Dishin' That: Restaurant shopping? It pays to do the windows

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Not one “for fancy restaurants or anything too foo-foo,” My Blue-Eyed Yankees Fan doesn’t appreciate Portland’s wide and varied dining opportunities. Lamenting that flaw early on, I decided his pros outweighed the cons.

As of late, I’m having second thoughts.

Begrudgingly accepting his unadventurous palate as part of a bigger package deal, I became frustrated while composing my annual fall list of bars and restaurants I have yet to hit.

Usually reserved by others for Restaurant Week(s), this strategic planning list helps me fight the doldrums that come with opening up my sweater drawer. Never one to complain about the heat or the humidity (it’s excellent for my naturally curly hair), the focus turns to indoor dining instead of the fleeting al fresco moments I so dearly love.

Inside or out, Ole Blue Eyes won’t set foot in a place with a name he can’t pronounce, much less pay $5 for a trending PBR draft. Agreeing on the last point, I still aim to at least window-shop the places on my list, be it a first-time visit or a re-do after a renovation, or a falling from grace.

Restaurant window shopping means perusing the menus first-hand, because on-line sample menus can be fraudulent teasers, leading to disappointment when craving an appealing seasonal-only item that no longer makes the cut.

Sample menus without prices are even sketchier. John Q. Public wants to see a price tag, and restaurants can protect themselves with a bottom-of-the-menu disclaimer about price changes based on the market, or some such thing. Acknowledging maintenance and upkeep of websites can be a cumbersome task for already overworked management, it’s an opportunity to delegate to an ambitious staffer or any other willingly competent, self-professed nerd.

Restaurant window shopping also means observing the facial expressions of nearby diners and getting a feel for the overall vibe of the staff. How is the bar set up? Which way is the place leaning in terms of cocktails? Do they have their own infused vodkas, or carry a line of unfathomably flavored ones? Are the specialty cocktails really special, or just over-the-top funky? Can I get a good wine by the glass? What’s the deal at happy hour or for late-night grazing?

Another thing I can’t help but notice is the reasoning behind the layout itself. Based upon space restrictions and nook-and-cranny opportunities, is the operational flow from the bar, to tables, to the kitchen (in any given order) conducive to practical and good service? I’d be nuts to ask if I could go behind the line or check out the dry storage area, but I’m as interested in those details as much as the first impression given by the host. Cleanliness being a given, is the ladies room decor appealing? These things and more race through my busy mind when window shopping.

Although everyone’s a critic, my restaurant window shopping jaunts are personal information-gathering sessions, not professional evaluations. While obsessively fascinating (to me), I am unable to resist pondering the items above, not to mention the food itself, which takes it to a whole new level.

Predictably, My Blue-Eyed Yankees Fan just wants to have a beer and watch a game, so luckily I have a window-shopping and full-on dining-out support system.

With scant time and even fewer funds, the most successful field trips are usually done in the company of my BFF, or my youngest daughter, Carlykardashian (CK). Both share an epicurean curiosity, with different expertise, giving me their unique perspectives and humoring me when it’s time to talk about something else.

My BFF is interested in well-prepared traditional items with a perceived value that isn’t offensive to a mother of four children. She’s game for trying new things, and we pick off each other’s plates like an old married couple.

CK is enthralled with atmosphere and flavor fusions, surprising me with her uncanny ability to identify ingredients not previously disclosed. Both help satiate my seasonal craving to roam the streets.

Sometime envious of those who can enter a restaurant and order off a menu with no hidden agenda, I’m looking forward to checking off places on my list. As always, your recommendations (and why) are most appreciated.

Peas & Q’s

A reader recently asked what my all-time favorite appetizer is and where it can be found. Akin to asking which of my two children I love best, I conferred with my fellow window shoppers. With little debate, the three-way consensus for the best appetizer is the lamb sliders at Emilitsa on Congress Street in Portland.

My Blue-Eyed Yankees Fan, on the other hand, was torn between the wings at Samuel’s on Forest Avenue (a darn good choice), and “That crazy smoked seafood chowder. You know, the stuff you make at home.”