Photo: Rebecca Goldfine
SUMMER DINING Al fresco in the heart of Portland.
Portland's Old Port is most beautiful just when it is least hospitable — in the bitter cold of winter when the crowds dissipate and Pandora LaCasse's whimsical lights decorate the streets. Recently the Portland Regency Hotel has endeavored to capture some of the charms of winter in warmer months. At this quiet intersection the trees are now strung with lights all year, and the hotel's popular bar and less-appreciated restaurant are offering their wares outdoors.
Just as Portland seems transformed when the winter lights go up, sitting outside the Regency you feel like you are in another city. The tables are scattered haphazardly on a grassy lawn across the street from the hotel entrance, the chairs spotted with colorful pillows. Nearby a courtyard sculpture depicts two dolphins playing piggy-back.
The string lights in the trees, and the bamboo fence fronted by a sea-rose hedge, give it the feel of the sort of leafy garden dining found all over Vietnam. Old-fashioned lanterns hang over many tables. Watching the waiters complete the long traverse from the 19th-century building in formal attire adds to the colonial feel. Customers seem to embrace the mood — dining in a desultory fashion, laughing rambunctiously, and talking themselves into extra rounds of drinks.
The Regency's Armory Lounge mixes some of the best cocktails in town, and we were happy to see legendary bartender Ben visiting the patio to serve drinks and greet regulars. Both the Armory menu and the more formal menu from upstairs at Twenty Milk are available outside. Each offers classic American hotel cuisine — steak, fish, chicken, and pork in traditional preparations — but the bar menu does it cheaper and the portions are ample (we did not sample from the "low-fat" section).
The scallops in one appetizer were big, tender, and perfectly cooked. They were a beautiful burnt-yellow brown thanks to a thick dusting of coriander, which had lost any bitter edge on the grill. They came with a candy-sweet apricot chutney, which was better when sampled in separate bites from the seafood. A tuna salad featured big slices of seared sesame-crusted fish, still pink and creamy-textured in the center. Underneath the fish and slices of grilled pineapple was a salad with big chunks of cucumber and tomato, touched with a light soy dressing. It was an American classic given a nice and subtle update with Asian flavors.
A Maine classic — fried fish and chips — was not updated at all but simply well executed. Fat pieces of fish were preserved by their thick breading from the fryer's grease, so the flesh remained moist and light. It came with a huge pile of crisp fries, plenty of lemony tartar sauce, and a green-bean casserole reminiscent of the Christmas classic with creamed mushroom and crunchy fried onions. A steak from the Twenty Milk menu was thick, peppery, and tender. The flavor was rich, but without the complexity of the sort of dry-aged (and very expensive) beef the chef was serving a few years ago. A smaller steak on the bar menu comes with a big dollop of gorgonzola. The meat was served with some grilled tomato halves, an old-fashioned scalloped potato that was not too heavy, and more of the green-bean casserole.