James Hayman: I’d never call myself a gourmet. In fact, I dislike the term gourmet altogether. To me it sounds pompous and self-satisfied. It also brings to mind (my mind at least) an unhealthy interest in self-pleasuring (No, not that kind).
Anyway, I spent most of my employed years toiling in the advertising gardens of Madison Avenue back in the eighties and nineties, and back then one of the pleasanter parts of my job was shepherding clients, especially out of town clients, to many of the best restaurants in New York, LA, London and Paris. (Yes, I was actually paid to do this and, unlike a food critic, I wasn’t required to write about it afterward). In New York, our lunch and dinner haunts included classics like Le Bernadin and the Four Seasons as well as such hipper outposts as the Gramercy Tavern and Les Halles in the twenties and, down in Tribeca, Nobu and the Tribeca Grill. The food was usually superb, and the ambience great and the bills always outrageously large. But, of course, they were paid for with the Monopoly money of expense accounts.
After I left the ad biz and moved to Portland, Maine I suffered the mildly traumatic realization that if I wanted a first-class meal in a first-class restaurant, I’d actually have to pay for it myself! I was fresh out of Monopoly money! Quelle horreur!!! At the time, I supposed the flip side of this potential catastrophe was that, in a small city of 65,000 tucked away on the northern New England coast, there couldn’t possibly be that many good places to eat. And if I did manage to find one or two, they couldn’t possibly be that expensive.
Turned out my suppositions were, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, half right and ninety percent wrong.
The half I was right about was that Portland restaurants weren’t that expensive, at least not in comparison to prices in New York or Hollywood.
What I was totally wrong about was that there wouldn’t be that many good places to eat. I quickly discovered that my adopted home town was, as Bon Appetite magazine called it, “The foodiest small town in America,” and just last year the Chicago Tribune decided that Portland was, when it came to good places to eat, “the San Francisco of the East.”
It didn’t take my wife and I long to discover some of the obvious great choices: Street and Company, Emilitsa, Sam Hayward’s Fore Street, Krista Kern Desjarlais’s Bresca and one of my personal favorites, the French bistro on Longfellow Square, Petit Jacqueline.
But it was the number of hidden gems and the rate at which excellent new places open for business that was truly stunning.
Last night, Jeanne and I and a pair of friends discovered yet another one in an uncrowded corner of the Portland peninsula (translation of “uncrowded”: street parking was readily available right across the street.) The place is called Outliers Eatery. It sits at the end of York Street and boasts a terrific view looking down at Portland Harbor, up at the Casco Bay Bridge and, just across the street, at Memorial Harbor Park, a pleasant grassy plain that sweeps from York Street down toward the water below.
Apparently, the menu changes daily and, on some days, features such esoteric joys as crispy pig ears over a wild lettuce and arugula salad; blue cheese custard over a spinach salad or sweet and spicy duck drumettes.
However, I tend to judge the quality of a chef not just by his or her more imaginative creations but also by how well they prepare the simple classics. So I decided to forego the questionable joys of crispy pig’s ears and ordered one of my perennial favorites, roast chicken. In the wrong hands, roast chicken can be dry, tasteless and frankly not worth eating. In the right hands, it can be heavenly. With Outliers’ Chef Jonathan Dexter, I was definitely in the right hands. The chicken was moist, delicious, perfectly sauced in light pan juices and beautifully presented. Our shared dessert, a creamy chocolaty creation, whose name I forget, offered a wonderful taste that was, happily, unforgettable.
And in the end the bill, which was not wildly expensive even by Portland standards, probably wouldn’t have covered the tip at Le Bernadin. For which I was thankful. After all, I wasn’t paying with Monopoly money anymore.