Brian Duff

Brian Duff

Trattoria Fanny is Well-Poised to Survive Doomsday

Did you read the New Yorker’s feature this January titled "Doomsday Prep For the Super-Rich" about how tech-billionaires are preparing to (luxuriously) survive the collapse of global institutions that their disruptive greed perpetuates? They are buying islands, building bunkers, stockpiling medications, and surgically correcting their vision.

But the billionaire’s most sinister maneuver has been to outsource the funding of key aspects of their preparation to the rest of us. Our purchases pay for the development of ultra-HD screens that will mimic ocean views deep underground; our tax dollars equip and train the military contractors who will serve as their private armies; our climate change anxiety creates the renewable energy technology they will need.

food trattoriafanny brownie

In this context, the entire overheated restaurant industry represents an elaborate group-sourced tryout for the chefs invited to survive the coming apocalypse and cook for the elite. Especially well-positioned is David Levi, the chef at Vinland, where he has made it a mission to prove that excellent and interesting cuisine can be done with entirely locally grown ingredients. It’s a compelling application for a job in the nicest bunker.

How then to understand Levi’s new venture, Trattoria Fanny, which makes no similar claims regarding hyper-localism? Fanny, rather, calls to mind a distant place and time — it is named after the owner’s Italian grandmother. In doing so, it appeals to the psychological and existential needs that will still face post-apocalyptic billionaires once they have been well fed: the deep familial nostalgia necessary to spur them to repopulate the earth.

Sure enough, there is something quite appealing about the unpretentious (and rather affordable) approach at Fanny. Taking over a large scrappy space with a colorful culinary history (anyone remember Honey’s? Or Mr. and Mrs. Sandwich?), Levi has cleaned it up — but not too much. There is lots of attractive dark wood and big windows, but also unfinished beams and bare bulbs. The tables even seem casually arranged. The service hits the same note: done by committee, warmly and without fanfare. There is no threat of a rehearsed take on “our approach.”

The approach becomes clear nonetheless, Italian dishes that feel traditional even while delivering an expert’s twist of flavor or technique. So a simple black-rice salad — sweet with red pepper and raisins, crunchy with bits of cauliflower and pine nuts — is plated as an elegant dark puck. The ravioli filled with sage pesto is earthy and buttery, with an added funkiness from a generous sprinkling of hard cheese. But there was also a sour-sharp pop of pink peppercorn in nearly every bite, adding a touch of enlivenment to a buttery soothing dish.

food trattoriafanny sideview

Other dishes were simpler still, especially the appealing side dishes. The oyster mushrooms were tender and buttery, with just the right dash of salt. Bitter rapini added a bit of extra crunch with breadcrumbs. Celery root, its sharpness mellowed by a quick pan fry, were like especially succulent french-fries. Only the entrée of roast pork seemed too simple — the slab of meat needing more than its hint of sage to be interesting. But a similarly shaped slab of creamy and rich chocolate bonet could not be better.

The deep appeal of the sort of simple nostalgia on offer at Trattoria Fanny is obvious now, but will it really be useful in the luxury bunkers of the future? Perhaps. The super rich are too experienced at destroying children’s futures to suddenly care about them after the collapse. Only something that appeals to their own deep and childish narcissism — a visceral nostalgia — could push them out of their bunkers to recreate the world. Levi, in his many manifestos about food, speaks in terms of “healing the world” and “re-indigenizing” our way of life. It will soon be very necessary malarkey. At Vinland, he perfected the technical challenges of fine dining without the global food chain. At Trattoria Fanny, they are working on the emotional origins of our incoherent, inconsistent, but perhaps not yet extinguished care for the world.


Trattoria Fanny | 3 Deering Ave., Portland | 317-2766 | Pasta around $13, entrees around $18 | Daily 5:00 - 9:00 p.m. Friday & Saturday 5:00 - 9:30 p.m.| http://www.trattoriafanny.com

 

  • Published in Food

Sichuan Kitchen and the Cult of Authenticity

Was it a Chinese proverb that said there is “no true art without a strong dose of banality … nothing is less endurable than the uniformity of the exceptional?" Perhaps it was Cioran.

