Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Long and Foodie Road, Part I

Hello Gang! Wow, where have I been? Sorry if you feel I’ve neglected you, but life has a tendency to run away with your time and energy. Both of which I have exhausted over the past few weeks. Anyho.. in our time apart, I have been to several different restaurants so that only means good food news for you, the reader. I’m trying to figure out how to best detail these recent adventures and I think we will break it down again into parts. Hooray! Also, why is it so cold out? Just throwing that out there, in case you have an answer as to why is is necessary for it to be -15 out on any given evening. (The answer is of course that it isn't necessary, so who can we fire about this?)

Additionally, I’ve decided to change up our format a bit and put the rating and name of the restaurant in a small space at the top of each review. That way, you get the quick and dirty review on the go, but one can read about the fuller experience below it. Let see how it goes! (I'm always open to suggestions.)

Today we are highlighting…
Hacienda Del Patron

838 Lisbon Street
Lewiston, ME 04240

The Novice Fork gives this place
4 Forks for swift service,
Authentic Mexican food, and cheep prices

So, to begin this installment, we must travel to Lewiston, Maine and some damn good Mexican food! (Shocker, but I’m telling you this place is authentic!) To set the stage for Hacienda Del Patron, one must imagine a warm breeze, jalapeno peppers, and telenovelas and then some of the best Mexican cuisine this side of, well Mexico. I know those first three things are clichéd, but that’s exactly what you get when you come here. (For better, not for worse, especially when the weather in Maine dips below 0 degrees) It feels like you’ve gone on a weekend trip to Mexico.

Their Sign, so colorful!

The service is very fast here, and granted my friend and I showed up on a Thursday at 3 pm, the place was completely dead. This was fine, because we were very hungry and needed food fast and it was nice to have a personal dining experience. They were playing great music, all in Spanish, and watching Spanish television, all adding to the “vacation vibe.” The atmosphere here isn’t awful, but it’s the type of big box restaurant that was once the Mexican chain Margaritas, so don’t expect an amazing dinning room, nor amazingly fresh ideas of what a Mexican restaurant should look like. (But again, there is comfort in the familiar right?)

Now, the menu is large and traditional, as when you think of Mexican food, at least American Mexican, the menu lines right up. But the true test of the menu is its freshness and flavor profiles. The salsa tastes like it was just made (and it was), the beans hot and savory, and the ranchero sauce so good you want to drink it. I got the Burrito Deluxe, big surprise (anyone who knows me can say I’m a sucker for a good burrito) and gorged myself on the freshly fried chips and salsa.  My friend got a few hard shell beef tacos, topped with amazing Queso Fresco, my mouth is watering again just thinking about it. (I need a moment). All this, and two Spanish sodas, for 16 dollars? Yes sir, it happened and I’m happy about it.

So to sum up, the food here is authentic, delicious, and inexpensive. So these three things are good. And should you find yourself in Lewiston, ME, go to this little Mexican restaurant, you won’t be disappointed. I will give you 4 Forks, Hacienda Del Patron, because you impressed me. (Not entirely easy to do).

So… Words for the day? Surely…

As the temperature plummets and you need an escape from a marathon of Top Chef All-Stars, (or Tabitha’s Salon Takeover), don your long johns, bean boots, and scarves and go out to eat. A few Coronas and some good food will surely keep you warm, at least temporarily, and you won’t develop that sallow faced, red eyed look so prevalent with Bravo TV marathons and too many games of Parcheesi. Go be social, and eat good Mexican food! Over and out.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

From Walter’s, With Love

Well hello there everyone. How is 2011 treating you? I’m doing dandy, thanks for asking! And isn’t winter just beautiful? I love snow, its great.

Can you detect a note of sarcasm in my voice? You can? Great, because today, as I sit and start to write this latest review, the sky has opened up and chose this day to make the northeast its own personal snow cone machine. FML. I had things to do today, people to see, errands to run. But I digress, I suppose the frosted gridlock holding Maine captive is useful for staying in and writing restaurant reviews. So this is what I will do, because it’s my duty to the public and to my severe boredom. (God help me).

And so we start the latest installment of The Novice Fork. Giddy up! This past Saturday evening I did something I haven’t done in a long time. (Or at least it feels that way). I went out with my parents for family dinner! Decked out in our Sunday best and armed with a large gift card to Walter’s,, we were excited to try a restaurant we used to love in its old location on Exchange Street, now a street over on Union Street in Portland’s Old Port.

