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This little nook has to be on your go-to list

There are the restaurants I go to a few to several times a year, those I check out once or twice in that period, and those I don’t even get to annually. Munjoy Hill Italian/American restaurant Blue Spoon falls in the middle. Trying to come up with someone to feed us on a Saturday night, my wife and I couldn’t agree on any one place, each of us repeatedly objecting to the other’s ideas. When she mentioned “The Spoon”, it seemed like a fine choice and I couldn’t think of a reason not make my first visit of 2018.

When we called for reservations, they had bar seating available, which was perfect because I’d been wanting to experience the quaint, little slab ever since my first time there long ago. With five seats and one person already sitting in the middle when we arrived, I chose the outside so I wouldn’t jab the person to my left with an elbow. The bar was petite, but my spot offered an opportunity to peer into the kitchen, watch drink-making activity, and enjoy its great character and interesting vibe.

As we sat looking at menus, I had trouble figuring out if I wanted a beer or a cocktail. As I leaned toward a mixed drink, I saw an unmixed one, The Ben Jackson (an educational experience) – a flight of scotch: Glenlivet 12, Laphroig 10, Johnnie Walker Black. None of them were new to me, but I went with it anyway just for fun. She ordered a glass of the Angeline Pinot Noir Rose.

My eyes opened wide as the whiskeys were much larger than I had anticipated. At 12 bucks, I assumed a serving size of a half shot each, but the reality came closer to a full shot as the careful pours were finished. I accepted a side of ice to add at my pleasure to the three glasses. I started with the JWB, washing it down with some bread and olive oil, and found the combination a solid companion to choosing food.

We eventually settled on some eats, starting with Charred Cauliflower – garlic tahini, mint and dates, toasted bread crumbs. I went with the Bistro Burger – Wee Bit Farm Beef, warm potato salad, toasted bun – as my main course, not having had that in a while. She went with fish, opting for the Roast Atlantic Pollock – beets and fingerling potato, pea greens, dill broth, yogurt.

One scotch deep, our app came out – a sizable amount of cauliflower on a board with a squiggle of the tahini, a sprinkle of mint and dates, and a fair share of crumbs. I took a large bite which included all the parts. It was probably the most interesting cauliflower preparation I’d ever had. Sweet from the dates and minty fresh, those flavors stood out the most and offered quite a contrast. The tahini and crumbs added less potent notes.

It turns out that Glenlivet and cauliflower go together like a half rhyme in a good poem. I enjoyed the pairing as I took my time savoring both, eventually scraping up the last crumbs and sending the empty board back whence it came. It wasn’t too many sips of scotch down the road before we saw the entrees appear from the kitchen. The bartender slid them our way and we were off to the races.

The burger was a little on the small side. It had been stabbed with a skewer and had two tiny pickles impaled on top with lettuce, tomato, onions, and ketchup on the side. Since I had ordered without any extras – smoked onions, bacon, egg, and mushroom were available – the burger was plain, but I threw on the condiment and veggies. A bite took me back to the last time I had eaten it. It was a good, solid burger. There were no frills, but it was high quality meat with the requisite additions.

After a few bites of my sandwich, I moved to the tater salad. It was obvious the potatoes had just been heated and the tangy, mustard-based mix-in was brilliant. It was actually a tad too hot for me, so I took a few more bites of the burger before going back to enjoying it. I thought the salad would work well as an all-season dish in virtually any setting even though it was warm. I quite liked its uncommon construction.

Mrs. Portlandeater and I finished every morsel of our food and made a quick decision on dessert after listening to the three or so options. We just couldn’t turn down Tri-colored Carrot Cake with cream cheese frosting. As we waited for it to come out, I moved onto the smokey Laphroig and quizzed the bartender on the colors of the carrots in the cake. She passed it on to the kitchen who guessed purple, yellow, orange, and white. “Maybe it’s quad-colored,” she said with a shrug.

I felt a special kind of joy when the frosted flour mass came out, flanked by two small piles of whipped cream each topped with a blackberry. With a swipe of the fork, I consumed my first piece. Carrot cake I’ve eaten has in the past has all been much the same, but this one was different. More dense than I was used to, the frosting kicked it into overdrive. It was less sweet than the others which brought out a remarkable cheese flavor. “They’ve got the carrot cake down,” my wife noted.

Dessert was done quickly, but we were very pleased with it. We settled up as she sipped a decaf. The final tab was just over $90 with tip. Blue Spoon made great food and was streaming The Clash on Pandora while we ate, which was the best dining score I’d heard in a long while. The overall experience left little to be desired and the general atmosphere was absolutely enchanting.

