A student’s guide to Maine Restaurant Week

Posted on March 03, 2014 in Arts & Culture
By Francis Flisiuk

The 6th annual Maine Restaurant Week is the perfect opportunity to break free from the doldrums of frequenting the same eateries and explore new flavors  at an especially  discounted  price.

Over 90 restaurants all over the state are offering new 3-course dinners for either $25, $35, or $45 and lunches for a fixed price of $15. As Portland is home to over 35 of these featured restaurants, USM seems to be in the perfect to city for this decadent and reasonably-priced celebration of food culture.

Maine Restaurant Week officially started at the Incredible Breakfast Cook-Off on Friday, when ten chefs from local restaurants gathered at the Sea Dog Brewing Company. They competed for the votes of guests who tried their signature breakfast dishes. Eve’s at the Garden won the cook-off with their hard to resist pork belly waffles. But the food-related festivities don’t end there. A series of lectures, taste-offs, samplings, dinners and exhibitions are planned for the rest of this 10-day culinary showcase. One upcoming event includes a “pancake race” at Maine Craft Distilling on Tuesday that will have teams of competitors don kitchen aprons and flip pancakes through a 100-yard relay race.

Ultimately though, Restaurant Week is about the food, and the best way to experience the culinary mastery of Maine’s chefs is to go out to some of the participating restaurants here in Portland. While Portland is home to quite a few world-renowned chefs who cook in a number of upscale restaurants, celebrating this week doesn’t have to mean breaking the bank at a 5-star establishment. Take advantage of these specially discounted restaurant week menus from participating Portland establishments, and you may just find your new favorite place to grab dinner in town. Here’s our student’s guide to Restaurant Week to help you get a great bite on a student’s budget. All of these restaurants are offering between $15 and $25 options.

 

HOT  SUPPA…………. $15-25

703 Congress St.

Hot Suppa, a quaint and cozy West End eatery, is number one for many reasons. Situated in a 19th-century brick Victorian building in Portland’s West End, Hot Suppa excels first in the atmosphere it creates. Guests are seated adjacent to a wall filled with colorful, Maine artwork that depicts familiar local scenes in vibrant colors.

If Hot Suppa can’t initiate a warm and fuzzy feeling with its laid back, charming atmosphere, then it certainly can with its menu. Specializing in classic American cuisine with a southern focus, Hot Suppa features a Restaurant Week menu that’s an equal blend of gourmet and home-cooking. According to the co-owner of the restaurant, Alec Sabina, visitors will have the choice of one of three appetizers, three entrees and two desserts for $25. Sabina predicts one of their entrees, a bacon-wrapped meatloaf served with a side of mashed bourbon sweet potatoes and garlic kale, will be the week’s favorite.

“As long as you’re not a vegetarian, I think you’ll find our bacon-wrapped meatloaf hard to resist,” said Sabina. “And wait until you try the sauce we put over it.”

The sauce that’s served with the meatloaf is described by Hot Suppa’s chefs as “super ketchup” and is a creamy tomato based sauce slow cooked with herbs and brown sugar.

“Paired with the meatloaf, it’s the perfect winter comfort food,” said Sabina.

Another entree is a testament to creativity in the culinary world. Diners more inclined to feast on seafood can choose the shrimp szechuan salad, a uniquely Asian spin on savory Louisiana Gulf shrimp. Succulent and boldly-spiced shrimp rest neatly on a bed of arugula greens, roasted mushrooms, shallots, radishes and carrots topped with a tangy ginger sesame vinaigrette.

According to Sabina, their pork chops with grits and their jambalaya with fried green tomatoes are some of the most popular because they represent true American cuisine.

“The flavors and ingredients present in our dishes are examples of classic Americana,” said Sabina.

If Cajun-influenced cooking doesn’t entice your taste palette, Hot Suppa also offers $1 Maine oysters from 4-6 p.m., but Sabina warns, “Come early, they go fast.”

 

PEPPERCLUB CAFE………………….. $25-30

78 Middle St.

If there’s anything that can be said about the Pepperclub Cafe on Middle Street in Portland, it’s that it strives to make sure there are delicious options for every kind of food lover. There’s something for everybody here.

Pepperclub’s chefs have been serving locals for over 25 years, and in that time, they’ve learned one important thing: keep the ingredients local. By emphasizing wholesome ingredients, like organic beef and chicken from local farms, scallops pulled from Maine waters or produce harvested from Maine farms, the Pepperclub has made its dishes stand out in a way you can feel good about.

Treat yourself to an appetizer of Maine crab cake with a sweet chilli mayo or roasted brussel sprouts with a tangy horseradish sauce, and you’ll taste the difference local flavor makes over frozen and processed food. According to owner Mary Paine, locally sourcing most of their menu ingredients positively impacts the food’s healthiness and taste.

“Our meatloaf is one of our most popular dishes,” said Paine. “One customer told me he’s never tasted anything comparable in flavor, and it’s because the beef was raised close to home.”

Preparing food from mostly, Maine ingredients is something chefs at the Pepperclub have always done, Paine says. The Snow’s family farm in Hollis is just one of many of the community farms that visits the Pepperclub every week to drop off ingredients-from carrots, onions and leeks to potatoes and other root vegetables.

“We make food that’s freshly prepped, very successful and very flavorful,” said Paine.

Pepperclub, unlike other participating restaurants, opens up its entire menu for the restaurant week price of $25. Diners are given a variety of tempting entree options, all made from scratch in house, like scallops, salmon, haddock, meatloaf, chicken and braised pork. There are also five more vegetarian options which, according to Paine, were originally the focus of the restaurant. In fact, one of the Pepperclub’s traditional favorites includes a vegetarian Indian curry dish, which has spicy curry with crispy samosas and a side of flowery jasmine rice and beet chutney.

“Since 1989 we’ve always been about 75-percent vegan and vegetarian,”

And don’t let the word “cafe” in Pepperclub’s name fool you. There’s still plenty of local beer, wine and mead on tap with a couple of brand new choices available on the “signature cocktail list.”

 

BONOBO PIZZA…………………………. $22

46 Pine St.

Portland boasts many signature pizza places, but none does such a high quality job as the pizza artists of Bonobo. Bonobo never uses frozen dough, preparing it just hours before baking it in the oven. This freshness, combined with the unique flavor that baking in a wood fire oven cultivates, results in a thin crust pizza that is delectable every time. Not to mention that Bonobo is a great place to experiment with non-traditional pizza toppings. The whole process ensures that you end up with a pizza that has a distinct flavor and memorable presentation.

During Restaurant Week $22 gets you the choice of one of three salads, three pizzas and three desserts. According to some recent Yelp reviews, their house salad with chevre has been a local favorite for years now and is drizzled with a caesar dressing made in house, which is sweet, herby and wildly delicious creation.

As far the pies go, the toppings are interesting combinations that simply make you wonder what the taste will be like. One featured pizza includes a vegetable extravaganza with spinach, swiss chard, golden beets, feta, parmesan, honey leeks and garlic butter. If your taste for pizza is a little less adventurous, you can’t beat the classic meatball and ricotta with fresh oregano. The third and last pie on the Restaurant Week menu may be the most colorful pizza you’ve ever seen. The baby arugula pizza is topped with arugula almond pesto, roasted red peppers and goat cheese, proof that Bonobo has pizzas that are both visually appealing and immensely satisfying.

They also have their own free parking lot which, if you know anything about the difficulties of parking downtown, is a huge plus.

PORTLAND ROCHESTER PUB……. $25

118 Preble St.

Just eight months after opening, the Portland and Rochester Pub at 118 Preble St. is gearing up for its first Maine Restaurant Week. They’ve created a whole new menu for the occasion, which the chefs hope represents the classic flavors of New England in standard pub fare. According to Tegan Curry, co-owner of Portland and Rochester club, just because the food is “pub food” doesn’t mean it’s of a lesser quality.

“We have a lot of really complex flavors,” said Curry. “Pub style, yes, but with the quality of a first-class dinner.”

According to Curry, what she described as a “varied conglomeration of flavors” can be anything from pub-style pretzel bites to a portobello risotto. Rustic and authentically New England flavors are the focus of this pub, and there’s one dish in particular that so far has repeatedly delighted customers. The signature dish is an herb-roasted chicken served with baby brussel sprouts and spaetzle, a crispy German noodle in a smooth, seasoned sherry sauce.

“Although we’ve changed the menu around for Restaurant Week, that dish isn’t going anywhere,” said Curry “It’s an all-time favorite.”

Making a first-time appearance on the menu is a vegetarian white bean and kale soup that Curry assures will please even die-hard meat lovers.

“We’re super excited to be a part of Restaurant Week,” said Curry. “We try to be involved with the community any time we can.”

 

EL RAYO TAQUERIA…………….. $10-15

101 York Street.

If you’re looking for Mexican food that’s actually made from authentic fresh ingredients, then El Rayo Taqueria could be your next favorite lunch takeout spot. Self described as “gourmet takeout,” El Rayo certainly doesn’t lack in indulgent “feel good” food.

You can grab a dinner with enough food to take home for about $10 to 15 dollars. According to Talia Rendall, the front of house manager, it’s their affordability that makes El Rayo a go-to place for college students.

“I would say we’re most popular with college students,” said Rendall. “It’s because of our theme. We’re very casual but also fast-paced.”

Rendall explained that young people tend to grab lunch “on the go,” which makes El Rayo a prime destination because of its minimal wait times, and the food itself doesn’t suffer in taste despite its speedy preparation. This food isn’t “fast food,” but it is faster than many sit-down spots in town.

From the sweet-and-spicy salsas made from organic tomatoes harvested in Maine, to the fiery peppers preserved right in the El Rayo kitchen, this Mexican restaurant is committed to cooking our favorite guilty pleasures, just with high quality ingredients. El Rayo’s tacos, quesdillas and frittatas are filled with rich meats, balanced with beans, avocado and tomato and further made more complex with the sweetness of their salsas, for an authentic and straightforward Mexican food experience.

Restaurant Week has inspired El Rayo’s chefs to experiment with some bold flavors, as they are introducing a duck and manchego empanada served with a chorizo-potato frittata and a rainbow carrot side salad.

“It’s quick, it’s good, it’s fresh,” said Rendall.