With Labor Day weekend behind us, so goes the high tourist season here in Maine. While this means less crowded beaches and the possibility of finding a weekend parking space in the Old Port, it signifies a major transition for restaurateurs around the city. But for Chef Steve Corry of Five Fifty-Five, at 555 Congress Street, it also represents a chance to shift his energy and his culinary focus.
"The menu in the summer is a lot of steak and lobster," he said. "It's a bittersweet feeling when summer ends because we're busy every night, but at the same time the transition to fall means the best harvest season is upon us." With tomatoes and corn still coming in as well as a bounty of apples, pumpkins, and other fall fare on its way, Corry said the best is yet to come.
As a chef in Portland, one of the challenges has been striking a balance between the local and tourist communities. "In trying to please those from afar, it's hard to anticipate when and how to adjust the menu and still keep the savvy Portland community happy," he said. A spike in culinary awareness in the city, thanks largely to national and local media attention as well as a thriving culinary-focused blogosphere, has increased expectations among patrons — local and visitor.
But attention isn't new to Corry, who was featured as one of Food & Wine magazine's Top Ten Chefs of 2007. "When we got the award we had been here for four years, so we did have trust amongst the local clientele that we were putting out food they would like, whether it was frog legs or foie gras," he said.
In spite of the culinary freedom such an award bestows, Corry and his wife, co-owner and front-of-the-house manager Michelle, want Five Fifty-Five to remain approachable. One way they have done so is through playful wording on the menu. For example, "the not so 'boaring' pasta" is a homemade fettuccini with a slightly spicy house-made wild boar sausage, drenched in garlic scape pesto, with toasted pine nuts, fresh and crisp shucked peas, cherry tomatoes, and a dollop of light ricotta to top it off ($24.95).
In addition to the regular menu, Five Fifty-Five also offers a signature five-course tasting menu ($60) that allows guests to sample many of the dishes that put him on the culinary map. But it's the Chef's Tasting Menu, which is $70 for five courses and requires reservations 24 hours in advance, that is an opportunity for Corry to do what he likes best. "This is where we get to play with different techniques and incorporate more exotic ingredients," he said. When making reservations, diners only indicate food allergies or things they will not eat, "otherwise they're at the whim of the kitchen," he said. "We live for that."
But Corry is not about to rest on his laurels. Five Fifty-Five is set to reintroduce the Point Five Lounge on October 5, featuring a new bar menu with items like venison chili, a play on corn dogs and chicken wings, and other items that Corry is currently creating. "It will still have the Fives touch, but the food will be more approachable and affordable," he said. The October 5 event is not only an effort to publicly distinguish between the restaurant and the lounge, which occupies the corner of Oak and Congress and opened in June 2006, but also a continued effort to reach out to the local community. "I don't want to get pigeonholed into being a special occasion restaurant," he said. "I want college kids and those in the industry both to come here — those are the people we want to appeal to — otherwise we're just cooking for appearance," he said.
Leischen Stelter, who like many in Portland's food scene once worked for Steve Corry, can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
FIVE FIFTY-FIVE |555 Congress St, Portland | Sun brunch 9:30 am-2 pm; Sun-Thurs dinner 5-10 pm; Fri-Sat 5-10:30 pm | Visa/MC/Amex | 207.761.0555 |fivefifty-five.com