Walter’s was amazing! I say this upfront because you may not want to read the entire clump of flattering sentences I’ll be writing after this point. Let this be a fair warning…

Now, the most amazing thing about the “new Walter’s” is its improved dining space and overall appearance. Larger, newer and lusher, the new environment means business. With warm wood tones, comfy chairs, a polished and loaded bar, and many other impressive decorative and architectural details, it is evident that no expense was spared when crafting the space, an intimate but grownup restaurant where their stellar food is complimented by its surroundings.

The outside of Walter's, love the sign!

This is a great date spot, so naturally I was with my parents, (massive eye roll) but their company was nice nonetheless. Since we made reservations and arrived promptly at 5 when their dinner service starts, seating took seconds and the service is unaffected, brief and kind, all receding to the background allowing the patron to enjoy the food and atmosphere.

The food here is great. A departure from the quirky but good menu from the days of Walter’s past, the food has grown up too. Everything just feels more sophisticated, and more inventive with influences from Asia, Mexico and Italy. Because of this, there is a gourmet flavor for everyone. Also, if you go to their website, you see how extensive their wine list is, even including the now trendy sparkling wines. To start the meal, my Mom ordered thePears” or an Arugula, white port poached pears, spiced cashews and ricotta salata in a poppy seed clover honey dressing. Perfect. I got the “Caesar Hay Stack,” or Caesar salad with roasted garlic lemon dressing, roasted bell peppers, croutons, reggiano. This was amazing and too small (sign of an upscale restaurant?) My Dad went without a salad and split an order of Crispy Asian Raviolis, lemongrass chicken, spinach, ginger’d sweet Chile butter. These were very good too. (Sensing a theme?)

If the salads here were any indication of the great food to come, we were in luck. For our entrees, I ordered the Pumpkin Gnocchi served with local exotic mushrooms fresh sage, Parmesan, walnuts, touch of cream. These little Gnocchi were so tender and light they actually melted in my mouth. No joke. In a different direction, my Mom ordered the Sea Scallops with fregula, grape tomato and spinach, butternut squash puree, and a toasted pepita pesto. These were excellent to. And my Dad? The meat and potatoes guy got the Steak Frites, grilled cocoa nib spice rubbed ribeye, roast shallot demi glaze, hand cut frites, with chipotle ketchup. Cooked perfectly.

Ok 2 for 2. But what about desserts? Well they have them, and they were all exceptional. I got a trio of ice cream, gelato and sorbetto, in caramel, peanut butter and dolce de leche flavors respectively. Mom? She had the Chocolate Souffle Torte, amazing. And Dad? He devoured the Pumpkin Ginger Crème Caramel creme caramel with candied ginger and spiced pumpkin with a mini cinnamon donut. Ok ok, we get it, 3 for 3.

Man this restaurant is good. The entire experience was well run, pleasurable, and the food was superb. And since we have paid special attention to numbers in this review, two more must be stated here. The bill, despite the amount of food we got, wasn’t ridiculous. (You get what you pay for). I’ll let you do your own math after checking out their website. Just bring the amount you think you will need, double that number, and then walk away with a little change left over for a cocktail somewhere. The rating? Drum roll please… we have our first successful 5 Fork Restaurant!

It is because the menu is small, well chosen, and gourmet. The atmosphere is sexy, fresh and laid back, the service is gracious, well timed and attentive and the food tastes so good it is one of the best meals I’ve had in Portland in recent memory.

Thank you Walter’s, you’ve grown up into quite the restaurant. And if it happens to snow while I'm out in Portland, I won't hesitate to go to Walter's, pull up a chair next to the very large front windows overlooking Union Street, and watch the snowfall, savoring the great food that much more. Will I find you there?

Now what? Perhaps a words for the day? In a Portland Minute!

Good restaurants are often like good friends, or for that matter, relationships. Sometimes they are intact, thriving and fun, other times they leave for a while or even leave you hurt. But the truly good ones will always be in your mind. So go to your favorite place and treat your time together with care. It could leave you one day and you'll will wish you had had more time. Over and out.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Port City New Year, With Dessert

Wow, hello everyone! Its 2011 and I can’t believe it. How did you celebrate the big night? I was in Portland’s Old Port and it was packed! Lines everywhere, bumped by a guy holding a Heineken at every turn (my worst nightmare), and cover charges at places that are usually free (o the humanity!) Let’s just say it’s a holiday that tries very hard to be a blast but often comes up short. I’m over it. But, no matter where I was December 31st, I was always with friends, and that’s what matters. I hope you all can say the same.

Anyway, welcome to the first review on 2011!

