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Veg Out: Portland, Maine

June 23, 2016

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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow woke before dawn. The wind blew ocean mist clear through to his bones. He set out to walk. I was nearly 9 miles from his house in Portland to the lighthouse at Cape Elizabeth. 9 miles one way, people. And he walked. I submit that this was because there was no better place for him to witness the morning sun cross from sea to land.

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I am standing on Cape Elizabeth where Longfellow walked and I am HAVING A MOMENT and I am planning to relocate my writing desk to the Portland Head Light and exist on a diet of poems and salt air.

Aaaaaaand the moment has passed! BAhahahahahaha! Can we go eat now?

Slab pizza

Some people claim that Portland, Maine has the highest or second highest number of restaurants per capita in the U.S. behind San Francisco. In keeping with Maine’s independent spirit, some people disagree. And some other people have diligently researched the facts and have provided the data to support their position. (My fellow Americans: Remember when we used to have lively, civil, reality-based debates like this?)

Quantity of food in Portland notwithstanding, you will get no argument from me re: its quality. Exhibit A:  Olive oil droplets swaddled in the duvet of pizza pictured above, consumed at (the aptly named) Slab Sicilian Street Food.

Jules and I couldn’t have asked for better food guides than the front desk staff at the Press Hotel, housed in the former offices and printing plant of the Portland Press Herald, poised on the edge of the Old Port’s cobblestones. They recommended two restaurants that were not only veggie-friendly, but also organic, hyper-locally sourced, and impeccably fresh.

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(When I tell people I am a vegetarian, and they assume that I am a healthy, virtuous one, it delights me beyond measure. HOW LITTLE YE KNOW OF THE CHEESE BALL VAT I KEEP AT HOME.)

Press Recommendation #1: Flatbread Company,  a wood-fired pizza joint with an airy vibe and a view of the harbor. Watch that tender crust blister and sputter, watch the fishing boats glide by. The brownie that anchors your dessert will be wood-fired, too. (It’s under there somewhere, I promise.)

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Flatbread is a small chain that has built pizza ovens as far away as Whistler and Maui, but you’d never know it from the Maine-centric ingredients at the Portland location. A simple salad garnished with Maine sea kelp basically cancels out the brownie. A tall glass of the house lemonade, served hot, honors the seaside chill. The thing could easily kickstart a 10-day juice cleanse!

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Or you could sip it slowly and let it sooth the vocal cords you roughed up while singing your heart out to the Trey Songz version of “Life on Mars?” on the drive from Acadia National Park. And by you, I mean me.

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Flaky roti + hearty peanut curry + (vegan chocolate torte )(fresh orange-segment lollipops) = straight-up delicious virtue at Green Elephant, Hotel Press Recommendation #2.

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We visited Portland in late April at the tail end of the off season. It was quiet—at times a bit too quiet—but then again, it was nice to be able to explore sans crowds. In this part of Maine, even Subway serves a lobster roll, and frozen confections clamor for tourist attention. On Fore Street in the Old Port, witness the standoff between Gorgeous Gelato and Gelato Fiasco. On the way to Acadia, a giant, friendly lobster begs the question:  “Why stop at an ice cream shop when you can begin your ice cream retreat?

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Luckily, there’s still plenty of real estate left for creative cuisine. Back at Slab, Jules and I discovered a new kind of veggie sandwich: Pan et panelle, popular in Palermo, yet possible in Portland. It’s a beer battered, deep fried chickpea-cauliflower fritter, slathered in ricotta and served on a sesame-encrusted roll, with plenty of parsley, red onion, and a big old squeeze of lemon. For dessert, Slab’s “napolean creampile” changes its flavor profile monthly but, I suspect, always lives up to its name.

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Mad-scientist mixology abounds at the Bar at Tempo Dulu, located in the Danforth Inn, a Federal-style mansion built in 1823 that somehow manages to pull off a interior filled with electronic music, purple light, and clear acrylic chairs. From their web site: “Expect smoke and fire or foam made by a fish tank pump. Why serve [a cocktail] in a glass when you can serve it on a plate?” Why indeed.

Jules’s drink came with a heaping side of smoke, but it dissipated before I could take a photo. I may have been under the influence of a Mai Tai at the time.

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Breakfast in Portland keeps the flavor combinations crazy. At The Holy Donut, choices range from bacon cheddar to toasted coconut to chai, and the dough is made with Maine potatoes. Notes: Texture: Too cake-like for my taste. Frosting: A bit cloying. But many a Mainer would beg to differ, which delights me. And I do love how much the hot-pink pomegranate varietal resembles Homer Simpson’s ideal donut, sans sprinkles.

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There’s even a vegetarian tasting menu in town, presented at Evo Kitchen & Bar, where the service is as warm and comforting as the pitas, and the parade of mezze seems to stretch all the way down Fore Street.

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Muhammara + cloud-upon-your-tongue hummus + tabbouleh + that pita + so, so much of that pita + falafel + grape leaves in aromatic sauce +  a clever little fried artichoke, outer leaves groomed,  masquerading as leg of lamb + dessert of tahini and Greek yogurt and puffed pine nuts + um, everything else you ate today in Portland =

Do you really want to know? Then head back to the fitness center at the Press Hotel, where you can weigh yourself—lying down, if you like—on a vintage scale that’s embedded in the floor. Printers once used it to weigh bulk reams of paper. Don’t worry. This will be only slightly unsettling.

If you want to start walking it off, fair winds will assist.

Fair winds and following seas

 

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