James Hayman: The other night my wife, Jeanne, and I and a few friends had dinner at a small, crowded French bistro we all like on Portland’s Longfellow Square called Petite Jacqueline. What I ordered was nothing fancy. Just a simple roast chicken with mashed potatoes. But both were perfectly prepared and absolutely delicious. As good as any poulet roti I’ve had in the bistros of Paris and happily, I’ve had more than a few. Add to it an excellent and inexpensive Beaujolais and the meal brought to mind yet again that one of the reasons (perhaps the number one reason) I like living in my adopted hometown is the availability of good food and the large number of really first rate and interesting restaurants.
As readers of my thrillers, The Cutting and The Chill of Night, know my on-going hero, Detective Mike McCabe, is, like me, a transplanted New Yorker. While McCabe and I have many things in common, interest in food is not one of them. McCabe is on record as subsisting mostly on a diet of New York Strip Steaks and Macallan 18-year-old single malt Scotch whiskey. In other words, he judges restaurants by the quality of their beef and booze. His cooking talents are limited to calling out for pizza or nuking prepared frozen dinners for himself and his teenaged daughter, Casey. Happily, McCabe’s live-in girlfriend, Kyra, like her creator (me, not God) is an unapologetic foodie. She and I both cook for pleasure and relaxation as well as for the love of good food and wine.
Living in Portland suits us both well. If we feel like cooking, we can choose from an abundance of excellent local seafood, meat and produce available from both small and large retail outlets as well as from the large and active outdoor farmers market that operates two days a week in Monument Square. The square also boasts an indoor public market with a variety of small food outlets. Other of my favorite places to stock up include Harbor Fish at 9 Custom House Wharf, not far from the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal, which is one of the best fish stores I’ve seen anywhere including New York. There is also Standard Bakery on the other side of Commercial Street which, as its name implies, sets a very high standard for fresh bread and baked goods. There’s also Browne Trading which specializes in the best Beluga and smoked salmon.
Retail outlets aside, it’s in the quality and number of restaurants that Portland really shines. When it comes to eating out, I would guess that on a per capita basis there are probably more good restaurants in Portland than in any other city in America. I suppose “per capita” is an important distinction. The population of Portland is only around 65,000. Still, in 2009 it was named the “Foodiest Small Town in America” by Bon Appetit Magazine and in my view things have only gotten better since.
According to the Maine Restaurant Association, Portland is currently home to about 230 restaurants. While two of McCabe and Kyra’s favorite haunts, Arno and Tallulah’s, are figments of my imagination, my personal favorites are all very real. In addition to Petite Jacqueline, they include places like Fore Street, Emilitsa which serves superb Greek food, Grace (which is a converted church—the former alter is now the kitchen and the stain glass windows are still in place), the Blue Spoon on Munjoy Hill, Vignola’s for Sunday brunch, Bresca, Caiola’s, and, for really good and interesting pizza, either Bonobo or Otto’s. All are well worth a visit. Those are only a few of the good ones. I invite any readers who love eating in Portland to add their own favorites to the list
Since this is a crime writers blog and not a restaurant review site, I won’t go into any specfic detail about these or any of the other good places where I’ve eaten in town. I’ll simply mention that for my next book, I’m considering murdering a Portland chef. The motive? Professional jealousy from a New York competitor. The weapon? Poisoned escargots. The give-away? Well, I won’t give it away.