The Front Room, Portland

It’s a cold January evening and I’m on a mission to find hearty, comfort food. When the temperature drops and there’s ice and snow on the ground, I crave braised meats and stew. I want to be comforted with warm bread and homemade pasta. I want to drink full bodied red wine by a fireplace. So tonight, I trade in the fireplace for an open kitchen and head to the Front Room in search of a warm meal.

Like Harding Lee Smith’s other restaurants—the Corner Room and Grill Room—the Front Room is comfortable and casual. But, because it’s located in the East End on the corner of Congress and Howard streets, it’s more of a neighborhood spot. When I walk in and look around, I see regulars—people meeting friends after work, watching the game, talking with the bartender.

The bar is located by the entrance and tonight it’s filled with people watching football and drinking beer. There are a few tables in the center of the dining room, two booths along one wall, and a row of wooden banquettes with throw pillows on the opposite wall. It’s dimly lit and the exposed brick walls, green accents, and unfinished cement floor gives the restaurant a homey feel.

The focal point of the space is the open kitchen at the back of the room. Copper pots hang from metal racks, knives cling to magnetic strips, and spices fill the shelves. Diners can see executive chef Greg Wilson and other cooks prepare each dish. Even though it can be a challenge to work in an open kitchen, from a customer’s perspective, it’s intriguing. There is something intimate about watching your pasta come out of a pot of boiling water and hearing your steak sizzle as it cooks.

The menu is loaded with cold weather comfort food like lamb shepherd’s pie, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and pasta. I expect to be warmed by the food, but what I don’t expect is to be as impressed with the service as I am. Our server Jeremiah has worked at the Front Room for six years, and it shows. His personality, professionalism, sense of humor, and food and wine knowledge are a perfect fit for this restaurant—he knows how to read his guests, make suggestions, and explain the food. He makes the whole experience fun, and I’ll be back just to visit with him again.

While I contemplate the specials—namely the falafel salad and Mediterranean sea bass with bacon, lemon, and cockles—I order drinks. The Front 73 is made with gin, muddled basil, lemon juice and champagne, and The Front Room with bourbon, meddled cherries, St. Germain, and Prosecco. These are wintertime drinks made even more enjoyable with the addition of bubbles.

I decide to try the falafel salad with olives and feta, tossed in sundried tomato vinaigrette and the house-smoked salmon pastrami. The salmon has a bold flavor and is a creative alternative to meat. It sits on a thick, round slice of brown bread and is covered with capers, whole grain mustard, red onions, and a drizzle of sour cream.

The French onion soup arrives, and it looks delicious. It’s served in a small crock topped with a blanket of browned cheese. The cheese to bread to onion to broth ratio is dead on, and the broth is rich and complex. Jeremiah calls it the “mother sauce”—a veal stock reduction that takes up to four days to create. It’s made with Worchester sauce, thyme, red wine, garlic, and veal stock. Even when the soup is gone, I can’t stop myself from peeling off the cheese that is baked to the side of the crock—it’s that good.

Throughout the meal I notice people are having a really good time. There’s music playing, and the sounds from a bustling kitchen are layered with laughter and chatter. These are some of my favorite noises—food cooking and people laughing. The restaurant is full and I’m looking forward to the next course: sea bass and duck breast.

The pan-seared fish is served skin-on and is delicate, yet packed with flavor. The crisp green beans, doughy gnocchi, sweet, small cockles, and stewed tomatoes give each bite a different texture. While the white wine broth is light, grilled Meyer lemon adds bright acidity and thick cut pieces of bacon provides bursts of salt.

Jeremiah isn’t kidding when he calls the chef the “duck whisperer.” This dish is spectacular. The skin is crispy and the breast is cooked medium rare. The accompaniments—a squash and goat cheese bread pudding, buttery Brussels sprouts, and a luscious red wine reduction—are perfect for the winter.

I came looking for a comforting meal, and the Front Room delivered. The service adds to the experience, and I leave happy and full. Now I know where to go for French onion soup and other cold weather comfort food. The Front Room provides friendly, genuine service and a warm, hearty meal. Surprisingly, I’m looking forward to a few more winter storms.

73 Congress Street | Portland | 207.773.3366 |

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