Monday, August 15, 2011

The Good, the Bad and the Muggy

O Hey world. How are you? Welcome to another, slightly overdue installment of the Novice Fork. My B. With work in full swing and a wedding I just attended, I haven’t had much time to sit down and write. But I simply had to annotate some recent restaurants I visited in the past few weeks. Fun stuff right? I though so anyway.

But before we dip into the restaurant judgment pool, I need to ask an important question to all your faithful readers and pit stoppers. What the heck is up with the weather lately? I thought August was supposed to be hot, hot HOT! Not 72 degrees and rainy? And while it may have been hot as hades when I went to both restaurants, two weeks ago, August just hasn’t delivered. I’m kinda disappointed in the lack of “stick to your chair” or “I wanna die” heat that I’ve grown to love. I haven’t been able to fry an egg on the sidewalk in front of my apartment, or boil water left in my car turned oven, and this I find troubling. (Am I alone?) Thus I am titling this post “The Good, The Bad, and the Muggy” because I went to a good restaurant, a poor one, and it used to be hot out and I want it back, dammit!

Ok enough ranting, I’ll still go to the beach even if its overcast and 60, who am I kidding? The tan must live on. So lets start off good shall we?

505 Fore Street
Portland, ME 04101

The Novice Fork Gives this upscale, modern Mexican restaurant
4 Forks for its elegant and minimal décor,
fresh gourmet Mexican food, and great service.

Zapoteca's Mole Poblano Chicken Enchiladas, so good.

When a new restaurant joins the ranks in an already jam packed food city like Portland, it can sometimes become lost to the white noise of all the other options out there. But when one is special, like this place, they rise above the “fluff” and call your attention loud and clear. So on a hot (read muggy) late July night, a friend and I stepped into a new Mexican spot for some food to match the “caliente” day.

The first thing you notice when you enter this space is how minimal and chic it is. Beautiful décor and furniture, elegant tables and linens, even the wineglasses are nice. What gives? Aren’t all Mexican restaurants supposed to be clichéd and kinda corny, complete with bright day glow colors and a birthday sombrero to the lucky guest? No, and what a welcome change.

To match this fresh look is a welcoming and knowledgeable crew, our waitress super friendly and attentive and ready to answer any question my friend and I had for her. Settling on a traditional margarita (a real one with lemon juice not “sour mix” ickkk) and a “flight of salsas” two of which were served hot, we began the meal. These were fantastic, each one different and each one better than the last. The cuisine here is a sort of traditional meets modern Mexican, upscale and never stale or tired. For my main meal, I tried a mole poblano chicken  enchilada with traditional mole sauce (that’s a spicy sauce made with coco) accompanied with rice and refried beans. This was fantastic. My friend got the same meal, but with a cheese sauce instead of mole. Had a bite and same prognosis… amazing.

When the chef came to the table and welcomed me to her new restaurant, I was hooked. This is a great restaurant, one where the customer is valued and the food is top notch. I was so impressed. They naturally have dessert but I was too full to eat another bite, so I passed and will most assuredly be back to have one. So, to summarize, if you eat here you’ll be surprised, pleasantly so, by how good the food and overall experience is. Trust me, it’s worth the trip. Don’t be fooled by imitators in town, this place is the real deal.

And now… the bad. Can you handle it? I’m sorry to do this but…

El Rayo
101 York Street
Portland ME 04101

The Novice Fork gives this Mexican Taqueria 
2 Forks for its fresh authentic food, 
but poor service and overall lacking experience.

El Rayo's sign. Pretty cool branding. 
Now before you, the villagers get your pitchforks and torches out to kill me in my sleep, let me preface this side of the review with a decent food rating for the food here at “charming” El Rayo. I’d say 3.5ish for the cuisine, not challenging to make, but damn good when all you want is a well made burrito. But… where this spot falls very short (we are talking Napoleonic proportions here) is in its service and over effect this has on ones eating experience.

I get its just a taco stand with overpriced drinks and some chips, but why must the diner suffer from lack of attention and overall sense of exasperation the staff here exhibit. I am actually sad I didn’t have a better time here. The colors of the restaurant and the “branding” of the space is cool and hip. They use mismatched linens and bright colors, ball jars as drink glasses and a diner style kitsch is really fun. But the ride stops here.

Like having customers come to support their restaurant is just too much for them. The hostess told us about a 45 minute wait outside (hottest day of the summer so totally understandable), so we went to the “el fresco” bar section of the patio to wait patiently. The dude that served us here, and yes he was a “DUDE” to the highest degree, seemed way to busy bringing overpriced margaritas in way too small glass jars to others to ask if we needed any help at all, and when we finally asked for chips and salsa, he brought some 20 minutes later, without asking if I wanted anything else, like maybe a different salsa or another drink, which I would have happily ordered. So once the hostess “saved us” from this dude, she sat us at a table with people still on it.

Again I have no problem with family style dining or communal tables, like they have at Flatbread, but I do have a problem waiting for this when my friend and I could have sat ourselves, sans useless hostess, with two other diners who I’m sure wouldn’t have minded if wed join.

The joy doesn’t stop here. O no, there’s more. Our waitress was completely distracted by nothing in particular and only came over to our table when she sensed my flagging her down with flare and a foghorn. She didn’t answer any questions without an eye roll so I got the easiest thing on menu. A burrito. This is where the meal finally took an upswing. After all of this shuffling and rigmarole, and with some really tasty fried plantains I had my food and I was a bit happier. Only a bit. We paid, we left, and i forgot about this meal until now... Thanks for bringing it up, geez.

So, so summarize? The food here is good, great at times, but be prepared to feel like something is lacking. And really, after two hours of bull hockey, I should have gone to Chipotle. And that’s the truth. 

So there is it, another double header, stay tuned next time when the Novice Fork tackles the east end haunt the Blue Spoon. Have a great day everyone, stay fresh.