The Grill Room

It’s never easy to please a crowd, especially when they’re family. Malcolm’s sister and her BF are visiting from L.A., and we’ve been eating seafood every few hours for the last four days. It has been decadent and delicious and occasionally outstanding. The dilly haddock chowder at J’s Oyster; sweet fried scallops at Dimillo’s; a superstuffed lobster roll from Patti’s Seafood take out shack in Edgecomb. These morsels were divine. Get down and lick something good. We went up to Rockland for the Lobster Festival, where we sat with the masses under striped tents dipping and dripping in butter. Our dinner at the Boat House there was terrible with sluggish steamers and tepid chowder, but at least the view is amazing. Out and about around town I had two bowls of very respectable mussels (though not as nice as those at 555) in savory broth with lots of crusty bread for sopping up the sweetness. We shared dozens of Pemaquid oysters, all salty and briny, that need little else but a bit of lemon and maybe a smear of horseradish. After supping on fruits of the sea all the long weekend, last night everyone was ready for meat. We also wanted to spend a little less and accommodate the needs and desires of five incorrigible individuals. Using the handy dandy Eat Maine guide I decided on going to The Grill Room. I called at 6:27 and was told we could be seated only outside, only if we hurried. We jumped in the Jeep and drove fleetly to Exchange Street.

We were in time, and hurried through the cool and crowded dining room, where I wish to return for a drink and snack some late fall afternoon, it was so cozy inside. Outside on the little patio, adjacent to a park where derelict children congregate, we enjoyed each others company and some of what was served. The menu is extensive, but manageable and well organized, in logical columns and groupings. Specials should not be ignored. The cheese board was simple but fulfilling, enhanced by honeycomb and quince paste. I found the thin crisps a little oily but fresh baked foccaccia was soft yet toothsome, and I could have gladly taken down the loaf in its entirety, with olive oil and sea salt sprinkled on top. My sister-in-law ordered a delightful tuna in ponzu sauce, molded with avocado and other harmonious flavors. It was palate-cleansing, aperitiffy food, something to savor but not devour. Devouring happened after appetizers. I chose, from the a la carte part of the menu, hanger steak with a side of truffled creamed spinach. Served in a hot crock, the spinach was exactly what you want a side dish to be, rich and almost unctuous. My steak was overdone, though well-seasoned. Our very patient waitress expressly stated that their medium rare boasts a cool pink center, which I wanted but did not receive. She also recommended the Bearnaise sauce – I believe she used the phrase “drink with a straw” – an endorsement I do not take lightly. I thought it added little to the dish. Overall I was contented, which is more than I can say for some of my companions.

Malcolm debated between burger and duck and chose the latter, unhappily. He also went the way of choose-your-own-meaty-adventure, adding grilled asparagus and duck fat fried potatoes. He tells me the potatoes were thick and crispy and that he enjoyed them, though without much superlative, which means they were nothing special, I am sorry to report. And his duck was overcooked. Not at all delicious.

We’re in agreement that the quality was closer to a chain steakhouse than gastro dining in a burgeoning food town. Someone else in our party ordered, as his entree, the “fried shrimp bang bang,” which had a creamy snap; I realize now I don’t know if that’s a positive attribute. Again it seemed more TGI Friday’s than classic fare. But because I enjoy a kicky shrimp I might be inclined to try that one again.

Certainly there were other items that intrigued. The warm ricotta appetizer and bacon and egg salad could be worth revisiting. It was with a sad sigh I exited, stuffed and unsatisfied. It wasn’t cheap either. Two rounds of cocktails did augment the bill, but still. I must say, I was disappointed. The chef, Harding Lee Smith, seems very pleased with himself, plastered all over his restaurants websites. I hope last night’s dinner would not be considered up to his standards, as our group concensus was that our experience at The Grill Room deserved a solid 7.

When family is visiting, you want to show off what is best about your town, to validate your life and make loved ones happy with food and drink. That objective was accomplished many times over, as we nibbled on shellfish and other oceanic offerings up and down Maine’s coast. I only wish we had made a wiser choice for our last dinner together.

Photo: johnny neutron

Noodles, Here and Elsewhere

Many years ago, when the edges of Union Square were still ragged with homeless kids and civil disobedience, there was a cold corner of extant Communism where we sought refuge from the world outside; this place was called Republic. This was where we met after work and where we went for noodles. On the day of the blackout, after a subterranean march with my subway mates to Astor Place, I hiked to Union Square and waited for Malcolm, whom I never did find (because he was trapped in an elevator), but I did encounter a few aquaintances and made friends from strangers on that hot, lingering afternoon. It is a nexus where things seemed a little brighter in the big city all alone, though I don’t know why. When in doubt on a brisk fall day I hurried toward Republic.

