Wednesday, May 11, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: BAKEHOUSE CAFE IN PORTLAND MAINE

Review of an enjoyable 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


Located on Portland's waterfront Commercial Street, Bakehouse Café sits comfortably with the area's 19th-century, carriage-trade facades, despite its more contemporary structure and painted bricks. Shaped like a large slice of cake tucked into a back corner of the small, rectangular property, the building allows for a piazza containing a handsome tree, tables, chairs and umbrellas, separated from the sidewalk by a low wall. Tables, chairs, umbrellas, and planters behind another low wall on the roof's perimeter provide a second alfresco dining area visible from the sidewalk. One has the pleasant sensation of a small building spilling over top and bottom with diners enjoying the urban waterfront.

The building's interior dining room is actually quite small, with a good deal of space taken up by the bakery, kitchen, and sales counter (on weekday mornings, people stop to buy baked goods and coffee to take away or eat there). A short, curved stairway takes you to the roof. The view is splendid with the water, a well-known restaurant ship, and some handsome condominiums. But this is no mere waterfront view. You are perched right above Commercial Street with all its tourists and others bustling about in the evening. This is a great place for people-watching.

Bakehouse Café has a one-page wine list with the majority of selections at under $20, making it reasonable to spend an extended time sipping, talking, and observing. About half of them are available by the glass. We settled in with a Campo de Borja, Borsao, 1998 ($5.50) and a Sauvignon Blanc, Domaine Cherrier, 1999 ($5.50).

Our waitress was pleasant and helpful. Service is casual and seems a bit slow at times, but the unusual set-up requires staff to go up and down stairs very often, and, besides, this is more a café with an extended menu than a true restaurant. Service that does need improving is the attention paid those waiting downstairs to be seated. While we waited, a staff member was playfully talking in the kitchen area for several minutes, the same person who finally did seat us. This person also did not understand my mentioning our reservation so that she might check it off, making an initial impression of things being disorganized.

We had the soup of the day, a leek and mushroom soup (cup $3), and a seafood chowder (bowl $7). The special was a clear broth thick with bits of leek and slices of mushroom - a very tasty soup. The chowder had chunks of salmon, and large pieces of potato in a stock thickened a bit with white sauce and bits of leek - a nice variation of a classic.

There are several quite delicious-sounding salads on the menu - including lobster and asparagus with lemon vinaigrette or crab, avocado, and roasted corn with raspberry vinaigrette. The special of arugula, prosciutto, and fresh figs ($10) intrigued us enough to try it. Our other choice was fresh greens with olives and parmesan ($7).

The arugula was covered with thinly sliced red onions and dressed by a vinaigrette and cracked pepper and was served over a substantial layer of sliced prosciutto - all ringed by sections of fresh figs. This made an unexpected and interesting combination of flavors - perhaps, one I would not choose a second time, but well worth trying.

The greens consisted of standard mesclun mix, some small grape-tomatoes, a few olives, the same very thin red onions, and a balsamic vinaigrette - nothing out of the ordinary, but a very good salad.

The menu at Bakehouse Café is small and largely focused on seafood. The bouillabaisse ($18) caught my eye immediately. Our waitress assured me that while she couldn't judge, a lot of people returned for it. We also found citrus-glazed chicken with a cantaloupe- asparagus salsa ($12) appealing.

The bouillabaisse is a truly impressive plate - a large, shallow bowl with half a lobster, a number of mussels, and chunks of haddock beautifully arranged in a thick, traditional-looking orange broth . Two pieces of garlic bread, made from baguette and buttered thickly, rested on the lip of the plate. Now, this particular combination of seafood is not classic bouillabaisse, but who cares about classic when you have a combination like this? It was a delicious plate, although I have two reservations. The broth had more salt than it should have, and shellfish in broth is a bit tricky to eat at a plastic, outdoor table which doesn't have a lot of tolerance for jerky or forceful actions like tearing off claws. Another, minor point: The garlic bread was so hard that it was difficult to bite without soaking in the broth, which of course is a nice thing to do anyway.

The chicken breast was grilled and prettily covered with the colorful little chunks of cantaloupe, asparagus, and prosciutto plus shredded bits of basil. The chicken's glaze was a successful flavor match, but the flesh itself was grilled too long, quite drying out its juiciness - easy to do with skinless breast, lacking its protective layer of fat. It was accompanied by some excellent roasted red potato chunks and grilled green beans.

Our desserts were fruit tart and blueberry cheesecake. The cheesecake resembled the dry, cakey types from Eastern Europe with its browned exterior, rather than New York style. But I was pleasantly surprised to find under its brown skin a silky, moist cheesecake - truly excellent. The blueberries were baked in the batter rather than serving as sauce or accompaniment, and I would have favored being more generous with them.

The tart was quite a disappointment. Resembling fruit-covered European tarts, this one differed in two respects, both of which detracted from its flavor and texture. The fruit slices, strawberries and kiwi, were not glazed, and with strawberries at this time of year being on the woody side and less than naturally sweet and juicy, it very much needed the traditional apricot glaze. Under the fruit, Bakehouse's version had a layer of saturated, crushed nuts instead of pastry cream. This was not a successful substitution, adding unpleasant dryness to woody strawberries.

Our bill came to $83.46. As we left, evening had fully descended, and the various lights of the Bakehouse Café cast an enchanting urban spell over bricks, umbrellas, and tables of people.

Bakehouse Café
205 Commercial Street
Portland
773-2217

Food: 3 1/2
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 3 1/2

Dinner hours: 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday to Saturday only
Lunch hours: 11:00 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday
Brunch: 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Credit cards: all major cards
Price range: entrees $10 to $18 plus two "priced daily"
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: accepted for dinner
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: ground floor
The bottom line: some imaginative food on the urban waterfront

No comments: