SMOKED SQUASH One of many creamy dishes for spreading at, well, Spread.
There is a certain sort of space that, for the very reason that it seems doomed, summons hopeful strivers who expect to redeem them. The Capitol building in Washington DC is one of these (see striver King, Angus), as is southern Europe (see Merkel, Angela), and the left wing in American politics (see Occupy Wall Street). Here in Maine we see this strange pull in our many abandoned mills now filled with a hodgepodge of entrepreneurs. In Portland you can see this in the restaurant space at the corner of Commercial Street and Custom House Wharf. Playing the role of hopeful striver in this case is the new restaurant Spread.
There is nothing really wrong with the space, originally created for Oolong, and more recently occupied by Gaucho's. There is a big, handsome curving bar in the front room, floor-to-ceiling windows, brick walls, and a funny mix of lights — from avant-garde glasswork to old crystal chandeliers. There is a quieter dining room, and a curtainy little nook all the way in the back of the bar-room. The high ceiling is unfinished wood, and so is one of the doorways, which is a slightly odder touch. Altogether, the space seems cavernous, though it's really not. The bar attracts a well-dressed after-work crowd, and gives them plenty of space to mingle with their drinks. A seasonal "leaves of fall" cocktail was made with gin and pear puree was pretty nice; an old-fashioned erred on the sweet side.
"Spread" is one of those funny words, like "relax," that you don't want to hear in most circumstances. The first section of the menu is itself labeled "spread" and gives you a sense of what they are driving at — creamy dishes you can eat smeared over toast. They come with a little pail filled with crisp and thin slices of just-oily toast, along with a few big pieces of cucumber and grilled carrot. We tried a wild mushroom ragout and the smoked squash. They were nice dishes for a cold fall night, and one thing Spread seems to do very well is think about the season, not just in terms of seasonal ingredients, but the flavors and textures that resonate with autumn.
We liked the ragout's creamy mix of diced woodsy, funky mushrooms, which mingled with an egg yolk on top. The squash was nice and smoky without overdoing it. Mixed with a raclette cheese it had the quality of a fondue, but lighter and sweeter thanks to the squash. Nutty, garlicky little loose balls made from pumpkin seeds floated on top, adding some welcome texture and salt. A bitter green salad also seemed very autumnal. They took the duckfat vinaigrette so seriously that it had shreds of tender meat in it, and the greens wilted slightly under more of the raclette. The bitter flavors and the fats of the cheese and duck worked well together.
Another warming dish featured a traditionally fatty German style sausage served with spaetzle and chard. The spaetzle was the best part of this dish — given a quick second fry, it seemed, so they had a drier texture with a nice bite. An entrée of pan-seared duck was well-executed. The meat was done perfectly — juicy with a thin just-crispy layer of fat. Bits of charred fig were an interesting idea, but the effect was a little candyish. A savory bread pudding was crisp-edged and surprisingly light.