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A Christmas trip, mostly in Maine


ghostrider
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Here follows some of our experiences in Maine over Christmas. I thought of trying to tack this onto an existing Portland thread, but since it also covers Augusta/Hallowell and a small slice of Boston, that didn’t seem quite right, so I’m just tossing it up on its own.

Apologies for the non-food travelogue stuff; I find Portland such a great place to visit that I can’t help trying to rave about it a bit.

Initial uses of names of establishments that we visited on this trip are highlighted as waymarkers, or something like that.

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We traveled up to Portland via Amtrak two days before Christmas Eve. We were scheduled for dinner that night with an old friend from St. Louis who had lived in the Portland area for a couple of decades after college, then moved back to St. Louis, then returned to Portland earlier this year. He and his wife had their sights on Katahdin, which was fine with us since we didn’t get to try the place on our previous stays in Portland. Katahdin also had the advantage of being just one block down High Street from our hotel; up there at the top of the town, you get a stiff winter wind off the water, and walking a long way before dinner doesn’t seem too appealing.

Katahdin certainly lived up to its reputation of delivering fresh, interesting and well prepared food at a reasonable price. Slices of thin, chewy bread were served with a fragrant olive oil for dipping. The crab cake appetizer was terrific, well packed with Maine crabmeat, with nice peppery sauce on the side. The field greens in a light vinaigrette were equally excellent, with astonishingly fresh tomatoes for this time of year. (I assume that the greens and tomatoes were locally greenhouse grown,)

I’d ordered one of the specials, described as halibut with mushrooms in a chestnut demi. (Or was it a mushroom-chestnut demi? I should have made notes.) My plate arrived with a perfectly cooked, peppery crusted piece of halibut sitting atop a pile of green beans, beet greens and turnip greens, all of which rested on a base of garlic mashed potatoes. The stack was ringed with two varieties of mushroom, half covered by a chestnut-fragrant dark brown sauce.

All of the ingredients were excellent. The vegetables were wonderfully sweet and fresh, cooked just to the point of doneness, still full of color. One mushroom was tender and sweet, the other chewy and full of what I think of as wild flavor; after a bit of research, I’d hazard that they might have been chanterelles and black trumpets, but that’s only a guess.

The chestnut demi was thick and flavorful but not rich; to my palate its sticky sweetness verged on cloying, such that it tasted as well as looked much like I was eating a halibut sundae. Fortunately the plate was large enough that I could move the halibut and vegetables off to a dry area and dip the fish in the sauce as needed; I found this an advantage.

Everyone else had the pan seared scallops and reported that they too were excellent. I’m unable to report on the composition of their dishes, I was too focused on talking with our friends. We had no room for dessert (and, as noted, my dessert palate had already been largely satiated). Our server was friendly, articulate and knowledgeable. The room was well lit and not overly noisy. Katahdin seems to have everything in place to create a fine evening full of warm feelings; I wouldn’t hesitate to return. The only problem with Portland is that there are so many excellent dining choices!

We parted company with our friends and strolled down to the Old Port area and back. The city looks wonderful at this time of year. I’d guess that they let the Portland College of Art take over the lighting displays in the squares around town, as there seems to be a consistent use of vibrant color, variations on the cascade of brightly glowing globes that spills down several stories on the facade of the College on Congress Street. Up in the little square at the corner of Congress and High, they’ve hung giant representations of what look like old-fashioned blown glass ornaments with spheres, flattened globes and teardrops in the same shades of blue, orange, red, magenta and yellow. These aren’t typical Christmas tree light colors; they seem brighter, and well chosen to harmonise. Down in the Old Port there’s a square where all of the tree branches have been outlined in solely in that blue you see elsewhere in town; it’s a stunning effect. I like the way that Portland eschews the effete white-light approach that’s all too common in the New York area and goes for a riot of color; walking around the town that night maintained the warm feeling I had from dinner.

The next morning we browsed some of the wonderful used bookstores on Congress Street. So much to read, so little time. Sheila found some bargains for the nephews’ kids at the L.L. Bean factory store. We had another fine soup and sandwich lunch at the Portland Public Market. I gazed wistfully at the fresh Gulf of Maine shrimp on display at the Scales Seafood. I need to rent some kind of efficiency apartment in Portland for a couple of weeks during this season; just give me a kitchen there!

I was saddened to see that Valley View Orchard Pies in the Market was closing, that Christmas Eve would be their last day. This was a great bakery; topping off a lunch with one of their raspberry bars or lemon squares had become an instant tradition with us during the summer. I bought a last round of date bars and ginger cookies to carry on the trip. There was a sign up that Heather’s cakes would continue to be available on a catering basis, and I gather that they remain at their home location in Hebron. I guess it’s hard to pull in the clientele that you need to pay the rent on a space at the Market, what with the ongoing malling of America and all. It’s a shame.

