Twenty minutes too late to spot the lead actor from a popular HBO series, I take a seat in Fore Street’s bar room. The woman to my left and her boyfriend can’t wait to tell me about him.

“He sat right where you are now. He and his girlfriend just sat down, and they literally did not talk the whole time,” she says to me in breathy, hurried tones as she pulls out her phone to unveil the amateur paparazzi photos she snapped of the couple when they weren’t paying attention.

There’s Eric Dane (or someone who looks uncannily like him, his face partly obscured by the photographer’s finger), scanning the evening’s freshly printed menu. Look, there he is again, mouth open as a forkful of turnspit-roasted Quebec pork enters blurrily from the right of the frame.

In another half-hour, I’d be enjoying my own order of the herby pork sirloin ($28), one of executive chef Sam Hayward’s signature dishes that – crusted with an electrifying coriander, juniper and black pepper rub – answers the unspoken question: What if Montreal steak seasoning were bumped up to first class?

And just like the actor who occupied my seat at the well-worn concrete bar, I can’t speak as I eat. It isn’t my choice, but my focus telescopes so that all I can think about is the plate in front of me.

Mea culpa to the bartender: I genuinely didn’t hear you ask if I wanted another ramekin of whipped salted butter for the torn remains of the quartered Standard Baking baguette in front of me. Time and again that evening and during a repeat visit a few days later, I kept losing track of my surroundings.

I swear I wasn’t being rude — just blissfully preoccupied by my meal.

Considering that Fore Street turns 24 this coming year, that’s a remarkable statement. Co-owners Dana Street and Sam Hayward have, for more than an entire generation, through all of the rapid phases of evolution that have seen Maine blossom into a real culinary destination, maintained their staunch commitment to seasonal menus driven by local suppliers.

The entire staff seems to understand the centrality of this ethos. Cooks and servers alike can tell you precisely which farms produce most components of your meal, even when they are sourced … rather unusually. When I ask head chef Daniel Young to tell me about the squash used in a phenomenal buttery puree served alongside an undercooked wood-grilled pollock ($28), he laughs as he confesses, “It’s some kind of heirloom squash. I’m not saying that because I forgot the name, but Frank Gross doesn’t know the name of it either. He’s a farmer who has been growing food for Sam and for Fore Street for over 20 years. We never order any food from him. He just shows up with whatever came out of his field, and we buy it because it’s good.”

Not knowing what’s coming in to your kitchen makes menu planning a challenge, which is why Fore Street’s chefs improvise, rewriting the menu every day. That’s no exaggeration: Two days after my first visit, I returned to find components of many dishes tweaked, some eliminated, and at least three new menu items added to the list. Every meal is like dipping your toes into the currents of Heraclitus’ famous river: You’ll never have precisely the same experience twice.

“Our dynamic ability to write the menu every day is beautiful, special and unique,” said Young, who until early this year helmed kitchens for celebrity chef Michael Symon. “It forces you to think and approach the food new every day. You could never come in and just phone it in. The versatility of changing the menu causes happy accidents, which is one of the reasons why I say it’s the most interesting restaurant I’ve ever eaten at or been a part of.”

Hayward and Street are no strangers to praise. In addition to Hayward’s 2004 “Best New Chef: Northeast” award from the James Beard Foundation, Fore Street has often been showcased in Maine travel guides and food-focused profiles of Portland. Five years ago, this paper’s then-reviewer swooned over the restaurant’s “always changing but always extraordinary menu” and “wood space that never seems too crowded or too empty.” I could have written much of that five-star review today.

Servers at Fore Street may find diners nonresponsive because they are focused on the excellent food. Staff photo by Derek Davis Buy this Photo

Take pastry chef Peter Robbins’ oversized caramel pot de crème, spiced with star anise, capped with a torched dollop of bittersweet, marshmallowy Italian meringue and plated with a pair of snappy molasses cookies that judder with clove and cinnamon ($11). Had I tasted this dish just a week earlier, before my filing deadline, it would have topped my list of the best desserts I ate in 2019.

Robbins’ chocolate-mousse-topped dacquoise of walnuts, hazelnuts and pecans ($11) wouldn’t have trailed far behind, although the plate’s true scene-stealer is an exquisite scoop of ice cream made by steeping cream with star anise, vanilla and hunks of snowy coconut meat.

Not everything at Fore Street is perfect. In addition to the underdone (and aggressively salted) wood-roasted Gulf of Maine pollock I mentioned, service occasionally grows absent-minded, especially if you dine late. On my second visit, one of the floor’s servers kept abandoning his tables to report scores from a Patriots game to his colleagues. At one stage, a woman from his section stood up and waved him down with a napkin.

Staff members expedite orders on Saturday. Staff photo by Derek Davis Buy this Photo

Still, it is a small miracle that a restaurant as old as Fore Street can count its minor lapses on one hand. And for every one of them, a countervailing triumph more than balances the scale.

On my first visit, it was a side order of carrots from Goranson Farm in Dresden ($8) that won my heart: steamed until al dente, then blasted in the raging wood oven. As their miniature cast-iron pan is retrieved from the flames, the oblique-cut, blistered French Bolero carrots get tossed in a coriander-orange vinaigrette and freckled with locally foraged sumac.If you’re after a less-expensive way to enjoy Fore Street, this is your ticket. Order the carrots and a glass of the lemony Torbreck Barossa Valley Semillon ($11), and you’ll leave satisfied, yet not stuffed, and just $25 lighter after tax and tip.

Indeed, light (and less costly), mostly plant-based meals are easy to assemble at Fore Street, even in the winter. That’s due in no small part to Hayward and Street’s enduring relationships with local farmers willing to dedicate valuable hoop house real estate to greens like succulent winter purslane (aka miner’s lettuce) from Bowdoinham’s Dandelion Spring Farm.

In the Northern Spy apple salad ($15), a generous thicket of the delicately tart greens get a drizzle of aged balsamic, olive oil and finely rasped, field-frozen ginger preserved in rice wine vinegar. The inflammatory tartness of the dressing and sweetness from crunchy fruit and fire-roasted parsnips conspire to create a fascinating illusion: You’ll taste cranberries, even though there are none on the plate.

Believe me, I searched for them, dislodging candied hazelnuts from the salad’s summit and teasing apart crimson radicchio from miner’s lettuce. I must have spent 15 minutes alternating small bites with bewildered rummaging through the contents of my plate. My server mentioned later that he came by to ask how the salad was, but I didn’t even notice. I was, once again, happily transfixed.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under:

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.