 

Either way, it’s an insight that is confirmed at the new Sichuan Kitchen on Congress Street, where they don’t try to dazzle you with anything except the food on your plate. The space is simple. There is no art on the pale walls. No one seems to have brainstormed buzzwords, consulted a design firm, or imagined themself to be transformational. What Sichuan Kitchen is, compared to what we had, is simply a bit different and quite good — a quiet and true art too rare here in Portland.

food porkbuns

Five spice pork buns.

Of course, Sichuan Kitchen mentions the “authenticity” of their dishes. It’s de rigueur these days for any Asian restaurant to do so. And perhaps these dishes are authentic — apparently, the chef (whose daughter runs the place) arrived straight from a Chengdu banquet hall. If you have ever eaten at one, you are in position to judge if he is keeping it real. But at a time when the cult of populist authenticity has given us Trump and Le Pen, perhaps it’s time to ease up. In wearing the mantle of authenticity lightly, Sichuan Kitchen tastes like sanity.

 

And that applies to the spices too. This cuisine is known for its heat, but many of the dishes are mild enough to reveal other subtleties. What is notable instead is a distinct lack of sauciness — with many dishes featuring dry meat. The pork bun, for example, lacks sauce or even char-siu tinge of pink. Instead the pale brown pork reveals a subtle sweet and herby flavor. The same five-spice pork is served as an entrée, adorned only by bitter bok choy and rice. The dry fried chicken, diced up into tender pieces, was spicier — with chili heat and pepper along with a streak of ginger. Even the gong bao chicken lets crunchy garlic and peanuts animate the dish without drowning them in sauce.

 food beefstew

Chinese beef stew: braised beef noodles with leek and green onions in a spicy broth.

Other dishes paired pleasantly mushy textures with ground meat. The yu-xiang (“fish-style”) eggplant, with lovely fat purple slices, had a nice smoky-sour quality beneath the garlic bite. The mapo tofu had a straightforward saltiness, not unpleasant, rather than a fermented-bean funk.

 

Only the hottest of pans could give the sour-cabbage its complex and refreshing mix of just-wilted and still-crunchy. A noodle and seaweed salad brought a more intense heat and sour, along with the crunch of daikon.

 food dryfriedchicken

The menu, like the place itself, is simple, and sticks to Sichuan specialties. It is a pleasure to discover them without being forced to believe you have found in this food the true China. Only the cultural elite cares to eat so authentically — hoping to fill the hole inside left empty by a missing sense of communal belonging. Macron denied the existence of French culture. And of “l’art français” he said, “je ne l'ai jamais vu!" But even he would not deny his nation’s cuisine.

 

It may seem like we have merely two choices — go back to some primordial authenticity, or en marche to some shallow globalization — but there is a third way. Was it Shestov who insisted that compelling new cultures can be deeply felt? Who said that "with the necessity with which a tree bears its fruit, so do our thoughts, our values,... grow connected and interrelated, mutual witnesses of one will, one kingdom, one sun — as to whether they are to your taste, these fruits of ours..."? Or maybe Cioran said that one too? Or perhaps someone else.

 

So let's take a break from the question of authenticity in deciding what is to our taste — not because it’s impossible to answer, but because regressive nostalgia has become the most dangerous force of our time. Perhaps we should also stop asking “Is it exceptional?” — the other question the global elite loves to ask of the practices and the people they are preparing the toss aside.

 

Sichuan Kitchen | 612 Congress St., Portland | 207-536-7226 | SunWed 11:30 am9 pm | ThuSat, 11:30 am – 10 pm | Entrees around $13$20

  • Published in Food

Unexpected lessons from Japan at Izakaya Minato

Can we still learn new things from Japan? Time could be running out – what with a White House eagerly awaiting the Event-that-will-change-political-narratives and justify a defense-heavy budget. An escalation of tensions with North Korea could do the trick, with Tokyo (and Seoul) bearing most of the risk if missiles fly and armies move.