We headed up to Augusta in the afternoon and checked into the Comfort Inn. We’d gotten a suite, since that’s how you get a refrigerator; with my low-salt/sugar/fat diet, I like to have complete control over my breakfasts, so the fridge comes in handy. As a result we had an extra-spacious room, with a nice view of those wonderful Maine pines and a swath of sky beyond the back parking lot. Pretty much wherever I go, after breakfast I drink a couple of pots of tea & take my cardiac meds one by one & stare at the sky, it’s what I do, so I value having any sort of pleasing view from my windows.

Thursday was our one night for dining out in the area before Christmas doings with Sheila’s family would consume us. We decided to head down to Hallowell, one of our favorite towns (technically it’s Mane’s smallest incorporated city). It has two good restaurants (possibly three, we’ve yet to try the Chinese place, which clearly has aspirations and seems to offer a fabulous river view), a great coffee house, and numerous antique shops sprawled along half a dozen blocks on the west bank of the Kennebec.

I’d wanted to return to Hattie’s Chowder House for another round of their superb Seafood Alfredo, which was possibly the best single dish I’d had in Maine during our summer week there. Unfortunately, the monsoon arrived late that afternoon and only got worse after nightfall. It was the kind of horizontal rain that literally soaks you to the skin in three seconds; once you’re out in it, all that you can do is head in one direction and hope that you can reach your doorway while you’re still only half soaked. There was no parking within a block of Hattie’s; there was a slot only three car lengths away from Slate’s, so the choice was made for us. And yes, our backsides got completely drenched from walking those three parking slots.

We hadn’t been to Slate’s in at least ten years, but I remember having some great omelet brunches there. It’s probably a better restaurant overall than Hattie’s, their menu is designed for more adventurous tastes. Slate’s has four rooms of varying sizes and configurations spread over the ground floor of a couple of buildings; it’s a quirky and inviting space. The brick walls and old tin ceiling make it a bit noisy when it’s crowded, but they look great.

Navigating the monsoon had left us famished, so I put in a quick order of bread and dipping oil. (Bread & butter are complimentary if you don’t want the oil for dipping.) Our server brought a basket of six huge slices of hot, crusty French/Italian-inspired bread; Slate’s has its own bakery and their breads are exceptional. The olive oil had also been warmed, with a nice dollop of herbs, and an amount of garlic that overwhelmed the flavors of the herbs and the oil. Still, the warmth and heartiness of the bread made the perfect tonic for our cold and wet condition.

We split a salad of greens with another vinaigrette; it was a more conventional mesclun mixture than we’d had at Katahdin, but still quite good. I’m starting to think that I should just ask for oil and vinegar whenever I’m offered a vinaigrette; I often regret that I haven’t. I’ve never quite gotten the whole mustard thing. I don’t really understand why people eat the stuff, it doesn’t usually work with my palate, and that all seems to extend to my reaction to most vinaigrettes. But that’s my problem and I guess a rather pointless digression.

We were both in the mood for Maine shrimp (frozen, alas, but of good quality) with tomatoes, oil, garlic and pecorino over homemade fettuccine, so we both ordered the same thing. The tomatoes and shrimp were cooked to just the right degree. The fettuccine had a wonderful flavor, though I’d have preferred it a tad more al dente. The pecorino was freshly grated. Then there was the garlic, a great deal of it; the delicate sweetness of the shrimp got lost to the point where they added mostly texture to the dish. It was a good dish, it had close to an ideal mixture of ingredients for that particular night; it just seemed an injudicious use of a good quantity of Maine shrimp.

I never thought I’d see the day where I’d say that a restaurant used too much garlic - I am, after all, someone who makes spaghettini con aglio e olio 2-3 times every week - but from the standpoint of taste, I’d have to say that about our evening at Slate’s. On the other hand, that healthy dose of garlic probably kept us from catching monsoon colds; there may have been wisdom at work in the kitchen that night. I still have a good feeling for the place and will definitely try them again when I’m not craving that Seafood Alfredo at Hattie’s; that is one rich dish and you have to be prepared for it.

The day after Christmas, we headed back down 295 from Augusta for our last night in Portland. The temperature was dropping fast that afternoon. We checked into the Eastland Park and ran the car out to the Jetport. We had the cab back drop us at Uffa, three blocks from the hotel, where we’d counted on dining that night. Alas, they were closed. The only place open seemed to be the Bombay Club across the street. I was feeling a little too precarious to tackle Indian food that night, so we decided to go back to the hotel and see what else we could come up with. That little three-block walk, usually a pleasant stroll, chilled us to the bone; the wind had become absolutely vicious.

