Hype is a dangerous thing. Hype can lead to elevated disappointment. And, in the case of my family, it can cause heads to butt and food tantrums to spontaneously occur. Fore Street is probably the most well-known restaurant in a sea of fine establishments in the farm-to-table-loving town of Portland, ME. There is some serious hype here, but it’s backed up by a wealth of accolades, including chef/partner Sam Hayward’s 2004 James Beard Award. With an ever-changing menu of seasonal selections, noteworthy desserts and housemade chocolates, three flavor-making heating elements (wood grill, wood oven and turnspit) and a shed-sized in-house vegetable crisper to boot, Fore Street is a restaurant I have wanted to experience for several years now. I have been hilariously unsuccessful in making this happen.
Attempt #1: On a vacation to Ogunquit over two years ago, my parents and I decided to drive up to Portland for
an eating extravaganza some strolling. We wouldn’t be able to snag a reservation, but we knew that we could stand in line at 5pm and receive a walk-in seating time. I peeked at that night’s menu, and it seemed as if the chef had written it just for me in mind. It was 4:30pm, and Rabelais, the renowned cookbook store, would close at 7pm. Thirty minutes (including walking time) is not enough to browse through the best store in the world — yes, the world. Not only did I not enjoy rushing through Rabelais, but I also arrived (running) back to Fore Street to find a line already snailing around the building. We had eaten a small brunch that day and our voracious alter egos were beginning to rear their ugly heads; we would definitely need to eat on the early side.
The line seemed to move at a snail’s pace, while each happy party left with reservation time in hand, their evil smiles only augmenting the ball that was in my throat. I arrived at the desk, and the hostess offered me an 8pm reservation time in a manner that implied it was a gift from above. My father immediately refused to wait that long. “But it’s Fore Street”, I said, as if I were a spoiled, bratty tween. Let’s just say this wasn’t one of my family’s finest moments.
Attempts two and three were far less dramatic. Reservations were simply not available on the couple of weekends we forecasted we might be able to get to Portland. So, this time, my mom and I planned in advance. We chose a weekend we knew my dad would be on business, and we decided to have a girl’s weekend and leave behind the man who sabotaged our Fore Street feast. Just kidding. Kind of.
Oh, you came here for a review, you say?
You know the hype has gotten to you (or, that you’re just naturally crazy, which is most likely in my case) when you wake up early feeling like a child on Christmas morning on the day of your restaurant reservation. Mom and I enjoyed some shopping and other eats (a blog post to follow), while I secretly tried to figure out a non-surgical way to expand the size of my stomach before dinner.
Fore street was as warm and cozy as I had remembered it to be. The open kitchen is the centerpiece of the dining room, and the chefs exhibit a relaxed energy. Our table was close enough to catch glimpses of the action. The only downfall was the piercing cleave of a chicken or rabbit’s ribcage that seemed to punctuate our every sentence. Pleasant. It was difficult not to fill up on the gorgeously chewy bread served from Standard Bakery as we perused a page-long appetizer menu. We knew we were in for a major mange session and passed on the jonah crabmeat and the offal and charcuterie selection to just split the Roasted Fall Squash Salad with Leek Vinaigrette, which highlighted seasonal produce. Layers of endive and swiss chard were artfully plated with deliciously sweet bites of squash, spiced pecans and seared brussels sprouts with a deep, dark char. This was fresh and beautiful with the slightly bitter greens offsetting the natural sweetness put on display by this season’s bounty.
As I often say, I have a problem with simple everyday decision-making, and it becomes downright unbearable when it comes to food. I had a hankering for a land-dweller and eventually ordered the Grilled Breast and Confit Leg of Duckling, because it would highlight two methods of protein cookery. The breast was perfectly done and succulent with a meaty pink hue, but I would have preferred more caramelization on the fat cap. The confit leg was the richest, most delicious component of the dish –- no surprise there — yet it was not as meltingly tender as some I‘ve had. The pool of duck jus was thin and sweet, the garden carrots rock hard and the beet ginger purée as thin as water with minimal ginger. This was a very one-note dish, as it lacked something to cut the richness of the leg or highlight the flavor of the breast.
The Turnspit Roasted Marinated Organic Chicken at Fore Street sits on the hallowed altar of iconic chicken dishes alongside the Flattened Lemon Chicken with Za’atar at Oleana and the Roast Chicken at Hammersley’s. My mother, as the high priestess of said altar (well, she just really likes chicken), naturally chose it for her dinner. While the skin was beautifully rendered, smoky and caramelized from the chicken’s many turns, the flavor stopped there. Despite being brined, the meat was not very juicy, and it bordered on dry. The wilted greens below had wilted to disintegration and the duck fat fried sourdough cubes were tasty snacks (as Portland knows, everything is better in duckfat. Heyo.), but they did not bring anything to the dish but richness, which it didn’t need.
And then there was a problem. The Garlic Mashed Organic Maine Potatoes were rustic and delicious. Holy butter, were they good. The garlic flavor was sweet but made its presence known, and, although chunky, the mashed potato held the virtues of a good potato purée: an equal butter to potato ratio. Baking it in the wood oven not only gave it a brown top but a crunchy and smoky one, reminiscent of cracklin. It’s a problem, because the mashed potatoes were the best dish of the night.
The Chocolate Stout Cake was petite, layered and pleasant. The stout didn’t come through quite as much as I’d like, but it paired well with the malted chocolate sauce. It was a tad dry but not as much as the chicken. The brown butter boiled icing was not brown and nutty enough to matter, but it reminded me of why I love the silkiness of boiled frosting. And the vanilla bean ice cream was housemade, smooth and potent, set atop pieces of malt candy for the perfect crunch.
Unfortunately, we needed to send back the Pear and Black Mission Fig Crumble with Brown Sugar and Oat Streusel. Despite residing in a small Staub cocotte, it was stone cold. I have a thing about cold crisps and crumbles — yes, one of my many “things”. Our original dessert came back to us with its original scoop of ice cream sitting there like a melting Frosty the Snowman. The goat cheese ice cream, though, provided the perfect tang, but it was still sweet, not savory, and it went so well with the filling that was crisp from the pears but jammy from the fresh figs. The topping had a bit of a flour taste and could have been baked further.
By no means am I going to write off Fore Street. I know people who have had culinary epiphanies there. But I think I was the master of my own disappointment. I had waited for years to visit and convinced myself that Fore Street was untouchable. How could any restaurant live up to such heightened expectations. And was I being too fussy? Fore Street certainly lets the ingredients shine. It does not muddle them with unnecessary flavors. Was I asking for muddling though? I don’t think so. I have the same philosophy but when execution lacks, supporting players are needed. Fore street will be revisited. And I might just bring that party pooper of a father this time. That way, I’ll be able to taste more.