MELLOW SWEETNESS Scallops and bacon over succotash.
The restaurant Portland & Rochester takes its name from the railroad company that finally connected our city to Rochester, New Hampshire. That’s near Berwick. In 1867 it took the merger of two companies to make that happen. So P&R invites us to harken back to the day when “local” wasn’t a de rigueur menu adjective, but a basic fact of life. It is to P&R’s credit that it manages to incorporate aspects of the new localism while paying appealing homage to the old. Its people are taking food seriously, but the atmosphere encourages you to relax, have a drink, and forget just how serious we have gotten about food.
It took a corporate merger to start getting Portlanders to Rochester, and 150 years later it still takes a shift in mindset to get Portlanders to think of the Bayside neighborhood as a place to go out. The bowling alley helps, and it was after rolling a few frames that the owners of P&R noticed the blocky building that once housed the railroad (and, more recently, G&R DiMillo’s). It doesn’t look too promising from the outside — nothing like the striking rail-station reclamations that house Paris restaurants and museums. But the interior has been given an appealing redesign. The effect is a bit cantina-ish, with lots of yellows and distressed wood, especially in the dining room, which is effectively separate from the cozy bar. Many of the details, like interior shutters and a rolling barn-style door, have a slightly Western feel.
The feel of the place encourages drinking, but the cocktail list is still a work in progress. In one gin drink, the Alchemist, the flavors of grapefruit, cucumber, and juniper washed each other out. Better was a rum drink that incorporated coconut as a milk rather than as a sweet syrup. It gave the drink a nice texture, but the milk obscured the lime and the spices in the rum. There are eight beers on tap, mostly local, half IPAs — and a bit steep in the $6-7 range.
The menu, like so many, combines classic entrées with a quirkier list of starters. Among the latter we tried the house-made burrata, something you don’t see on many menus. It was served a bit on the cold side, with the mozzarella as a tied-off pouch with creamier cheese inside. It was terrific spread on toast with some juicy roasted tomatoes and a palpably fresh pesto — which seemed all basil and garlic, and barely nutty. Stuffed chard leaves, on the other hand, managed to create a nice nutty texture and flavor out of quinoa, currants, and a touch of goat cheese. The chard had a good crunch and sweetness compared to the more common grape leaves.
Lobster cakes were served with a searing hot smear of red chili harissa and pink pickled shallots. The sauce and the breading of the cake obscured the flavor and texture of the lobster a bit, but it was still a nice dish. The scotch eggs, quail eggs encased in ground lamb, are served with the meat very rare on the inside. The lamb is nicely seasoned and works well with some bitter curly endive.