I was ruminating on their noodles last night, after a somewhat disappointing experience at Pom’s Thai Restaurant, wondering just what made them so amazing. Certainly, there is comfort in the eternal bowl of broth and carbohydrates. Certainly, there is healing. Spicy Coconut Chicken was my go-to order and I was never disappointed in its warmth or flavor. The atmosphere was reminiscent of a gulag cafeteria, but with meaner matrons. There was a dun-colored din hovering over communal tables and Mao posters flanking the walls. There was absolutely nothing remotely cozy about the space and yet it was infinitely welcoming. The chairs and bar metallic as the metronomic beating heart of a half -sentient robot from the not too distant future. But I loved it.

I will not remember nearly as fondly my noodle dish last night from Pom’s. On our first visit, while basking in the reflected glow of Malcolm’s whorehouse heat, I muddled through a weak Tom Kha Gai and a remarkably sober drunken noodle. It wasn’t bad Thai food. I had truly, deeply bad Thai food in Rockland last January. There the soup was sewery and the curry rank. This was merely mediocre. And I was happy to go back to Thai Taste after an Old School evening of errands in South Portland, to make Malcolm happy and to try again to navigate the extensive menu and emerge victorious. My plan of attack was based on the noodle theory. The noodle theory clearly states that everything is better when drowned in soup, when slurped from a deeply concave spoon. It may have been disproven.

I selected egg noodles, crispy duck, five spice broth (medium) without peanuts. The broth was the watery link, and pulled down the other elements with it to a shallow grave. I will say that it was faintly aromatic with chopped cilantro and parsley and every other ladle was almost nearly delicious. But there were also odd salty, dishwater tastes that just weren’t, well, good. After a few failed attempts to savor the dish as a whole, I resorted to twisting up the noodles and crunching on the duck sans broth. Those other elements were satisfying and rich. Bloated with regret like a senator at Scores, I drove home in the drizzle, dreaming of other bowls in distant cities. I thought about Republic and all it represented, as I exhort all of you to Think Noodles.

Photo: disneymike

Pom’s Thai Restaurant: Should’ve Skipped Seconds

When we move to a new place, one of the first things we do is try and get our source for decent Thai food locked down. Without a Thai place, where do you go when you’ve been mattress shopping all night, and don’t have the ability to cook a meal, or even dial a phone to order a pizza? Based on the favorable reviews we read in the Portland Phoenix and in several other local food blogs, the first place we tried was Pom’s Thai Restaurant. Because of where we were shopping, we chose the South Portland location, as opposed to the sister restaurant, Pom’s Thai Taste on Congress Street.

The first thing that strikes you about Pom’s Thai Restaurant is that it is a little short on atmosphere. Forgoing Thai ambiance in favor of weirdly-modern Ikea pendant lighting and a certain “mini mall dentist” drop-ceiling vibe, Pom’s is whisper-quiet. Even with several other tables of customers, the room is sufficiently silent to make any of the mixed group of diners afraid to speak above a whisper. I’m not immediately turned off, though, by such a lack of attention to atmosphere in either Thai or Indian restaurants, especially when the food is amazing.

We have eaten at this restaurant twice since arriving, and each time, I ordered one of my favorites: Yellow curry with potatoes, snow peas, pineapple, onions, tomatoes, and crispy duck. I should correct that; the first time I ordered this dish at Pom’s, it was instantly given “all-time favorite” status. I have spent plenty of time dancing with chicken curries, but the upgrade to crispy fried duck, on our first trip, was a revelation. This dish, as I received it the first time, was one of the best curries I have ever had. Each component of the dish was outstanding entirely on its own, and each vegetable was cooked perfectly. The snow peas and the potatoes, in particular, were like oversaturated, cartoon versions of themselves; storybook examples of the way you expect these vegetables to taste when they are prepared perfectly. In concert with the perfectly deep-fried duck breast, fanned in the bowl, this dish left ordinary curry dishes behind in its wake.

