The Universal Notebook: The high and low art of dining out

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I eat too much, I weigh too much, I eat out too much and I spend way too much money on food.

My lovely wife Carolyn gets very upset when we go out to dinner and I suffer buyer’s remorse immediately after paying the tab. It’s like an emotional binge-and-purge problem. I feel very fortunate to be able to spend $100 on a single meal, but I always feel guilty, too.

Eating has become a form of entertainment, a performance you consume, especially in Portland, one of the foodiest cities in America, and increasingly all over Maine. Hip, happening new bistros open up faster than a gourmand can wield a knife and fork. I still haven’t made it up to Primo in Rockland, where Maine’s finest restaurant is apparently now 15 years old.

Primo chef Melissa Kelly is the queen of Maine haute cuisine, being the first chef in the country to win two James Beard Foundation best regional chef awards, the first in 1999 at the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in upstate New York, then in 2013 at Primo. I hope she doesn’t retire before I get to eat her food.

The king of Maine haute cuisine is Sam Hayward of Fore Street. He was Maine’s first James Beard chef in 2004. I remember Hayward from 22 Lincoln, one of Maine’s first serious restaurants of the new era, which opened in Brunswick in 1981 and lasted about a decade. I profiled Hayward for Maine Times in 1998, two years after he opened Fore Street, a restaurant still so popular it needs no sign.

The other James Beard chef whose food I have eaten is Rob Evans, formerly of Hugo’s. I’m afraid my palate is not refined enough to appreciate foams and infusions, but I do love the decadent French fries at Duckfat, his upscale Portland sandwich shop.

I grew up in a simpler culinary time, when Portland dining options were essentially Boone’s, Sportsman’s Grill, Vallee’s, Village Cafe and Cathay Gardens. Meat and potatoes. Ethnic food meant Italian spaghetti or “Chinese” chop suey. Now you can eat Thai noodles, Vietnamese pho, Japanese sushi, Chinese dim sum, Mexican tacos, Indian curries and all manner of savory delicacies from exotic lands like Eritrea and Guatemala.

My favorite Portland restaurant of the moment is Empire, a happy medium for an unsophisticated diner. It’s like traditional Chinese cooking with a contemporary flare. Duck fried rice and jalapeno shrimp: what’s not to like?

I’m also a big fan of Tao Yuan in Brunswick. Chef-owner Cara Stadler was one of nine Mainers nominated for a James Beard Award this year. Alas, none won. I called the foundation to ask about the awards process, but it was so convoluted (30,000 enter online, a selection committee picks a few hundred semifinalists, 600 national judges pick winners, but you can only vote if you’ve eaten the food, so chefs can win with only a few dozen votes) I’m surprised everyone doesn’t win.

Carolyn and I enjoyed Tao’s elegant prix fixe tasting menu one New Year’s Eve, but the problem with a tasting menu is that if you really like something there’s not enough of it. And I have never had anything at Tao I didn’t really like, including a wood smoke-infused cocktail that involved the bartender using a blowtorch on a plank, trapping the smoke in a glass and then shaking it into the liquid. Kind of like a barbecued bourbon.

I spend a small fortune eating out, but most of my meals are of the decidedly pedestrian variety. I will chase a good lobster or crab roll from one end of the state to the other. I had one of each two weeks ago at Quoddy Bay Lobster in Eastport that were as good as shellfish in roll gets. I also crave the fish tacos at Taco Trio in South Portland and Taco the Town in Brunswick, the mountains of fried seafood at Bay Haven in Cornish, the large house pho (fuh, not foe) at Veranda Noodle Bar, chili dogs at Danny’s in Brunswick and Mark’s in Portland, and the melt-in-your-mouth burgers at Roy’s All-Steak in Auburn.

When the Wednesday noon Out to Lunch Bunch gets together, about half the time we end up at Roy’s. Good, fast, filling food you can afford. I have fed four adults and three children cheeseburgers and fries for under $30, or about what the tip has been on some of those guilty dinners for two.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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