Here’s what I recommend when you go to Blue Spoon: sit at the bar, order the trio of scotch, keep your ears open, and enjoy what they offer, because every time I go, I like it more. They hit all the marks for excellence in a restaurant and because of that, they are becoming one of my favorites. Go there ready to eat and relax and maybe they will be one of yours too.

Blue Spoon 89 Congress St.

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This brunch works, but it’s light on breakfast

My original thoughts on the (dinner) menu at Italian eatery Tipo when I was there a while back were that it offered a little something for everyone, but I felt differently about the brunch version as I was reviewing it while seated at the bar. Not that it didn’t have a fair number of options – it included lots of plates, some pizza, and sweets – just that not many of them were the “br” in brunch. That seemed a little odd since I assume many people eat brunch looking for a traditional breakfast.

She started with a Mimosa Spritz – aperol, prosecco, oj – and I stuck with water as I continued perusing the menu. Wanting the early morning meal despite the fact that is was after noon, I picked out the few options that were available to me. Crepes and frittata stood out at first, but it was the Smoked Shortrib and Potato Hash – farm egg, melted onion, sourdough – that had me the most interested. It sounded like a hearty breakfast and met me where I was at at the moment.

Mrs. Portlandeater was in the mood for a Margherita Pizza – fresh mozzarella, tomato, basil, olive oil. It wasn’t the most exciting choice on the menu, but the heart wants what the heart wants, as they say. We placed our orders and watched as the pie was created and thrown into the oven. The kitchen appeared to be prepping for dinner as the restaurant was in its last hour before closing to reopen for the night.

Our food came out with mine in a skillet, the seasoned egg and two buttery pieces of toast hiding the hash. It was on the smallish side, though I somewhat expected that because the prices weren’t particularly high. Her pizza was traditional with a fair pouring of olive oil on the top. She grabbed a slice and I arranged my food in a way that allowed me to view it all at once.

I took a bite of the toast first and it was marvelous. It was made from fresh bread and crispy through and through; I found a satisfying crunch in every bite. I ate all the toast first, making room to dig into the egg. The chicken seed was cooked to medium and a smidge spicy. As eggs go, it was quite good. I finished that before moving on to the taters.

Based on appearance, I had mixed feelings about the hash. It looked well prepared overall, but the potatoes were a little large for my liking. It was nothing too far outside of the ordinary, but for a hash, smaller bites of potato offer a better ability to mix in the other parts of the dish, allowing for more consistent flavors and textures. An initial bite proved it wasn’t devastating, but I felt the beef didn’t quite cover for the large potato as well as it could have.

Despite the biggish spuds, the hash was still quite enjoyable. The short rib in particular was really tasty and added the depth I was looking for in the plate even if some potatoes were left without any. These weren’t just hash browns, they were a meal – a small one, but still substantial enough to remind me I had made a good decision. I finished those and considered an order of another plate or something sweet, however, my wife had plenty of pizza left and was willing to share.

For pizza purists, the margherita at Tipo is a must. The smattering of mozz and basil on top of thin crust and light red sauce with an olive oil finish is true pizza for many a restaurant-goer. While it’s not my personal favorite, I frequently find myself eating her leftovers and Tipo is at least as good as any I’ve had lately. Before I was done, I found myself gladly consuming half a pizza.

Pizza, drink, and hash plate came to about $37 with tip. Whether you are there for brunch or dinner, Tipo makes really good food. My only issue is that the brunch menu itself falls short on breakfast options. Yes, there are some, but many more are suitable for lunch. If you are in the mood for lunch or dinner, Tipo makes a great choice, but if you want some of the standard morning foods, you might consider going somewhere else.

Tipo 182 Ocean Ave

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High-end fare, elegance delivered by award-winning eatery

Among those who live in or visit Portland and love to eat, Fore Street has attained legendary status. Opened in 1996, the restaurant with a menu that changes at every sunrise focuses on what’s fresh and available to them that very day. The wood-burning oven, grill, and turnspit add not only great scenery, but are the key to many of the flavors which exit the open kitchen and land on the eater’s table.

Their use of only the highest quality ingredients and supreme cooking technique has earned Fore Street a number of awards and they rightly command a high price for their fare. For that reason, my visits have been infrequent, but a return was due. We made early-ish reservations for a Friday evening and looked forward to a special meal, hoping the menu of the day would suit us well.

