In anticipation of Restaurant Week, we find a great model
In the next few weeks we should be hearing a lot about a big, bulky stimulus package for eating out in Maine. An impressive group of restaurants, including many of Portland's most celebrated, have signed on to participate in "Restaurant Week" and offer special three-course menus for either $20.09, $30.09, or $40.09 from March 1 to 10. Like the government's stimulus spending, this is a good idea at this particular moment. But just as some of the projects that our government is preparing to fund will go as planned, and others will be wasteful boondoggles, not every restaurant participating in Restaurant Week is going to get the prix-fixe experience right. If they want some hints as to how it should be done, they might visit Blue Spoon beforehand.
VEGAN CROQUETTES: Light and sweet.
The Munjoy Hill restaurant is participating in Restaurant Week, but it is already offering a "tasting menu" of three courses for $25 every night they are open. In delivering this special they accomplish just what this sort of menu is supposed to — reminding spending-wary customers of the particular pleasures of dining at your restaurant. This is less common than you'd think. Fixed-price menus have a spotty history. On one end of the spectrum are expensive tasting menus, where the chef tries to dazzle you with his best stuff. On the cheaper end you often find a bait-and-switch — the special is for the dullest items on the menu and you get tempted to venture over to the regular entrees.
At Blue Spoon the whole menu is available with the special. This means diners can partake of any of Blue Spoon's three particular strengths: regular favorites like roast chicken, grilled steak, and pan-fried trout; a few more interesting experiments that vary week to week; and stronger-than-usual vegetarian and vegan options. They let our party of two substitute a salad for a dessert, so we could try a few starters and split the last course.
The cozy dining room was warm and bustling on a Tuesday night, with a friendly waitstaff who seem very comfortable in their surroundings. Our first courses came with big tufts of fresh greens next to the dark brown circles of a mushroom tart in one case, and seared scallops in the other. The scallops, sitting on top of thick and chewy bacon, went well with the lemony parsley. The mushroom tart gave the impression of an especially good mini-pizza. A generous pile of soft and lovely diced crimini mingled with a creamy white sauce over a simple crust and under a sharp layer of parmesan.
Our salad offered an even more generous helping of mushrooms — in this case an interesting variety from the mushroom-masters at Oyster Creek, where they combine foraging and cultivation. The best was the earthy-sweet hedgehog mushroom, shaped like an ugly fist. The subtle bitter of baby arugula would have worked better with the earthy fungi if the vinaigrette dressing had been a bit less sweet.
The porchetta sounded a little better on the menu than it arrived on the plate, where there was too little of the herb-stuffing to make the dish very interesting. But it was a nice piece of tender pork, and the very creamy polenta cake under it offered a pleasing contrast in textures. The vegan red bean croquettes were more interesting. The chef somehow managed to avoid heaviness, and did not overwhelm the sweetness of the red beans with too much coriander and cumin. A big soft heap of roasted root vegetables underneath was delicious. For dessert we split a dense flan made in the Cuban style with coconut milk.
If there is a problem with the sort of splashy stimulus that both our government and Maine restaurants are about to embark on, its that they can overshadow the good initiatives that are already occurring and will be the backbone of long-term success. So while people should take advantage of Restaurant Week, they should also attend to the ongoing efforts like Blue Spoon's (Hugo's, Cinque Terre, and Emilitsa have similar menus for around $25 or less several nights a week) for the rest of this long Maine winter.
Brian Duff can be reached at email@example.com.
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