BANH XEO CREPE At Pho Hanoi.
Some things that you miss the first time are lost forever: infant bonding, hitting your backhand the right way during the crucial years where brain development locks in motor skills (roughly ages 8-12), high-school dating, the few years where Facebook was interesting. But in many other areas you can make up for lost time. Great dishes at restaurants mostly fall into the latter category. Sure, you can never go back and experience, say, what Miyake was like in its scrappy/wonderful first year. And with the vogue in ever-changing menus, there are probably hundreds of great dishes that come and go every year in Portland that nearly everyone misses. You can't think about it: that way madness lies.
Every year I hear that I missed a dish I should have tried in one of the restaurants that I write about. So last week I went back and tried a few. The banh xeo crepe at PHO HANOI (171 Ocean St, South Portland; 207.799.9055) was one. This Vietnamese pancake is usually simply made with rice flower and turmeric, sometimes paper thin and sometimes a bit thicker. Pho Hanoi's version is a bit on the thick side, and it's pretty terrific. With its alluring deep yellow color and light, delicate texture, the dish is a bit like an Asian omelet. It is stuffed with bean sprouts, scallions, shrimp, and some narrow strips of chewy pork. To eat it you rip off pieces, tuck them into a piece of lettuce, add a mint leaf, and dip the whole thing in a sweet fish sauce — achieving a complex mix of textures and sweet and savory flavors.
The yakitori grill at PAI MEN MIYAKE (188 State St, Portland; 207.541.9204) offers a simpler appeal — skewered meats grilled over a Japanese charcoal called binchotan. Sampling the yakitori offers a good opportunity to sit at the back of the long bar and watch the cooks at work over the narrow ceramic grill. It has a rough homemade look, and at one point a chef diverted its smoke with a Japanese hand fan — a charming spectacle. The idea behind yakitori is that the smoke has little odor, and the meat sears quickly on the ceramic grill's spectacular heat, preserving its natural flavor. There are about 20 varieties, and 10 parts of the chicken alone. The classic chicken leg and scallion was simple and appealing. Chicken tail was more interesting, somewhere between the texture of breast and thigh, with a little bone you had to work around. Short rib, so often braised to disintegration, here offers a nice chew. A mushroom wrapped in pork belly seemed to absorb the most flavor of the smoke.
Next door at PETITE JACQUELINE (190 State St, Portland; 207.553.7044), I had neglected the wine list. True enough. Sipping wine at the sort of French bistro PJ hopes to approximate is a great pleasure. PJ has an attractive bar, approachable bartender, and interesting list of reasonable wines by the glass. Their crisp thin fries, served with a simple tangy aioli, and their great little baguettes with sweet butter, are perfect company for wine. They have several quirky, crisp whites by the glass, which are a great way to start a meal. An unpretentious French bistro should also have a cheap carafe of house wine — a vin ordinaire. PJ's house red, a young blend of pinot and syrah, is plenty good. A bit astringent and thin at first, revealing a nice mix of dry tannin and fruit.