 

But we have already squeezed Japan for so much knowledge: The once-challenging bright and clean flavors of sushi are now a grab-and-go lunch. That under-roasted coffee thing is everywhere. Who doesn’t work by the principles of kaizen these days? Or dabble in light-Buddhism and ethno-nationalism? Our cars – even Chevys! – are now as good Hondas, and our cartoon movies have narratives as sophisticated as any film by Miyazaki. According to internet browsing data that Congress recently liberated from onerous privacy protections, even Japanese porn seems dull now – edged out more efficiently-cruel Russian productions.

food japanese 

So the fact that every splashy new Japanese restaurant is an “izakaya” – a casual sake-place with comfort food – signals perhaps not a new lesson but a recess from school. The new Izakaya Minato, for example, mostly wants to please you rather than challenge you. You know it when you bite into the greasy, juicy, fried chicken thigh you just dragged through some Big Mac-ish sauce. It’s like a nugget, but, y'know, really good. And they know it: the menu calls it the JFC. A plate of kalbi offers analogously simple pleasures: in this case salty and chewy beef with a hint of sweet in the sauce.

 

Perhaps most pleasing and comforting of all is the okonomiyaki. The pancake was pleasantly light on egg and flour and the cabbage had a bit of crunch. Kewpie mayo offered some tang and spice, and a brown sauce some sweet. Flakes of bonito, which curled and swayed eerily as the steam rose from below, joined seaweed in lending some salt and funk.

 

The bonito also enlivened big beige pieces of dofu – given a perfect light fry and creamy through the center, served with nice dark salty sauce. And the salty dried seaweed reappeared atop a great little bowl of poke. The creamy mix of tuna and avocado had a sesame oil aroma, and salmon roe added some pop.

 food eggyolk japanese

Soy cured egg yolk over rice. 

 

One lesson to gain from Minato is they have put carbs in their place: with dessert and the other empty calories. There on the right side of the menu, and the end of the meal, are the noodles and rice – the latter served by the bowlful with just the right clumpiness, adorned by your choice of roe, a sour ume bashi plum, or a quivering deep-yellow yolk.

The dark secret of the izakaya trend is that little sake is ordered at these spots named for the drink. The appeal of salty-sweet rice wine is one Japanese lesson Americans won’t absorb. But Minato has some nice choices for those who would try, like a Wakatake daiginjo that was fruity and sweet or a Kariho junmai that tasted of both the ocean and children’s medicine.

 

That we avoid the one challenging aspect of this comforting trend in Japanese cuisine confirms that we go to the izakaya not to learn, but to take rest from the challenges of modern multicultural life. The wood-filled space is lovely, but so much of atmosphere is people, and it’s the same Mainers all around you – whether at the kitchen-side communal table or in the dining room next door.

food japanese2

Perhaps the ultimate lesson we can learn from Japan is the lesson of resignation itself. Americans seem poised to imitate Japanese cultural and demographic decline: abandoning both marriage and procreation and refusing to welcome outsiders. Of course it would be nice if American’s learned some new and unexpected lesson from Japan. And soon our government could decide young Americans should do so – while running across its islands in a radiation suit, next to a tank.

Izakaya Minato | 54 Washington Ave. | Mon-Thu 5-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m. | 207-613-9939 | Dishes mostly $7 -$14

 

  • Published in Food

With new owners and a new head chef, what's cooking at Caiola’s?

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.

 food caiolas2

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

Melty, earthy, crunchy: Portland's Mexican cuisine is getting weird

By now we have learned that climate change (soon to accelerate) announces itself not with a steady warming but rather with a spate of weird weather events.

As President Trump turns up the heat on Mexican immigrants and culture, we can expect analogously spasmodic developments. The signs are already emerging right here in Portland in the Mexican food scene. Just the last few months has seen El Rayo change locations, temporary closings for Ocho Burrito and Taco Trio and various other ominous oddities. Last Thursday the owner of Hella Good Tacos was seen confabbing with Ian Svenonius – a musician recently linked to #pizzagate in Slate Magazine. For real! So we visited several Mexican eateries to investigate, as our next President might put it, “what the hell is going on?!”

