"What should you order? Open the menu and go 'Eenie, meenie, miney, mo.'" This advice came from my friend and esteemed Boston colleague Sheryl Julian; utterly by chance we had chosen the same frigid evening to drive two hours north to Fore Street, our favorite New England restaurant, for a late-winter lift. She and some Maine friends, whom she had similarly encountered there by chance, were having an after-dinner drink in the bar when my guests and I arrived. We had all been unable to secure a reservation—a sign, in winter, of the restaurant's popularity—and had chosen different ends of the dinner service to avoid a long wait.
It is part of the critics' code never to recommend everything; and I imagine that Julian's dinner, like ours, had its share of small flaws. (For the record, she says that it was flawless.) After so many good meals in a place we like so much, both of us go off duty when we step through the door and see the wooden crates of local apples in the vestibule and herbs and vegetables from nearby farms in the glass-walled walk-in refrigerator just beyond it.
Everything at Fore Street is transparent, and was that way even before the term acquired its current vogue-word status (the restaurant opened six years ago). The entire kitchen is visible, with tiered tables and booths on three sides, like the seats in a theater-in-the-round. The back wall is dominated by a wood-fired oven and spits turning over an open hearth. The brick walls, wooden beams, high ceiling, and big windows are original to the warehouse that long occupied the building. The workers enjoyed an unobstructed view of the port and the ferries that ply Casco Bay.
Fore Street is one of many restaurants, shops, and galleries in the handsome brick warehouses of Portland's renovated Old Port, a neighborhood that provides entertaining pre- and post-dinner walks. The latest and happiest addition to the lively and architecturally distinguished downtown is a year-round farmers' market, which, although controversial for its high rents, is beautiful and full of interesting food shops. With luck it will serve—like its Seattle predecessor, Pike Place Market—as a model for the rest of the country.
The chef and owner of Fore Street, Sam Hayward, had much to do with Portland's, and Maine's, current status as the happening New England place to open a restaurant or start an artisan food business—a veritable Bay Area of the East. His first professional cooking experience was in 1974, in a hotel on a small Maine island; after training in the mid-1970s in several classically run New York and New Orleans kitchens, he returned to Maine. Inspired by John McPhee's famous 1979 New Yorker article about "Otto," a chef pursuing his personalized-cuisine dream in rural Pennsylvania, Hayward opened a restaurant in the college town of Brunswick in 1981 and looked for farmers and fishermen who could supply his kitchen. In Brunswick, Hayward attracted a devoted following (McPhee even came to dine) but went broke turning out dinners for a too-small restaurant. His following included Julian and me, who discovered in Hayward someone who could do what we most value in a chef: find the best local ingredients and cook them with a minimum of fuss and a sure hand.