PORTLAND, Maine — Small plates have taken hold as a culinary craze in many cities, but in Portland, arguably New England’s small city most revered for food, they are hot, and we’re not talking temperature. Several restaurants that have opened to some acclaim are offering only small plates, and most are doing so in small spaces too. Don’t come expecting full-blown entrées with trimmings.
But you will eat well. Very well. A couple of these restaurants are already on the national map, garnering James Beard Award nominations.
What’s the appeal of small-plate dining? For one thing, you sample a lot of dishes. And with what these chefs are crafting, that should be your goal.
“You’ll have complexity in your meal,” says a friend who dines in Portland several times a week. “And if you get something you don’t like so much, so what?”
Some find the dining experience more communal when you are sharing. It can be more leisurely. “There isn’t this rigidity to when a certain course comes,” explains same friend. But the opposite can happen. If the dishes aren’t staggered appropriately, a pile up of small plates can provoke stress: Consume now, before they multiply!
Worry not at the following establishments, where delicious plates are prepared and delivered with flair and finesse.
Located in a historic, Federal-style brick building in the Old Port, Central Provisions descended last year like the Great Oz. Fans gather at the entrance hoping for a spot at the counter by the open kitchen that allows diners to observe the meticulous preparations of Christopher Gould and his staff — slicing raw tuna or slipping a duck egg into a salad, for instance. Or one can linger at the tables scattered about the rest of the space. The bar, making Prohibition-era drinks as well as mocktails, is downstairs, but waitstaff bring the libations up to diners. Scallops with shaved truffles and a citrus salad with cocoa paste and pistachios were just two of a dozen to-die-for dishes I had at my last visit. No reservations are taken at this extremely popular hangout, but your patience will be rewarded. “Central,” as it’s known to locals, garnered a James Beard nomination for Best New Restaurant (one of seven nationwide) this year, and Bon Appetit named it one of its top 10 new restaurants for 2014.
414 Fore St. www.central-provisions.com, 207-805-1085
LOLITA VINOTECA + ASADOR
The owners of the refined and popular Bar Lola closed that restaurant to open this hip, tight, small-plate heaven on Munjoy Hill, where much of the Italian- and Mediterranean-inspired fare is cooked on a wood-fired grill. Co-owner and chef Guy Hernandez creates sophisticated but simple dishes using the principle of “three ingredients, two pans.” These include such outstanding tapas as ricotta gnocchi with fava beans, Spanish sardines with harissa, pickled mussels, and braised leek tart. Fire-roasted sourdough bread with honey accompanies an array of cheeses or salumi. Stella Hernandez, co-owner and sommelier, helps navigate the intriguing wine list. Eater Maine’s Restaurant of the Year in 2014.
90 Congress St. www.Lolita-portland.com, 207-775-5652
At Sur-Lie, chef Emil Rivera Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico, not only turns out plates that reflect his heritage — chorizo with tostones and fried plantains, for instance — but also bright twists on New England cuisine, such as poached haddock with parsnips or salsa verde and garlic chips. You’ll also find creative comfort food such as tender lamb shoulder embellished with wheat berries, arugula, and pickled navy beans. Start with fried, milk-braised cauliflower or sweet pea hummus with mint. Need something bold to fill in the gaps? Oyster mushrooms with jalapeno and aioli will do the trick. The most spacious of the four restaurants, the earth-toned Sur-Lie has a chic, urban vibe, with a mix of tables, booths, and plenty of bar space for lingering and noshing.
11 Free St. www.sur-lie.com, 207-956-7350
BAO BAO DUMPLING HOUSE
Chef Cara Stadler’s grand house of Asian-inspired small plates, Tao Yuan, in Brunswick, makes denizens of that small college town a half hour north of Portland very happy indeed. But Portlanders now can share in the culinary delights created by this 2015 James Beard finalist (for Rising Star Chef of the Year), at her smaller, “faster food” haunt in the West End neighborhood. It serves a menu focused on dumplings. Among the wrapped creations you’ll find not only standards such as pork and cabbage, but also unusual combinations such as lamb, black bean chili, and peanut or beef and yellow curry.
Six dumplings come per order, boiled or pan-fried. Other dishes, all small portions, change with seasonal ingredients and may include celery and wood ear mushroom salad, Taiwanese beef noodle soup, or steamed hake with burdock. The chef’s delicious Asian slaw is a menu staple.
Stadler, still in her twenties, was named one of the country’s Ten Best New Chefs by Food and Wine magazine last year. She will elevate love your love of Asian food with bright, fresh, and creative fare.
133 Spring St. www.baobaodumplinghouse.com, 207-772-8400