El Rayo’s new Free Street location is a downsize space-wise, and an upsize garish color-wise. A surf theme's present now, as well as many children. The experience feels more crowded and chaotic, but it helps once you figure out the two-register system (they are on opposite ends). Like an immigrant seeking a visa, some luck is consequential regarding who processes your request but the food comes pretty quick. A new proliferation of paper and plastic makes things feel scrappier, but there was little evidence of falling quality in the cuisine. The margaritas still have a nice fresh tang. Guacamole, like Ivanka, was too cold to reveal hidden virtues, even nestled in a warm chip. But the fat mushroom quesadilla had an appealing melty-earthy simplicity.

The Corazon truck, at its usual Spring St. location, protects itself from Trump’s investigators with a moat of deep mud – or perhaps that is just the natural consequence of new melty-earthy weather patterns. Even on a sunny day customers navigate it on their toes to avoid shoe soakage. Corazon seems different these days, starting with the face in the window, now with less immigrant charm. The burrito had no grill marks and was mushier. But the tacos are still great – with crunchy cabbage and herby spicy meat. Their use of a single tortilla (Rayo uses two) is a sign of their faith in the customer’s delicacy. Misplaced!

A Chipotle opened in Portland last year just as Trump clinched the nomination. Coincidence? Doubtful. They have had their own weirdness recently – like E coli outbreaks and ostentatious employee re-trainings, which cost their CEO the Secretary of Labor job that went to the Hardee’s guy. On black Friday every Chipotle in Maine ran out of tortillas. For real!

Chipotle, where the line bulged out the door, anticipates Trump’s America. The quasi-industrial set up – you watch your burrito develop as it is passed down an assembly line –  imitates the factory-work fantasy he sold to voters.  These are workers as Trump desires them: hard working, un-unionized, un-outsourceable, mostly white. It does seem like real work, and they do it earnestly. “More pinto!” yelled one. Another winced from a steam burn.

Like a lunchtime CEO, you guide the action, so if your burrito is no good it is your fault. But it is quite good, especially with guacamole ($2 extra, but why not in these end times?). The tofu sofritas are a dark herby revelation, and terrific stuffed in with salty corn and sautéed vegetables. Everyone in line asked for nearly every available ingredient. The workers make them fit. The result of such indulgence is overstuffed and lumpy, like we Americans and our new President. Unlike we Americans, the burrito is also comforting and satisfying.

But this comforting cuisine will get harder to find, especially as local spots rehearse guerilla-style resistance in the new era – with location changes, mud-moats, and temporary closings. Chipotle’s recent poisonings and tortilla-scarcity might be a corporate effort to troll and disorient us to a state of helplessness.

So might Trump’s scrambling of climate and immigrant initiatives. His first witch-hunt seems to be for climate activists in the Energy Department. Who is next?

  • Published in Food

Where to eat while pondering the effects of Question 4

Many experts believe a rise in the minimum wage, which voters just approved with Question 4, will “stimulate demand” and goose the economy. But to speak of “insufficient demand” is a convenient way for elites to blame the rest of us for sluggish returns on investments. Everyone knows that truth is quite the opposite. We will never succeed by making demands on the billionaires and their ilk. We can only survive by serving them. The solution, then, is to rethink, not demand but service and its meaning in a “service economy.” Thus the deeper significance of Question 4 lies in its subsection regarding tipped service workers, whose minimum wage would gradually rise from $3.75 to more than $12 an hour (on par with other workers) in coming years.


Where to eat while pondering the implications of this vote? I chose two restaurants that reflect opposing reactions: Petite Jacqueline, whose owner publicly opposed the measure, and Bao Bao, whose owner plans to reframe the issue by “abolishing” tipping and paying $15 an hour. Despite these radically different institutional interpretations of the meaning and value of service, it was hard to detect the difference in practice. In both establishments, young people pleasantly delivered the food and drinks I requested, with the occasional minor delay. Hmm. I looked closer.


Sartre made waiters and their “bad faith” central to Being and Nothingness, but we saw little of the over-exactness and artifice he excoriated as an abandonment of freedom. It helps that at Petite Jacqueline’s new location in the Old Port the servers no longer have to wear the blue and white shirts that mimicked old-Paris. At Bao Bao there is a uniform — black T-shirts and pants — but you hardly notice it. Avoiding notice is largely the point of service in the contemporary restaurant — eschewing performance so people can pay attention to the food. Sure, in a consumer economy we treat objects and people like mere consumables to be used and thrown away. But as a trade-off we imagine the consumption of fine food to be a potentially transformative human experience.


