THE APPEAL OF NOSH A smorgasbord of delights.
Portland's year in food in 2010 was marked by new ventures on the part of established players on the food scene. It's a tried and true recession-era strategy for those with the resources: you reinvest when rents are down, vacancies are high, and contractors are desperate for remodeling work. Right now credit is cheap, but only for those with some collateral. So it's the perfect time for the big players to double down. This is just how George Bailey explained small-town depression economics in It's a Wonderful Life: "Don't you see what's happening? Potter isn't selling. Potter's buying! And why? Because we're panicking and he's not. That's why. He's picking up some bargains."
The results have not been bad for Portland. On the upscale end of things, the Old Port saw the two most notable openings: HAVANA SOUTH, a branch of Havana from Bar Harbor, and SONNY'S, from the folks who run Local 188 in the West End. Each of them puts an emphasis on the bar and serves great drinks. Both offer a menu that is vaguely pan-Latin in approach. Havana's appetizers are Latin, and the entrées just Latin-inflected. At Sonny's the spices get soaked up in the richness of the big hearty entrées, which are just right for the Maine winter. The space at Sonny's is pleasantly spread out, while at Havana cozy colors and clever design prevents the huge space from feeling sprawling.
Over in Longfellow Square it was established Asian restaurateurs who opened new restaurants. This fall Masa Miyake, whose sushi place has become a favorite in the last few years, opened a noodle bar called PAI MEN MIYAKE. The Phoenix will visit it in the coming weeks. Earlier in the year Danai Sriprasert and Nattasak Wongsaichua opened BODA on the other side of the street. The partners once ran Bangkok Thai in the same location, and also run the Green Elephant down the block. While GE is vegetarian, Boda is doing wonderful things with meat. Pork is especially versatile at Boda. It turns up stuffed in sausage casing and jalapenos, nestled among the greens in a sour salad, and wrapped around dates.
Second locations and sister-restaurants popped up in many other locations around the city. VERANDA NOODLE opened last winter, but found its footing this year across the street from Veranda Thai. Biddeford's JEWEL OF INDIA opened a scrappy but tasty new location in South Portland. SIANO'S PIZZA opened downtown. And in the past year OTTO'S PIZZA became the go to place for a quick slice, expanded into a sit-down spot by absorbing the charming space next door, and opened a second location on the east side. WHADDAPITA was brand new this year, but showed an ambition to expand with its trademarked name and its ready-to-replicate formula for Greek fast food.
Those spots that were both new and local tended to focus on sandwiches like the terrific PO' BOYS AND PICKLES, and the more ambiguously appealing NOSH. LITTLE SEOUL, which the Phoenix will visit soon, opened in the fall, and Happy Teriyaki transformed itself into KOREA HOUSE. The very belated recent opening of FIGA suggested that first ventures are for the brave: how the chef-owner Lee Farrington managed many months of bureaucratic entanglements she only knows. LOCAL SPROUTS defied the Potter analogy by showing the strength of collectives even in hard times. Their quirky and affordable dinner service was one of the best surprises of the year. Meanwhile HOT SUPPA! demonstrated the benefits of stimulus spending in a recession, preparing to offer dinner service with the help of a development grant.