Portland, ME – Duckfat, Coffee and Liquor
The Boston, Mass area has been a frequent target of our weekend driving trips over the last few years. Just inside the outer limits of comfortable after work driving range and a comfortable but interesting metro area to explore. Not to mention that the food scene is fantastic and it definitely doesn’t hurt that I have a free place to crash when we’re in town. Over the 4th of July weekend following the deluge of rain from the nearby hurricane, we decided to change things up a bit and make the drive up I-95 to Portland, Maine to see what we could see. Other than a poor decision to try to spend some time on scenic Route 1 on the way up (sorry guys!), we made good time and stopped over to Duckfat for a late-ish lunch.
When trying to find somewhere to go to eat in Portland, you can’t help but to see the pile of accolades that Duckfat has accumulated over the last few years. Eater has consistently had it on their 18 Essential Maine Restaurants list and even the Associated Press called it the one meal to have if you’re in Portland. If you have a 45 min wait like we did, the surrounding industrial like area is quite walkable and I’d recommend stopping in the surprisingly large and well stocked Micucci Grocery right down the street. The fantastic aroma of freshly baked slices of sicilian pizza filled the air and they looked just as good as they smelled. I was impressed by the selection of imported Italian goods and would be the kind of grocery I would frequent if I lived in town. Good for a snack or some interesting picnic items.
On to the Duckfat experience! We got seated in the front corner of the restaurant and were prompted to order their famous fries right off the bat. We happily acquiesced and grabbed a couple of their naturally flavored craft sodas to kick things off. My wife (still weird to say and type btw) had the Wild Cherry Phosphate and I drank most of the Roots, Bark & Leaves concoction. The RBL carries a lot of the same ingredients as a root beer but the end flavor offers mellow complexity with a smooth pumpkin pie like finish. Even though I did enjoy the drink, I would prefer a little harsher edge over the mellowness.
Our fries came out quickly and we jumped into them head first. Visually they were spot on golden all over with darker edges and obviously hand cut and skin on. As far as I’m concerned they were texturally perfect with a solid crispness on the outside and creamy with little to no graininess on the inside. The flavor of duck fat doesn’t really come through but the contrasting textures and dark flavors are indicative of that style of frying and these are textbook. Despite my general hate of mayo, I’ve become quite accustomed to flavored versions as dipping sauces for this style of fries and the garlic and horseradish version were spot on. Both tasted of their namesake without being overpowering and struck a good balance with the well salted fries.
We ended up splitting three different paninis for our main course to get a good cross section of the menu. The same local Sorella’s Bakehouse bread was used for all three and proved to be a great blank canvas for each of them. The oiled and pressed sandwiches all ended up strongly crunchy but didn’t fall victim to the common issue of being brittle and losing all chew. The unanimous favorite among the group was the overnight local duck confit with pickled tomatillos, cheese curd and duck egg mayo. The confit was rich, salty, meltingly tender and worked well with the sharp tomatillo and creaminess from both the curds and the flavored mayo. Transitioning from that fantastic heaviness to the flaked Maine haddock is a jump but one worth taking. The haddock was moist, briny and really popped with the addition of the preserved lemon and dill. This a great sandwich for someone who is just trying to get into fish again or just delve into some lighter fare without sacrificing flavor. After having these two sandwiches, it was obvious that Duckfat doesn’t shy away from potent acidity or saltiness making me a happy customer.
The pork belly got overpowered by the pickled red peppers and could have benefitted from a sear to add a little more depth of flavor and a change of texture. It also had a bit barnyard taste (as Andrew Zimmern would put it) which wasn’t a hit at our table.
Overall this was a fantastic experience and we’d happily revisit Duckfat again for fries and sandwiches next time we’re in the area.
Before I close out this recap I would like to touch on a few drink places we stopped into after our lunch. First off was Tandem Coffee near Kennedy Park. Enjoyed a Hario style pourover of their Costa Rica El Higueron on site and grabbed a bag of Kochere Ethiopia Yirgacheffe to bring home that has gone over well brewed in the Chemex hot and shaken cold.
Both my wife and friend had a good visit at Maine Craft Distilling sampling their selection of spirits. Of note was the blueberry moonshine that captured the natural flavor of the berry and the two varieties of rum. The spiced and aged versions left a good impression and bottles of each came back with us to Boston.
We spent some time at the Speckled Ax coffee shop before we headed to dinner hanging out and sampling some of their menu. Their hook is that they’re using wood fired coffee beans for all of their coffee which is very rare in the industry. I enjoyed a surprisingly balanced Ethiopian espresso shot early on and a mint tea later. A pleasant place to hang out for a spell and it held us over until we ventured out for dinner.
This was a great day trip from the Boston area and one we will definitely be revisiting in out future excursion to New England. Not that far away but a great change of pace and a city with a really cool vibe to it.