Attention to the food at Petite Jacqueline reveals a hint of Sartrean bad faith. The menu, with its confits, frites, and plats du jour, performs Frenchness a bit too preciously. But even the most Frenchy dishes, the dark and rich onion soup for example, are made with a care that transcends the artifice. Bao bao’s dumpling house theme also flirts with kitsch, especially compared with the unpredictably shifting pan-Asianism of its sister restaurant Tao Yuan in Brunswick. But those dumplings, like glistening soft envelopes, deliver an impressive variety and complexity of flavors — from the mild squish of the hake and burdock dumpling to the chewy and rich lamb in black bean sauce.
Of course, it’s not your server but your companions who threaten your enjoyment of your meal –their artifice and persona, their needs and opinions, their bad faith. It’s them we should tip if they don’t ruin our dinner. So sure, let’s pay servers a wage that doesn’t rely on them being tipped. And then let’s tip them anyway.


We are all headed toward some sort of service job. Economists warn that a “global glut of cash” is again sloshing around looking for a place to go. The ultra-rich can spend on exotic investment products like credit default swaps. But psychologists are advising them that they will be happier if they invest time and money in “experiences” (like “being President”?) rather than products. It’s our only hope. The rest of us will get by through facilitating and curating those experiences — with more soothing yoga voices, more enriching activities for their children, more intensive couples therapy, more epic Youtube fails for their pity and amusement, craftier beer and a quicker Uber. And, like today’s restaurant servers, who curate the experience of a nice meal, we should do so in good faith, without artifice. As Sartre said, “half victim, half accomplice, like everyone else.”


Eventually, it will pay off — at least pay enough to live on.


Petite Jacqueline | 46 Market St. | (207) 553-7044
Bao Bao Dumpling House | 133 Spring St. | (207) 725-9002

Biddeford's tipping point? Custom Deluxe delivers without added artifice

Ever since analysts identified Biddeford real estate as a hot investment, thoughtful Mainers have considered the choice between life in Portland and a more raw existence 15 miles south.

 

The contrast is much as Rousseau described in his Second Discourse: “The source of all differences is that the more simple man lives within himself, while social man lives outside himself, and only knows how to live in the opinion of others, reducing everything to appearances.” For Rousseau, simple physical dangers, like a bad bag of heroin or a poison Skittle, might kill you; but it was the negotiation of social obstacles and matters of status that truly cheapen our souls.

 

Of all the social contests that diminish our humanity, displaying and comparing taste in restaurants is the most dismal and enervating. So does the fact that Maine’s most appealing new restaurant, Custom Deluxe, has opened on Main Street in Biddeford threaten the town’s best quality: that they generally don’t give a crap? In so many things, it only takes one: just one poison Skittle (not three, duh Donald Jr.!) to ruin your day, perhaps just one of Maine’s electoral college votes to save us from a president whose lack of vigor and stamina could endanger our nation.

 

But Biddeford is scrappy enough to eat well at Custom Deluxe without developing new pretentions. The restaurant helps by not putting on airs itself. The space looks nice but not polished, with brick walls, a high ceiling of inlaid tin, mix and match furniture and plateware. You can see them cooking in back, but not in a self-conscious open-kitchen way. The service is terrific, but unassumingly so. The cuisine mingles ingredients and approaches from many regions, without getting all fusiony about it. It is significantly less expensive than comparable meals in Portland.

 

Like the real estate boom around it, Custom Deluxe’s sophistication sneaks up on you unexpectedly. It turns out a simple sounding “chicken and egg” dish resembles bibimbap, in a big bowl with sticky rice. A tart creamy sauce holds together the egg, the tender meat and peas. Fennel adds a touch of crunch and earthy flavor. A Chinese pork sausage is served, sweet and bright red, like a hot dog. Piled with cabbage, carrot and cucumber, and schmeared with mayo it, it resembles a Chilean completo. A pile of pale French fries were crisp and pillowy, and generously herbed.

