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A postmodern table with warmth Down East

106 High Street, Portland, Maine; (207) 774-1740
Hours: Mon - Thu, 5 to 10 p.m; Fri - Sat, 5 to 11 p.m. Closed Sun
Full bar
Sidewalk-level access
Di, MC, Vi

by Robert Nadeau

Portland, Maine, which used to be just a red-brick seaport on the road to Maine's coastal resort towns, is now a serious tourist stop of its own. It has rebuilt its Old Port area into a nifty shopping district without destroying all the character of its downtown, thus linking the equivalents of Quincy Market, Newbury Street, and Central Square. With its used bookstores, vintage-guitar shops, '50s antiques, and high-quality local crafts, Portland seems to have been much more successful than any of the reviving cities north of Providence at developing a bohemian flavor. Yet nothing seems forced or pretentious. From Boston, Portland is exactly as long a drive as Provincetown (two hours), and a trip to Portland is no longer fodder for the dialect comedy of "Burt 'n' I," because Portland now claims to have two hundred restaurants.

All three I tried on a recent weekend were excellent, but the standout was Katahdin, a New American bistro with a typically Portland combination of sincere food and collectible decor (if the collector had an odd sense of humor). You know how it can be: dice at every table, a collation of bad busts of President Kennedy, real wood trim mixed with faux-wood counters, motley chandeliers, a giraffe sculpture in wood, a mermaid sculpture in metal, a campy fish lamp, old quilts, new murals, new oil paintings, a collection of mortars and pestles, houseplants galore (remember fern bars?), a ghostly funhouse figure outside a gable window. Great stuff must have been plenty cheap in Portland not that long ago, if you had a certain sensibility. Yet if this restaurant were in Boston, the food alone would immediately put it in the company of the top neighborhood bistros such as Union Square Bistro or Claremont Café or Black Crow Caffè.

Katahdin does not take reservations, but we came late and had only a short wait, which we spent with nicely mixed drinks at the small bar. About the only weak item at the bar -- excellent, authentically sour margaritas were a standout -- was a bottle of Katahdin stout, a local product but flat as a crab cake in the bottle I had.

We skipped appetizers despite the lurid description of Linda's Famous Baked Crab (seven husbands wooed with this recipe). After some heavy, buttery biscuits and a round of salads with a very impressive creamy pesto dressing, we moved directly into a dinner order of crab cakes ($12.95). Although the rest of the country thinks Mainers eat lobsters three times a day, there is an established local preference for the cheaper, tastier by-catch of deep-water crabs. The classic Maine crab cake is meatier and more naturally flavored than its Maryland cousin, and Katahdin makes no attempt to get playful -- it just serves up two enormous crab cakes with grilled plum tomatoes and a slightly rubbery rice pilaf, and an interesting purée of what looks like beets and tastes like rutabaga.

Another local seafood, grilled scallops ($13.95) were full-flavored sea scallops with just-browned caps in a powerful lemon sauce, tossed with pepper, tomatoes, and mushrooms. This is good eating, not classic cuisine, except for the scallops themselves, which are rather difficult to cook this precisely.

On the artier side, an bowl of wild-mushroom ravioli ($9.95) had a stuffing strongly redolent of dried porcini, and a broth highly reinforced by the bittersweet flavors of roasted garlic. For comfort food, the blue-plate special ($9.95) was an immense hunk of well-spiced meatloaf, a Maine mountain of real mashed potatoes, sautéed zucchini, and the red purée. (This dish also included a cup of homemade tomato-onion soup.)

Desserts are important, and chocolate is involved. Something called a chocolate mountain ($4.50) has been an award-winner three years running at the local AIDS benefit, and rightly so. It's a brownie, a mousse, chocolate sauce, and some whipped cream, and it works because all the components are flavored distinctively. The mousse is laced with cinnamon and quite sweet. The brownie is full of walnuts and thus subtly bitter. The sauce, dark and powerful chocolate, makes the other components sit up and pay attention. Lots of restaurants glop together different chocolate things and give the dish a funny name, but this chocolate mountain is worthy of careful study.

For a chocolate dessert with only two kinds of texture, there is a pudding cake ($3.75). I love chocolate pudding cake, which is usually the only way a grown-up can order hot chocolate pudding in this cruel world. The version at Katahdin is a knowing one -- mostly pudding, not so much cake. Maple ice cream ($3) is good, sticky, richly flavored, and obviously homemade.

Combining so many sources and flavorings on one table is postmodern, but it reminds you that postmodernism can be warm and loving. Yankees and tourists and ethnics, sometime carpenters and lifetime carpenters, fine crafters and yuppie buyers of fine crafts -- all can smile warmly over such a table. Certainly this ethnic Yankee tourist up from Boston was smiling, and taking notes.

If you try a weekend in Portland, I can also recommend lunch at the Seaman's Club in Oldport (375 Fore Street), with a view of the harbor from many tables, hearty sandwiches, a number of turkey-based specialties, and Indian pudding gussied up with raisins, strawberries, and whipped cream. You have been both advised and warned.

And we had a splendid brunch up the hill at Bella Bella (686 Congress Street), which is usually an authentic trattoria but loosens up on Sunday mornings with an outstanding vegetarian hash as well as frittatas and muffins and such.

Tourist Portland is visibly lily-white, but the city as a whole has growing Asian and Latino immigrant groups. Mine was a short tourist visit, and didn't include the many import shops or likelier restaurants -- I didn't drive up from Boston to have a Thai or Mexican meal. But it will be interesting to see if Portland can bring non-whites to both sides of the table as smoothly as it has brought together all the ages and classes of merchants and customers so far.


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