Brian Duff

Brian Duff

Yobo proves that lovers can do better — New Korean spot shows off distinctive magic

The terrific new restaurant Yobo is named for an affectionate term Korean couples call each other. What it means is “Hey you! and it reflects a useful dose of cynicism baked into the Korean concept of love. Such realism is too rare here in the US, where sociologists observe that coupledom has undergone a process of “deinstitutionalization.”

Pairing off with a spouse, once a normal part of transitioning to adulthood, now represents an ontological capstone — a signal that you and your “soul-mate” have finished growing up and arrived as complete adults. The disappointments that follow thus seem all the more unbearable, leading to a lifetime of mutual resentments and efforts to fix one another.

So in an era where our high expectations for coupledom are serially disappointed, it is refreshing to see a couple set and meet high expectations for cuisine. Yobo, run by partners whose roots are in Maine and Korea, is the most interesting new restaurant in PortlandWhat makes it so good? The cuisine is mostly Korean — and yes, of course, Portland needed a Korean place. But it is unlike (and better than) any Korean restaurant we have had here before.

Yobo is experimental — like an imaginative small-plate place that happens to work with Korean flavors. And even where it is most traditional it still surprises — like with the chewy, minty, garlicky, chili-braised parilla leaves, which are just one of the fantastic little bowls of banchan you can nibble throughout your meal. The leaves, like many ingredients, come direct from the chef’s mother’s garden.

Other kimchi and banchan are a step above the usual — a chewy, fishy-hot anchovy jerky, daikon served two ways, soft and pale baby braken fern, and candied black beans. Beside these bowls you can continue to fill your table thanks the menu’s rotation of inexpensive small plates. Recently a variety of peppers (“from Momma Chung’s garden”) — spicy Korean long hots, anaheims and shishito — had been stuffed with a blend of beef, pork and vegetables, each pepper combining with the rich, flavorful interior in its own way.

Another night those peppers were served blistered with a fantastic togarashi aioli. Delicate lobster sashimi is kissed with tamarind and curry. There is often a beautifully plated crudo among the specials, with bright citrus and crunchy vegetables enlivening the tender fish.

V CB3A

Chicken confit at Yobo.

While Yobo is good at the light and bright, its just as good at the rich and hearty. A chicken confit, first braised then fried and coated in red chili paste, was double-rich and beyond tender. Potstickers are done in a thick, homemade-country style. The mung bean pancake combines the earthy and sweet, the garlicky and sour. Bi bim bap eschews crunchy vegetables for a version that is heartier, with wilted leaves mixing in among the yolk, sauce, crispy rice and tender seared beef.

Because it is run almost entirely by a couple, Yobo is the best sort of tight shop — like the early days of Bresca, Miyake Food Factory, or Schulte and Herr. Your server knows the food intimately, and things have a personal touch. Regulars might get off-menu surprises from the kitchen, or wines from off the list. Some of the most personal dishes, like the short-ribs with herbs and curry named for Sunny (the chef), are among the best. 

Yobo’s cuisine says “Hey you!” It is arresting and rewarding. Rather than deinstitutionalize, the couple behind Yobo has produced a worthy new Portland institution (right next to an old one — Portland Stage). More couples should strive to produce something so distinctive and interesting. Sadly, every middle-class soul-mate marriage is alike and descends predictably into a grudging partnership for the production of high-achieving children with the proper enriching experiences, cognitive development, and screen-time discipline (and a mild anxiety disorder). Occasionally they look for a great meal over which to fake the old magic. Yobo is a great place to get one, and to remember that couples can do better.


Yobo | 23 Forest Ave., Portland | Tues-Sat 5-9 pm | Most dishes between $9–$15 | 207-536-0986 

 

Dinner and a Movie: Portland's Tipo and 'A Trip To Spain'

In the new film The Trip to Spain, the British actor/comedian Steve Coogan carries a book as he travels from Cantabria to Andalusia, on assignment reviewing restaurants for the New York Times. The book is Laurie Lee’s chronicle of traveling Spain in the 1930s, just before the fascists overthrew the government and triggered civil war. The film, the third in The Trip franchise, resumes a less consequential contest: between Coogan and Rob Brydon (another British comic), regarding who does the better impressions of more distinctive, more memorable men — Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Mick Jagger and countless others — while eating fancy meals.

These impersonations, along with gorgeous images of cuisine and countryside, might be pleasing enough to justify three TripsBut director Michael Winterbottom and the actor-writers Coogan and Brydon also want to get at something deeper  ambition, aging, and mortality. The films’ secret profundity is the revelation that in fact, there is nothing there beneath the surface. One of the adulthood’s most painful responsibilities is paying for a restaurant meal, and engaging in actual conversation that befits the occasion with the person across from you. The film’s protagonists are off the hook in both cases, thanks to their expense account and obsession with imitation.

