North to Portland

This city is on the national foodie map.Portland, Maine, is home to the renowned restaurants Hugo’s and Fore Street. One could call their chef/owners Rob Evans and Sam Hayward, respectively, the forefathers of the foodie revolution that is still exploding on the streets of the Old Port and beyond. Bon Appetit and the New York Times have noticed and added their laurels to this port city of 64,000 just 50 miles north of Portsmouth. I decided to head up to experience first hand what all the fervor was about.My extended weekend visit started at the Eastland Park Hotel on the western end of the Old Port area. It’s about one-half mile to the Ocean Gateway where my main objective was to experience a prime foodie weekend at Harvest on the Harbor — maybe the perfect shortcut to discover foodie Portland. The three-day event, promoted by Visit Portland, is a showcase for area restaurants and food purveyors of all types. And there is a lot to show.On Thursday evening I walked over to the Grand Tasting from the Eastland following the paths of streets first laid down in Colonial times. High heels on cobblestone streets are a tough passage, but I was re-energized by the buzz inside the impressive Ocean View Room of the center. Huge floor-to-ceiling windows allowed views to the sea. A huge Norwegian Cruise Line ship was in port giving Portland additional economic stimulus. Those transient visitors can’t all be taking the excursion bus up to L.L Bean’s flagship shop in Freeport.The Grand Tasting was the kickoff event for the 2009 Harvest on the Harbor with more than 74 vendors participating. Local beers, wines from afar and even samples of N.H.’s Cabin Fever Whiskey were flowing. Small bites were presented by many of the top restaurants in town, including Eve’s at the Portland Harbor Hotel. (Just a side note: Eve’s chef Earl Anthony Morse is now executive chef at the Bedford Village Inn.) MadGirl World’s Meredith Alex had outfitted several models on six-foot ladders and they towered in frozen poses over the crowd in Alex’s haute burlap and twig fantasy gowns. One model had a “table” dress from which to pluck a few grapes. (MadGirl is not participating in 2010, but her shop at 275 Commercial St. offers her brand of “up-cycled” vintage clothing and other vintage and stylish finds.)I limped back to the hotel with that first sampling of Portland still ruminating in my mind. So good the food, so hip the vibe, so seductive the city. A charming rooftop bar at the Eastland with city views beckoned, but it was time to rest up for tomorrow’s explorations.Friday at Harvest on the Harbor offered cooking demonstrations by noted chefs/authors and a Lobster Chef of the Year Competition. The Ocean View Room had been re-configured for attendees to sit at long tables to take notes, sip wine and finally, sample the dishes demonstrated by Chef Peter Berley, author of the “Flexitarian Table.”Sam Hayward of Fore Street fame was judge for the Lobster Chef competition, but all attendees were given samples of each dish. The winner was Chef MacKenzie Arrington, a second-generation lobster chef with his roasted lobster tail on braised cabbage and cornbread. His mother, Margaret Salt Mclellan, won last year. Can one imagine it is hard for an outsider to beat a Mainer in this competition?All sessions are reserved separately so one isn’t driven to attend all demonstrations. After all, the Old Port is just up the block and a good walk should be part of the day. Heading nowhere in particular I wandered into a few gift shops and art galleries. One gallery even had a small Italian bakery inside – seems the artist had two passions. I picked out an olive oil brownie to sample later. (Yes, it was good.)Friday evening was open for dining on the town. We picked The Salt Exchange on Commercial Street, which was new in 2009. Sampling a five-course tasting menu was a real treat, as the service was good and winemaker Peter Merriam was on hand to showcase and discuss his latest wines.It’s hard to imagine how restaurateurs can find a niche for a new restaurant in this town. Hasn’t it all been done – and done well? Somehow they find a trend, crack it open and dig a little deeper, offer a bit more. Whether it’s larger servings (hey, not everybody gets Hugo’s), an inviting ambience or real innovation. If Portland is like most towns, new chefs are spawned at the best restaurants and eventually set up their own shop. The bar (and bar menu) gets raised.Saturday at Harvest on the Harbor brings on the mother lode of food diversification. We had moved to the Hilton Garden Inn with lovely views of the port, and made multiple trips to the Marketplace, where a lot of food passion and talent is put into jars and wrappers. This October, huge tents will be put up port-side to house more than 140 vendors offering everything from Hancock’s Gourmet Lobster’s bisque to Gelato Fiasco’s chocolate stout gelato. Those two were my moon and my sun, but a constellation of other stars can be found under that tent.This year the festival starts on Thursday afternoon with a lavish seafood sampling and runs through late Saturday afternoon, leaving two nights for dinner on the town and Sunday to stroll the Old Port to shop and discover a few cultural highlights.Food finds run wide and deep in Portland. Certainly you can find fresh lobster and succulent oysters, but the chefs of Portland are making a statement about locality, diversity and depth of choice.Here are a just a few suggestions for free time at the food festival or really any time you can get up to Portland:Lunch on the way up or down, stop at the Cheese Iron in Scarborough for local cheeses and imported charcuterie ( fries with truffle ketchup at Duckfat, (43 Middle St.) fried in tasty duck fat, what else?Rob Evan’s Hugo (88 Middle St.) is a must if you haven’t been. Try the six-course blind tasting menu (the menu is presented at the end of the meal) with sublime tastes ($80) or sit at the bar and order the bar snacks for an upscale treat.Dining alone? Eat at the friendly bar at Street and Company at 33 Wharf St. This short, quaint street houses several good restaurants.For general excellence and local seafood (try the roasted mussels with almonds) head to Fore Street, Sam Hayward’s restaurant. (288 Fore St.)Get the perfect chocolate croissant at Standard Baking (75 Commercial Street, just south of the Hilton Garden Inn).Just say omikase at Shima (339 Fore St.) or try the uni mac and cheese dish for utter richness.If you’re feeling guilty about overindulging, stop at the Maine Squeeze Juice Café (5 Molten St.). This juice and smoothie bar has been at this location since long before the current craze. Healthy choices run all the way up the 12-foot chalkboard walls.The signature dishes of Chef Steven Cory at 555 (555 Congress St.) are highly recommended by locals.Don’t miss the Public Market House, (28 Monument Sq.) Portland’s year-round solution for small vendors, farmers and anchor shops selling Maine goods offering local cheese, beers and even designer peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It’s still a growing operation.For a creative take on ice cream try Caramelized Clementine Creamsicle ice cream at Catbird Creamery (164 Middle St.) or the salt-caramel flavor at Mount Desert Island Ice Cream (51 Exchange St.).You want culture? Maine Museum of Art, Victorian Mansion and the Wadsworth-Longfellow House are all in or near the Old Port.The town is a joy to wander and discover in the fall and the Harvest on the Harbor makes a good starting point. NH