Thursday, November 02, 2006

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: COMMISSARY, PORTLAND PUBLIC MARKET, PORTLAND, MAINE

Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


RESTAURANT REVIEW: COMMISSARY, PORTLAND PUBLIC MARKET, PORTLAND, MAINE

John Chuckman

Commissary's attractiveness starts with the great advantage of being part of Portland Public Market, the finest piece of contemporary architecture in the city. The Market's tall windows, glowing in the evening and now decked in holiday greenery, are suitable for the cover of a luxurious travel brochure and provide a wonderful approach.

The restaurant, just inside the Elm Street door, has a polished, clean look, with almost Scandinavian lines - wood-strip floor stained to brown and ivory stripes, satin-finished butcher block tables, and blond strip paneling. It is reminiscent of stylish, contemporary restaurants in New York or Toronto, and this is no coincidence since the owners and start-up management are from New York.

The restaurant seamlessly flows into the Market. A handsome bar sits in front with a tall, back-lit display of bottles on wall shelving. The room has banquette-seating along its window side, some booths on the wall beyond the bar, and tables and chairs between - an arrangement that pleasantly avoids excessive uniformity. The back of the restaurant is an open kitchen, almost like the stage of a theater.

A gracious hostess greeted us from a lectern that serves as entry point, a well informed person who attended smoothly and automatically to details like checking coats and stamping our parking ticket. Service is friendly, unobtrusive, informed, and perhaps a little more informal than in some restaurants of this quality. Our waitress very much displayed these qualities.
The menu's single sheet of olive-drab paper with black type seemed unpromising in appearance, but reading its rather too short descriptions hinted at some fine dishes.

Turn the sheet over, and there is the wine list. About a hundred listings are squeezed onto the page, covering much of the world's wine geography, although it would be nice to see them better categorized than the space permits. Most are available only by the bottle, with both a fair choice at under $30 and some lovely, more pricey items. There are more than a dozen by-the-glass listings.

Being confronted by a choice of appetizers that includes tuna tartare with lime and ginger, beef carpaccio with fennel and truffle oil, and warm goat cheese tart with fig jam provides the kind of difficulty a food lover relishes.

White bean soup with lobster ($8) sounded fresh and innovative. This was a true white bean soup, without tomatoes, that has been creamed-up a bit and suffused with lemon oil to provide a remarkably fine base for lobster. This was a superb dish, highly recommended.

Not quite as original but very delicious was foie gras with pomegranate ($12). A slice of pink-tinged foie gras was served with a sprinkling of magenta pomegranate seeds, sprouts of greens, and two wedges of toasted brioche. The silky butter of foie gras was perfectly matched with the thick toast, crisp on the surface and moist inside, and the tart bits of pomegranate and tender sprouts made fine relishes.

The theater kitchen contains a wood-fired oven, and several entrees feature wood roasting. Our entrees were cooked this way, and it was a fine gesture when, our waitress then busy, a member of the kitchen staff rushed the plates to the table. I don't know whether Commissary can maintain such fine service with a full room.

Commissary's wood-roasted scallops, crisp cauliflower, and caper vinaigrette ($18) deserves consideration for the pantheon of heavenly dishes. Four large, plump scallops, beautifully crusted with brown sat on a brown-buttered plate with capers and florets of richly stained and roasted cauliflower. The scallops were succulent inside, the vinaigrette's browned-butter flavor and capers suited them superbly well. The cauliflower's color came from saffron, and its crusting plus the buttery vinaigrette made this a surprisingly fine match for the scallops.

There are a few delectable-sounding "sides" (the menu strives, perhaps a bit too hard, for informality), including pumpkin gnocchi and roasted autumn vegetables. Of course, I can only vouch for what I've tasted, which was the mushroom risotto ($6).This was perfect risotto, moist, creamy, textured, and thoroughly suffused with earthy mushroom flavor. What a lunch menu item this would make!

Wood-roasted arctic char ($19) was not as exciting as the scallops, but it is a very good dish. The char, a close relative to salmon in taste and texture, was tender and moist. The almond pesto was good enough to eat with a spoon. The plate included steamed chunks of delicate finger potatoes and buttery sauteed mushrooms.

Our dish of three sorbets ($4) included pumpkin, pear, and apple cranberry. These all tasted richly of their flavorings. Chocolate profiteroles ($7) are little cream-puff pastry balls, sliced and filled with ice cream, sitting in chocolate sauce, dusted with cocoa, and served with two bittersweet sticks of chocolate. These were wonderfully sweet notes with which to close a well orchestrated meal. I should say that all sorbets and ice creams are house-made.

Our bill was $109.15. Commissary is a fine new restaurant with cooking that is consistently excellent and sometimes superb. Most recipes are not complex, but they reflect excellent ingredients, innovative combinations, and fine cooking skills and judgment. It has a wonderful location, and the restaurant's effort to use produce from its neighbors represents a healthy relationship for our beautiful market.

Commissary has made a few easily correctable mistakes in its atmosphere. Most serious is piped-in music, which on our visit was hip-hop stuff. Now, in a metropolis the size of New York City, five or six times Maine's entire population, it is possible to find a niche for anything. Maybe it has enough twenty year-old stock brokers to support a fine-dining restaurant with hip-hop music, but that seems unlikely in Portland.

The restaurant had so few customers when we arrived I felt no hesitation in asking our waitress whether it could be turned off. She happily complied, but it did take a while for the music to stop, and it genuinely soured the atmosphere of wine and windows on the street.

Another issue is table setting. The blond wood grain of the table tops is attractive, and eminently practical, but I think that even such clean, contemporary lines can use some dressing-up for evenings. There are beautifully textured Scandinavian fabrics that would make suitable table cloths.

Commissary
Portland Public Market
25 Preble Street
Portland
228-2057
Food: 4 1/2
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 4 1/2
Dinner hours: 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Sunday and Monday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: $16.00 to $22.00
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: recommended for Friday and Saturday
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: throughout
The bottom line: Excellent cuisine, with some superb touches, in a clean, contemporary
environment

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