THE CRUNCH AND THE CREAM Central Provisions’ house sheep’s cheese and liver pate
For years now the Old Port has been the place where young Mainers go to get black-out drunk. Getting wasted is the misguided way young people seek to jumpstart grown up experience—after a youth in which parents arranged playdates, collaborated on homework, and otherwise immersed themselves in childhood rather than modeling adulthood. Intoxication sloughs off our self-consciousness—specifically the consciousness that we have no idea how to connect with people and manage relationships. In My Struggle, his epic of self-examination and failed adulthood, Karl Ove Knausgård’s describes his life-changing discovery at age fourteen of “that clear, pure sensation that arose with approaching intoxication, and the desire to pursue it that always followed.”
But these days the city wants the Old Port to grow up—which is one reason new businesses there are required to offer a menu, rather than just drinks and Jell-o shots. And the neighborhood’s newish Central Provisions is grown up. But it also embodies our ambivalence about adulthood, and our persistent hope that a few more drinks will help us cope with it.
Central Provisions is undoubtedly a fine restaurant. But whether it’s also a place to get wasted depends in part on which door you enter. Through the front door on Fore St., where a small number of tables line the handsome space dominated by the open kitchen, you can indulge in a meal of sophisticated small plates. But the space crunch up there (and a no-reservation policy) means you are likely to be sent down and around back on Wharf St., where a bar surrounded by ample standing room encourages drinking and mingling over formal dining.
Sitting upstairs, the most important piece of consciousness to escape is that all these small plates must be adding up to some serious cash—especially since they are so thoughtful, interesting, and well-executed that you order more. The menu spans a range of approaches and ingredients, from New England to Asia to Spain, without seeming haphazard. Each dish seems like a complete idea unto itself.
Among the best were radishes roasted until some caramelized sweetness emerged, but still retaining the bite of bitter. Roast onion complemented the sweetness, while nori and miso deepened the savory side. Another dish caramelized sheep cheese until dark with crunch and chew, and sandwiched it around barely sweet roasted peach. A salad paired chewy-crispy pieces of pork with a funky sour dressing. Duck liver was creamy and mild on crostini, animated by the salty crunch of fried shallots and a hint of kumquats sour-sweet.
Even the near misses were pretty good. But lobster toast lost the meat within two slices of bread, and the curry dipping sauce was oddly sweet. Octopus perhaps relied too much on the flavor of char, and the beans underneath didn’t add much. Little fried arancini rice balls were cheesy and rich, but it was hard to detect either the ham or the spice in the tomato sauce.
While upstairs the service is smooth and the pace managed expertly, downstairs, where the drinks really flow, things get more haphazard and plates often arrive in the wrong spot. But the drinks are quite good—like a silver fizz that uses egg white to add texture to a refreshing sort of gimlet, or the corpse reviver that combines bourbon and citrus flavors into a cocktail that looks sweet but drinks bitter-sour.