Classic retro

The Back Bay Grill offers stability
By BRIAN DUFF  |  October 9, 2008

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Back Bay Grill | 65 Portland St, Portland | 207.772.8833 | Visa, MC, AmEx, Diners, Discover | Mon-Thurs 5:30-9:30 pm, Fri-Say 5:30-10 pm
The government gets a lot of crap for offering subsidies that flood the market with bad food, like obesity-inducing corn syrup. It’s the sort of pressing crisis that John McCain’s single-minded anti-earmark campaign confronts — a courageous effort that is sure to sweep him into office. But the American government is also responsible for the emergence of classic fine dining as we know it. Staggered by the one-two punch of Prohibition and the Depression, elegant restaurants only returned to our cities amid New Deal and 1940s war spending — a long period when the government subsidized a greater variety of crops and small farms.

So our current economic uncertainty offers two possibilities for fine dining: either the government will rescue it once again or it will become completely unaffordable. Either possibility makes now a time worth revisiting the most of traditional Portland’s upscale restaurants — the Back Bay Grill — for a new hello or a fond goodbye.

Opened 20 years ago on an odd bayside corner, the Back Bay Grill looks seasoned rather than old. The front room and bar are truly lovely — with vintage lamps kept low, dark wainscoting, and a darker inlaid ceiling. A bustling open kitchen sits right on top of the bar, behind a curtain of copper pans. The larger, lighter back room is less striking, but has many nice touches, like the long leather bench, and the tiny corner booth we settled in. The room’s huge mural is charming in that it abandons sophistication for a cartoonish earnestness.

While the muralist was perhaps too eager to ingratiate, the staff pleases thanks to a calm expertise that is missing from many newer spots. The menu also reflects a desire to do familiar things very well, rather than trot out new tricks or trump up dishes with ingredient-resumes. Still, the gravlox appetizer — spirals of subtly house-cured salmon — came with a contemporary looking smear of green chive-oil and an interesting and mild horseradish mascarpone. A thin tomato soup, peppery and with the distinctive bitter of stewed tomato, flirted with the line between traditional and dull.

Back Bay Grill’s most retro move is to offer entrees that are better than the appetizers. So many restaurants do the opposite these days. Duck breast is often served undercooked, but the version at Back Bay Grill was left on the heat long enough to allow its grassy, almost beef-like flavor to deepen. Next to it was a crisp-edged minimalist slab of moist, dark, rich duck confit. It looked hefty and serious on the plate and tasted wonderful. The risotto’s grains offered bite rather than mush and clung to each other thanks to a mouth-filling rich and nutty taleggio cheese. The roasted parsnip agnolotti was only slightly less successful. The pasta could have been just a touch thinner, so as not to overwhelm the sweet-soft parsnip filling when biting a folded corner. The stewed tomato confit offset the sweetness a bit, as did the bits of spinach and roasted pine-nuts. Bits of soft ricotta were creamy and mild — contributing to the dishes’ soft and comforting sensibility.

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