The restaurant reviews in this week's round-up refreshingly contain not a single mention of lobster, oysters or any of the Maine seafood that usually dominates the conversation. Writers for The Portland Press Herald, the Portland Phoenix and The New York Times Travel section chose to visit ethnic restaurants - Vietnamese in Portland, Jamaican in Steuben and Thai in Camden - proving that these once "exotic" eateries are thankfully now more commonplace in Maine.
"Nothing about the industrial facade" of Thanh Thanh 2 on outer Forrest Avenue in Portland "is charming or inviting, writes Shonna Miliken Humphrey in The Portland Press Herald - in a review that includes a "primer" on pho. Inside, "homey and warm decor," friendly service and "authentic Vietnamese cuisine" merit four stars.
The 10 varieties of pho available at Thanh Thanh 2 (plus four more if you count the special spicy soups) can be a bit intimidating ... Choose a combination of meatball, flank, brisket, steak and tendon from the menu in either small, medium or large sizes ... With broth that's layered in flavors of star anise and cardamom, the soup tastes deliciously complex – and deceptively simple too. The tendon, admittedly a little weird at first, adds texture and depth to the broth, and I recommend trying it.
Jane Black of The NY Times Travel is spot on when she writes that the "picturesque village of Camden is "where you expect lobster rolls and bowls of chowder, not superior Thai cuisine." Long Grain, an "attractive but spare" 30-seat restaurant on Elm Street downtown, is right in there with the preppy boutiques and art galleries.
The real excitement comes via Ravin Nakjaroen’s food made with ingredients sourced from the Maine coast but reflecting flavors of his native Bangkok. Those broad noodles, pad kee mao, have nothing in common with the saucy, bland drunken noodles you find on many Thai menus. Mr. Nakjaroen makes his in-house and stir-fries them with seasonal, local greens hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and Thai basil until the edges start to crisp, in the style of grandmothers all over Thailand.Steuben, just up Route 1 from the Schoodic Peninsula section of Acadia National Park, is an unlikely spot for a destination restaurant. But perhaps not, given that Maine has a number of worth-the-trip restaurants in out-of-the-way places (Primo and Arrows, for example). Brian Duff of The Portland Phoenix travels to Steuben to visit Kitchen Garden, an "underground legend" Jamaican-influenced restaurant in an 1860s farmhouse that its owners, chef Alva Lowe and his wife Jessie King, have recently reopened.
Some of the quirks of the Kitchen Garden enhance the charm. For example, they ask that you look over the menu online and call early in the day to with your order. This way they can literally walk out into the garden to pick the ingredients for your particular dish. Anticipating your meal all day, it feels like you are going to friend's house for a dinner party, having called ahead to know what they are preparing so you can bring the right wine. The feeling is especially resonant since the Kitchen Garden is BYOB.