Fore Street

Restaurants worth building a trip around

"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.

Anyone visiting Maine and enjoying Fore Street's view of the port will most likely gravitate toward fish and seafood. Hayward takes care to find, for instance, plump, pristine Pemaquids, to my mind the finest East Coast oysters; sweet diver-caught scallops, delivered straight from the boat and blessedly free of the headache-inducing chemical bath that turns all commercial scallops tooth-enamel white from their natural pearl gray; richly flavored Atlantic smelts; and salmon smoked Scottish-style in the town of Stonington.

But Hayward's heart seems to belong to wood and fire and the flavors they produce. So he makes his masterly fish-and-shellfish stew not just with the usual tomato and fennel but also with fat lardoons of applewood-smoked bacon that he procures from a Vermont butcher and roasts in an open terra-cotta dish in the wood-fired oven. The scallops he grills over applewood from Maine orchards before putting them into (for example) a tart shell with lobster meat and sliced maitake, lately a chef's darling among wild mushrooms, whose flavor is often called lobsterlike. He roasts rope-cultured mussels, raised on a farm nearby, in garlic-almond butter—an odd-sounding combination that ideally suits the moist and gritless but slightly bland mussels.

Hayward's theatrically displayed oven and hearth come into their glory with meat and game—specifically, pork and rabbit. Whole rabbits and pork loins can always be seen turning on one of the spits, the rabbits the size of large roasting chickens. It's a scene from a medieval woodcut, with joints slowly circling and cooks busily working at great square wooden tables. The spit-roasted meats (usually there's chicken, too) have been marinated overnight before being cooked to a turn.

Most desserts, too, are designed to show off the oven; but after a number of Fore Street specialties, another brown dish of mellowed flavors can seem excessive. A clear-tasting sorbet, especially of tart wild blueberries (a leading Maine export) or cranberries, is usually a better conclusion. It seems only fitting to end with a flavor both transparent and local.

Fore Street, 288 Fore Street, Portland, Maine, 207-775-2717. Dinner 5:30-10:00 Monday through Thursday, until 10:30 Friday and Saturday, and until 9:30 Sunday (10:00 during the summer). Reservations and major credit cards accepted.