Few of us are fortunate enough to have been raised in a household with a truly excellent cook. Yet nearly everybody carries around childhood mealtime memories that, triggered by a particular whiff of spice or smoke, activate cascades of nostalgia. More often than not, we’re not really reminiscing about the food itself; we’re thinking about the people who were there to experience it with us.

There’s a similar, wistfully homey vibe that seems to underpin nearly every aspect of The Front Room in Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood. From the coziness of the semisubterranean space, with its muted color palette and built-in wood bench seating, to the baker’s station, a fixture at many of chef/owner Harding Lee Smith’s restaurants: a nook at the back of the dining room festooned with pans, colanders and balloon whisks suspended from the ceiling. Here, out in the open, is where the house-made focaccia is sliced, where the pasta is rolled out and cut, and where silverware is sorted by the servers into tidy, jangly bundles.

Then there’s the menu, which chef de cuisine Edward McGregor (formerly of Dutch’s), describes as “more classic meat-and-potatoes cooking than most other places in Portland … kind of like your mom’s cooking, but on steroids.” Indeed, American comfort food (with or without performance enhancers) has been the The Front Room’s culinary focus since owner and executive chef Harding Lee Smith opened the restaurant in late 2005.

Lovers of meatloaf and macaroni and cheese embraced The Front Room – the first of Smith’s “Room” restaurants – right away, and they continue to fill the dining room nearly every night, more than a dozen years later. The menu has expanded a bit to accommodate Portlanders’ increasingly sophisticated palates, largely by incorporating comfort foods from farther afield.

So today, alongside a too-sweet cakey brownie with walnuts and chocolate chunks ($3), is a French bistro classic: crème brûlée with the requisite crunchy sugar crust that your server caramelizes in the baker’s station. Light and just eggy enough, it’s a lovely dessert.

McGregor has brought a few dishes of his own to the menu. For one, a delightful cauliflower appetizer ($8), made by dipping florets in buttermilk, then tossing them in breadcrumbs and Parmesan before baking them until they are crunchy outside and tender inside. Perhaps the best part of the dish is the smoked grape-tomato aioli drizzled over the top – its flavors and aromas call to mind smoky sausages like chorizo and andouille.

Another is McGregor’s chicken pot pie ($18), a dish he prepares with the leftovers from The Front Room’s evergreen all-star, the roasted half-chicken ($19). He and his team take the picked meat from those chickens, then fold them into a suave velouté made from duck stock. Doubling down on duck, the kitchen also prepares its crust with duck fat instead of butter, giving the single layer of pastry draped over the top a ruddy golden color and what seem like millions of microscopic, flaky striations. I would have happily traded half of the underseasoned chicken in the cast-iron serving dish for a bottom layer of that pastry.

Other dishes I sampled were uneven, seeming to falter in many of the same ways as the food described in this paper’s three-star review of The Front Room from 2011. Our then-reviewer praised the still-admirable skillet corn bread ($2.50/slice) but went on to describe the need for the kitchen to do a little more “hovering and tasting …”

I had much the same feeling when I sampled the undercooked side of roasted Brussels sprouts ($6), and again when I dug into my enormous serving of gnocchi with mussels, seared pork belly and butternut squash ($19). Components of the dish were excellent, like plump Bangs Island mussels glistening with oniony broth, or chunks of crisp, salty pork belly. But the main ingredient, airy ping-pong-ball-sized gnocchi that are seared separately then added to the pan with lots of thyme and butter, were nearly flavorless. Only when you get a bite with every single element does the dish come together, and that’s no easy feat with dozens of shells in the way.

The salmon pastrami with horseradish aioli, capers and homemade Maine brown bread ($12) is similarly a tweak or two away from reaching its full potential. There’s nothing to fault in the slow-smoked salmon; it’s just fatty enough to mute the vivid crackles of pepper and acidic bite of pickled onions. But the disc of already-moist steamed bread at the bottom goes mushy very quickly – it needs more of a barrier to keep it intact. The molasses-rich bread is also probably the wrong choice as a base; the acid and salt from the ingredients piled on top of it amplify its sweetness making it taste like a bran muffin.

The salmon pastrami topped a disc of homemade brown bread.

“That bread’s not for everyone,” our server remarks when she spots that we have left much of it on the plate while leaving behind not a single flake of the salmon. “But isn’t that salmon good? It’s been on the menu pretty much since we opened,” she continues. It’s clear that her easy enthusiasm is genuine, not to mention infectious. From the moment we sat down, she was warm and animated, even making us laugh out loud on occasion. When we tell her we’d like to have a look at the dessert menu, she puts her hand on her hips and cocks her head as she says, “Well, guess what, gentlemen? I have a surprise for you. Tonight, you’re getting an oral dissertation!” I’m grinning from ear-to-ear as she describes the evening’s sweets.

Since our recent visit to The Front Room, my dinner guest and I have chatted about the meal several times, and we inevitably come back to our genial, high-spirited server. “Do you remember how she couldn’t turn off the torch for the crème brûlée?” one of us will ask, recollecting the moment when she scrambled to find someone – anyone – to help her stop the riot of flames belching from the butane tank. “Or how everyone cracked up, and she just laughed it off and got back to folding napkins?” For both of us, that dinner was a joy, not so much because of the food, but because of the people we spent time with that night.

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. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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