Thursday, July 30, 2009



111 Middle Street | Portland, ME


I had wanted to go to Bresca for a long time. My friends recommended it; local reviewers raved about it; even my foodie chiropractor extolled its glories. So in March, I made a reservation at Bresca to celebrate my boyfriend Leon's birthday. When I asked about vegetarian options, the woman on the phone informed me that she would personally ensure that I had a few choices. This made me feel so welcome! Unfortunately, Bresca had to cancel our reservation because of a burst pipe. Then I tried to dine at Bresca in June. When I called to make my reservation, I again inquired about vegetarian main dishes; the woman on the phone told me that there were none that evening, so I decided to go somewhere else.

Finally, on July 11th, the stars aligned: Leon and I dined at Bresca. We had made our reservation two days in advance, having been warned that the restaurant only has five tables. We entered Bresca, which turned out to be simultaneously small and airy. One of the waitresses led us to our table, which was about five steps from the door. Leon and I smiled at each other, as it seemed a little funny to be “led” such a short distance.

Our first priority was getting some wine on our table. After a close reading of the wine selections, we finally spotted the least expensive wine ($8.50/glass). It was on the back of the list, written by hand, as if added for the likes of Leon and me. The waitress, bless her heart, formally presented that wine bottle to us each time we ordered another glass. We appreciated the respect.

Though the menu did not contain as many vegetarian options as I had hoped, it proved enticing. As a small appetizer, we ordered the Local Honeycomb and Pecorino Romano ($4). I was in the midst of a craving for fresh greens, so I also ordered a Salade ($9). For my main dish, I ordered the Risotto ($26), which I was surprised to see cost more than Leon's New York Steak ($25). Note that the Risotto was one of two vegetarian entrees on the menu (the other was a gnocchi dish). We were also interested in ordering the Toc ($10) as an appetizer; it was described as “smoked ricotta, creamy polenta, royal trumpet mushrooms, radicchio, and lardo,” and I was curious to see if they'd leave something like “lardo” out per request. The dish sounded genuinely tasty, but the meal already cost enough. We didn't order the Toc.

The Local Honeycomb and Pecorino Romano turned out to be a tiny serving. That's okay—it was supposed to be. After all, it was in a section labeled “before.” It was also refreshing to be appetized rather than filled by our appetizer. On the plate was a large sliver of cheese and about two tablespoons of honeycomb (which looked a lot like orange marmalade). We sliced the cheese and then placed tiny spoonfuls of the honeycomb on it; the combination of sweet and savory, creamy and gelatinously crunchy, was satisfying to the mouth.

My salad was made up of mixed greens and thinly sliced radishes. Nasturtium blossoms brought sweetness to the bitter greens and radishes, and the salad was dressed with a light vinaigrette. It was refreshing and simple; it was a salad.

The risotto was the star of my meal. It was served with an array of flavorful mushrooms and topped with a generous spray of Perigord black truffle, an expensive truffle popular in Italy and France. The arborio rice itself was prepared in a rich vegetable broth, and this broth combined with the mushrooms, generous slices of fresh parmesan, and black truffle waltzed languidly upon my tongue. It was incredible.

For dessert, I ordered a Panna Cotta with fresh strawberries, raspberries, and melon in a fruity broth. This proved a light and invigorating complement to the risotto's richness.

I do wish there had been a few more choices on the vegetarian front, but what we did have was delectable. In the end, our bill came to around $150. It was a pricey meal. Yes, there are places in Portland where one could have a comparable meal for less money, but I'll be honest: this was an excellent dining experience. I'll be back.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

GRO Cafe

GRO Cafe

437 Congress Street


Its full name is GRO Grassroots Organic Juicebar/Cafe/Chocolatier. As a vegetarian and self-proclaimed food critic, I felt a keen responsibility to visit and report upon an eatery that my friends described as “raw and vegan.”

I confess that I am not an expert on the tenets of the raw food diet. For the completely uninitiated, I can tell you this: for food to be considered raw, it can be cooked at a temperature no higher than 112 degrees. The idea is to preserve living enzymes, thus optimizing the health benefits of the food. GRO Cafe aims to do this and more. It wants to use local ingredients as often as possible; all of its ingredients are organic; it even produces its own raw vegan chocolates. GRO rumors are swirling about the city: a fellow food critic claims that GRO is cultivating its own mushrooms in a back room, and a different reviewer told me that it is fresh herbs that are growing. GRO's own website says that it has its own organic garden in Westbrook. If these reports are true, GRO focuses on fresh, local, and organic like no other Portland eatery.

So it came that Renee and I ordered takeout; luckily for me, Renee already had a menu on hand. And what a menu it is! It is a vegan's and vegetarian's playground. I could order anything on the menu. This surprised me, as some of my friends had told me that the menu was not very extensive; while GRO's menu is on the smaller side, a vegetarian can order any dish on it. Most restaurants leave vegetarians with one or two options for their main dishes—for vegans, the pickings are even slimmer. I found myself overwhelmed by the options GRO's menu offered. Overwhelmed in a good way.

GRO's cafe space is casual. It's a place from where one would order take-out or grab a quick lunch. It is clean and spacious, but it also has a hippie-who-wishes-he-were-a-graffiti-artist feel to it. The empty walls could use some artwork.

I first ordered a smoothie from their drink menu. I selected the Gaia-Sphere ($7 for a large), which, according to the menu, contains cashew and coconut milks, strawberries, kola nuts, blueberries, hemp seeds, bee pollen, dates, and ice. Yum. For my lunch, I ordered the Terra Burger, which GRO's menu describes as “A savory burger made with sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, carrot, and a hint of smoked-paprika” ($8). I also selected a chocolate to nibble upon while my lunch was assembled.

