PAN-ROASTED COD With a summery succotash.
These days when chefs move to Portland to open a restaurant they often want to tell you why. They flatter us with talk about Portland’s adventurous palates, our exciting “food culture,” our reasonable rent, our fresh seafood, our local farms, and the particulars of our regional produce. They drop references to famous places they have run or apprenticed or sous-chefed. They have a vision, and they are eager to talk about it. It can be fun. It’s entertaining to hear someone try to give new life to the established food clichés. And who doesn’t like a bit of anticipation? Sometimes they live up to the hype they work to create.
But opening loud has its dangers. You get resumes from the most charming but problematic servers. You get proposals from the most persuasive and expensive design firms. You build expectations and invite disappointment, even schadenfreude. So it is refreshing to find a chef who has taken the alternative path: show up, start cooking, and wait for word to get out that you are good.
Word should start getting out about the new dinner service at Artemisia Café, with food from a well-pedigreed chef who returned to Portland for the simple reason that this is where he is from. By quietly taking over the well-loved brunch and lunch spot in the evenings, chef Guy Frenette is keeping his overhead and profile low even as his menu shows that his ambitions are lofty.
The first sign was off the menu actually: a complimentary amuse-bouche of a smoky creamy seafood soup — perfect on a rainy evening, with big pieces of fish piled into the tiny bowl. The menu features more “small bites” that offer intriguing flavors for just four or five dollars, from a Hawaiian style poke to a Lebanese muhummara spread. We tried a grilled peach with pancetta and pea shoots. The grill had brought out the sour and tart flavors in the fruit, but there was still enough sweetness to work well with the crispy strips of salty pancetta. A balsamic drizzle emphasized the sour saltiness of the dish.
The menu offers four pastas, which are the specialty at Oliveto, the terrific Berkeley restaurant where Frenette learned his trade. We tried the simple and delicious spaghetti with clams. The thin broth was very rich, hearty, and salty — especially as it soaked up flavors from the generous portion of pancetta sprinkled among the noodles. There were many tender clams, and our only complaint was that the pork pushed the flavor of the seafood aside a bit.
An entrée of pan-roasted Maine cod featured a great summery succotash under the tender fish. It was a big, sweet, crunchy pile of sweet local corn and green beans, spotted with tender and sweet green and red heirloom tomatoes. The fish itself was perfectly cooked, and the whole dish had a pleasant buttery undertone that was cut nicely by a few squeezes of lemon. Another entrée of lamb meatballs has the courage to look like a big appetizer. It was great — the lamb had a nice muskiness but the dish was not too heavy. The meatballs sat in a richly sweet muhummara spread made with red peppers, which was a great foil for the lamb (as was the zing of paprika over the dish). Grilled flatbread and fried queso rounded out the entrée.