New England Chow: Buffalo's Lessons From Portland + Boston

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New England (Portland + Boston)
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"Small business owners - passionate chefs and owners of neat little shops alike - have carved out niches by delivering both innovative products and high-quality experiences that people remember and talk about."

New England was our first destination after pausing Buffalo Chow last year, and thanks to the magic of Facebook photo galleries, readers were able to follow some of our culinary adventures in Boston, Massachusetts back then. This week, we rekindled our love affair with seafood and other Northeastern treats on a mini-tour of Boston and Maine, so we wanted to share some of our findings with you. The 25 photos here will show you some of the region's specialties, as well as a few lessons we learned along the way. Many additional pictures and details are available from our Facebook photo galleries.

Wood-Burning Ovens (Can) Make Everything Better. Even if a restaurant has a wood-burning oven, it needs to know how to use it in order to produce spectacular results. Fore Street is one of Portland, Maine's most noteworthy restaurants, and it clearly understands the value of fast, high-temperature cooking. There's an insanely hot brick oven on one side of its central open kitchen, which along with a glass-walled pantry allows patrons to watch the cooks in action as fresh ingredients are prepped and cooked - a lot of fun from the right seats. We thought we'd had superb mussels before we visited Fore Street, but the wood oven-roasted mussels there set a new standard of excellence.

Fore Street tosses a pound of mussels in a garlic, wine, and butter sauce that was common enough, apart from the chunky, delicious garlic. What transforms the dish is the intense heat from the oven, which sears the large mussels to the point where their shells are at or near the point of burning open, presenting lumps of ever-so-slightly charred meat that are nonetheless moist and soft inside. The slightly smoky flavor and respectable portion size made this dish more memorable than the rest of an otherwise nice meal - except for one equally great thing (more on that later), and some expensive but not particularly great cocktails.

Fore Street on Urbanspoon

According to local lore, the showpiece wood-burning oven at Flatbread Company in Portland was built with help from the community, and placed in a highly visible location so that patrons can watch their pizzas and desserts cooking at high heat. All of the restaurant's ingredients are self-made or locally-sourced, with a heavy emphasis on organic produce, free range meats, and regional beverages. Nitrite-free sausage was one of the rare meat toppings on the largely vegetable-focused pizza menu, and though we were sated rather than blown away by any of the four versions we tried, we appreciated what Flatbread is doing - and customers do, too. There are now 10 locations, mostly spread across New England with one in Hawaii and another in British Columbia.

Flatbread Company on Urbanspoon

Good Seafood Is King. Given their proximity to the ocean, it's no surprise that Portland and Boston are loaded to the gills with spectacular seafood, something Western New York could really stand to improve upon. (Sorry, Buffalo: fish fry - heavily battered and deep-fried haddock - is only a starting point for seafood.) Even when they're cooked as simply as could be, steamed or just plain raw, the clams (steamed), oysters (raw), mussels (steamed), and scallops (raw, shown) we enjoyed at the locally famous J's Oyster - accurately described as Portland's equivalent of Amherst's earthy Duff's - were memorably good; it's impossible to go wrong with these fresh shellfish. J's scallops were amongst the largest and most delicious we've ever had, flavored gently with a little freshly squeezed lemon juice. Left intact rather than sliced thin, they were a sashimi lover's dream: big chunks of sweet, slightly salty scallop steak, demanding a tongue's and brain's full attention. Seriously.

J's Oyster on Urbanspoon

Before we arrived, our heads were filled with visions of succulent, all-you-can-eat lobster - arguably Maine's single biggest culinary draw for outsiders. The phrase "Maine Lobster" has become a national and somewhat international gold standard, as permanently associated with the state as Buffalo now is with chicken wings. Yet there's a major difference. Thanks to special local recipes and preparation, the best Buffalo Wings are actually found in Buffalo. Maine just happens to be the place where lobsters are caught en masse - and common enough to be sold at even gas station restaurants, like Beef on Weck here - but the quality, pricing, and presentation aren't particularly amazing in Maine.

Sure, lobster shows up here and there as an ingredient in dishes where it might be overlooked elsewhere, and steamed lobsters are available all over the place. But the most common use of the crustacean was in Lobster Rolls. These hot dog-sized sandwiches fill sliced, sometimes lightly toasted white bread rolls with hopefully big chunks of claw and tail meat, generally mixed with a light celery mayonnaise, plus some leaf lettuce and maybe a thin slice or two of pickle. The specifics vary a little from place to place, but as we know from having eaten quite a few of them during our visits to New England, the end product tends to be pretty similar. Cape Elizabeth's locally famous Lobster Shack at Two Lights serves them with or without the mayonnaise, atypically presented as a thick dollop on top, but they're not particularly special otherwise. We preferred the version at Boston's Legal Sea Foods chain, which has taken McCormick & Schmick's place on our "most wanted for WNY" list of restaurants. Legal's Lobster Roll had more and better lobster, like the version at Freeport, Maine's Jameson Tavern, a 231-year-old restaurant that is known as the "birthplace of Maine." At Jameson, the Lobster Roll was the standout item in an otherwise fine but not great meal, which also included Lobster Stew - think Bisque with a much thinner broth, no vegetables, and bigger chunks of meat, all at a higher and not particularly merited price of around $15 per bowl.