 

Other dishes do just as nicely with provincial approaches. Blackened pollock was tender and terrific, spiced with restraint. It came piled on top a terrific turnip mash – earthy, chunky and a touch sweet. Polenta fries were light with a subtle spice. Succotash featured crunchy sweet corn and lots of butter, savory notes of fennel and miso, and burstingly juicy little tomatoes. Smashed cucumbers, served with a creamy mild farmers cheese, took on a just-pickled quality as they soaked up cider vinegar.

 

Rousseau’s favorite meals were in a country cottage so spare he had to pull a chair to the windowsill to put down his plate. It was there he observed that, “Man is born free, but everywhere he agrees to binding arbitration.” Thanks to Custom Deluxe, Biddefordeans now have good reason to leave their windows and go out for dinner. But in doing so, they should be wary of the social affectations and anxieties that could bind them up. Portlanders are already heading south in search of dormered capes, uncrowded surf breaks, rare warblers and rarer flickers. When they hear there is great food, things could tip. Rousseau wore a simple Turkish hat to emphasize his rejection of French style and affectation. But now such multcult worldliness strikes many as the essence of elite affectation. They seek a president who will fix it. Custom Deluxe, named for an old Chevy truck, shows how to expand horizons without losing oneself in enfeebling status games.

Custom Deluxe, 140 Main St., Biddeford | Tuesday-Thursday, 5:00pm to 9:00pm, Friday and Saturday, 5:00pm to 10:00pm | 207.494.7110

Savoring the bitter in a bro culture: Breweries and food trucks

As the American male’s descent into uselessness accelerates, beer offers a respite – both in drinking it and in crafting it.

Men have never needed good beer more than now. Already boys lag behind girls at every level of schooling from pre-K to grad studies, resulting in the demographic combination – men without a college degree – that mostly favor Trump. The career titles that men still hold – Congressmen, corporate executive, software engineer – are held in universal contempt. Men increasingly surrender the responsibility of parenthood to single mothers and overburdened wives.

But men still dominate one growing sector of the economy: craft brewing. Craft brewing allows for a kind of work in which men seem to thrive – full of tinkering and hands on experimentation – which is endangered by the decline of manufacturing. As these Maine craftbrews succeed, they have begun to open tasting rooms in Portland, often in quasi-industrial spaces. Partnering with various food-trucks, they become beer-centered restaurants.

Oxbow, created by four friends in a barn, plays up their bro culture as much as any Maine beer without the word “brother” in its name. Their Washington Avenue tasting room is all brick and dark wood and embodies a sort of rural industrialism appropriate to its Newcastle roots. Though indoors, you sit at picnic tables. Oxbow prides themselves on beers that are sour and funky, and we appreciated that in the Grizacca grizzete, with a touch of bitter and some citrus sour. A Berliner weisse brewed with cherries was tarty and refreshing- perfect for a summer day.

Parked in the Oxbow alleyway was the sleek black food truck Mami, specializing in Japanese street food. A young boy’s fascination with trucks is a frequent referent of gender essentialists, and our adult affection for food trucks is a reminder of our failure to grow up. Mami goes straight for this resonance with a name that calls forth the maternal figure men both long for and resent. Appropriately, Mami serves up comfort food rather than the cold subtleties one finds in a sushi bar. An okonomiyake pancake was dense and filling with its heavy sauce, but somehow also providing the comfort of healthy choices, with lots of crunch from fresh cabbage, squash and pickled beets. The yakisoba noodles were equally effective at combining the crispness of fresh vegetables with the heavy softness of grilled noodles.

Nearby at Rising Tide on Fox Street, huge rolling doors allow the outside to bleed into the sleek industrial interior. Sitting in the parking lot there, across from a playing field where boys in helmets collide sub-concussively, you feel like part of the city. Compared to Oxbow, it’s a nicer place to sit. The beer is just as good, though perhaps a bit less distinctive in its approach. The Pisces was light, sour and summery, with a hint of seawater salt. The Ismael Ale had a malty richness. The Daymark had a floral fragrance, a crisp hoppy taste, and then a bitter finish.