And to kick off my January 2011 right (with my stomach, naturally) I ventured to Portland again on New Year’s Day. After meeting up with a date for a coffee I, needing some decompressing after the New Years cluster fudge, suggested we tackle a restaurant that was much hyped a few years ago and I haven’t been to since its toddler years, Vignola. And so it begins.

Vignola,, is the “younger sister” restaurant to fantastic Cinque Terre, about three doors down from each other. Vignola is the more approachable and affordable option of the two, with a pizza, cheese and appetizer focus. The space is great, and the outside of the restaurant is probably the most beautiful part. Covered in ivy in the summer, and even beautiful in the winter with its dark green woodwork, the place looks impressive from the outside.

The outside of Vignola, promising right?

Once you get in, the good vibes continue, with exposed brick, light fixtures made out of wine bottles, and room length banquettes, the effect is hip and laid back. One side note to the décor is that the tables are slam packed in the somewhat small restaurant, so if you enjoy hearing people break up or talk about what babysitter to go with (both conversations I heard last night) then god speed. But I digress, on to the food.

I started the meal with a couple oysters, which were the best thing I ate during the dinner; light, sweet, and dressed in festive Posecco, yum! Then I ordered the Beet Carpaccio which Grandview farm beets, local greens, herb vinaigrette, farm apples and this was pretty good too, but not amazing. My friend ordered the Lattuga, or a type of modified Caesar, with bibb lettuce, creamy garlic dressing, focaccia croutons, shaved pecorino cheese. It was good, but the lettuce was a bit wilted, too bad. Then we both ordered individual pizzas, my friend cheese and me a pepper with basil. Both were ok, but I wasn’t wild about the dough nor the pizza’s appearance, kind of heat-lamp warmed looking (know what I mean?)

The overall effect of the menu is that it seems to exist only to support their wonderful wine selection, a type of specialized bar menu where an entire page is devoted to cheese. (Something we should have ordered, after reflection).

All told, the meal was a bit of a bummer, mostly because I kept wishing that I was at Cinque Terre. This could say it all about the little sister, Vignola. Also, interestingly, their online menu isn’t up to date, and I couldn’t find the pizza I had last night online. (Red flag?)

Is there something I forgot? O, right, the service. Well, in all due respect to the servers here, they are friendly, and the hostess was very sweet, but our waiter could have passed for one of the guys, a mere 24 hours before that kept bumping into me holding that ever present Heineken… yep, I said it. This isn’t Cinque Terre for many reasons I guess.

So, rating time? Yes. This is upright a 3 Fork place. The food is alright, and better than at restaurants by the mall or even some other Italian places in Portland. But, if you want some wine and cheese, and some good oysters, then come here, it’s really more of a bar anyway. But I have my own favorite restaurants and Vignola isn’t one.

To clean my palate a bit, my date and I walked around the Old Port before walking down Portland’s Warf Street and settling on dessert at Havana South,, the companion to Havana in Bar Harbor, ME. (Or as it should be known, the place where President Obama dined at when he vacationed here)
Havana South, in contrast to Vignola, is very new, very hot, and very good restaurant, with a full menu of American cuisine with a Latin splash, and a delish dessert offering that makes mediocre Italian a distant memory. The space is beautiful, if a touch too big for the amount of business they get, and the bar is very lush with dark wood and more of a stylish crowd around it than often elsewhere in Portland. Also, from previous visits, I know it has the best Mojito I’ve had in Maine, or on the east coast for that matter.

We were sat right away, and I even saw a friend there celebrating her birthday, so this was better than discussions of breaking up or baby sitters (obviously). For dessert I had the Fired Ice Cream over a dense and complex brownie, and my date had the Lemon Tart with sugared lemons and a sugared mint leaf as garnish. How fancy! The restaurant was simply better than the one we came from; much better lighting, better service, and even better water (what?), all of which combine to cap off the night on a sweet and successful note. Thank god.

The Lemon Tart, so good (look at the sugared mint leaves)

Rating for Havana South? Well I can only rate the dessert, and what I had was 4 Forks no doubt, and the lemon tart? 5 Forks, the first 5 Fork I’ve given, because the tart was just that good, perfect really. What about the overall experience? A solid 4 Forks again, because it has a lot to offer, and you’ll understand what I mean when you go there.

Words for the day? Yes please!

Bring it on 2011! May you bring good meals and even better memories. Also, may you hopefully jobs for all my unemployed friends. Maybe if everyone becomes gainfully employed, I will be treated to even more dinners out? Wishful thinking I suppose. But hey, dream big right?