat 7 am-2 pm, 5-9:15 pm; Sun 7:30 am-2 pm | 207.871.5005

 

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The coconut-base Chicken Tom Kha Gai from Veranda Thai 

2. The Chicken Tom Kha Gai at Veranda Thai | With chicken and the potent herb of galanga in a coconut broth with mushroom and onion, this soup is spectacular. It was a very recent discovery for me, having been stuck on another menu item. I had been to Veranda Thai several times, but I had been in the habit of only ordered the orange chicken (which would have made my top ten list, had I named ten). | Veranda Thai, 9 Veranda St., Portland | Mon-Thu 11 am-9:30 pm; Fri-Sat 11 am-10:30 pm; Sun 3-9:30 pm | Veranda Noodle House, 245 Commercial St., Portland | Sun-Thu 10 am-9:30 pm; 10 am-10:30 pm | http://verandanoodlebar.com/ | 

 tochia lolita photobyMeganSwann

Torchio pasta from Lolita [Photo by Megan Swann]

3. The Torchio pasta dish at Lolita | This sublime pasta dish is my favorite dish at one of my favorite Portland restaurants. I understand from the staff that customers have stated that if the torchio comes off the menu, they will no longer return to the restaurant. The dish includes Torchio ‘Nduja (a peppery salami) and peas. This pasta dish is absolute perfection. It is spicy, the pasta is al dente, and the peas add color and compliment the dish. | Lolita, 90 Congress St., Portland | Mon-Fri 3:30-10:30 pm; Sat-Sun 10:30 am-10:30 pm | www.lolita-portland.com | 207.775.5652

 

ramen

The Paitan ramen from Pai Men Miyake 

4. The Paitan ramen at Pai Men Miyake | Chef Bryson told me it took him eight months to perfect the broth of this ramen dish, which includes chicken and pork broth, pork belly, soy-marinated egg, scallion, and a strip of nori. When I was a child growing up in Brooklyn, my experience of Asian food consisted of traditional Chinese restaurants and Korean fare, and the latter only because I worked for a Korean couple and home cooked Korean food was part of my daily workday. So I consider this wonderful Japanese-inspired dish a gift given to me as a mature adult. | Pai Men Miyake, 188 State St., Portland |  | Mon-Thu 11:30 am-11 pm; Fri-Sun 11:30 am-midnight | http://www.miyakerestaurants.com/paimen/ | 207.541.9204

 Kimchi fried rice

The kimchi fried rice from Izakaya Minato. 

5. Kimchi Fried Rice at Izakaya Minato | This dish is the newest on my list, and therefore has recently occupied most of my quasi-dream state. I had kimchi for the first time when I was 17 years old, delivering booze by bicycle for a liquor store in Brooklyn. Now, many years later, I realize the owners wanted me strong for four hours of night bike riding. That’s fine, their plan worked and I have them to thank for my great love of Korean food. Where are the Korean restaurants in Portland by the way? Anyone? Izakaya Minato’s kimchi fried rice provides a wonderful sense memory. | Izakaya Minato, 4 Washington Ave., Portland | Mon-Thu 5-10 pm; Fri-Sat 5-11 pm | www.izakayaminato.com | 207.613.9939 

 

The problem I have with any of these dishes is that once one of them enters my conscious mind, I cannot escape the desire to have it. I have yet to find a solution to this problem and I’m not sure I ever will. In the meantime, I’m thankful to the chefs and restaurants for providing me with yet another thing to daydream about.

 

  • Published in Food

Stories Through Food: An LB Kitchen Love Story

I’m a sucker for a good love story. I get all weepy when I’m alone with a novel and love wins out over evil. I watch young couples embrace at the cinema and imagine a lifetime love affair that has only just begun. When I see an elderly man tenderly kissing his wife of 60 years, my faith in humankind is restored. And when I stumble upon a love affair unexpectedly, I can’t help but share my good fortune with the world.

 

Bryna Gootkind and Lee Farrington are the owners of the recently opened LB Kitchen and the two are married to their restaurant and each other. They met when Bryna was introduced to Lee, the then owner of Figa. And so their love story began.

 

I recently sat down with the two of them in their intimate and softly lit restaurant dining room. They both have an affinity for Parisian-style bistros and the details of this labor of love, should not and cannot be overlooked. You experience a simple, yet warm and inviting space, the two created with their own hands. The irony is that they almost let it slip away.

 

Lee purchased the building in 2008 prior to opening Figa, and when the restaurant did not work out, she decided to sell. Complicated factors led to this difficult decision. Bryna was torn about the sale; meeting Lee in the space made it more than just real estate. The building was a part of their beginning and therefore, symbolic of their love for one another. The building sat empty for three years. Potential buyers came and went and deals fell through. The process was exhausting for the two of them. Prior to meeting the last potential buyers, they made a pact: if the deal fell through, for whatever reason, they were going to keep the space and open a restaurant together. Well, you can guess that the promise they made to one another that day has led to LB Kitchen. I only just realized what LB stands for — duh. It didn’t take me long to surmise the stubbornness of these two women. They decided to build a restaurant, build it the way they wanted it, and to build it themselves.

 

Bryna walked into the old restaurant one day to sounds of demolition. She entered what was once the restroom to find the entire space leveled. Bryna smiled and realized that Lee was not joking when she said that they’d do the buildout with their own hands. It took a little over two years and a few obstacles to open their doors.

