A note for leftover eaters: My pork chop and Sara’s pasta dish (she is not a leftovers person) were just as phenomenal one night later. I was worried when I saw how dry everything had become in the foil container, but I combined the two in a dish, added a little water, and popped it in the oven for 15 minutes. The sauce came back to life with out-of-this-world flavor. And I still have more chop and more pasta for a third night. Oh boy-a.
Day trip to Portland (Maine, not Oregon)
With one last beautiful day before Hurricane Sandy, my friend Sara and I rocketed up to Portland for the day. We put a random address into the GPS and landed ourselves in East Portland, a seemingly quieter section of town. We hunkered up the hill from the waterfront and quickly investigated an easy, light lunch spot as it was already nearing mid-afternoon. Rosemont Market & Bakery looked quaint. We ducked inside and found a high-quality, funky market with a myriad of fresh produce, some I haven’t even seen the likes of. The refrigerators were stocked with locally made sauces, ready-made containers of seasonal vegetable dishes, cheeses, and home-y desserts. The other side of the store was lined with every flour, grain, and seed one could possibly be scouring for, as well as fresh breads and cakes. Get a handmade sandwich to go or load up on your gourds: this is a local market worth the walk up the hill.
We still hadn’t hunkered down for lunch, and we were feeling weak. One friendly Portlander suggested Duck Fat, so we made our way down Congress Street until we hit India. Closer to the water, we stumbled upon Two Fat Cats, a bakery I had read about which is famous for their whoopie pies. Chocolate and Pumpkin flavors were fresh in the case, and homemade blueberry pies lined the racks. It smelled exactly the way a bakery should smell: sweet, doughy, and delicious. But we had to concentrate: we still hadn’t eaten lunch.
Duck Fat is around the corner from Two Fat Cats, and we put our names down for a table, any table, just give us some of those hypnotic-smelling fries. The scent coming out of Duck Fat is intoxicating. No wonder there is a long wait for their famous Belgian fries. We hovered until two outdoor seats became available. Sara got the aforementioned fries. I knew there would be baked goods in my near future and I paced myself with the beet salad. Both excellent choices. Thank you for satisfying our late lunch tummy rumblings, Duck Fat.
We knew this couldn’t be all there is to Portland: we were missing something. Back up the hill to the car, and back down Mission Street. We quickly encountered downtown Portland. So this is where the town is! We parked and didn’t know which little street to turn down first. Portland is funky with a lot of color and character. As soon as we saw the Urban Outfitters, it all made sense. Besides a few chains such as said Urban, it is mostly individual, small, locally-run businesses. What a relief to know that these local stores still exist somewhere, and each with a hanging, wooden sign outside, creatively decorated and enticing. There are plenty of t-shirt and tourist shops, but there are one of-a-kind stores as well. Coastal Maine Popcorn Co. is a cute idea, although most of the popcorn tastes like, well, popcorn, rather than Apple Pie or Wild Cherry. We loved the home furniture and decor store, Simply Home on Market Street. They have another location in Falmouth and just recently opened this Portland studio. It is worth a visit for fun fabrics, furniture, and small decor items and gifts. My friend and I treated ourselves to a few items and delicious Bermuda-scented Archipelago candles. I ran my list of potential dinner options by the sales girl, which included Bar Lola, Emilitsa, and Bresca. She had never heard of Bar Lola, but her face lit up when I mentioned Bresca. We walked around the corner to tiny Bresca on Middle Street, not yet opened, and made a reservation for two at the bar at 5:30. We had 40 minutes to spare, and we knew exactly what we would do with it.
I have a huge sweet tooth. It’s a problem. My sweets standards are very high, since I have spent so much time tasting, traveling, and tasting. I read about Scratch Baking Co before we drove up, and we spent our whole day knowing that we would have to hunt it down at some point. We google mapped our way to Scratch’s neighborhood over in South Portland. We raced in just after 5 and were greeted by extra friendly young girls behind the counter. They were nearing the end of the day, and most of their delicious bounty was gone, eaten, and sold. What was left? Giant cookies. Peanut butter, chocolate chip, double chocolate, ginger spice, oatmeal.. how would we choose? “It’s not possible to sample a piece of one, is it?” I asked, squinting my face to demonstrate my humility. One of the young girls was all for it: she broke off half of a huge cookie just out of the oven. A more than generous sample. My friend and I are not oatmeal cookie people, so when the young girl offered us the oatmeal to try, we were slightly disappointed. Until we ate it. Oh my heaven, we each left with a giant Oatmeal cookie, wishing we took home the whole batch. So thick with an unattainable, balanced chewiness. The texture, the perfectly baked top, the walnut pieces, the yellow and purple raisins, the hint of spice, oats of course… someone please share this recipe. (The young girl also gave me a nibble of the peanut butter cookie, another flavor I am not typically fond of. I must say it was thick and perfectly chewy with tender, half-melted, half-in-tact peanut butter chips… ahoy matey… what a cookie.)