Parked there was another maternal-themed food truck, the Muthah-Truckah. Its simple meaty sandwiches, like the salty muffuletta and the mild Cordelia, with turkey, ham and fried onions, pair well with the beer. It's not very maternal of the Saltbox Café truck to ask you to pay 60¢ to replace a mediocre egg with a farm fresh one. But the resulting sandwich, with a crabcake soaking up the yolk, is pretty great.

Of course, women also like beer, and thank god – since soon only they will have incomes to afford it. Rising Tide is co-owned by a woman, but she hires men to do her brewing. Sociologists believe many phenomenon seemingly driven by male preferences, like sexting or the hook-up culture, are in fact strategies devised by women to prevent needy men from distracting them from more important work. Craft beer is another example. And these brewers are actually making themselves useful. In making bitterness so drinkable they offer beverages appropriate for sipping by a resentful gender, and those who tolerate us.

 

Rising Tide Brewing Co.

103 Fox St.

Oxbow Brewing Co

49 Washington Ave.

Mami Japanese Street Food

Muthah Truckah

Saltbox Café

all at various locations

The radiance of Rhum: Finding solace in sweet drinks

Fifty years ago the original tiki bar trend first combined fruity drinks, low light, bamboo and straw to offer a retreat from the drear of office work and the civilized conformity of consumer society. Nowadays we need stronger stuff to escape the infinitely drearier and soul-obliterating work of existing (socially, romantically and professionally) as a continually updated advertisement for oneself. But, like an ancient antibiotic hauled out to battle some new drug resistant super-bacteria, Rhum in Portland seeks to put the old cure to use for new troubles.

If it works – and it mostly does – it’s because alcohol retains its dangerous capacity to diminish our self-consciousness until it resonates with our diminished souls, unleashing a unified self with the confidence to speak, act (however unwisely) and connect with others. As Thomas Vander Ven explains in Getting Wasted, drinking has become the most meaningful experience in young people’s lives because it invites them to abandon the burdens of individuation and rely on each other in elaborate and ritualistic forms of “drunk support.” So Rhum serves some big sweet drinks, and they do their work, summoning the Dionysian from its ancient source.

Rhum’s particular kitsch resonates with the deeper purpose of the drinks it serves. Total absorption into others has always been the main theme of the American fascination with Polynesian culture, since Melville’s Typee chronicled Tommo’s dual fear of going native (where “not the feeblest barrier was interposed between unholy passions … and their unlimited gratification”) or being eaten. Fifty years on Henry Adams abandoned American politics to chase the same sensation – finding it in the Tahitian siva dance: “No future experience, short of being eaten, will ever make us feel so new again.”

At Rhum people get the point, and even on gorgeous summer evenings eschew the outdoor tables for the vast and windowless kitsch-filled interior, where a long rectangular bar and huge curved booths encourage mingling. If you mingle before 7 p.m. you can try one of the interesting $5 drink specials served in a frosty can – premixed as nearly all drinks at Rhum seem to be. The hula raptor mixed something floral and bitter with tart lime. The cobra had a distinct chili heat, while the anchor wolf offered the unadulterated sweet pleasures of fruit. The regular drinks are pricier and correspondingly huge, in faux-carved cups. The mai tai is a straightforward classic – all sweet and subtle citrus. You can get it in huge bowls for groups of any size.

The menu features several towers of seafood that a group can pick at collectively. Other dishes put a variety of Pacific cuisines new twists. A creamy hamachi tartar was like a finely chopped poke with lots of sesame. The kim-chi croque madame offset the sour cabbage with runny egg yolk and melted American cheese. The little bahn mi, with pork jerky and some sort of siracha-touched mayo, unleashed enough umami to encourage more drinking. The fois gras loco moco attempts to take low cuisine pretty high – with delicate eggy pillows filled with the rich liver meat and spam.

But Rhum’s name reflects the truth that this is a place for drinking and its attendant loss of self. It could be a formula for success. What is our era’s greatest literary achievement, Knausgård’s My Struggle, but a six-volume testament to the horrifying allure of intoxication. For Karl Ove “my drunkenness … was my favorite feeling, … for my world, in all its unbearable banality, was radiant.” Perhaps Rhum’s dark straw-filled room turns radiant, too, after a few. Henry Adams sought Polynesian obliteration to escape the burdens of democracy, where we must combine collective experience with individual responsibility. With Maine’s Bernie-mad delegation back from Philadelphia, they will need a place to reckon with how close they came to letting collective petulance hand the election to Trump. It is hard to forgive them, but after a couple mai-tai’s they will surely forgive themselves and move on.