 

Bryna and Lee shared with me what they’re aiming for with LB Kitchen. “Let's be honest, we are not those kind of people who eat to live. We live to eat, all day and every day. We wake up thinking about food we dreamed about. We spend our days and our nights swirling around in our kitchens creating, tasting, laughing, loving, and sharing. To us, food is life, love, medicine and community. Our mission at LB Kitchen is to tell you stories through our food; where it came from, why we love it, why we chose it, why it tastes and makes you feel so good. We believe that food is fun and functional.”

 

At this point in our conversation I was curious about their customer demographics. Did people ask about specific ingredients? Has anyone complained about the combinations of foods? Are people interested in knowing more about the functionality of their dishes? Bryna told me that most people order the food without questioning the ingredients, but it was clear she’d love for them to ask questions.

 

I asked about their biggest surprise concerning LB Kitchen since they opened, “90 percent of our customers want to eat in. We thought most would grab and go. We’re rethinking the front of the house; where can we squeeze in more seating?”

 

They’ll open up their patio at the first sign of warm weather — a wish most of us hope is not too far down the road.

 

Here’s a sample of some of their creative and delicious menu items.

- Sweet & salty oats with coconut oil, nut butter, honey, cacao nibs, and mulberries

- Breakfast salad with greens, turmeric egg, lacto-fermented beets, avocado, and citrus vinaigrette

- The Figa: wild Boar, rendang, and coconut rice

- The New Yorker: Standard Baking Co. five-grain bread, beet-cured gravlax, and heirloom tomato with a caper schmear (my favorite for so many reasons)

There's also coffee, beer, kombucha, and more. I have not tried everything on the menu, but I’m looking forward to doing the research.

 

Fate obviously intervened and as a result, this venture has brought Bryna and Lee closer together in every way. Their schoolgirl giggles and obvious profound respect for one another made this customer feel honored to have made their acquaintance.

  • Published in Food

Keeping Mainers in Maine at the Fyood Kitchen

Fortunately for us, more and more food entrepreneurs are choosing Maine to start up their companies.

 

Maddie Purcell is the owner of Fyood Kitchen, an "Iron Chef-meets-Paint Nite for foodies" in Portland, Maine.

 

Although some would hesitate to involve themselves in this type of competition, one of biggest surprises for Maddie has been the level of competence she is seeing in the kitchen.

 

“Most people are better cooks than they think they are. Over 90 percent of the participants are cooking something that they have never cooked before and doing it without a recipe.”

 

Currently based out of Fork Food Lab, Maddie has 15 Fyood Kitchen events under her belt and some local towns are set to be scheduled in the near future — Biddeford, Bangor, and Somerville, Massachusetts, for example.

 

 

Fyood allows participants to choose between judging and cooking when purchasing a ticket. While some participants have been asking for constructive feedback, most prefer to hear the plain truth about their dishes. At some events, she says, judges were too easy on competitors during her earlier events. When all's said and done, the future is what Maddie cares most about.

 

Maddie was born in Harpswell, and lived there for a time before her family relocated to Brunswick. Maddie’s dreams always took her to faraway places. As with many young Mainers of the past, diversity and culture were realities they imagined they could only experience outside of Maine. This, of course, is why Maine has one of the oldest populations in the country.

 food fyoodkitchen2

Colby College in Waterville offered Maddie a full scholarship for all four years; an opportunity she found impossible to resist. She took advantage of an appealing study abroad program and did her first semester in Dijon, France. There, she got a taste of what it would be like to live outside of Maine, a dream still dominating her thoughts. She continued at Colby with an eye toward New York or somewhere abroad after graduation.

 

Unanticipated personal matters kept Maddie in Maine and she has never looked back. Like many Maine millennials, she realized that quality of life can be more important than the lure of the big city. After graduation from Colby, Maddie “. . . took the first good thing that came along,” and learned a great deal about the real estate business. She had always known that she wanted to do her own thing, so after three years and little hope for advancement, Maddie pursued her first start-up idea.

 

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Maddie Purcell. 

Maddie, a retired college athlete, knew many others who went from daily sports activities to depression. “People have no idea how difficult it is to navigate the shift away from college sports,” she explains.

 

But Fyood Kitchen, Maddie’s current pursuit, is one she enjoys talking about. Fyood's model is Chopped — those involved get to improvise with mystery ingredients. Kickstarter helped Maddie raise $16,485 in 24 days, funds she has earmarked for kitchen equipment, which she says she still needs to buy.

 

In ten years, Maddie would like to see home cooks competing anywhere in the United States. Her own curiosity around commercial kitchen equipment is what sparked the idea for the Fyood venture. Today’s commercial kitchens make good use of technology and cooking toys not found in the home kitchen. Many find themselves wanting to play with those toys. Staging her events in commercial kitchens is making that reality possible. Maddie is also using Fyood as an opportunity to bring awareness to local food sources; using ingredients from local food businesses.

Ultimately, for Maddie, Fyood Kitchen is all about having fun. Fortunately for participants, Fyood takes care of washing the dishes, so all you have to do is cook and enjoy yourself. Maddie’s idea appears to have taken flight.

 

Portland is undoubtedly fertile territory for young, passionate minds. There is an openness to creativity and experimentation you do not find everywhere. I for one am pleased that so many millennials have chosen Portland as a place to begin their journey.

  • Published in Food

It's Tough Being a Food Judge During Restaurant Week

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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