Lobster Shack on Urbanspoon
Jameson Tavern on Urbanspoon
Legal Sea Foods - Long Wharf on Urbanspoon

That's the big surprise for lobster lovers visiting Maine for the first time: even on the piers where lobsters are being trapped and brought in for sale, lobster isn't necessarily cheaper than it is here. A Lobster Roll at a gas station will go for $9, but at most restaurants we visited, the price was closer to $15 for a relatively modest sandwich, and market prices aren't much better. Harbor Fish Market, at one of Portland's wharves, was selling even small lobsters for $8 per pound, with "jumbo" (larger than 1 1/2-pounders) going for $13 per pound. Who would have guessed that we could do better at Wegmans?

Maine's Blueberries Are Just One Of New England's Great Sweets. At Becky's Diner in Portland, a completely nondescript place that has been visited by former President Bill Clinton and other celebrities, the Maine Blueberry Cake - topped with cream cheese frosting and packed with fresh blueberries - was a standout dessert, while the Blueberry Muffin was a denser and slightly healthier, frosting-free version. Becky's is known for its pies and cakes, including a Bumbleberry version that mixes ingredients from all of its fruit pies together; we also tried a not particularly good Lemon Lush, sort of a flattened and less distinctive Lemon Meringue Pie with cream topping rather than crisp meringue and way too little lemon. Lush, it was not. We'd stick with the Blueberry Cake.

Becky's Diner on Urbanspoon

Halfway between Boston and Portland, we were blown away by the selection of jams, syrups, and baking mixes at the York, Maine headquarters of Stonewall Kitchen, which has other, smaller outlets in the state. After trying a bunch of the jams from open jars on the countertops - displays that were incidentally replicated in smaller form at Freeport, Maine's flagship L.L. Bean store - we fell in love with the Wild Maine Blueberry Champagne Jam, packed with dark purple, caviar-like miniature blueberries, and the Mimosa Jam, which used champagne and thinly-sliced oranges to create a more compelling alternative to a traditional orange marmalade. These and many other impressive options are available from the mail order retailer, which we plan to patronize again in the future.

Stonewall Kitchen Cafe on Urbanspoon

Our group ate more than its fair share of breakfast fare at Bintliff's American Cafe in Portland, repeated winner of "Portland's Best Brunch" awards. The attractively propped-up Georgia Pecan Caramel Waffle tasted fine, as was the cinnamon glaze-drenched Apple Cinnamon Raisin French Toast, both of which sounded somewhat better than they actually were. A highlight that also could have been better - more intensely flavored - was the Gingerbread Pancake, a large but inexpensive flapjack with consistent but mild ginger flavor, topped with powdered sugar and a similarly mild lemon syrup. With small modifications, we could easily imagine this pancake becoming a huge hit in Western New York, too.

Bintliff's American Cafe on Urbanspoon

The single biggest sweet hit of either of our trips was at the aforementioned Fore Street, which blew us away with Mint Chocolate Ganache Truffles that were so fresh, soft, and large as to merit two separate bites, gently yielding in the middle. Light on mint but heavy on dark chocolate inside, with a bitter cocoa dusting, these were the best truffles we've ever had - good enough that we purchased extras seen in the take-home box here. They were best on the same night, becoming harder and less amazing a couple of days later.

On our prior trip, we spent a fair bit of time sampling different variations on Boston's namesake Creme Pies. One, at the locally noteworthy Flour Bakery + Cafe, looked like a masterpiece of layered sponge cake, pastry cream, and chocolate icing, but arrived completely frozen on the bottom - probably too complex to make fresh every day for the small bakery's clientele. Thankfully, Flour partially redeemed itself with the gooey, caramel-loaded Sticky Sticky Buns, cinnamon rolls that lived up to their name.

Flour Bakery + Cafe on Urbanspoon

We much preferred the more elegant Boston Creme Pie at Legal Sea Foods' Legal Test Kitchen, a double-height hockey puck of light cake topped with a flat layer of chocolate frosting, then filled with cream and a tiny bit of coffee flavor. Like virtually everything we tried at the Legal restaurants, it was delicious. Less thrilling were the local cannolis, which despite our sampling of what were reputably Boston's best sources, ultimately couldn't hold a candle to our favorite places in New York City - or Buffalo. (Note: Amaretto Bistro's cannolis were great after it opened, and they're even better now.)

