Portland's culinary heritage dates to 1825 - but the flavors are anything but old fashioned.
Steve Corman is a man who knows a thing or two about grapefruit. Even when he's bustling behind the bar in a flowered apron, he manages to sell it as a suave, smooth, sophisticated flavour that's the height of glamour and manliness. Steve is one half of the power duo behind Portland, Maine's most beguiling bar, Vena's Fizz House, and his knowledge of spirits, bitters, and flavors is second to none. Steve's bitters infused cocktails and mocktails make for sweet sipping - especially when grapefruit is in the mix!
Vena's is the kind of place that has travelers raving after their visit, insufferably boasting to their friends that they have discovered the best little secret spot in the world. They wouldn't be wrong, except that Portland is packed with many "best little secret spots in the world" - shops filled with spirit (some literally, most figuratively). The city's amazing food scene isn't going to be a secret for very long.
I first enjoyed a delicious nibble around the edges of Portland's food scene way back in 2009. Ryan and I stopped in the city for just one night as we made our way across New England to catch the ferry to Nova Scotia. Our digs were nothing to brag about (hey there, Motel 6!) but we made a boast-worthy food choice in picking Duckfat as our dinner destination. I still remember what we ate: Ryan had the duck poutine and I had a roasted cauliflower bisque and a beet salad.
Fast forward a few years and, when opportunity came knocking to return to Portland for a food tour, there was only one answer to give.
Portland's food scene may be a relatively new discovery for me, but locals have been in on the secret since 1825, when the first public market house was established near what is now Monument Square. And some form of public market has existed in the city ever since, occasionally rising and falling with the economic tides. But since 2006, the newly established Public Market House has been thriving just steps away from the original 1825 location.
This isn't a market in the most traditional sense of the word, though there is a weekly in-season farmers' market for fresh produce in the square. The enclosed, indoor Public Market House is a collection of vendors and artisans who rely on local produce to create their delicious wares, much in the same style as Toronto's St Lawrence Market, Montreal's Atwater Market, or Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market. And - no surprises here - my favourite shop in the Portland Public Market House sold cheese!
Portland is a city that appreciates a good cheese. Maine is the fastest growing artisan cheese producing state in the USA (only New York has more licensed artisan cheese producers). No one knows this scene better than Kris Horton. Her shop, K. Horton's Specialty Foods, is a flagship store of the Public Market House. It sells a wide selection of delectable goodies, but the standout offer has to be the cheese. Kris sells varieties from across the state, the country, and the world.
Kris and the team at K. Horton's Specialty Foods aren't the only purveyors of gourmet grub. Moving away from the market and towards the port, I found myself in one of the most beautiful shops I've ever seen. Vervacious combines global flavors with ingredients found locally in Maine to create incredible spices, condiments, sauces, hot chocolates, and more. Everything is packaged in the prettiest jars and bottles you can imagine! The owners of Veracious have sailed around the world and you can really see and taste the influence of their many ports of call.
I had the chance to sample some of their gourmet balsamic vinegars with fresh fruit and I was blown away. I know it sounds like an unusual combination but when balsamic vinegar is aged with a fine touch, it turns into a thick syrup, not unlike molasses, and combines beautifully with other flavors, such as chocolate.
Every bar, restaurant, and food shop in Portland has a truly unique spirit (and sometimes literally so, as with the case of Vena's Fizz House!). But if you can only stop at one location and you find it all impossible to chose, I'd recommend the restaurant where our food tour came to a conclusion. Sur-Lie is a relatively new kid on the foodie block, but they've absorbed all the culinary lessons that Portland has to offer.
Sur-Lie offers globally influenced small plates and tapas, a style that goes very nicely in a diverse port city where community feels as important as the food itself. They are dedicated to local food and the menu is filled with Maine cheese, organic produce, and meat from nearby farms - they even have the cocktail scene mastered!
There's a drink on their menu called The Owls Are Not What They Seem, which includes espolon reposado tequila, barolo chinato, averna, and persimmon bitters. Did I have a chance to taste it? No. But I'm already prepared to declare it the best drink the world, based on name alone. And persimmon bitters? Yes please!
I can give a wholehearted personal recommendation to something I DID try. Sur-Lie's sweet pea hummus is one of their signature dishes and it tastes like spring in a bowl - in a really, really good way. If you're in Portland, order it and ask for the "owl" drink on the side and think of me!
Our guide was amazing and I cannot wait to go back to Maine to try more of their culinary experiences. Maybe some of you can beat me to it! If you happen to be in nearby Kennebunkport, Maine, you can also do what may just be the most awesome foodie experience in the world. It's a walking food tour where dogs are welcomed and canine treats are given out at each stop. How perfect is that!? One day, Oliver, one day!
We'd like to hear from you! Where would you love to experience a food tour?
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My visit to Portland was part of a press tour. All research, writing, and opinions are my own.