To be honest, I carry low expectations when dining out at a restaurant during Restaurant Week. As with “dining holidays” like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve, restaurants offer prix fixe menus and often find themselves overcrowded. Having dined during a number of restaurant weeks in Boston, I never felt that I was seeing the best of what restaurants had to offer. Of course, for many diners, Restaurant Week will be their first (and often only) exposure to a particular restaurant. It’s a shame to think that many such diners aren’t seeing these restaurants in peak form. Nonetheless, Restaurant Week still holds a certain appeal for me. There are few better excuses to get out, support the Portland food scene, and enjoy some time with family and friends.
Happily, my Maine Restaurant Week meals have exceeded my expectations. Indeed, my dinners at Evangeline and Five Fifty-Five over the past week were as good as I have come to expect from these restaurants, regardless of the occasion.
Five Fifty-Five was the first “upscale” (for lack of a better term) restaurant at which S and I dined after moving to Portland a few years ago. At the time, we had limited knowledge of Portland’s restaurants other than that which we had gleaned from reading a few on-line articles (and visiting Portland Food Map). Still it was easy for us to identify Five Fifty-Five as one of the best restaurants in Portland and we were not disappointed. Although we had a great meal, we did not return again until last week.
We decided to dine in the lounge, figuring that we’d then have the option to eat from either the lounge or restaurant menus. S and I arrived a few minutes early and enjoyed cocktails (a gimlet and a sazerac, respectively) while waiting for our friends and the table. Both were quite good and it was clear that the bartenders took their time in properly crafting our drinks, particularly the sazerac, which isn’t an easy drink to make.
The Restaurant Week menus presented a number of enticing dishes, making it difficult to choose what to eat. I stuck to the lounge menu, starting with the cod and shrimp cake before the veal shepard’s pie. S ordered off the restaurant menu opting for the veal carpaccio and the pepper-crusted local scallops.
The cod and shrimp cake was served atop a slaw that had a slightly smokey component, perhaps due to some bacon or other smoked pork product. In any event, the cake, composed almost entirely of cod and shrimp with minimal filler, was well prepared and perfectly fried. As one of my dining companions observed: it tasted like cod and shrimp, just as it should.
S almost didn’t let me sample her veal carpaccio and then gave me dirty looks and accused me of eating half of her starter after I (honestly) only had one bite. It was that good. Almost paper-thin slices of veal served with a mustard-crème fraiche “drizzle” and lamb’s lettuce. The drizzle added a punchy bite to the otherwise mild veal, which seemed to melt on my tongue.
I ordinarily wouldn’t order shepard’s pie at a restaurant like Five Fifty-five, but after a day of skiing I was in the mood for hearty comfort food. With a pint of Brooklyn Lager, this dish hit the spot. Served in small individual-sized cast-iron skillets, the mashed potatoes had an inviting crust that gave way to the creamy potatoes and hearty stew. The filling featured tender pieces of veal and a flavorful gravy which enhanced the “meatiness” of the dish.
Although I loved the shepard’s pie, the scallops were undoubtedly the stand-out dish of the evening. They were prepared exactly as I like them: well seared on the top and bottom, while just cooked through on the inside. The pepper enhanced the crust and gave the scallops a welcome kick. But it was the “organic baby carrot-vanilla emulsion” that made the dish. I had read about scallop dishes incorporating vanilla, but had never tried this combination. It works. I didn’t realize that vanilla was in the dish, but upon tasting the emulsion, I detected a familiar but difficult to describe flavor (particularly in the context). Sure enough, that was the vanilla, adding an exotic note to the carrot emulsion and nicely complementing the scallops.
To end, I ordered the cheese plate which included Miticana, a goat’s milk cheese from Spain and “cave aged” Gruyere from Switzerland. Both good cheeses, they were accompanied by some toast points, candied nuts, and fruit compote. A fitting conclusion to a fantastic meal.
Although it had been two years since we last dined at Five Fifty-five, I hope to return again soon. I am sure to return to the lounge — a great place to sample some of the restaurant’s creative fare while not committing to the full cost of a meal at one of Portland’s best dining destinations.