Lack of expectations can lead to delight. Such was my recent experience at Street & Co in Portland, ME.
My wife and I were on the return leg of a one day, 350 mile round trip to points north. We decided to stop in Portland for dinner. I frantically searched my blackberry for a promising spot but was frustrated by slow download speeds. The only I found before giving up was an online top 10 list.
We set out but I was anxious that we would end up in a mediocre joint of our random choosing. We stumbled upon Street & Co and I remembered it was on the list. We perused the menu and agreed it looked promising, as well as a bit pricy. We stepped inside and were seated immediately. Lucky, I assume, because the place appeared full.
The atmosphere is casual, warm and even a bit cramped. There are three rooms – a bar, a dining room with a direct view into the kitchen and a separate dining room. We were seated in full view of the kitchen and it was fun watching the chef and his three assistants working in a tiny space. You could tell who was in charge – it was the guy with the scowl on his face.
The service was on the higher side of average. The maitre d’ was prompt but a bit on the brusk side. Our waiter was knowledgeable and efficient but had an air of arrogance. These characteristics could have hurt the experience had the food not been so good.
One incident was disturbing though. Our waiter was half way through describing the specials when he said, “Excuse me, the chef is yelling at me.” He turned on his heals and ran the 10 feet to the kitchen to receive his lashings. I know chefs can be temperamental but I think they cross the line of customer service when they yell across the restaurant and pull a waiter from a customer. The chef could see us, after all, and we him.
That aside, the rest of the experience was fantastic. My wife had a beet salad over vinegary greens, which was topped with a wonderfully crunchy and nutty picada.(a ground blend of roasted nuts, toasted bread, garlic and parsley; held together with a bit of olive oil). The beets were perfectly cooked – firm but quickly yielding. The picada added a nice counter point.
I had 4 raw oysters on the half shell. They were expectantly served on a bed of crushed ice but unexpectedly served without cocktail sauce. Only a mignonette sauce and lemon accompanied the now uni-valves. This struck me as a cocky thumbing of the nose to Joe Six-Pack by the chef. I wasn’t unhappy about the sauce’s absence, a mignonette is more fitting and less overpowering than the ubiquitous red stuff.
Street & Co. offered three oyster choices and I chose the briniest and most local – from Bath, ME. They were small to medium sized and as fresh tasting as you could want. Perfect.
Entrees were served in the pans in which they were cooked. An interesting and rustic touch to match the woody room and copper topped tables. My wife had clams in white sauce over linguini. A hearty serving with the clams still in the shell. The waiter dutifully, and without prompting, delivered waste bowls. The white sauce could have meant many things…many bad things…from too much cream to too much cheese. Not here, the kitchen used a light touch of white wine, clam juice, garlic and a bit of butter (okay, maybe a lot of butter). The clams were plump and delicious and the dish was disappointingly too large to finish.
I had an evening special the waiter called ‘seafood stew.’ I envisioned something akin to cioppino but did not ask for details. When it arrived I was not surprised to see several each of clams, mussels, shrimp and bite-sized chunks of swordfish. But I was surprised to see these morsels with their only their toes in the sauce 'pool' rather than swimming in it. This looked more like a mixed grill of seafood with a sauce than a true stew.
As soon as I tasted it I knew why the kitchen held back on the sauce. It was an incredibly rich (butter anyone?) emulsion of bold shrimp stock, saffron and butter. Did I mention the sauce had butter in it? It was absolutely delicious. The stew also included a small handful of white beans and tomato concasse. Again, all the seafood was cooked to perfection – nothing dry or chewy.
Deserts sounded tempting but we had to hit the road and my cholesterol count was high enough.
These stew surprises were not disappointments. They were just another challenge to expectations, or the lack thereof. I look forward to our next trip north. If I'm within 60 miles of Portland and 60 minutes of meal time I plan to try Street & Co again. This time with high expectations firmly in place.
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