Legal Test Kitchen - Seaport on Urbanspoon

Great Cities Go Beyond Local Specialties. One particularly enlightening discovery was that Maine is becoming known for all sorts of foods that have little or nothing to do with its most famous exports. A year and a half ago, Portland was profiled by The New York Times for "undergo[ing] a controlled fermentation for culinary ideas - combining young chefs in a hard climate with few rules, no European tradition to answer to, and relatively low economic pressure - and [becoming] one of the best places to eat in the Northeast." There are lessons to be learned from its example.

At Duckfat, run by James Beard Award-winning chef Rob Evans, Belgian-style french fries are properly blanched to remove moisture from the Maine potatoes before a follow-up deep fry in duck fat and canola oil, resulting in golden, perfectly crispy slices - wonderfully paired here with a complementary just-a-little sinful Truffle Ketchup, and lighter Thai Chili Mayonnaise. As our Twitter followers guessed, they put the soggy frites at Buffalo's Blue Monk to shame. The small menu at Duckfat has lots of those fun, French-ish choices, including Poutine for devotees of Quebec's signature snack, a donut hole version of the classic Beignet dessert, and charcuterie such as these Duck Rillettes with crostini, apricots and deliberately rugged, uneven mustard. Local beers are emphasized as options, and playfully served in glass jars. Duckfat offers a nearly perfect balance of upscale bar food, served at reasonable prices in a small but charming place. It's proof positive that execution is at least as important as having the right menu and venue.

Duck Fat on Urbanspoon

We weren't as thrilled by the Sfogliatelle pastries from Micucchi Grocery, which might have been thoroughly authentic in their delicate, lobster tail-like combination of a flattened cone of lightly browned phyllo dough with cheese and lemon zest, but left us sort of flat. However, they're being served out of the back room of a gourmet Italian grocery store in the middle of Portland, and like so many other things in the city, their very presence there suggests a local interest in and dedication to doing things that aren't easy, common, or cheap. That extra work is drawing attention - of the New York Times, of people like us, and of other Maine residents - so even when something's not totally thrilling to our palates, we can appreciate the thoughtfulness and labor it represents.

Micucci's Italian Grocery on Urbanspoon

Thanks to its larger population and somewhat greater ethnic diversity, Boston is an even more impressive dining destination. There are hundreds, probably thousands of different locally-owned restaurants to choose from, and unlike Buffalo, there's no false distinction here between "mom and pop" businesses and chains. For example, consider Border Cafe, a Tex-Mex and Cajun restaurant that started at the Cambridge, Massachusetts location we've visited multiple times, and now operates in six cities across three states. From the chips to the beans and the crawfish, everything is freshly made, generously portioned, and typically fantastic. Diners can choose between famous New Orleans fare - Hurricanes, Etoufee, and Catfish - or favorites from Mexico and South America, including consistently great Margaritas, spectacular chili-enhanced Fajitas, and tender, gently spiced Chimichurri Steak. Border Cafe started out small, but became a chain because its owners were successful at expanding their business by combining a great idea with great execution. Western New York could really stand to learn from its example: chains are not the enemy - bad chains with bad food are.

Border Cafe (Harvard Square) on Urbanspoon

So What's The Big Lesson Here For Buffalo? Maine is a small state, and though Portland is its largest city, it has only 66,000 residents - statistically very similar to Buffalo and its suburbs, only with less ethnic diversity. Census figures show that the areas are very comparable in age, gender, and economic distribution, though Portland has far fewer African-American and Hispanic or Latino residents as a percentage of their population. Both places are somewhat limited in tourist appeal by weather conditions. Yet Portland grew a little under 5% in population over the last 10 years, while Buffalo fell by roughly as much.

Why? Portland has relatively few huge draws for tourism, but it does a great job of capitalizing on each of them, benefitting from its close proximity to the famed Freeport headquarters of L.L. Bean and the similarly famous Portland Head Light at Cape Elizabeth, amongst other local draws. These spots enable Portland to serve as a lodging and dining destination for a considerable influx of travelers - supposedly enough to more than double the city's population during peak months. Visitors can experience many of the biggest highlights in a three- or four-day rush, but after doing so, they'll probably want to take more time and really dive into the area's culture, landmarks, and dining. Speaking for ourselves, we ate well during our visit, but felt that we'd only scratched the surface of what Portland had to offer. Ditto on Boston, which we've visited multiple times and not yet run out of places to visit and things to do.

Smart choices by local residents have a lot to do with these places' success. Small business owners - passionate chefs and owners of neat little shops alike - have carved out niches by delivering both innovative products and high-quality experiences that people remember and talk about. They're not trying to duplicate each other, but rather, to make creative use of both local and outside resources to do things that will surprise and delight people. And they're succeeding. Western New York has more and also more diverse residents, people who can bring even more to the table if they try. But will we? Or will even smaller cities continue to outdo us thanks to greater ambition and execution?

Ponder that for a bit, and we'll continue to think about it, too. We've left New England, but it hasn't yet left us; another visit is guaranteed. Until then, follow us on Facebook for the rest of our photos from these trips. (Special thanks to Mark M. and his wonderful family for his participation in both of our visits!)

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