After his trip to Spain, as it slipped toward war, Laurie Lee wrote all civilizations at some time have fallen into this total terror, when the mystery of life was a kind of panic only to be assuaged by the spilling of blood.” The Trip to Spain suggests that, as our civilization faces its own decline and panic and terror, our dearest comfort is in the spilling forth of a creamy yolk, a rich broth, or slurped wine. The films seem to confirm that the best life we could hope for is to travel in luxury and eat well on the corporate dime (occasionally making passes at the women hired to serve you). In the face of our own creeping fascism, to be coddled, kept, and amused remains both our greatest fantasy and busiest preoccupation.

In between bites and impersonationsCoogan and Brydon manage some conversation. Their chatter reveals what they most deeply admire — writers who fight: Lord Byron and Cervantes (both fought the Ottomans, centuries apart), Orwell and Lee (the fascists, at the same time). But Steve and Rob barely write and fight for nothing. They are just actors who eat, fuck, and (over the course of three films) age. And for the audiences of today that seems to be enough. The most important, of course, is the eating — and some critics wish they could simply gaze at the food without hearing the comedians’ voices.

One hears quite a din of voices as you gaze upon your meal at Tipo, a new restaurant here in Portland whose southern-Europe small plates approximate the meals from the two most recent Trip films, shot in Italy and Spain. Getting out to Ocean Avenue on the opposite side of the back bay is hardly a drive through the Spanish countryside, but it does feel like a haul. The restaurant’s boxy space is a bit austere, but they pack the tables in which creates warmth. Tipo also has a nice outdoor patio, a bit like the ones Coogan and Brydon frequent in Spain, where their meals are notably less stuffy than in the earlier films.

A meal at Tipo isn’t stuffy either. Though parts of the menu have a rarified air, the atmosphere is pretty casual, and some customers chomp on pizza. Tipo is run by the same people as the Old Port’s celebrated Central Provisions. But it is not some kind of back-bay Peripheral Provisions, doing an inferior impersonation of Central, like Coogan doing Caine. It is a different animal with a few traits in common. It is much easier to park.

 food sardines

A special of grilled sardines featured two big beauties much like a pair Brydon consumes happily in the film. At Tipo the fish’s rich, oily flesh was nicely grilled, while a green relish on top was a touch too vinegar-sour. A ceviche of sea-bass had a citrus-sweet almost Vietnamese quality, brightly colored and flavored. Along with big pieces of tender fish, slices of radish and green herbs added some earthiness.

Thanks to their heavy breading and small size, a dish of fried artichokes made a decidedly unpretentious, almost fair-food first impression. But the minty aioli added an interesting tang, and the tomato-caper tapenade had been super-reduced to acquire a great jamminess.

food ceviche

A pair of ragùs offered different virtues. In one case dark mushrooms had been cooked to a delicious earthy tenderness. They mixed with creamy yolk on a square pillow of creamy and fluffy polenta. A pork raguhad a pleasantly slow-developing roasted pepper heat, that emerged as you chewed the tough little cavetelli made from rye flour.

So Tipo is a pleasant sequel to Central Provisions. Central is more refined, but also a bit too self-satisfied and over-drinky (seeming to encourage Old Port-style overindulgence)In The Trip to Spain,Coogan is self-satisfied too — basking in the success of his 2013 film Philomena, which got him nominations for several Oscars (best picture, best screenplay) — but has given up drinking, and refuses wine throughout the trip. He is even writing his food reviews for a better paper (the New York Times; not The Observer).

But it is remarkable how little Coogan has changed, even as his career has gained in prestige. In fact, Philomena resembles a fourth Trip film — one in which Coogan imagines what it might be like to do something useful — and with Dame Judy Dench (passably impersonating a working-class woman) instead of Rob Brydon. Philomena suggests all it takes to find something meaningful to say and do is to stumble onto a poor woman whose baby was stolen by evil nuns. The film is structured exactly like The Trips — all driving and awkward meals on a newspaper’s expense account — but in PhilomenaCoogan shuts up and listens with a concerned look on his face.

His rare look of concern in The Trip to Spain also centers on a stolen baby: Coogan’s girlfriend, married to another man, has gotten pregnant and Coogan is not the father. Coogan offers to raise the child anyway and is refused — another pale reflection of Laurie Lee, whose daughter with Lorna Wishart was raised by Lorna’s husband. Meanwhile, Coogan’s son, a victim of Coogan’s passive paternal failures in previous films, has impregnated his own teenage girlfriend — assuming the role of father that Coogan could never fulfill.

