I just spent three nights in Portland and had the chance to eat at 3 well-publicized restaurants. Here is what I found:
Caiola's is on the west end of town. We got there around 8:30PM and ate at the bar because the dining room was full.....a good sign. The restaurant is not large at all and had a nice, cozy vibe. We met a couple at the bar who has lived in Portland for a very long time. They have lived in much larger cities and said they would never leave Portland. We chatted about a lot of things, including many of their "not to be missed" spots. As for food, we had a grilled calamari salad that was remarkably fresh. The calamari was plump and smoky, with a nice tomato flavor. Not to be missed. The heirloom tomatoes--so plentiful right now in this area--were sweet and juicy. Overall, a surprisingly later evening spot.
The next spot was 555. We opted for their tasting menu, which started with a vibrant, heavily-strained gazpacho. The fresh, local tomatoes sweetened the soup and offered a tangy spice. Next, we had the Bang Island mussels, which had been cooked in probably a pound of butter. Yet, the caramelized garlic thickened the sauce and coated the mussels. Next came the diver scallop (on the menu, it was plural, but served as a single scallop) was cooked to perfection. Those of us who like to cook know how hard it is to cook a scallop correctly. This scallop was yummy....left a bit raw inside. A three cheese selection course followed. Nothing spectacular, but nice. A summer fruit crisp, with local farm fresh fruit ended the meal. Make 555 a restaurant not to miss.
The last restaurant we hit was Fore Street. From the moment you walk in, you smell the wood fired oven kicking out savory smells. The design is very open with and earthy. Copper-wrapped tables provide a nice contrast to the wood floors. The menu is beautifully arranged, offering something for everyone--from vegetarian to carnivore. Locally-grown wild Matsutake mushroom are grilled and served with a butter sauce. We did not have these, since I feel Matsutakes are best in a broth without outside influences. The local mussels were plump, but the sauce was passe compared to the previous night at 555. The local beets were full of flavor and very peppery. Our two main courses were very disappointing. The duck was cooked medium, at the waiter's suggestion. It arrived almost raw, yet hot. Unfortunately, it was heavily salted and detracted from the duck flavor. Such was also the case with the swordfish, a healthy center cut that was perfectly cooked....but too salty. The pear sorbet was perky and fresh, while the maple cake was light and bursting with aroma and flavor. Go there for the vibrant crowd and caution the waiter on the sodium.
One more note.....go to Standard Baking near the water. They bake bread for many of the local restaurants. Sample the sticky buns and the crunchy bread. They are a great meal while walking around the city.