“I hope you’re not feeling indecisive,” one of my dinner guests quipped as he handed me a clipboard gripping several sheets of lavender paper. Laser-printed there were thorough descriptions of more than 30 draft beers, meads and ales, grouped roughly into categories like “The Maltier Side” and “Sour/Funk.” I had known about The King’s Head Pub’s encyclopedic tap selection of mostly local brews, but I wasn’t prepared for the breadth of choices – especially during holiday beer season, when breweries produce their very quirkiest concoctions.

The Burley Oak Coquito. The staff at The King’s Head Pub knows its beer. Take advantage of their expertise. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

“Don’t worry,” our server said, when he saw the adults at the table hunched over our clipboards as if cramming for an exam. “I’ll help you find something you’ll love.”

“OK, what kind of beer do you think I like?” one of my guests joked, turning to face him with a grin.

“Well, I know that you two are getting Shirley Temples ($2.50),” he said, pointing at my two pre-teen guests with the nub of his pen. “But as for the grownups, I’ll need a little more to go on. I’m not the Sorting Hat!”

As promised, he guided us capably, proposing the hoppy Norway Brewing Company’s Maine State of Mind ($6), when we were looking for a lighter Pilsner as well as Foundation Brewing’s Josef ($6.50), a crisper, yeastier classic version in the same Czech style. When one of my guests asked for something toastier with more malt, he hit another bulls-eye with the Norway Bam’s Brown Ale ($7).

That knowledge extended to the seasonal novelties as well. Feeling festive, my guests and I opted to taste two beers with flavor profiles that riff on eggnog. I enjoyed the Burley Oak Brewery Coquito J.R.E.A.M. ($7), a lactose-finished sour ale that tasted like its namesake, cinnamon-sprinkled Puerto Rican eggnog. And as much as the Wu Tang Clan nod (“Juice Rules Everything Around Me”) in its name made me laugh, I found the beer overly sweet. Indeed, it might have made a better dessert than the perfectly respectable homemade cheesecake with blueberries that capped my meal ($8).

Foundation Brewing’s Nog Nog, Who’s There ($6), a lactose-finished collaboration with Portland’s Chaval restaurant, was better-balanced – round and nutty (thanks to almond extract), with a fruity tartness that was, as my server described it, “like an entire apple pie in a glass.”

“Our entire front of house team is all beer lovers. For a lot of people who aren’t beer aficionados, they can get intimidated when they walk into a place that has 35-plus taps. But (bar manager) Mike Black is really educated. He writes detailed notes on the menus and trains all our staff,” executive chef Tory Bridgman told me.

Bridgman, who has worked behind the scenes at several other Portland restaurants including East Ender and Hot Suppa, splits his time between King’s Head and its sister business, Jäger, on Wharf Street. And while the two pubs both offer extensive draft options, Jäger’s abridged menu of bratwursts and potato salads is about one-fifth the size of the menu at The King’s Head.

“The food at The King’s Head isn’t as heavy, either,” Bridgman said. “It’s still comforting, but it’s approachable. I call it beer-forward and broad-reaching, but nothing intimidating.”

In practice, that means New American gastropub dishes that – like a kitten wearing a bell on its collar – provide plenty of warning of any impending culinary surprises. Take the ground lamb burger ($16), whose menu listing signposts its Mediterranean-inspired ingredients: apricot marmalade, garlic, bubbling cheese and a house-made aioli stirred through with a fine chiffonade of fresh sage leaves. “Oh yeah,” our server said when my guest ordered the burger. “That sage has got a punch to it.”

The Lamb Burger. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

A flatbread appetizer ($12) takes that same ground lamb and transports it further south, adding curlicues of spice and heat from harissa paste and cumin to create a merguez-style sausage. Bridgman crumbles it across a thin dough, then adds layers of Havarti cheese and house-pickled red onions, jalapeños and Fresno chiles. There’s a lot going on here (including a sticky balsamic-and-honey drizzle), but against all odds, it works.

So too, crunchy, puckery discs of kosher dill pickle soaked in buttermilk, then dredged in cornmeal grits and deep-fried ($9). Or even the Italian-inspired deep-fried burrata ($11), which despite its quickly staling focaccia sidekick still managed to wind up one of the meal’s highlights, due in no small part to a green-olive-and-caper tapenade that sparkled with lemony aromatic tartness.

Seafood dishes are less successful. Pre-picked lobster meat in the lobster roll ($25) was overcooked on my recent visit, and the mammoth, butter-brushed brioche bun that cradled it had perhaps experienced its freshest days sometime earlier in the week. And while I applaud King’s Head’s use of locally caught, well-seasoned Casco Bay haddock in the fish and chips entrée ($18), the clam-fry-based batter surrounding the fish was as thick as a plaster cast and nearly as impenetrable.

Better dishes that evening included the classics you’d expect to be great at a gastropub: a gorgeously grilled New York strip steak served with fingerlings oven-browned in duck fat and grasshopper-green Brussels sprouts ($28); as well as the King’s Burger ($15), a hefty eight-ounce brisket-and-chuck patty grilled until blushing medium-rare and plated alongside a tumble of crisp French fries hand-cut from Green Thumb Farms potatoes.

The lamb sausage flatbread is busy but successful. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Those of us with fries kept offering them to our less fortunate table-mates throughout the night. “I bet he’d like a fry,” the 10-year-old seated next to me said, pointing up at the taxidermied wild boar’s head hanging above the men’s bathroom. His parents chuckled and wondered aloud if the same could be said of the 10-point buck over the bar or the skipjack over the door to the kitchen.

“The owner (Justin O’Connor) is a big hunter,” our server said as he passed by, overhearing our conversation and stopping by to explain how the space was – until 2014 – a storage area in a disused portion of what is now the Pierce Atwood building. As he explained, I looked around the wood-panel-and-exposed-brick walls and marveled at how the 74-seat space felt much older. “Nope,” our server said. “Everyone is just really comfortable with this room and with each other. Maybe that’s it?”

I wasn’t sure about that. But one thing I do know is that, if you peer through the window to the kitchen, you’ll see some home-brewed, pep-talk graffiti inside. “Best Kitchen Staff In Portland!!” it reads in what looks to be smudgy brown finger paint. From what my guests and I experienced this week, I’d concur that the kitchen staff is pretty good, but the knowledgeable, attentive front-of-house team members? Well, they’re even better.

 

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

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