Is the film reinforcing or undermining the lazy profundity that the way to give meaning to life is to create some more? As the men arrive in La Mancha and order the scallops, Cervantes replaces Lee as their foremost literary obsession. “Hunger is the best sauce in the world, and the poor eat with relish,” Cervantes had Teresa remind Sancho Panza, begging him to give up his roaming quest for wealth and notoriety. But one gets no sense that existential hunger is helping Brydon and Coogan appreciate these trips, these meals or their fame.

Cervantes fought the Ottomans, and spent five years enslaved in Algiers. He also made the implied narrator of Quixote’s story a Muslim. The Trip to Spain culminates in an interminable scene where Coogan attempts to lecture two women on the history of the Moors in Spain, while Brydon loudly comments in the voice of Roger Moore. The jokes win out over earnest didacticism, as usual.

Brydon, the film’s Sancho, returns to his wife and children. Coogan, dejected, crosses the water to Africa to do some writing. His Land Rover breaks down, and in the film’s final scene a Toyota HiLux full of ISIS soldiers stumble upon him. His concerned look returns. Could a Cervantes style adventure do what free meals and a down-scale Judy Dench could not — make a real writer and man of him? Perhaps The Trip to Syria could offer an answer.


The Trip to Spain | Dir: Michael Winterbottom | Playing at the Nickelodeon, 25 Temple St., Portland | http://patriotcinemas.com/

Tipo | 182 Ocean Ave., Portland | Wed–Sun 4pm-10pm; Sat–Sunday 10am-2pm | 207-358-7970 | http://www.tiporestaurant.com/

  • Published in Food

Finding reward within the mess — Portland gets two new arepa spots

With its crisp thin cornbread teetering on big pile of colorful fillings, the arepa is a nice looking sandwich. But because those very virtues make arepas difficult to eat, you know you are about to make a mess of this lovely thing. Such is the sway of entropy over all human institutions, and Americans wondering just how our sometimes-lovely nation might soon destroy itself can learn from the two great homelands of the area.

 

Will our vain and shallow culture get drunk on populism and fossil fuels, and then slip into authoritarianism? Then we might look to Venezuelan, once an oil-rich world leader in plastic surgery and pageant queens, now tilting toward fascism and famine. Or will our drug culture tear apart the social fabric, while alienated young men with few job prospects take up weapons and dubious radical (“alt”) politics? Then Colombia can be our guide, where a recent and fragile peace-through-amnesty might allow the nation to bind itself together after forty years of narco-political civil war.

 

Now Portlanders hoping to ponder either of these fates can do so with the appropriate lunch, thanks to the recent arrival in town of two separate arepa shops: Luis’s, with Venezuelan roots, and Maiz Colombian Street Food. That gives Portland nearly as many arepa spots as the island of Manhattan. It is a windfall.

 

Luis moved his arepera up from Saco. The sandwiches are just as good up here in a Portland space with even more scrappy charm than the old shopA lone window counter looks out over some picnic tables onto a busy corner of outer Forest Ave. His crispy flat cornbreads are flash-fried golden brown and sliced down the middle. Just under the crisp corn is a soft interior to soak up the juices from the sandwiches' ample fillings. The tender shredded beef is infused with a garlicky tang of vinegar and a green herbiness. It is terrific. A vegetarian arepa features an avocado spread with big pieces of tomato, as well as sharp scallion and cilantro. The same sauce, a sort of guacamole-salsa-fresca, accompanies crisp fried plantains and the tender fried yuca.

 

The Colombian arepa is bigger and softer — one step closer to a tortilla. But there is no mistaking it for something so thin and floppy, especially when you see the thick bumpy beauties served up at Maiz — which occupies the front section upstairs at the Public Market House. The menu is simple, with just five arepas and a cheese bread. It is all they need. While Luis’s arepas are stiff enough to maintain a jaunty tilt, the Maiz version sags a bit to form a sort of pocket.

 

The “double meat” arepa takes the unexpected approach of lining its three main ingredients side by side rather than stacked vertically. The result is you proceed through a third of darkly rich shredded beef, then a middle section of herby and almost curry-yellow shredded chicken, and finally finish with a section of creamy farmer's cheese. Or you could go the other way. All three mingled with pico de gallo and soaked up a garlicky ajo sauce made with egg. The vegetarian version substituted tender black beans and hunks of avocado for the meats. Even the little cheese bread was terrific.

