Foodie Road Trip: Portland Rules

1204306989In the past few years, Portland, Maine’s restaurant scene has been getting a lot of national media coverage, and deservedly so. This is one food-rich town (boosters claim Portland is second only to San Francisco in the number of restaurants per capita, but I haven’t seen the data to back that up). What I can say is that the food does resemble that of West Coast hubs like Seattle, Portland (Oregon), and the Bay Area.

There’s the same emphasis on the freshest local ingredients, the French and Italian technique, the slightly rustic quality of the food. But because we’re in Maine, there’s also a nod to New England foodways: chowders, lobster, rustic desserts like crisps and cobblers.

I’ve had extraordinary meals at Fore Street, Street&Co., and Hugo‘s. Great breakfasts at The Porthole. This visit focused on some newer spots: Duckfat and Vignola.

First, Duckfat. This two-year-old haute fast food shop is owned by Rob Evans of Hugo’s, and their claim to fame is that they cook their Belgian-style frites in, well, duck fat. The verdict? Best. Fries. I’ve. Ever. Had.


Really, the frites are worth the trip alone. Don’t miss the creamy garlic sauce, or the improbable but totally successful truffle ketchup.

As for Vignola, the terrific food was somewhat marred by seriously clumsy service. We arrived on time for a 7:30 reservation but were told that the party at our table was taking longer than expected. Terribly sorry, they said, but could we wait 15 minutes? We weren’t thrilled, since the small space offered nowhere to wait comfortably, but these things happen, and no point being nasty.

Only, the other party stayed. And stayed. We watched the server refill coffees and waters for forty minutes, watched the family launch into story after story, and waited impatiently for at least an offer of a free round of cocktails. None came.

Finally, another table opened up and we sat down. We asked the hostess to comp our cocktails and she said, “Um, let me check.” Ultimately, she got someone to approve our request, but only after the drinks showed up on our bill.

It’s too bad, because I had some stellar gnocchi in bolognese sauce, and a very satisfying frisee salad with duck confit. We’ll be back, but I’m hoping the front of the house will step up to meet the standards being set by the kitchen.

And now my question for you, dear readers: How should a restaurant respond when a party is parked at a table well beyond the expected 2 1/2 hours? Is there a polite way to suggest that they wrap it up? What about when subtle cutes (removing glasses, dropping a check) go unnoticed? How much time does dinner for four buy you in a popular restaurant?