A Conscientious Food Tour in Portland, Maine

Maine Food For Thought at ScalesOn my last day in Portland, Maine, I recognized that I had a problem. The city, which Bon Appetit magazine selected as the Restaurant City of the Year, had an overwhelming number of exceptional eateries. Even if I would select an establishment from Portland’s top ten best eateries—should such an objective list exist—it would still be a lose-lose, for picking one meant leaving two hundred other gourmet restaurants unvisited. The hardships of first-world living.

 

Privileged thinking aside, a solution existed: Maine Food for Thought, a food tour that is completing its inaugural year. The tour featured six of the city’s best kitchens and granted me access to a number of dining rooms that were otherwise closed for lunch.

 

At our first stop, UNION, I spooned up Thai-inspired clam chowder, a delectable spin on a traditional soup that had grown tiresome after two weeks of gluttony in New England. Josh Berry, who was recently named chef of the year by the Maine Restaurant Association, spoke to our group of twelve about his inspiration for the dish (the Tom Ka Gai soup he ate daily in Thailand) and his efforts to source local ingredients. (He has honeybees on the roof of the Press Hotel, where the restaurant is housed, and grows microgreens in the basement.)

 

While most of the chefs spoke fondly of using local ingredients and all appealed to our taste buds, tour guide and co-founder of Maine Food for Thought, Bryce Hach, wasn’t shy about flipping up the curtain on some of the hard truths about food and aspects of the industry we sometimes overlook.

 

Just consider these statistics, which Hach recited as we traveled through Portland: More than 90% of seafood in the United States is imported; 99% of the blueberries picked in Maine are frozen (mostly for shipping purposes); and more than 90% of lobsters escape their traps. All of these 90-something percents add up to a lot of wastful emissions (or a plenitude of crafty crustaceans).

 

Next, we visited EVO Kitchen and Bar, which Hach selected to showcase the sheer creativity on a menu that, in summer, features nearly all Maine ingredients in the restaurant’s Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, regardless of the difference in biomes.

 

Each restaurant visited was, Hach explained, “a chapter that tells about a different dimension of Maine’s food system.” The tour provides a way to tell a story, he added, about food and sustainability that a menu or a restaurant can’t always articulate.

 

So while EVO’s flavorful Mediterranean potato stew—spiced with coriander, cumin, and turmeric; accentuated with a yogurt and a mixed garnish of lemon, cilantro, jalapeno, and scallions—expressed the versatility of the potato, Hach told tales about the crop, its culture, and relevant cuisine.

 

At Solo Italiano, where a cooking show wrapped up and the crew packed the lights, we heard the story of the immigrant: he who works Maine’s rocky farms and toughs out the state’s long winters; she who staffs many of the state’s kitchens. (It’s worth noting, however, that Maine is still one of the least diverse states in the country; in other words, the percentage of white people in Maine is greater than the number of lobsters that escape their traps.) After the stories, we tasted the signature pesto from chef, Paolo Laboa, an Italian immigrant and pesto world champion (a coveted Italian culinary prize, or course. However, it did take his pesto slightly longer—three decades—to earn his mother’s approval. But it earned that, too.)

 

Next on the tour was the seafood house Scales, one of two restaurants in Portland that every website visited and person polled on the streets concluded to be a necessary stop. As lobster boats bobbed in the port outside our window and the mussels bathed in a mustardy broth, Fred Elliot shared his philosophies on food, the sustainable efforts used in farming the Casco Bay mussels on our table, and the origin stories of every local ingredient that complemented the mussels.

 

When the chefs were done filling our maws with delicacies, Hach filled us with knowledge, sharing strategies about farming with predatory insects as opposed to pesticides; discussing the importance of being cognizant of overfishing (which Maine has done better than other New England coastal states, where lobster populations have dwindled); and warning how climate change and ocean acidification will in a not-far-off-future significantly affect the food appearing on our plates.

 

The day ended with a melt-in-your-mouth lobster melt at East Ender and then a wild Maine blueberry custard at Piccolo’s small dining room, prepared by their James Beard-award winning pastry chef. But the true end of the tour were the words we were left with:

 

“Consider what you put on your plate,” Hach said. “Make decisions with your palate, health, and mind.”

 

(The tour, which begins its second season in April, runs until November this year and beyond.)

 

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Posted on by Noah Lederman in I Ate What?

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