The heat mounted as I worked my way through the bowl, sweating, crazed like a 1950’s sailor on shore leave in a ladyboy whorehouse. I wanted to try each vegetable combined with every other, I wanted the crispy end piece of the duck breast combined with a chunk of hot pineapple, I wanted to know what eating only the snowpeas tasted like, I wanted to mop my brow and greedily tilt the whole bowl down my throat. At $16.95, I hadn’t just had dinner: I’d had a whole experience, and every day, I waited until I could go back.

It was with a giddy excitement, then, that I sat down at Pom’s Thai Restaurant again, cold Singha in glass, ready to do it all again. I ordered the yellow curry with crispy duck, as is my tendency when I find a dish I really love. But, but…what was this? It looked the same, but it…wasn’t. The tomatoes, previously so bright and bursty, now sat as sad little hard beige wedges of flavorlessness. The potatoes were undercooked and precise enough in their squareness to make me wonder if they hadn’t arrived pre-cubed. The duck was cooked as wonderfully as it had been the previous night, but instead of being artfully fanned atop the curry as a kind of delicious ribbon on a spicy present, it was all kind of mixed together, which took a lot of its crispiness away. The curry sauce, on its own, had the same intense depth of flavor that I remembered from my previous trip, but something was just…off. It wasn’t BAD Thai food; far from it. It wasn’t the kind of food that you write poetry about, though, or even the kind of food that you try and clumsily craft a whorehouse metaphor from.

If I had to guess, I would suggest that the dish hadn’t been cooked together to allow for cohesion; that instead, each individual element was spooned into a bowl, and then a ladle of curry sauce poured on top. It’s not necesarily the wrong way to prepare such a dish, but it does make it feel a little incomplete, and the ingredients seem a little less connected.

Our second experience at Pom’s certainly wasn’t enough to keep us from returning. It’s just disappointing to go from such a mind blowingly-fantastic meal to such a “meh” one. Instead of returning for a third helping of yellow curry with crispy duck at Pom’s Thai Restaurant, we may now be tempted to branch out and try someplace else. And maybe that’s as it should be.

Lost in the Supermarket

It’s dizzying, the display of depth and breadth and prosperity proffered at the supermarket. Grocery shopping has long been an activity we love. In college we would weave our way through the snarl of ghetto to get to the Stop & Shop on Dixwell Avenue, where we waded up and down every aisle, pointing out the ridiculous, the delicious, the processed and overpriced. We’d end up with a cart full of garbage food and laugh all the way back to our dorm rooms. In Brooklyn we were suffocating at the skanky C-Town and other local markets that were anything but super, so we mostly Korean-deli scavenged, living on wasabi peas and tall cans of Coors light. We were lucky enough to live mere blocks from Sahadi’s, a shrine to everything good, bad and decadent about Cobble Hill. These were the days before Trader Joe’s and Fairway arrived in the neighborhood. How did any of us survive?

I should lie and tell you in Mexico I strictly shopped for produce at colorful mercados and bought fish directly from the boats that trawled the Gulf in front of our house. But those untruths would only estrange me from you. The reality is that we bought most of our provisions from WalMart, though we frequented other chains such as Comercial Mexicana and Chedraui, which really puts the “gross” in grocery shopping. Meat was often exposed on ice and veggies looked like they’d been dragged through the mud at Bodega Aurera, the closest store to our little beach town. I went to the local, little market almost every day and would come home with the most fantastic mango or a honey pineappple, the smaller, sweeter cousin of the Dole fruit you know. I loved the women there and I hate that we went so often to WalMart in its many incarnations, but living abroad for so long, sometimes you just want a Triscuit.

It was our ardent desire for variety and freshness that compelled us back to the States; if we tell you it was about weather or family, we’re fibbing. We wanted to go food shopping properly, with a wonky-wheeled cart and guilt about forgetting canvas bags. Farmer’s markets are pure joy and I have long patronized co-ops and other lovely halls of sanctimony for the best seasonal etcetera. But as a suburban girl who saw her hometown drive-in razed to make way for a Super Stop & Shop, who worked as a cashier at Shaw’s for at least six weeks in high school, and who just returned from a foreign land of the opposite of excess, I am relishing the bounty of Hannaford, a very good store seven minutes from our apartment. Whole Foods is Bobo perfection, but it’s not for everyday. And since we’ve been subsisting on sandwiches and dinners out a trip to the market Monday morning was in order.