We hung our coats upon arrival and were promptly seated by the window, provided menus, and poured water. I looked over the wine and spirits menus, longing to find a drink that was “different”. One caught my eye quickly, the El Nuevo Old Fashioned – Herradura Reposado Tequila, agave, mole poblano bitters. An old fashioned with tequila sounded interesting enough on its face, so I went with it. She opted for a glass of Pinot Noir Rose – Domaine de Corbillieres, Touraine.

It was strange, but my drink really did have the feeling of an old fashioned and came complete with an orange peel garnish. Not exactly what I expected, but it was great. I took a few sips and poured over the two-sided food menu. The front page consisted of starters and the back had entrees and vegetables to share. There were plenty of options and the descriptions of each item were thorough, so it took some time to scan them all.

My wife beat me to making decisions and fell for the Simmered Beet and Roasted Hokurei Salad – rocket and red Russian kale, seared raddichio, mandarin, spiced cranberry, toasted pistachio, cranberry mandarin vinaigrette – and picked the Atlantic Monkfish Loin – Gulf of Maine, roasted flat fish broth with mushroom and fermented adzuki bean, garlic roasted carolla potatoes and carrots, pickled pepper vinaigrette, leek butter – as her entree. She threw in Aroostook County Garlic Mashed Potatoes and Hard Roasted Carrots with Cider Vinegar Marinated Red Delicious Apple to share with me.

I was thinking about a salad to start, but also gave some consideration to the smelts. For entrees, it was scallops, arctic char, or chicken. Salad won out over a fish app as I chose Warm Roasted Exotic Mushroom and Scarlet Turnip Salad – small kale and spinich, roasted cabbage, bacon, pickled red onion, brown butter, thyme and sherry vinaigrette. My entree would be the Arctic Char Filet – smoky ham hock, simmered marifax beans with bacon, maple and mustard, beet and red onion slaw with tarragon and citrus.

As we were nibbling on bread, our salads arrived looking glorious, hers a little greener than mine. I took a few bites and found it to be light and refreshing. No one part was overly potent. The mushrooms were delicious and buttery and the vinaigrette mild. The bacon added a little strength which was nice, but not required. It didn’t feel like it had to be overwhelmingly powerful. The flavors were smooth and eazy like the perfect jazz quintet, and that was enough.

After the salad was done, our entrees and veggies didn’t take long to make their appearance. Both mains were prepared in the wood oven and mine came in a pan I was warned was “too hot to touch”. My dish was layered with beans underneath, fish above, and then slaw on top. Her potatoes and fish sat side by side in a puddle of broth. It was time to dive in.

The fish was wood-fire delicious, but best delivered with the beans at the bottom. Call it a “Maine thing” if you want, but beans done right – and bacon, maple, mustard is about as bean-right as humanly possible – work with almost anything. The arctic char enveloped the smokey wood goodness and took on added flavor from the beans creating a torrent of tastes that had some snap. The slaw, which I mostly ate on its own, poked at the dish with fresh flavors of slight citrus.

In between bites of fish, I threw down some potatoes and carrots and they were spectacular. The potatoes were creamy and garlicky, both to perfection, the carrots tender and sweet. Both were excellent additions to my hearty fish dish and all the items worked so well together. Eventually I finished my food, eating more than half of the veggies as my wife struggled to finish her meal.

There was some debate about whether or not to order dessert, but reading down the menu we stumbled upon cheesecake after bypassing variations of panna cotta, chocolate cake, and pecan pie. With a wink and a nod, it was agreed upon. We ordered the Apple Crisp Cheesecake – clove caramel sauce, candied pistachios, pomegranate sherbet. She threw in a decaf coffee for insurance.

Our sweet ending was modest in size, but its presentation flamboyant. The small, round cheescake with the crisp top layer was flanked by a perfectly rolled pink sherbet. Both sat on the caramel with the pistachios scattered about like tasty, edible marbles. I gave my wife the eye, knowing I was unable to wait for her to ready her fork and dug in without remorse.

My first bite was good, though perhaps a little heavy on the apple. Luckily, I didn’t stop there and took a second try that had an ample sampling of actual cheesecake. In combination, the crisp/cheesecake combo felt pure. The two, both having achieved greatness on their own, partnered for what I felt was a delightful marriage. Sugary crisp topping, sweet apples, and cheese – the dessert had it all.

It was only right to make sure I next tried the caramel sauce. Caramel is not usually on my list of favorites, but in combination with the cake, it was undoubtedly the best use of it I ever consumed – a natural pairing. The pistachios were marvelous too and the sherbet was tasty, but probably necessary only as a way to cut the sweetness, if you want that sort of thing. We slowly finished the cake, making room one bite at a time as space inside us became more and more limited.

Once we finished the cheesecake, it was time to make our way out. Our meal came to about $153 before tip. They’re not inexpensive by any means, but Fore Street means business when it comes to food. Freshness, seasonality, and methods of preparation all play a critical role in they way they create flavors. And they present a wonderfully diverse menu that offers something for everyone who likes wholesome, real food that will put a smile on your face.

When you walk into Fore Street, you are immediately greeted by the smell of wood smoke, but the smells, colors, flavors, and textures around you will continue to provoke your senses throughout. Even the sounds of the kitchen will add to the experience. For me, this time at Fore Street was even better than the last. The meal was outstanding from cocktail to cake and while the boldest flavors came at the end, the palate throughout the meal painted a beautiful picture one happy, little bite at a time.

Fore Street 288 Fore St.

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Sushi restaurant moves up to the next level with new space

I enjoyed Benkay when I was there last. The food was good, but the physical space wasn’t anything to write home about. For that reason, I was inclined to visit a couple days after they opened their new Middle St. location. Hearing that it was going to be new and nice along with my strong desire to consume some sushi made it an easy decision.

As I approached the restaurant from the outside, I could already tell I would be pleased. The floor-to-ceiling windows made it easy to see inside and it was indeed quite attractive. Upon entering, a statue of a shogun greeted me followed by a waitress who sat us at a table by a window near the bar. We wiped our hands with the warm cloth and peeked at the menus which were beautifully bound and still looked unused on their third day.

Not having been a regular at the prior incarnation, it was difficult to tell if the menu was much different, but I was certainly pleased with the options, which were numerous. I was mostly craving some sushi, though I thought I might want a starter of some sort. My wife vacillated between sushi and a create-your-own-dinner option for $25 and decided to order some tea while sorting it out.

After some thought, I decided on the Seaweed Salad – crunchy mixed seaweed in a lemon sesame dressing – to start. Then I added three orders of sushi to the mix – Garlic Maki Roll – hamachi, garlic; Kappa Maki – cucumber; and Spicy Scallop Maki – scallops broiled with spicy sauce. She went with the create your own dinner once she realized it could include sushi. It automatically came with miso soup, chawanmushi (Japanese style egg custard), and rice (she chose brown). Then she added seaweed salad, shrimp dumplings, chicken teriyaki, and spicy tuna maki.

My seaweed salad and her miso soup came out first and by then, I had worked myself into a frenzy about the greenery, having a seaweed salad craving like never before. I took a bite and it was everything I had hoped for. Sure, seaweed salad is pretty basic and I can’t tell you for sure if it was my craving that made it so good, but the freshness and quality of the dressing certainly didn’t hurt. I squeezed some extra lemon on it in order to make it more acidic. I was feeling a little wild.

The salad went down the hatch quickly and the rest of our food came out soon after. I had a single plate with six rolls each of my three orders and my wife had a round platter loaded with individual bowls of each item she had ordered. I started with the garlic rolls. They were a good combo with the cooked yellowtail and a solid shot of garlic. A little wasabi and soy sauce were perfect additions.

With the first set of rolls done, I moved on to the cucumber which were quite standard, but excellent. After those, I worked on the spicy scallop rolls. Those are always a favorite and they were excellent. The sweet bits of scallop and creamy, spicy sauce were easy to love. A little dab of wasabi made them extra, runny-nose spicy.

As I was winding down with my food, Mrs. Portlandeater offered to let me try a couple bites what was left of hers. Neither of us loved the custard which we were told was absolutely not a dessert. It was too salty and a little thin for me to acknowledge as actual custard. I just couldn’t wrap my head around it as such. The chicken teryaki was unexciting, but tasty enough. I finished the rest of her seaweed, not having had enough of my own.

Once we were done, we settled up with the grand total coming to about $64 including tax and tip. The meal was very good. I was pleased with the sushi and, except for the custard, my wife liked her meal too. It should be noted that while I didn’t order any of the fish specials, there were nine available on the board by the sushi bar, so there’s most definitely no shortage of options for rolls. There’s also a sharp-looking wet bar to sit at and there was a saki flight special while we were there.

Despite the solid food and strong menu, Benkay now has a totally different aura specifically because the inside is much more upscale. It looks beautiful and feels very comfortable because of that. It’s not hard to imagine sitting at either bar and spending some time ordering lots of sushi or maybe a sampling of libations. It would be difficult not to have an enjoyable stay, especially if you want like to sprawl out in a place with some class.

Benkay 16 Middle St.

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