Wednesday, May 11, 2011

JOHN CHUCKMAN RESTAURANT REVIEW: SEASIDE PARK 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 Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


Seaside Park is new restaurant on Portland's quaint and narrow Exchange Street, as fine a location as you could wish for an intimate, cozy place.

Inside, there are dark wooden tables and chairs, brick walls, soft blue-sponged plaster walls, some interesting pictures and sculptures, dried flower arrangements, an aquarium, and recorded soft classical music - in short, it is a relaxed place with a feeling somewhere between a slightly artsy coffee house and a pleasant neighborhood restaurant.

Arriving early, we were fortunate to be seated at one of the tall windows that provide nearly floor-to-ceiling views of the street. The windows are outlined with strings of Italian lights covered with twiggy material resembling small nests or baskets. At twilight, these provided a frame of warm, diffused light around a streetscape of autumn-yellowed trees and century-old façades - quite beautiful.

Service at Seaside Park is friendly, informed, and helpful.

There is a very small wine list with seven selections available by the glass and another four by the bottle. We enjoyed glasses of Melini Borghi Chianti ($4.50) and R. H. Phillips' California Chardonnay ($3.95).

The small list of appetizers includes several that are fairly standard pub-grub selections such as chicken strips and sauce, steamers, and quesadillas. But two stood out as seeming beyond the ordinary - a spicy shrimp, artichoke, and spinach dip ($7.99) and lobster corn cakes ($6.99).

The dip comes in a generous bowl surrounded by thick, warm slices of a foccacia-like bread. It is deliciously rich, and you can taste the shrimp, the artichoke, and the spinach plus loads of fresh garlic. They probably could get by with serving about half as much dip, but until they realize that, this is a garlic-lover's delight that could provide a small lunch.

The lobster cakes were coated with crumbled corn flakes - hence, the corn in the name - which have the appealingly rough texture of Japanese panko breadcrumbs when nicely sauteed, as these were. Although the flavor of lobster was apparent, they were not made entirely of lobster, but they were delicate and tasty with the texture of whole pieces of seafood. The sauce drizzled over them resembled the kind of Russian dressing used in Reuben sandwiches, and I felt this detracted from their excellence.

The soup of the day ($3.99) was cream of mushroom, and it was a fine bowl of soup. Lots of mushroom slices flavored a thick, creamy base, made fragrant with rosemary, an excellent herb to accompany mushrooms.

There is no choice of salad at Seaside Park. All entrees come with a house salad. This is a quality, home-style salad of tomato wedges, mesclun mix, zucchini slices, a few Kalamata olives, and a couple of pepperoncini, all tossed with a mild vinaigrette and served handsomely in a wooden bowl with salad spoon and fork.

The menu is not large, and seafood is featured, varying from deep-fried items and standards like lobster pie or stuffed haddock to a few more unusual items such as "pecan salmon." There is a selection of beef, pork, and chicken.

Our "porterhouse" pork chop ($13.95) was a remarkable piece of meat - quite massively thick, grilled and braised in apple jack (American apple brandy) and onions. It was served with a raisin-laced, bread-cube stuffing, making a tasty combination, and came with very creamy mashed potatoes. Actually, they were the "smashed" variety (with bits of skin) that are becoming increasingly and annoyingly common, but in this case they were so richly mashed with cream that they were just fine.

Seaside Park's plate of scallop and shrimp kabobs ($12.95) consists of two generous skewers of large shrimp and scallops interspersed with onion and green pepper chunks, grilled with a bourbon-flavored, tomato-based barbecue sauce and served over rice. These were very attractive in appearance, and I enjoyed them, though I thought them cooked a touch beyond the ideal of still-moist shellfish and still-crunchy green pepper, but this is always a risk with grilling such delicate items. Included on the plates of both entrees was a serving of a kind of Mexican corn which might just as well have been left off since it much resembled something from a can.

Our desserts were custard pie ($3.49) and strawberry shortcake ($4.99). The custard pie was good, with a decent crust, but the custard was too firmly jellied for my taste. However, my tireless research assistant thought it quite good. I should probably not have ordered strawberry shortcake out of season. What I received was an attractive home-made biscuit with strawberries and juice that had the texture and sweetness of frozen. Instead of whipped cream, there were several dollops of the same marshmallow-flavored topping that was on the pie.

Our bill came to $78.57. One senses a bit of culinary confusion at Seaside Park with its location, appearance, and some menu items giving an impression of some sophistication and innovation while much of the menu consists of fairly prosaic items. Cooking is good home-style, but quality is inconsistent as with a handsomely prepared piece of meat and the Mexican corn on the same plate or an excellent appetizer and a not-very-good strawberry shortcake.

Seaside Park Restaurant
82 Exchange
Portland
772-2737

Food: 3
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 4
Dinner hours: 4:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday to Thursday
4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Friday to Sunday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $9.99 to $15.99 plus one at "market"
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: yes
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: step only with assistance
The bottom line: home-cooking with a touch of sophistication in a relaxed atmosphere

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