288 Fore St
Portland, ME 04101-4109
The wave of public opinion is an interesting thing. You see it all the time, especially on public forums and boards like chowhound or egullet. Someone posts about a new restaurant – usually it’s very positive, and people get excited. They want to go and experience it for themselves. They all go in a flood, and validate what the original poster stated. “Nice service, great command of ingredients and technique, wonderful meal”. More people visit, and more people enjoy.
After some time, a few negative reviews come up. Natural, since it is hard for any restaurant to maintain their game day in and day out. But with the really popular restaurants, you start to get this negative backlash. A push. The term “overrated” is thrown around a lot. People go in with very high expectations, and come out disappointed. More pushback. More negative reviews.
Has the quality at the restaurant changed that much? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. I’ve been to some universally lauded restaurants that I didn’t like for one reason or another. I’ve been to some restaurants that have been criticized heavily, and found it to be very enjoyable. It’s why I always reiterate to people to “taste what’s in front of you.” Think about what you’re having, and actually taste it. Don’t assume that what I had tastes the same when you have it. Don’t automatically assume something will be good, or bad. Having an open mind is the most important thing when trying to qualify a dining experience.
Overrated was a term that was applied a lot to Fore Street when i was researching restaurants in Portland Maine. And it made for an interesting decision – a special occasion, and one meal, which place to choose?
They have the awards – James Beard awards, Top 50 in the USA by Gourmet magazine, local reviews, but the online community was split. A lot of people really liked it, but there was a very large undercurrent of negative reviews. “Overrated”. “Underwhelming”. “Average”. For such a well regarded restaurant, there were a lot of people interested in taking it down a few notches.
We decided to go for it anyway – mostly on intuition. Fore Street was Portland’s premiere restaurant for many. Could so many people be wrong?
We were immediately greeted at the door by a friendly hostess. Inquiries into our jackets, and a brief delay before being shown to our table. Service was friendly, and efficient.
The room itself was gorgeous – casually elegant. Someplace you could be comfortable in any sort of attire. There was a really positive energy throughout the room – people having a good time.
The heart of the operation is a giant open kitchen with a wood fired oven, rotisserie, and grill. The kitchen radiates warmth, and welcome. Cooks move with efficiency, smiling. There are no temper tantrums. There is no stress, flinging pots, and cursing.
Like many top restaurants these days, Fore Street follows a philosophy of local. “Good food travels the shortest possible distance between the farm and the table.” In Maine, the diversity of ingredients is much greater than I expected. But the principle ingredient is what we came to Fore Street to dine on – seafood.
Start with oysters – all from Maine. The quality of the local oysters are so good. They are fresh, with varying degrees of sweetness, brine, and seawater. If you like oysters, you’ll find one that appeals to you. I enjoyed the Pulpit Harbour.
Second course was a big hit – Squash and Jonah Crab soup. Toasted butternut soup with lump crab meat, pumpkin seeds. This soup was the perfect tonic to a cold, blustery evening. Rich, velvety, sweet, and flavourful. Great balance of crab with squash. It was very very rich – I wasn’t able to put down more than 5 or 6 spoons. But everyone else who ordered had no problems. They licked their bowls clean it was that good.
Next up, their “never removed from the menu” dish. Every restaurant has one – something so popular, and so good, that everyone orders it. These were wood oven roasted mussels with garlic almond butter. I was shocked at how good of a preparation oven roasting (with some wood smoke) was for the mussels. It really lent the mussels some real depth – whereas steaming in aromatics usually only add flavour, this preparation accentuated it. Once again, quite rich, but a wonderful dish worth trying.
The surprise of the night – Finnan Haddie. Smoked haddock on toasted sourdough. This dish blew my mind off. The simplicity of the preparation failed to prepare me for the perfect harmony of flavour and texture. I would’ve eaten ten of these if i had the opportunity. Smokey, delicate fish flavours balanced by creaminess and a touch of brine that balanced it all out.
The first misstep of the evening was the pizza – surprising really, considering the skill with which they executed other wood oven dishes. The dough was extremely…doughy. A bit undercooked, it lacked complexity, and flavour, with an unappealing texture. The topping was port poached pear and piave. Supposed to be a balance of sweet, acidic, and creaminess, it ends up being a sweet sloppy mess on lousy dough. I really didnt enjoy this dish. I appreciate what they were trying, but if you’re going to toss a pizza onto the menu, make sure it’s a good one.
The Brussels Sprouts cooked in butter and toasted almonds salvaged this course. These were gone so fast, I had to double check to see if I still had my wallet or if someone had pulled a fast one.
While everyone was full on food and wine, the server insisted one could not properly end a meal without dessert. I was more interested in the offal and charcuterie dishes, but i could not convince anyone else to share corned sliced veal tongue, braised venison shank terrine, or pork trotter with foie gras. We all settled for a couple desserts instead.
Chocolate hazelnut torte with fresh made ice cream. A big success.
Some form of apple cake with fruit compote and apple cider. This sounded better than it tasted, and yes, I didnt do a very good job of describing it. A bit of a down way to end the meal for me – i think the pork trotters or the veal tongue would’ve pleased me more.
All told, I’m really glad I got the opportunity to go to Fore Street for two reasons. The first is a reminder to myself that no matter what public opinion says, I should always be willing to try these places out and make up my own mind. The second reason is because I had an excellent dining experience – with great service, and dynamic food. They didnt always hit the mark, but I don’t mind. Those who aspire to try great things will invariably fail occasionally – but I appreciate the successes, as well as the effort.
For me, Fore Street falls into the “worth trying” camp. If you’re ever in Portland, you should go and find out for yourself.