Evans riffs on familiar combinations—say, lamb in mint sauce, with carrots and squash—only in novel forms. In this case, the lamb saddle came with a luscious carrot mousse and a spearmint-zucchini "cake." Both side dishes were like understudies outshining the original cast. Therein lies Evans's talent: his creations seem hypercerebral on paper (it took our waitress 37 seconds to "explain" the duck) but are ultimately about pure flavor. Meanwhile, ingredients that sound extraneous are revealed as essential. Take that duck, for instance—the breast cooked sous-vide, the leg slow-roasted, both tender and moist—paired with golden beets and spiced plums. The fundamentals were excellent. Add the surprising crunch of diced water chestnuts and the complementary bitterness of kola-nut froth, and the dish was transcendent.
I visit Portland several times a year and go to Fore Street whenever I'm in town—not to trace the culinary vanguard but to be sated with honest, earthbound cooking. Over a 10-year run, Fore Street has become Maine's answer to Chez Panisse, with chef Sam Hayward as Alice Waters—champion of local producers, proponent of sustainable fishing and farming, sultan of the greenmarket. For Maine farmers, a namecheck on Fore Street's menu is equivalent to a spot in an Oscar-party gift bag.
Even on weeknights, you might wait an hour for one of Fore Street's copper-topped tables. Faded brick walls, burlap sacks, and unfinished beams set the tone in the dining room, a former garage for oil tankers. The male clientele is clad in regulation New England guy-wear—Top-Siders, Red Sox caps, khaki shorts with belts. (Ahh, my people!) In the open kitchen a dozen cooks, also wearing Sox caps, tend to flame-licked turnspits and stoke a roaring brick oven.
Out of that 900-degree oven come Fore Street's famous roasted mussels, shrouded in steam: juicy, raft-cultured gems from nearby Bangs Island. "We're so spoiled by Maine mussels that we never use anyone else's," Hayward says. "If they're not available, we just take mussels off the menu." Splashed with vermouth and cooked with garlic-and-lemon butter, parsley, and toasted almonds, they're the platonic ideal of shellfish.
Despite Fore Street's proximity to the sea—the misty wharves are visible through the windows—Hayward's menu focuses on meat and fowl. We were wowed by spatchcocked, wood-grilled harlequin quail. Spatchcocked means the bird is butterflied to allow for faster cooking time and moister meat. Dryness was a nonissue, however, since the quail had also been basted in a stock of shiitakes, veal, and duck fat, then finished with I don't want to know how much butter. Bring Lipitor; the result is fabulous and worth the risk.
In Portland's highly democratic dining scene, Erik Desjarlais's cooking can be described as defiantly uncasual. Desjarlais opened Bandol in 2003, when he was just 26. Despite rave reviews, his often brilliant $69 tasting menus—with their predilection for offal—never found a wide audience in Portland. Nor did the hushed, Vivaldian tone of the dining room. Desjarlais abandoned the original space last fall, and at press time planned to reopen at a new location this fall.
At the original Bandol we were knocked out by three—count 'em, three—amuses, including a sublime fried oyster in a cucumber consommé. The pan-roasted sweetbreads were remarkably light; the succulent leg of lamb was matched with a delightful cassoulet of leeks and cranberry beans. But the highlight was Desjarlais's way with the cheese course. Translucent plum slices, like shards of stained glass, complemented a wedge of creamy, mushroomy Constant Bliss from Vermont. A sharp Neal's Yard Cheshire came drizzled with wildflower honey and scattered with diced pear. Even the fig tart was topped with a dollop of chalky-yet-sweet chèvre ice cream.
While seeking a new address for Bandol, Desjarlais opened an informal soup joint called Ladle, confirming a new trend in Portland: name chefs starting casual lunch spots. Sam Hayward gets his ya-ya's out at Scales. And Rob Evans of Hugo's finds his outlet at Duckfat, an all-day eatery that's as homey as Hugo's is refined: bar stools, rose stems in Coke bottles, and a communal Magnetic Poetry board (today's entry: I AM NOT YOUR TROUSERS). The kitchen is staffed by friendly dudes in cargo shorts who crank My Morning Jacket while assembling the city's best sandwiches, including a fall-apart duck-confit panino with black-currant chutney. There are also fries, twice cooked in duck fat and seasoned with a powder of dried capers, onions, parsley, and garlic—umami heaven in a paper cone. And for dessert, a root-beer float made with Duckfat's fizzy concoction of Italian soda water and sassafras. Add two scoops of fragrant vanilla ice cream from Smiling Hill Farm, and presto—a tumblerful of childhood.
Smiling Hill Farm, it turned out, was just a 10-minute drive from downtown Portland. It's been owned by the Knight family since the 1700's, but only recently has its dairy been gaining broader renown. Besides that fantastic ice cream, Danny Meyer now sources Smiling Hill's butter for his restaurant, The Modern, in New York. The farm is also home to one of Maine's top cheese makers, Silvery Moon Creamery.