Group effort

Be the Guffman crowd's guest at Chef et al.
By BRIAN DUFF  |  June 11, 2008
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Chef Et Al. | 408 Forest Ave, Portland | Sun 10 am-3 pm, 5:30 pm-midnight; Mon-Thurs 11 am-3 pm, 5:30 pm-midnight; Fri 11 am-3 pm, 5:30 pm-1 am; Sat 10 am-3 pm, 5:30 pm-midnight | Visa/MC/AmEx/Disc | 207.400.5054
In one evening at Chef et al., a new restaurant near the University of Southern Maine on Forest Avenue, we were doted upon by no fewer than five black-shirted servers and one owner. We barely missed the chef, finishing our meal as he began to chat up diners. This earnest group refolded napkins, changed wine glasses, small talked, refilled waters, checked on the food, and even did some job networking.

Because the space is so wide open, a great deal of the ambience at Chef et al. involved this quirky staff (making the restaurant’s name highly appropriate). It is fortunate then that this group is so pleasant and earnest. They have their own unique quirks (a Lisa Loeb-type cutey, an arty/mod girl, a gay guy with designer frames, a friendly jock) but seem united by a genuine enthusiasm for the restaurant and for good service. It felt slightly like the Waiting for Guffman crowd had opened a restaurant.

Of course what makes the Guffman crowd so entertaining is that they actually have talent despite the awkward situations they improvise within. We felt the same way at Chef et al. Chef/owner Tom Johnson worked as sous-chef to Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier at MC Perkins Cove in Ogunquit. This gives him a more impressive pedigree than the chefs at some more-hyped restaurant openings this year. At his own place Johnson is sending out food that Frasier and Gaier might appreciate.

Carrot apple bisque drizzled with crème fraiche was attractive in its bowl and refreshing on a warm night. It had strong sugars and a bit of the texture of applesauce, but also an undercurrent of vegetative earthiness. A spinach and strawberry salad was also summery and sweet, with little bits of candied walnut, big chunks of fruit, and a smooth chevre.

Sweet notes were also the rule in a very good house-brined turkey sandwich. The mango chutney and red onion jam added neon colors and soaked the crisp toast, but did not obscure the juicy, salty turkey sliced just thick enough. We got it with the orange-brown honey truffle frites, which spoke of honey more than truffle. Mussels steamed in a broth of Guinness, mustard, and caramelized onions finally introduced some more tangy and bitter flavors. Dark onions and delicious brown-speckled broth clung to every fat and creamy mollusk.

The flatbread of the day was a pretty straightforward sausage pie with mild meat and cheese. The duck and sausage entrée was more interesting and impressive. While the skin was barely crispy, the flesh was juicy and tender. It came on top of a large serving of very creamy polenta spotted with halved grapes and topped with chard. Particularly as long as the chard and sausage held out, this dish balanced the dominant sweet-corn flavor nicely.

We tried a few of the house-made desserts and were pleased. A lemon cheesecake with blueberries managed to be light and offered real citrus zing to complement fresh blueberries. A flourless chocolate cake also avoided heaviness even as it was rich. Sundaes served with cookies or brownies were deeply comforting and delicious.

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