At first it was overwheleming and I definitely experienced culture shock. The options are incredible. So many kinds of everything. I had no idea where to begin. There are trees in the produce department and a tank of live lobster at the fish counter. There are magazines and maps and sushi and soup. Every passing fancy I craved while we were gone. And more. So much marvelous beer and wine: local, imported, whimsical well-crafted stuff. But that’s a potent potable post for another time. I’m feeling all about food today, a bottomless pit, raiding the fridge while I work and deciding what I will buy again next week. We’ve concluded that we will try it all eventually, and are taking our time enjoying old favorites while choosing pleasing products that are new to us here in Portland. This is a partial grocery list written by someone who is clearly gleeful and reckless and a total glutton:

  • 1. 41 lb cherries
  • 1 whole coconut
  • baby portabella mushrooms
  • Locally Known spinach
  • angus rib eye steak, butcher paper wrapped
  • honey cured ham – on sale!
  • organic chicken thighs – know why?
  • swiss cheese, sliced lengthwise
  • mozzarella pearls
  • deli cut pork tenderloin, see here
  • Heluva Good horseradish
  • a 25.4 oz bottle of Duvel
  • Blue Diamond wasabi soy almonds (these are my new! favorite! snack!)
  • Smiling Hill 2% milk in a glass bottle
  • Orville Redenbacher popcorn
  • Jameson scotch
  • Carr’s rosemary crackers, the world’s most delightful biscuit
  • Fage 2% honey yogurt
  • organic cumin – to be returned
  • When Pigs Fly New York Rye
  • Pinot Evil wine

What does your shopping cart say about you?

Photo: KaizenVerdant

Grilled Pork Tenderloin & Swiss Sandwich

Notes: I didn’t have to leave the house for this one. Holy Jesus. I see your “ham” and raise you a quarter pound of deli-sliced cooked pork tenderloin. Combined on super-sharp rye with swiss and dijon mustard, then grilled in butter and pressed with a cast iron skillet.

Sweet Corn and Poblano Chowder

The weather may be warm, but the corn is too amazing this time of year to miss out on making a corn chowder. Our version uses half-and-half in lieu of heavy cream to lighten it up a little bit, and the poblanos provide a nice heat. After chopping and adding one, check the heat level; poblanos vary in temperature, so you don’t want to let this get too spicy. The sweetness of the corn will temper things nicely, though, so if it seems too spicy at first, don’t worry…it’ll mellow out.

Sweet Corn and Poblano Chowder
Serves 6
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349 calories
46 g
44 g
16 g
10 g
9 g
534 g
1117 g
10 g
0 g
6 g
Nutrition Facts
Serving Size
Amount Per Serving
Calories 349
Calories from Fat 143
% Daily Value *
Total Fat 16g
Saturated Fat 9g
Trans Fat 0g
Polyunsaturated Fat 1g
Monounsaturated Fat 5g
Cholesterol 44mg
Sodium 1117mg
Total Carbohydrates 46g
Dietary Fiber 4g
Sugars 10g
Protein 10g
Vitamin A
Vitamin C
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet. Your Daily Values may be higher or lower depending on your calorie needs.
  1. 2 tablespoons butter
  2. Extra-virgin olive oil
  3. 1 medium white diced onion
  4. 1-2 Poblano peppers, seeded and chopped
  5. 2 minced cloves garlic
  6. 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  7. 6 cups vegetable stock
  8. 2 cups half-and-half
  9. 2 potatoes, cleaned, peeled, and diced
  10. 3 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
  11. 6 ears corn
  12. Salt and pepper
  13. Parsley, to garnish
  1. Saute the onion, garlic, and poblano peppers in the butter and olive oil until all vegetables are soft and onions are translucent, about 10 minutes. Dust the sauteed vegetables with the flour and toss or stir to coat. Add vegetable stock, and bring to a boil. Add the half-and-half, potatoes, and crumbled bacon, reserving 2 tablespoons. Bring to a hard boil, and let the potatoes get beaten up. As they break down, they will thicken the soup even further. Cut kernels off the corn, saving as much of the "milk" that comes off the cob as possible. This will impart a very rich, strong corn flavor. Add kernels and milk to the soup. Season with salt and pepper, and simmer until the corn is soft, another 10 minutes.
  2. Heat the butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and thyme and cook until the vegetables are good and soft, 8 to 10 minutes. Dust the vegetables with flour and stir to coat everything well. Pour in the vegetable stock and bring to a boil. Add the cream and the potatoes, bring to a boil and boil hard for about 7 minutes, until the potatoes break down (this will help to thicken the soup and give it a good texture). Ladle the soup into bowls, and garnish with sprig of parsley and reserved crumbled bacon and serve.
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