A few phone calls told us that every place in the immediate area was closed; we’d have been glad to try 555 or return to Katahdin, but it wasn’t to be. The cold was too daunting for us to go any further afield, so we dined at Adelline’s Grill in the hotel. The lobster bisque was good and the service was very good; there isn’t much else worth noting.

We boarded the Downeaster at 8:45 the next morning. A final note for travelers: if you are connecting to a southbound train out of Boston, do not follow Amtrak’s advice and take the subway back to Back Bay Station. Instead, take the Orange Line three stops to Downtown Crossing, and transfer to the outbound Red Line over to South Station. You want to be relatively mobile to do this, since the Orange-Red Line transfer is the only place on these various subway routes where there’s no elevator or escalator to help you move your bags vertically; you’ll have to carry your luggage down a one-story flight of stairs to get to the Red Line. (Or you could take a taxi between stations.)

Why South Station? You have almost a 2-hour layover in Boston, and there’s much better food to be had there than at Back Bay. There’s also a nifty bi-level model railway display to enjoy at this time of year. All southbound trains originate at South Station and hit Back Bay 5 minutes later, so you’ll be on your train well fed with your choice of Cajun food (my personal favorite), Chinese, pizza, various wursts and dogs, Au Bon Pain goods, burgers, bakery items, and non-Starbucks coffee or tea.

And if you can walk past Serenade Chocolates without buying a box or two of your favorite concoction, you’re a better person than I am. No, on second thought, you’re not; you just aren’t serious enough about your chocolate.

Edited by ghostrider (log)

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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Thanks for the report ghost,

But my you sound like a fair weahter couple. Glad to hear you made it to Katahdin, a favorite of ours from way back that recently has been reinvigorated.

I assume you were staying at the Holiday Inn By the Bay on Spring St. Let me say that the short five minute walk to 555 would have been well worth the effort, even if you were chilled to the bone when you got there. It would even have been worth the few bucks you'd spend to ride in a warm cab.

Oh, well. Maybe next time you're here and when it is warmer you'll make it over. Meanwhile, I have tomorrow night's reservation to look forward to and this time I'll take notes and post a full report on our evening.

"Democracy is that system of government under which the people…pick out a Coolidge to be head of the State. It is as if a hungry man, set before a banquet prepared by master cooks and covering a table an acre in area, should turn his back upon the feast and stay his stomach by catching and eating flies." H. L. Mencken

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Adeline’s Grill is actually at the Eastland Park Hotel. It appears Mr. Rider missed the bar and lounge on the top floor, "Top of the East"? The view is fantastic. :rolleyes:

The halibut at Katahdin is incredible. I order it almost every time I visit. I happen to know a chef at Adeline's. He would agree with your remarks!

The Xmas decor is indeed a product of the industrious Maine School of Art. Their campus dots the downtown so they are really integrated in the town landscape.

This write-up was a pleasure to read. One of my favorite things about eG are the intimate descriptions of places near and far, written by erudite society members who share a common passion in food. Thanks for talking up our town(s) Ghostrider, just don't everyone come at once... :wink:

"I took the habit of asking Pierre to bring me whatever looks good today and he would bring out the most wonderful things," - bleudauvergne

foodblogs: Dining Downeast I - Dining Downeast II

Portland Food Map.com

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Yes we were staying at the Eastland Park, which I think put 555 even closer. Unfortunately they too were among The Closed on 12/26; I phoned. We'd also established that Local 188 was closed after the cab dropped us at Uffa. Long Christmas weekends for everyone in the area, it seems.

No, still haven't made it up to Top Of The East. I don't know what's wrong with me sometimes.

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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Thank you for the enjoyable review, ghostrider! We considered staying at the Eastland Park, but ended up elsewhere instead. Did you like it? Did you have a suite there as well? We always book suites because of the kitchen as well. Interested to hear your thoughts on the hotel for future visits.

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We really liked the Eastland Park, we'd stayed there over the summer & went right back. Their rooms are considerably smaller than a suite at the Comfort Inn, but nicely appointed. They don't have rooms with any sort of kitchen facilities, alas.

They tend to be one of the best deals in town, check their website for rates & specials. Eastland Park

The Continental breakfast they have in the lobby is somewhat lackluster, but the comfy chairs are really nice, and at least the whole thing is quick.

I like the location, though it's a bit of a hike down to the Old Port area, but I enjoy walking around the town.

Thank God for tea! What would the world do without tea? How did it exist? I am glad I was not born before tea!

- Sydney Smith, English clergyman & essayist, 1771-1845

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