 

Rhum | 4 Free St. (around back), Portland | 207.536.1774 | Mon-Fri 4:00pm-1:00am, Sat-Sun 11:00am-1:00am | Prices all over the map. Dishes about $8-$20

Imported from Brooklyn: De-lax and enjoy at Drifters Wife

With Brexit, the British have made their stand against free immigration. Soon enough work will begin on Trump’s wall. Is it time we Mainers made a stand against unwelcome migration as well? It does no good to pretend that we don’t have a problem. These quickly accumulating castoffs from Brooklyn threaten to fundamentally change our culture. And since people from Brooklyn don’t care about anything they can’t put in their mouths, it is our culinary culture that is most vulnerable to their influence.

Take the new wine bar Drifter’s Wife, which is run by a tight crew of four recent arrivals from Brooklyn. They are unashamed – telling Bon Appetit that they like Portland because “everyone is doing something cool and artistic, which reminds us of when we were in Williamsburg – except people here are way more relaxed.” Should we be flattered? Or do they mean we lack ambition in our cool art? In fact we didn’t re-lax. We started lax and would like to stay that way. We weren’t doing cool things, we were doing dull Maine things. And now these Brooklyn people are stressing us out – driving up both rents and levels of self-conscious performativity.

Drifters Wife, and its in-house wine shop Maine and Loire, are here to stress us out about wine – for our own good, supposedly. Both sell only wine that is “natural” – meaning organic, hand-picked, and fermented without any additional yeasts that might influence the wine’s development. And here is where we Mainers reveal our provincialism. The proprietors told this paper that they opened the shop because they found Portland “totally lacking” in acceptable wine. They told Sweet magazine that Mainers were “unexposed” and “blind” to the appeals of “esoteric” bottles.

So one should enter Drifter’s Wife anticipating didacticism. But it’s not bad if you get the fun professor. Any group of hip-Brooklynites features one sweetheart, and Drifters Wife has put theirs upfront waiting tables. She suppresses institutional disdain for Mainers and gently guides you through your meal – an oenophilic Anne Sullivan for us Helen Kellers.

So go ahead into the light. It’s a cute little place, modestly stylish in décor. “Natural” wines are often unpredictable and odd, because they lack the added yeast that other producers use to create consistency. So its nice to have a curated selection at the bar. They did seem interesting. A sparkling “col fondo” from Italy had a cloudy look and dry-crisp taste, citrusy with some elderflower. A French gamay was both light and very tart. A very affordable French blend (“Nemausa”) was sort of fantastic – smooth with leather and plum.

The food is prepared deftly behind the bar with little more than a hot plate. It’s a bit precious, but quite good and not expensive. Chewy slices of beef heart let your palate linger on the sweetness of the accompanying beets and the bitter spices of chermoula. Mustard greens advertised as spicy were actually quite mellow under a nutty cheddar. A marinade mellowed the funky-oily flavor of bluefish a bit, creating an elevated version of a summer tuna salad. A very simple chicken dish paired tender meat with kale cooked to taste and look just like collards.

Overall, we can return the sentiment, if not exactly as a compliment: Drifter’s Wife reminds you of Williamsburg. But we liked it anyway. In my experience it is the shop in back where the lessons are most heavy handed. These natural wines are meant to be undisciplined, individual, distinctive. It does their spirit no justice to insist that we must be trained to appreciate only them, or suffer in ignorance. Perhaps they are the right wines for our neoliberal era, where under-disciplined children – encouraged to be distinctive and true to themselves – grow up to be sad and desperate conformists. I guess a conformist must be desperate indeed to leave Brooklyn for an unsophisticated backwoods like Maine. But they keep coming.

 

The Drifter’s Wife | 63 Washington Ave., Portland | 207.805.1336 | Wednesday-Sunday, 4:00pm-11:00pm | Plates $11-$17 (wine $7-$12 a glass)

  • Published in Drink
Subscribe to this RSS feed