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Coziness and comfort at the Front Room in Portland
By WILSON ROTHSCHILD  |  January 18, 2006

The Front Room, on Congress Street in PortlandThe first week of December marked the opening of a new hot spot to eat in the East End of Portland. The Front Room, located on Congress Street across from the St. Lawrence Church, has been booming with business for its first month or so. Chef-owner Harding Lee Smith has created a menu of comfort food very much in sync with the comfortable, homey feeling of the restaurant. A small, open kitchen occupies the back of the restaurant while brick, green and white paint, and rich wooden trim adorn the walls. Large windows give the place an open and inviting feeling from both outside and within. The one-room restaurant is packed with hardwood tables providing a warm, cozy atmosphere, especially during the winter months.

We arrived fairly early on a Tuesday night and although most tables were occupied, we were promptly seated, coincidentally an elbow’s reach from some friends. Our waitress brought over some strips of rich focaccia and herb-infused olive oil for dipping. After pondering the very reasonably priced wine menu, we selected a bottle of Emeades 2003 Zinfandel, which turned out to be an excellent robust wine.

The dinner menu is divided into seven sections: soups, salads, appetizers, pastas, sandwiches, sides, and finally main plates. The offerings run the full gamut from really simple comfort food (Grilled cheese or Skillet cornbread) to more innovative choices such as the Pan-roasted Lamb Sirloin with blue cheese polenta and celery root. After spending a good while trying to decide which direction to go in, we ordered two appetizers; the Skewered and Grilled Mozzarella with rosemary and the House Smoked Fish Dip. The mozzarella was served with small chunks of toasted bread, all skewered with a sprig of rosemary. It was simple and good but heavily laden with olive oil. The fish dip was not to my liking. It reminded me of smoked salmon cream cheese. It was served hot but the center of the excessively large dish of the smooth puree was cold. The crostinis served with this dish were extremely salty and the undressed greens did very little for the plate. My suggestion would be to serve the dish cold with actual chunks of fish in the dip.

Our entrees, however, were well thought-out, perfectly flavored and textured, and very hearty. The Roasted half bird was served with creamy mashed potatoes, strong garlic flavored spinach, and a nice clean chicken jus. The skin on both the breast and leg was crispy and the chicken itself was cooked to perfection, leaving lots of moisture in the meat. My Braised Beef Short rib was served with horseradish flavored mashed potatoes, tangy red cabbage, and a rich sauce made from the braising liquid of the short ribs. The boneless cut of meat (from the rib section) had a slight crust on top and was fork-tender throughout. The sauce was very rich and plentiful enough to sop up with the powerful horseradish-spiked potatoes. This may be the perfect mid-winter dish for me.

After clearing our plates, which were practically licked clean, our server “verballed” the dessert menu to us. The brownie served with customer’s choice of several different toppings was enticing but we opted to go for the caramel crème brulee. The base (or custard) was smooth and silky with just the right amount of sweetness and caramel flavor but instead of caramelizing sugar to form a hard shell on top, a caramel sauce was hastily drizzled over the dessert. Though not a bad dessert by any means, I question whether it was crème brulee at all.

I definitely look forward to my next trip to the Front Room. As with all new restaurants, having been open for just more than a month, they are still fine-tuning the business. The alleged ventilation problem (I had heard several reports of smoke from the grill funneling into the dining area) seems to have been fixed. The fact that the very affordable menu covers so much ground works for me because of the style of comfort food served. The brunch menu (served daily) is very enticing–I have heard that the corned beef hash and the eggs benedict are possibly the best in town.

The Front Room |73 Congress St, Portland | 207.773.3366

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Email the author:

Wilson Rothschild: nosliwdlihcshtor@yahoo.com

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