A PERFECT GENTLEMAN Eleven-year-old head waiter James. Photo by REBECCA GOLDFINE
The Lost Coin Café is unlike any other restaurant in Portland. It seems to be run out of a church that is run out of what looks like a bar. The space is a bit odd and a touch scrappy, but it's welcoming enough. Several big flat-screen televisions hang off a wall of unfinished wood. The purple and royal-blue tones of the rest of the room might be charitably described as vibrant. The Lost Coin puts you in the mood for charitable thinking. It is based on the proposition that a nice dinner out on Friday night should be within everyone's reach. So it's just $12.50 for four courses that are prepared with verve and served with charm. A live jazz band provides atmosphere at a modest volume that allows the regulars to catch up with each other and chat up newcomers. Patrons who were short on cash that week seemed welcome too, and ate just as well.
The head waiter, James, is 11 years old. He handled formal service deftly even as he sporadically entertained a rambunctious five-year-old. He explains the prix fixe, takes your drink order (Pepsi, diet, root beer, or orange), and gives you a choice of soup. We ordered both the salmon lobster bisque and corn chowder (call or see the Web site for upcoming menus, which have limited options). They arrived in elegant bowls with a jaunty dash of paprika floating on the surface. The bisque was a genuinely pleasant surprise ? with a sophisticated broth that was thin, buttery, and a touch sour. It was more resonant of salmon than lobster and there was plenty of seafood in each spoonful. The corn chowder was a little thicker and less interesting but not bad at all.
The salads were a comfortingly old-fashioned lettuce and tomato, with a very sweet Vidalia onion dressing. As we ate them the band took a break. The bassist got a soda and chatted up a 10-year-old girl who was sitting at the bar, nursing her root beer. Our entrees arrived before they ran out of things to say.
Given that it was the third course of four, it was a generous plate of food, imaginatively garnished with a sprig of green, fresh raspberries, and a grilled slice of pineapple. Pineapple was the dominant flavor, along with hints of orange and cayenne, in the sweet jerk sauce that covered the grilled chicken. When we asked about the ingredients, James reported we were "in for a treat," and soon the chef delivered a hand-written recipe. The chicken came with a half a beefsteak tomato, lightly roasted with plenty of butter. The tomato was covered with corn that had a good crunch, alongside some carrots cooked just past tender. Creamy, buttery mashed potatoes were whipped up high.
In and of itself this plate was a good hearty dinner, and James was right to ask doubtfully if we had room for dessert. Having glimpsed it from afar, we asked if it was bananas Foster. "If that means a fried banana and a coconut ball," he improvised adroitly, "then yes." He brewed a fresh pot of decaf just for us.