The chocolate was a large heart filled with coconut. The chocolate had good flavor, although the consistency was a little too fudgy (perhaps a side effect of one of Maine's rare warm days). The coconut center tasted fresh. I will definitely be going back to GRO for chocolates.

The Gaia-Sphere proved fresh, invigorating, and tasty. In fact, it was a meal in itself.

Staying true to its mission, GRO packaged my meal in a recycled, biodegradable container. Inside, my burger was posed in between two interesting pieces of bread. I've never seen bread quite like this before. The “bread” resembled herbed crepes more than bread or a bun. This is probably because they are live pieces of bread made from sprouted grains. They were tasty! The burger itself was also a treat: its nutty texture combined with the fresh pickles was a delight.

I like GRO Cafe. It's a place where vegetarians are the rule rather than the exception. I don't have to ask anything special to be made for me; I don't have to ask if the soup contains chicken stock. GRO made me feel like my visit had been anticipated. I will be eating at GRO again—very soon.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

El Rayo Taqueria

El Rayo Taqueria

101 York Street

Portland, Maine


El Rayo Taqueria has one thing that most Portland restaurants do not: a parking lot.  So although the lot was, for some mysterious reason, filled with City of Portland trucks and tractors, I was easily able to secure a spot.  Amid an implacable net of mist and fog, I entered El Rayo Taqueria.

Once inside, I was immediately pleased by the bright d├ęcor.  El Rayo Taqueria's decorative style—and I intend this in the nicest way—reminds me of a franchise or chain restaurant.  By that, I mean that colors, shapes, and other visual themes repeat throughout the restaurant, creating a uniform, tidy, and colorful ambiance.  The restaurant even sells merchandise—I spied an El Rayo Taqueria belt buckle in a display case.  Moreover, Spanish language education seems to be a key ingredient of this establishment; several signs contained both Spanish and English phrasings.  Further bolstering this eatery's flair is a bar where customers can eat lunch while watching the kitchen staff work.    

The menu included a good number of vegetarian choices.  I was disappointed to see, however, that most vegetarian options lacked protein; by this, I mean that few to none of the vegetarian entrees featured beans and/or rice.  For example, the one vegetarian burrito is described as: “Grilled portabello mushrooms, caramelized onions & poblano peppers with salsa.”  This sounds delicious, but these ingredients force health-conscious vegetarians to order side dishes.  Personally, I sometimes go out for Mexican food precisely because of the protein fix it promises.  Don't expect to get that from El Rayo Taqueria.

After waiting in line for a little too long—the cashier seemed confused--I ordered the Tacos Venduras ($3.75), which the menu described as: “Chile dusted grilled vegetables with smoky tomato salsa & pickled onion.”  I thought this sounded delicious.  I also ordered some rice ($1.50) and a large guacamole ($2.20).  I was very pleased that my meal, in total, was around seven or eight dollars.

Then my meal was delivered to me.  I must say that I was disappointed—and surprised—by the portions.  My taco (singular) was comprised of a store-bought tortilla with about a half a cup of toppings on it.  I say a half cup because the veggies were fluffed up—it was probably closer to a third of a cup or a quarter of a cup.  My side of rice was also small—about a third of a cup of loose, not packed, rice. Fortunately, the guacamole was sizable—also a third of a cup—but I worried that I would not have enough food to act as a vehicle for this, my favorite condiment.  As the friendly runner set these items on the table before me, I said, “Wow.  That's small.”  With a smile, he asked if I wanted another [taco].  I did want another, but I looked at the line that had formed and the befuddled cashier behind the counter and realized that “another” would be a really long wait.  I'll say this honestly: I am not someone who expects super-sized portions.  I appreciate a small meal.  So for me to say that the servings were small means that they were indeed small.  Apparently, El Rayo Taqueria's patrons are supposed to know that the menu is a la carte.  No one told me.

The taco itself tasted fine.  It wasn't as flavorful as I would have liked it to be—I think I was expecting a lot more of a kick, with the smoky salsa and pickled onion that the menu promised.  The rice was fine.  It was rice.  The guacamole was also okay.  I heard diners near me saying, “Mmm, this guacamole is so good!”  I wanted to interrupt and point out that it was fine, not “good.”  The guacamole's color was a brownish chartreuse instead of bright green, indicating that it wasn't the freshest batch.  Furthermore, I think the guacamole could have used more garlic.  It was, however, creamy and appeared to be made from actual avocados, which is a good move.  That being writ, there is better guacamole to be found in Portland. 

After finishing my meal, I started to bus my table.  This was no easy task.  The trash receptacle and dish depositories were directly beside the long line of customers, and I found that both interpersonal and navigational skills were needed in order for me to successfully clean up as expected.  Cords separating the dining area from the line area made this task even more difficult; fellow customers had nowhere to move, as they were cordoned off from the free space.  Moving the bussing area would help El Rayo Taqueria with the flow of traffic.  

I know from reading other blogs that authenticity is a criterion that many people use to judge a Mexican restaurant or any “ethnic” establishment, for that matter.  Some people will claim that a restaurant serves “authentic” Mexican foods, and others will claim that the same restaurant does not.  I will not engage in this debate.  Yes, I have been to Mexico.  I was there for a month, and in that month, I learned that food varies depending on who makes it.  Because of this and other travel experiences, I don't believe in culinary authenticity.  Chefs vary.  Additionally, I enjoy innovation; I will not bemoan an “inauthentic” meal if the chef's interpretation brings new or lively flavor to the dish.  

Unfortunately for El Rayo Taqueria, I didn't feel like the chef brought very much flavor to my meal at all.  I could have made a far more impressive—and appeasing--meal at home.