288 Fore Street | Portland, ME
Fore Street is renowned as one of Portland's greatest eateries. In fact, people “from away” often visit Portland just to dine there. It ranked 16th in Gourmet Magazine's 2002 listing of America's Top 50 restaurants, and then made Gourmet Magazine's Top 50 list yet again in 2007. In 2004, Fore Street Chef Sam Hayward was named the Best Chef in the Northeast by the James Beard Foundation. Fore Street is also known for its use of local, organic ingredients. For a foodie like me, all of these accolades piqued my curiosity. Still, no local Portlander had ever recommend Fore Street to me. Now I know why.
It's because Fore Street is good at what it does. Unfortunately, it doesn't do enough.
Entering the restaurant, our party was greeted by Fore Street's cavernous dining room, which is actually a renovated warehouse. We were then led to our spacious booth. From our booth, we were able to view Fore Street's open kitchen. I was impressed by the cleanliness and efficiency of the kitchen space. All of the workers—dressed in white—moved quietly and even peacefully about their tasks. Nestled to the left of the kitchen was Fore Street's illustrious wood-fired oven. This warm, inviting setting helped detract from the pervasive aroma of grilled meat.
Once we were seated, our waitress promptly greeted us. She was friendly and knowledgeable about the menu. After the waitress brought us a nice bottle of wine, our party pondered our choices. While several of my friends excitedly discussed the menu—a menu that featured over 30 meat-based entrees—I slowly absorbed the fact that not a single vegetarian entree was listed. The much acclaimed Fore Street turned out to be a piece-your-dinner-together-with-appetizers-and-side-dishes kind of place.
As a result of the dearth of meatless options, I asked the waitress if it would be possible for the chef to throw together a special dish for me. She tersely replied—in a tone that was almost like a retort—that no, we don't do that here. I'll be honest: it's the first time I've ever gotten that reply. Of course, this is also the first time in many years that I've been to a restaurant that lacks a vegetarian entree. I assumed things had changed. I quickly scanned the menu and decided how to piece my meal together.
I decided to order the Rocket and Roasted Beet Salad with Curly Endive, Pickled Ramps, and Maytag Blue Dressing ($9) and the Potato and Leek Soup with Summer Savory ($8) as my appetizers. For my entree, I ordered the Wood Oven Pizza with Caramelized Onion and Fennel Sauce, Green Onion, and Comte ($10) from the appetizer list. In the meantime, my dining companions selected from the sizable list of entrees.
First to arrive was my salad. It was comprised mostly of mixed greens which were fresh, crisp, and tender. The beets were thinly sliced and tasted earthy, just as beets should. The ramps, though delicate and lovely, were dominated by the vinegar in which they had been preserved. The combination of flavors, however, served as a refreshing means for whetting my appetite.
The Potato and Leek Soup was luscious. Creamy and savory, it seemed as if it had been delivered straight from the land of milk and honey. This was not a chunky soup; the leeks and potatoes were cut up into tiny pieces and floated in the creamy broth. The creaminess of the soup leads me to believe that the soup base was actually heavy cream; this writer prefers to use a base that is lower in fat, but I'll confess, it was delicious.
The Wood Oven Pizza was just as good as the soup. It was laughable as an entree, however, as it was smaller than the size of my hand. The size of my “entree” as compared to that of my companions' came into continually sharper relief as they received slab after giant slab of meat. Still, the little pizza did indeed pack a punch of taste. The caramelized onion and fennel sauce proved to be rich, savory, and buttery in flavor—it tasted as if there were some actual butter hiding in there. The crispy crust carried the flavor of woodsmoke, which was a suitable complement to the savory pizza toppings.
I also sampled some of my friend's Tagliatelle with Duck Egg, Leeks, Shiitakes, Mushroom Broth, and Reggiano ($12), an appetizer which I almost ordered for myself. I was pleased to see that the tagliatelle was handmade; its flavor was fresh, and its texture was al dente. The mushroom broth relied too heavily on salt, however; if I had ordered this as my entree, I would have been guzzling water for the rest of the evening.
The dessert list was enticing. Not only were there dessert wines and cheeses ($13 for a selection of three artisan cheeses), but there was also an extensive list of chocolates that were hand-made on the premises ($11 for four chocolates). From the regular dessert list, our party ordered the Caramelized Banana Cheesecake with Gingersnap Cookie Crust, Maple-brown Sugar Pecan Sauce, and Banana Ice Cream ($9) and the Citrus Crème Brulee with Almond Macaroon ($9). The banana cheesecake was rich and creamy, and the banana taste was a mere suggestion. The house-made banana ice cream was a refreshing compliment to the cheesecake. The crème brulee was also quite good; it had the look and feel of any crème brulee but with a subtle hint of orange. I don't remember any macaroon, though.
Nevertheless, I don't think I'll go back there for dinner. As a vegetarian, this isn't a place to go for a special dinner. For a special dessert, yes, but not a special dinner. There really aren't many choices. I felt, literally and figuratively, marginalized by Fore Street's menu. Now, if Fore Street decides to include some vegetarian entrees on its estimable menu, I'll be there in a jiffy. I have faith that Sam Hayward could create some vegetarian entrees of which even Gourmet Magazine would approve. The waitress's tone, however, makes me think that gourmet vegetarian cooking doesn't hold much interest for the likes of Sam Hayward.
We vegetarians are left to dream all of the great dishes that could be roasted in that mighty wood-fired oven.