Before we turn our thoughts to the new year, we bid a fond farewell to the old one with our A to Z roundup of the most significant trends and events of this past year.

Marisa Polk and Jeanette Baum, right, take a lunch break from their jobs at CIEE to eat at nearby Mami on Fore Street in Portland.

A – is for the Asian invasion. Just when it felt like Portland would sail away on a sea of mediocre Thai restaurants, along comes a welcome influx of quality Asian cuisine. Joining the city’s small pool of excellent Asian restaurants – Empire, Miyake and Tempo Dulu, to name three – are new places that have inspired countless office worker lunch runs for pho, bahn mi and anything with noodles: Cheevitdee, Cong Tu Bot, Izakaya Minato, Mami, Sichuan Kitchen and Yobo.

B – bagels. Is 2017 the year of the bagel in Maine? Yes! Chad Conley of Biddeford’s Palace Diner fame opened Rose’s, a Jewish deli in Portland that makes its own bagels and serves them with lox and whitefish. Forage Market in Lewiston, lauded by Saveur for its wood-fired bagels, announced plans to open a new location in Portland next spring. Rover Wood-Fired Bagels in Salem, Massachusetts, opened a shop in Biddeford that became an immediate hit. Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland expanded its bagel production in a new facility on Broadway – and opened a toast bar next door. Tried-and-true Mr. Bagel turned 40. And, just as the year ended, Bon Appétit magazine singled out the Montreal-style bagels at Purple House as “The Best Bagel we Ate in 2017.”

C – controversy. A few restaurants and bars really stepped in it in 2017. O was for outrage when the owners of the Danforth Inn named their new bar Opium – right in the middle of an opioid epidemic and on the heels of a multipart series in the Portland Press Herald detailing the suffering the drugs have caused Mainers and their families. Employees of David’s KPT said they felt blindsided when the restaurant abruptly closed Oct. 30, and they were laid off with no notice. Meanwhile, Holy Donut was just trying to do a good deed when it asked for help from the Salvation Army to find families in need during the holiday season. Instead, the shop was lambasted on social media for seeking help from an organization that has been accused of discriminating against the LGBT community. Wholly insensitive?

Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro marked a milestone birthday in 2017.

D – decade. Green Elephant, Emilitsa and Bonobo, all in Portland, celebrated 10th anniversaries in 2017, as did Harvest on the Harbor, the city’s annual autumn food festival, and Portland Food Map, the website that both gathers and aggregates food news briefs and reviews. The Portland area’s first restaurant delivery service (this gal’s best friend when she’s craving egg drop soup on a wintry night), 2DineIn.com, blew out 10 candles, while also adding 20 new restaurants this year. It now brings food to my home and yours from 67 restaurants in Greater Portland.

E – is for Eventide, which hit the bull’s-eye this year. In May, Eventide Oyster Co. chefs/owners Mike Wiley and Andrew Taylor won the 2017 James Beard Best Chef: Northeast award. Then, in October, Eventide Fenway opened, bringing Bostonians their own brown butter lobster rolls and Mainers a little hope that maybe next summer they can get inside the perpetually packed Portland restaurant. (U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree also brought home a Beard award this year. The Maine Democrat was honored for her “food leadership.”)

F – farmers market. Portland’s winter farmers market, which has been moved more often than a trailer in a tornado, seems to have settled down in 2017 at the Maine Girls’ Academy on Stevens Avenue. The new venue has three times the space of the previous market location, plenty of parking and easy access to two different bus routes. The new quarters reflect the market’s growing popularity among home cooks seeking to buy their milk, root vegetables and meats directly from local farmers.

G – Green Plate Special. This weekly column in The Maine Sunday Telegram’s Source section focuses on a sustainable cooking style in the kitchen. It’s written by Christine Burns Rudalevige, who turned her columns into a “green” cookbook this year – her first – and even snagged a Readable Feast award from the Boston-based nonprofit Let’s Talk About Food, a program that promotes New England cookbooks and food writing. Congrats, Christine!

H – is for Hawaiian sushi, also known as poké, which hula’d its way into Mainers’ hearts this year. The first Big Fin Poké opened in Westbrook a week shy of 2017 and became so popular another location just opened in South Portland – almost exactly a year later, and in time to provide a healthy way to start the new year. Mahalo!

I – is for Italian food, and our neverending love for it. The year 2017 saw the renewal of romance with the re-opening of The Roma in Portland. Tipo, a cozy new restaurant from Chris and Paige Gould, owners of Central Provisions, offered residents of Portland’s Back Cove neighborhood a place to enjoy a brunch of tagliatelle carbonara with friends. Solo Italiano in Portland continued to impress with its excellent crudo, addicitive foccacia, and light-as-a-cloud handkerchief pasta tossed with basil pesto. Renowned chefs Sara Jenkins (New York, but now Maine) and Barbara Lynch (Boston) teamed up in Rockport for a special dinner at Jenkins’ beautiful Mediterranean restaurant Nina June

J – is for juicy. Maine had a bumper crop of peaches last year, which were so good we’re still dreaming about them. Peach cobbler, peach pie, peach preserves … and, of course, just plain peaches eaten out of hand that dribble juice down your chin.

Erin French, owner of The Lost Kitchen restaurant in Freedom, grills burgers in front of her Airstream trailer.

K – kitchen. The lost one. Erin French’s 40-seat restaurant in Freedom was found in 2017 by 10,000 would-be diners all calling for reservations on a single day, April 1. The chef and her restaurant, The Lost Kitchen, drew national media attention from the likes of the New York Times, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” and Food & Wine, and French published her first cookbook. If you’re from Maine and haven’t heard of this place, you’re probably living in a cave.

L – lobster truck. Cousins Maine Lobster finally got around to opening a seasonal Maine food truck last summer, long after launching franchises in decidedly seafood-slim locations such as San Antonio, Atlanta and Nashville. It was a little like opening a shop that sells Toll House cookies in every state but Massachusetts. The truck is off the road for winter, but will be back in spring. Meanwhile, Bite Into Maine, the popular lobster truck based at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, opened a brick-and-mortar commissary in Scarborough, so we can devour those lobster rolls and lobster grilled cheese year round. Also, High Roller Lobster Co. morphed from truck to restaurant this year, with a spot on Exchange Street in Portland, dedicated, it says on its website, “to bringing Portland the lobster roll it deserves.”

M – maccu. You’ll find this vegetable dish at Slab restaurant in Portland. Hey chefs, looking for the next Brussels sprouts-esque, best-selling side? Consider the lowly lima bean, rarely found on restaurant menus but beloved by many. (OK, me.) Slab shows what’s possible with the baby lima beans it serves in a creamy fennel brodo. Maccu is Sicilian peasant food, traditionally made with fava beans, and is described on the menu as dating to the 7th century BC Greek occupation. All hail the lima bean!

Noble BBQ has been a welcome addition off the peninsula in Portland.

N – Noble BBQ. Noble opened in 2017, handily illustrating the fact that barbecue in Portland just gets better and better. Its smoky chopped pork and tender beef brisket are must tries, whether piled onto brioche with housemade slaw or eaten on their own. Elsmere in South Portland, which is planning a second location in Portland, and Terlingua on Washington Avenue are also turning out quality meats. But the biggest sign that the area’s barbecue scene has arrived? Southern Living magazine, the Bible of Southern belles everywhere, last summer named Salvage BBQ the best in Maine, “a Portland gem.”

O – openings. More than 20 notable new places launched in 2017: Bolster, Snow & Co. opened on the first floor of the new Francis Hotel on Congress Street. Little Giant, from the owners of the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club, and Chaval, from the owners of Piccolo, both opened in the heart of Portland’s West End. Island Creek Oyster Shop, Izakaya Minato and Cong Tu Bot all opened on a tiny stretch of Washington Avenue, Portland’s newest restaurant hot spot, where Bob’s Clam Hut announced plans to open soon. Meanwhile, Baharat started serving Middle Eastern food just a couple of streets over on Anderson, while Sichuan Kitchen, the Roma, Yobo, Mami, Cheevitdee, LB Kitchen, Lazzari and BRGR Bar all set up shop in downtown Portland. Tipo, Rose Foods and Noble Barbecue stepped away from the crowd and opened off the Portland Peninsula. North 43 Bistro opened in South Portland, while in Biddeford, well-known Salt Lake City chef Bowman Brown opened a restaurant called Elda.

P – potato. The Caribou Russet, known as “the potato lover’s potato,” became more widely available in 2017 when it hit the shelves in Hannaford stores statewide. The Maine Potato Board touts it as “perfect for baking, mashing or grilling.” We plan to use it as our excuse to go to town with ultra-buttery mashed potatoes this winter. We’re just supporting the Maine economy, right?

Q – quaffing. It’s so easy to do with all the great cocktails on offer in Portland’s happening restaurant and bar scene. Two new and notable bars that opened this year? Blyth & Burrows on Exchange Street, and Opium, the bar inside the Danforth Inn; the latter makes exotic drinks with names like Canceled Honeymoon, and serves them over sorbet (the Sake Snow Cone) or in a hookah (the Absolem). Maine Craft Distilling moved to new digs on Washington Avenue and hired a chef. And Hardshore Distilling Co., also on Washington Avenue, won USA Today’s Readers’ Choice contest for America’s Best Craft Gin.

R – Rosemont Market & Bakery. The local favorite expanded its mini grocery empire again, adding a store in Cape Elizabeth, the sixth Rosemont market to open since 2005. Hey Cape Liz! Try the semolina rolls and the take-home beef lasagna.

Outliers, located at 231 York St. in Portland, closed with no explanation in 2017.

S – is for sayonara. We said hello to nearly two dozen new restaurants in Greater Portland this year, and we said goodbye to quite a few as well. Among the restaurants and other food-related businesses we lost were Granny’s Burritos, where starving college students have gone for cheap meals since 1995; Trattoria Fanny, chef David Levi’s tribute to his grandmother; K. Horton Specialty Foods – we still miss its great collection of local cheeses; Outliers, a closure that was never explained to its many fans on Portland’s West End; Salty Sally’s; and Thurston’s Wicked Good Burgers. When Roustabout closed unexpectedly, its well-regarded chef moved over to the new Roma. Sonny’s closed, but the owners plan to replace it with a burger spot; the news delighted burger lovers but upset Sonny’s fans. Also shuttered in 2017: Catbird Creamery in Westbrook and much lamented Custom Deluxe in Biddeford.

T – trends. Small plates are still a thing, but now more Maine restaurants are doing large-format dining – shareable meals served family style to large groups. (Woodford F&B is the latest, offering large-format dining to parties of six or more, reservations required.) Avocado toast may be on the way out, but the public’s love of toast is still going strong. This national trend has brought us our very own toast bar, courtesy of Scratch Baking Co. in South Portland. Those veggie burgers that “bleed” like real meat also made it to Maine in 2017. Nitro cold brew coffee and grain bowls appeared on menus all around Portland. And home cooks in Maine, like everywhere else in America, raved about the versatility of their Instapots.

U – University of Southern Maine food studies program. Universities all over the United States have established food studies programs in recent years. Maine now has its own, launched this year at USM. The program offers a liberal arts education in food, with classes such as “Food and the Environment” and “Entrepreneurship and the Business of Food,” as well as paid internships to students who dream of starting their own food businesses.

V – violation. Several Maine restaurateurs got into legal hot water in 2017. Tom and Shannon Bard, owners of Zapoteca in Portland and Toroso in Kennebunk, faced at least a dozen lawsuits for unpaid bills after closing Zapoteca in June. Toroso closed a few months later. Two other southern Maine restaurateurs – Cynthia Brown, owner of J’s Oyster in Portland, and John DiSanto Sr., owner of Anjon’s Italian Restaurant in Scarborough – pleaded guilty to tax evasion and agreed to pay restitution as well as serve time in jail, according to court documents.

W – workforce. Make that lack of a workforce. Local chefs report that the staffing shortage in restaurants is only getting worse, and it’s one reason your favorite restaurant may be open only four days a week. Seasonal restaurants suffered mightily over the summer, as new immigration policies made it even more difficult for them to fill open positions. And Mainers spent much of 2017 debating tipping policies, as some restaurants experimented with no tipping at all.

Larry Matthews Jr. plates food during a busy dinner hour.

X – is for X factor, that indescribable quality that makes a person or institution eXtra special. And while his restaurant is too often overlooked in these go-go restaurant times in Portland, we think chef Larry Matthews Jr. and Back Bay Grill have it. Matthews, who put in kitchen time at the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport and the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, has been turning out consistently impressive food for 20 years now, while General Manager Adrian Stratton ensures that the service is equally impeccable.

Y – yeast. This could go either way – bread or beer. We’re going with beer (big surprise). This year, local author and beer imbiber Josh Christie created a comprehensive spreadsheet of the state’s brewery tasting rooms – 97 in all (and counting). The list, which you can find on the Maine Brewers’ Guild website, includes meaderies and Portersfield Cider in Pownal, which orchardist David Buchanan opened in May. In June, 40 Maine craft brews traveled to a beer festival in Iceland in a custom-made shipping container. The surge in craft brewing in Maine proved too much competition for Geary’s, Maine’s original craft brewery. On the verge of bankruptcy, Geary’s was purchased in the spring by a Freeport businessman; he hopes to turn it around. And in other yeasty news, Rob Todd, founder of Allagash Brewing, committed his company to buying 1 million pounds of Maine grains per year by 2021, more than an eight-fold increase over its past purchases.

Z – is for zany, specifically – because this is Maine, after all, zany lobsters. But we’re expanding our lens beyond the state: A rare white lobster was caught off Chebeague Island in August. A rare yellow lobster – yellow lobsters are 1 in 30 million – discovered in Massachusetts that same month was donated to the New England Aquarium. The Transportation Security Administration took heat for mishandling a 20-pound live lobster found in someone’s luggage at the Boston airport. And then there was that poor lobster found off Nova Scotia in November that had the Pepsi logo embedded in its claw. These stories will be much more fun to share once the world has a lobster emoji.

Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky contributed to this story.

 

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