Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Restaurant review: Fresh

My friend Brownie and I have been trying to connect for dinner together for months and months now, and finally managed to coordinate schedules for an early dinner at Fresh in South Portland, Maine. What’s more, we managed to eat some darn good food in between all the catching up.

Fresh is located in a tiny storefront on Ocean Street in the Millcreek area, tucked in between a greasy-spoon diner and a very local bar. At first glance it almost looks like a deli, with a refrigerated case and row of stools in the front, but there are a number of small tables in addition to the seats at the bar. There wasn’t any A/C and the kitchen is right in the room so it was definitely warm in there, but Brownie snagged a table by a fan and once I had a drink of water everything cooled down to a comfortable temperature. We were there early at 5:45 p.m. and there were just three other parties eating then; by the time we left the tables at the front of the house had gotten busy too – not bad for a Tuesday night (dinner hours are Tues-Sun 5-close; lunch Mon-Fri 11-3).

There are a number of wines available, both red and white, by the glass for $6 or by the bottle for $24. There are also three or four bottled beers but nothing on tap. It was warm enough to be a white wine night and since the restaurant was out of the pinot grigio, I had a decent chardonnay and Brownie had a Riesling. $6 isn’t cheap for a glass of wine but the glasses were big and well-filled so no complaints.

The menu is not overwhelmingly long (often a problem in Portland restaurants) and focuses on local ingredients. The starters included steamers (the appetizer special), mussels, Caesar salad ($9 or more if you add chicken or shrimp), a mixed greens salad and a caprese-version salad ($11). We split the caprese which was enormous: a huge bed of tasty local mixed greens, plenty of juicy slices of red and yellow tomatoes and lots of feta cheese (it comes with goat cheese but they readily substituted for us). I was initially skeptical about the tomatoes – it’s still awfully early for local tomatoes up here – but these were fantastic, flavorful and tender.

The main courses are described as “large bowls and plates,” and large they are: Fresh serves a ton of food and we saw at least two tables taking doggie-bags with them (but not us – we’re good eaters). There’s an emphasis on pasta – a spring vegetable sauté (asparagus, sugarsnap peas and green beans in an herbed aglia olio over angel hair pasta), the specials seafood sauté (shellfish and salmon over rigatoni), a ravioli of the day - but also plenty else, like a rib-eye steak, homemade macaroni and cheese, roast chicken, grilled salmon and the ubiquitous burger. Brownie had one of the specials: grilled swordfish served with a fantastic mango/tomato/onion/cilantro salsa and fat wedges of potato while I went with the spring veggie sauté, adding some shrimp as well. Both of our entrees were quite good but they could probably get away with serving less pasta under my sauté – I didn’t come close to finishing it although I did snarf down all the veggies and shrimp.

We dithered over dessert (all pies from a local bakery) and finally split a strawberry rhubarb slice. It was a big piece of pie with an excellent crust – buttery and flaky – although the filling could have been a little less sweet/more tangy for my taste. I neglected to ask what bakery Fresh uses but my money is on Two Fat Cats on India Street in Portland.

Fresh has been around for just over a year. It’s in a tough location with not much foot traffic but it’s a good alternative to Beale Street if you’re in the area and not in the mood for Memphis style BBQ (blasphemy, I know!). I hear that the quality had gone down a bit after a strong start, but now they seem to have regained their composure. We had a very nice meal with good service and it was fun to find a little hidden gem that still feels undiscovered in the vast restaurantland that is greater Portland.

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