We had to control ourselves. After all, we still had a whole meal ahead of us. We raced back to Bresca just in time for our 5:30 reservation. The first seating was already under way, and the 6 table restaurant was as cozy as can be. Someone had a keen eye for romantic lighting, color, and flower arrangements. Jack Johnson and similarly mellow music was playing at just the right decibel, and autumn sunflowers were displayed around the small, narrow room. The noise level never rose above a hospitable, steady hum. Bresca has achieved an intimacy and coziness factor unrivaled by many, many restaurants. The menu was small but no bigger than it should be for a restaurant of its size. The options were clearly a labor of love. It was the perfect setting, mood, and meal for an eerie October night before a big storm.
Each plate was beautifully and artfully presented, and my eyes followed them out of the kitchen and to the other diners’ tables with excitement and jealousy. The farm-fresh ingredients were celebrated on each dish: their flavors, shapes, and colors were enhanced and combined in a way that demonstrated the chef’s appreciation for their naturalness. The plates themselves were beautiful. Each and every component exemplified the owner’s unassuming tastes and her unabashed love and passion for her small but meaningful contribution to Portland’s restaurant scene, obviously appreciated by diners from near and far. Sara ordered the pasta (shape of the day): caramelized butternut squash, kale, dolce latte gorgonzola, brown butter, and walnuts. I went with the Roast Pork Chop with raddichio, toasted hazelnuts, apple cider, and caramelized onion sauce. They were two of the best dishes I have ever had. Each had a warm, autumnal scent which could have been meals on their own. If my roast pork chop dish were a candle, I would light it in my kitchen every chilly day this winter. The chop was cooked to perfection, none too chewy and not at all fatty. The radicchio was cooked down to the same tenderness as the caramelized onions, and the sauce was so flavorful, so comforting, I couldn’t get enough of it. There were also thinly sliced Granny Smith apples mixed in, and the chop sat on a bed of polenta and mascarpone. The perfect forkful was a piece of the pork, a few caramelized onions, one or two crunchy hazelnuts, and one thin slice of apple, swished around in the sauce and finished off with a dollop of the polenta. Sara’s pasta dish was equally comforting: a blend of spice (was it a dash of cinnamon or nutmeg?) with the tender butternut squash and crunchy walnuts, each bite more decadent and succulent than the last. My only regret at Bresca was not ordering more: the little garden salad was autumn and winter combined on a dish, served with whole roasted carrots gleaming on the beautiful plate in a honey, cumin, and thyme glaze. The shaved brussels sprout salad served with parmesan and toasted walnuts also looked divine. Bresca is a treasure. Everything from the ambience, to the decor, to the warm, home-y feel and the lovingly crafted food is exceptionally well-done.
The next day, I sat down on my couch with the second half of my oatmeal cookie set before me, willing myself to eat it as slowly as possible. I called Scratch Baking Co as soon as I was down to the crumbs, already mourning it’s finality. ‘Do you ever ship cookies?’ I must have sounded like an absolute cookie monster on the phone, congratulating them on converting my friend and I to oatmeal-loving cookie eaters. To think they were just over one dollar each. If they were sold in New York, each cookie would be at least five dollars. A monthly pilgrimage to Portland is now necessary.
For a cozy dinner: Bresca
Bakery of Choice: Scratch Baking Co.
Casual Lunch, Drinks, Insane Belgian Fries: Duck Fat
Wacky Food Gift: Coastal Maine Popcorn
More Elegant Food Gift: Stonewall Kitchen
Home Decor and Gifts: Simply Home
Quick Sandwich, Bread, Produce, and Market Needs: Rosemont Market & Bakery
Blueberry Pie: Two Fat Cats
Wardrobe Staple: Barbour
On my list for next time: