If you climb into a taxi and ask the driver to take you to the heart of Portland’s food scene, you might well find yourself dropped off at the corner of Fore and Union streets. Here, within a single city block, are several of the area’s most acclaimed restaurants and a few lesser-known gems, spanning a wide range of styles, cuisines and price points. It might very well be the town’s culinary center of gravity.

Easy access to excellent food is undoubtedly part of what attracts overnight guests to the Portland Harbor Hotel, whose own website calls the city “one of the ultimate foodie destinations on the East Coast.” Make it your home base, and some of the city’s best dining is no more than a few steps away.

The hotel also operates its own restaurant, BlueFin, which until October was known as Eve’s at the Garden. Dimly lit and tucked into an open alcove at the rear of the newly renovated, nautical-themed lobby, the space feels like an extension of the hotel’s common areas. Thematically, it ties in well, but it can be difficult to figure out when you’ve crossed the threshold. On a recent visit, I witnessed a visiting couple settle in to watch the flat-screen television from one of the upholstered loveseats, only to be surprised by a server presenting them with silverware and menus. “Oh no!” one said in shock. “We didn’t know we were in the restaurant!”

Perhaps, I thought, as I ate my meal alone that night – the only patron in the 40-seat dining room – that is what it takes to lure diners into BlueFin.

Two weeks and close to $300 later, I’m even less sure I know who BlueFin’s customers are supposed to be. I’m not sure the Portland Harbor Hotel does, either.

When I spoke with executive chef Tim Labonte, who also oversees the kitchens of sister businesses The Inn at Diamond Cove and Diamond’s Edge Restaurant & Marina, both on Great Diamond Island, he told me about the importance of “capturing hotel guests and maybe even enticing some locals” by attracting them to BlueFin. That’s a tall order for any Portland hotel restaurant, let alone one that shares walls with both Paciarino and Miyake.

It’s an even bigger ask for a restaurant that offers a subpar dining experience while charging room-service prices. Over two recent dinnertime visits, I encountered more than my share of disturbing events: a valet doubling as a piano-player who barked across the lobby at a fellow hotel employee, demanding that she “get back here now, before I leave”; kitchen staff peeking into the dining room, pointing and laughing at two diners; and a server who described the topping for that evening’s soup ($10) as “a whole bunch of those hard, brown onion things.”

Crispy fried onions, as it turned out, a garnish that added textural contrast to a puree of overwintered parsnips seasoned with rosemary ash, radish microgreens and tangy, teardrop-shaped Sweety Drop peppers. Compositionally, it’s a lovely idea for a creamy soup to feature flavors that bridge the seasons, but in the bowl, the soup was both unappealingly acidic and served at the temperature of coursing magma.

Several other menu items were undone by similar execution problems, like a hydroponic kale salad ($13) garnished with overnight-roasted cherry tomatoes that tasted of nothing. Or drinks, like a grapefruit elderflower martini ($12) and a strawberry-basil mojito ($12), both as weak as mocktails. On our way out of the hotel after my first meal at BlueFin, my dinner guest and I ran into a woman waiting by the elevators who was so thoroughly sozzled she could only remain upright through acrobatic counterbalancing on the part of her companion. “I guess she didn’t get her drinks here,” my guest ventured.

Desserts were even worse. Take the Nutella-flavored panna cotta ($10), for example. Set with enough gelatin to turn it chewy, it could not serve its intended purpose: to be spread onto the accompanying piping-hot, yet seriously oversalted fresh waffle. Or a deconstructed (and misspelled) affogato ($10) comprising a very respectable scoop of house-made milk chocolate ice cream ruined by flat, greasy hazelnut biscotti, and a miniature pitcher of refrigerated, pre-prepared espresso that had gone so bitter it made me wince.

The paella ($36) was just as heartbreaking. More like Tex-Mex “red rice” than a paella, it was drenched in canned tomatoes, underseasoned and served in a pan that had developed none of the sweet, crunchy socarrat base that a good paella always delivers. Strangely, chunks of cod, clams and mussels appeared to have been prepared separately, rather than in the rice, then added to the pan and blasted with heat from above, leaving the mussel meat singed and everything else lukewarm.

Across two meals, I tasted a few dishes that showed promise, even if they too were significantly flawed. One, the shrimp bucatini ($34), made with fresh pasta from Stoneheart Farms in South Paris, sundried tomatoes and a lush cream-sherry sauce, was the kind of hearty dish I might make at home – albeit cooked a minute or two less, and with a lot less butter.

Josie Hanlon and her husband, Fran Hanlon, finish up their lunch at BlueFin during their stay at the Portland Harbor Hotel. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

Another, the ginger-and-basil-glazed tuna loin ($36) with baby bok choi, spicy peanut sauce and a palm-sized square of golden, crunchy-griddled udon noodles, showcased some exciting flavors and innovative techniques. As I ate, I kept wishing it had not been so drippingly oversauced.

Labonte’s kitchen does manage to score a few clear, uncontested goals, however. His lobster mashed potatoes ($15) are an absolute revelation, with a giant portion of steaming picked lobster claw and knuckle meat stirred into duchess-style riced russet potatoes made luxuriously creamy through the addition of egg yolks.

The dining room at BlueFin seats 40. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

And then there’s the lobster popover ($25), an item I was certain was a winking nod to the signature dish of the Jordan Pond House at Acadia National Park. Instead, it’s a nostalgic riff on something Labonte used to prepare when he ran a farmers market stall. “When I worked there, I would make popovers and sell them stuffed with various items from all around the farmers market,” he said. “I just always thought it was a lot of fun.” He’s right, especially when his team serves the popover so comically overfilled with shredded lettuce and delicately dressed lobster meat that it requires an inverted stainless-steel taco stand just to hold it together on the plate.

In its well-executed, lighthearted presentation, it almost feels like a dish from another restaurant, one with an unselfconscious charm and confidence – a place where tables aren’t pessimistically set for the next day’s breakfast service by 7 p.m., and where the least expensive steak on the menu isn’t a dollar shy of $40. Somewhere, in other words, where diners are captivated, not captured.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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