Foodie Road Trip Redux
3. Five Fifty-Five (Portland, Maine)
By Carmen Noble
If a food psychologist were free-associating with you, and he said, "Portland, Maine!" your immediate response most likely would be "Fore Street!" Sure. You and everyone else. That’s why it’s tough to secure even a bar seat at Sam Hayward’s award-winning eatery these days without waiting a really, really long time.
"It’s like trying to get a table at Olives back when Olives was Olives," said a disgruntled foodie friend of ours, who recently opted to find solace and a seat off the waterfront at 555. Chowder decided to follow her lead, and found a terrific meal.
555 (pronounced "
FIVE FIFF-tee FIVE") is proof-positive that location isn’t everything. It sits on a desolate, not-quite-gentrified block of Congress Street near Congress Square; if you ask for a seat by the window you’ll get a nice view of Dunkin’ Donuts and an occasional downtrodden passerby. (The exception is the first Friday of each month, when Portland’s downtown art galleries stay open from 5-8 p.m. for a self-guided art walk, and the block bustles.)
But the restaurant is gorgeous, with exposed brick, copper accents (including cool napkin rings made of copper plumbing pipes), and a balcony that overlooks the open kitchen, helmed by Steve Corry—who won national acclaim last year when he was chosen by Food & Wine magazine as one of the 10 best new chefs in the country. The service is flawless without being obsequious, and the vibe is friendly; they aim to please without assuming they please.
With the exception of a slightly chewy hanger steak, the food is just terrific. And, like at Fore Street, there is a focus on local ingredients. Salad greens come from Fishbowl Farms (organic, natch) in Bowdoinham; the mussels (fantastic) come from Bangs Island, up the coast; the cheese selection included a cheddar from Smiling Hill farm in Westbrook.
We forgot to ask where the seared pepper-crusted diver scallops are from because we were too busy loving them. Cooked perfectly, they sat in a yummy, slightly butterscotchy emulsion of baby carrots and vanilla, alongside a potato fennel puree. Fennel shows up a lot on the menu, which changes seasonally; the butterscotch cheesecake on the dessert list even comes with "sweet candied fennel." Also on the dessert list: a cloth to-go bag of hand-rolled chocolate truffles—something for diners "from away" to enjoy on the long ride home.
BEST BETS: Seared pepper-crusted diver scallops, Bangs Island mussels, "Take Home Some Chocolates"
DRIVE TIME FROM BOSTON: 2 hours
INFORMATION: 555 Congress St., Portland, ME, 207-761-0555, fivefifty-five.com