This year Portland's restaurant "scene" seemed to nudge its way into the consciousness of the national food media — beyond the occasional write-up in the Boston Globe and New York Times, and into national magazines, West Coast newspapers, and lists of "top ten" this or that. Recently some Oregon gourmands expressed annoyance that Epicurious had compared our smaller Portland favorably to theirs. One suggested that the best thing about people in Maine is that we wouldn't give a crap.
DEEPLY LOYAL TO SIMPLE FLAVORS: The best new restaurant in Portland in 2008: Emilitsa.
Do we? If so, it is because Maine restaurants, including the ones that get attention in these national write-ups, rely on tourists to get through the year in the black. In a state that is shameless enough to make its motto "Vacationland" while nestled up against one that sticks with "Live Free or Die," it's worth considering how the tourist dollar affects our fine dining.
It's one topic in what is probably the article about Maine food most read in 2008: an old piece on the Maine Lobster Festival written for Gourmet magazine by David Foster Wallace. Wallace died in September, and his old articles were posted liberally in memoriam. After visiting Maine he concluded that to be a tourist "is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing."
But we need our insects. The sad fact about Portland is that we are, like Nikolay Davydenko or Dennis Kucinich, simply too small to support our own passion and talent. We have no choice but to embrace the economic significance of the existentially suspect, to hope they use a sanitizer when leaving the cruise ship, to cook for them, to eat what they enjoy.
Given these constraints, Portland does remarkably well. Most of our best restaurants feel genuinely organic to the city — like they are run by and for Portlanders rather than packaged for others, no matter what the economic realities. Those restaurants where the experience begins to feel a bit soulless are the ones that board up — Mim's and Natasha's this year, for example. But there is a certain sameness that underlies a lot of our upscale restaurants, from 555 and Fore Street to Caiola's, Blue Spoon, Walter's, this year's new Grill Room, and beyond. It is exemplified by the tyranny of the $20 hanger steak. They all turn to it (often with spinach and white beans) when they need to throw the people some red meat, and it speaks to a larger commonality of thinking dictated by the marketplace. (Hugo's does not have this problem, but then Portlanders, inexplicably, do not eat at Hugo's.)
So it will reflect a certain psychological independence if we embrace a place like Emilitsa, the best new restaurant in Portland this year. While Greek cuisine is not exotic, Emilitsa shows the kind of deep loyalty to the clarity of a certain set of flavors and ingredients — in their case primarily lemon, olive, lamb, and yogurt — that more often emerges in larger cities that can cultivate the novel without external assistance.