 

The sudden and surprising arepa-explosion in our town reminds us of the fundamental unpredictability of all human endeavors. Could the new Venezuelan constitutional assembly, hand picked to reinforce a dictator’s powers, surprise us with some compelling new form of socialist democracy? Could the Colombian elite come to provide the social and educational support necessary to allow former FARC narco-marxists to find useful roles in society? It’s doubtful. But you never know! And perhaps here in the US we can find a way to avoid our own descent into populist authoritarianism or opioid-addled armed conflict. Perhaps you can finish your arepa without making a huge mess. In both cases, it’s worth a shot.


Maiz Colombian Street Food | Public Market House, Monument Sq. | Mon-Fri 8 am-5 pm; Sat-Sun 10 am-5 pm | 207-400-2881

Luis’s Arepera and Grill | 948 Forest Ave., Portland | Mon-Fri 10 am-7 pm | 207-286-8646

  • Published in Food

Diversity of Flavors: The Shawarmageddon starts at Baharat

Diversity is easy to love if your group can dominate. But when supremacy is challenged, the dominant class gets itchy for a fight (or flight). Hence the white guys currently abandoning multicultural democracy to flirt with authoritarianism, and abandoning egalitarian family life for an existence online with their fellow gamers and trolls. The better alternative, some say, is to incorporate diversity, be transformed by it, and fuse it into a new and coherent identity. But that is pipe-dream stuff. It never happens, no matter what Pericles said about Athens, intersectional feminists say about their activism, or improv comedians promise in their performances.

 

Well, maybe it happens with food. The new East Bayside restaurant Baharat is named for a spice mix that gives strong flavors a coherent taste. The experience there illuminates both the charm of the dream of transformative diversity, as well as its limitations. The cuisine at Baharat conveys what is appealing about bringing strong flavors together. Its venue — tucked under a new upscale building in a “mixed income” neighborhood, suggests some of the complications.

 

The menu at Baharat encourages a mingling of flavors, textures, even colors. Spreads, pickled vegetables, and kebabs, each in their own category, beg to be experimented with in various combinations. The creamy ful, made with fava beans and egg, seemed bitter when eaten on its own with crisp flatbread dusted with cardamom. But the strong spice is transformed when combined with a bit of sharp pickle — like the lovely yellow turmeric cauliflower.

 

Similarly, the lamb kebab’s strongest flavor was bitter, but combined nicely with garlicky tzatziki and the sour of minty pickled eggplant. Falafel balls had a great soft texture beneath a crisp and mildly spiced shell. It’s all served, like everything at Baharat, on rimmed baking sheets that make smearing and combining especially easy.

 food Baharat eggs

Za’atar-spiced deviled eggs. Photo by Rebecca Goldfine.

Other dishes seemed intended to stand alone, with all the combinations performed in the kitchen. Grilled corn “kebob” was nicely seared and sweet, with feta and black tahini adding earthiness. Za’atar deviled eggs were all creamy smoke. Mushroom crepes, made with big pieces of meaty chicken-of-the-woods (hard to find this time of year), were a bit of creamy mush — under-seasoned but still obscuring the appeal of this terrific mushroom.

 

Baharat’s gorgeous cocktails promise still more compelling juxtapositions of flavor, like the turmeric, cucumber, and the chickpea foam on their rye whiskey Curcuma Sour, or the curry and carrot in the gin-based Garden Party. In fact, one flavor dominated each, tart citrus and sweet carrot respectively. Still, they were nice — as were several of the very reasonably priced wines, like an earthy blend from Lebanon.

Baharat is the latest food/drink centered addition to the “mixed-income” neighborhood that is East Bayside. It is reasonably priced and feels welcoming. The space is light-filled with huge windows, and looks spare but casual. But one wonders if Baharat, and its neighbors Tandem Coffee and Riding Tide Brewery, are really part of an interesting new mix in East Bayside, long cited as Portland’s most diverse neighborhood, or rather part of a developing new dominance by the well off. The crowd did not seem diverse by any measure except age.

The restaurant is housed in a new building that looks like every “luxury condo” being built all over town — in fact it is full of rentals — on a corner that used to offer the city’s cheapest tires and softest car inspections. One new resident, chatting at the bar, called the building “mixed-income.” Maybe — if a family wants to cram into a 400 squar foot studio at $1200 a month. For $1500, they can get a bedroom. Some social critics suggest that an embrace of diversity, especially in culinary taste, is the new signifier of the cultural elite. Baharat makes a diversity of flavors taste good together. It is not clear that it is making a diverse neighborhood new in a way that will cohere.


Baharat | 91 Anderson St., Portland | Wed-Sun 5 pm to 10 pm | 207-613-9849 | www.baharatmaine.com  

  • Published in Food

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

Subscribe to this RSS feed