Back Bay Grill, Portland
One of the first things you will notice upon entering the Back Bay Grill, besides its somewhat off-the-beaten path location, is that a conventional doorknob has been foregone in lieu of a large bronze bunch of asparagus. According to restaurant manager Adrian Stratton, it’s an antique garden marker, utilized for identifying individual rows of vegetables. It’s just one of many small details that continue to inspire one of the city’s most loyal contingents of patrons.
One of the things that I admire most about chef/owner Larry Matthews is his mastery of classic techniques, which impart a strong foundation to all of his dishes. His level of experience is readily apparent in the consistency of execution, and to observe the manner in which he completes seemingly simple tasks—such as breaking down a duck—is a thing of beauty.
This being said, I’m completely at ease with the idea of letting Matthews send out whatever he’s in the mood to prepare. I am equally comfortable putting my faith in Stratton to choose what will be filling my glass, as he often maintains a small list of offerings that may not have found their way on to the wine list yet.
A warm basket of freshly popped truffle popcorn forces me to exercise restraint, as my immediate instinct is to start shoveling it into my mouth like an insane person. I decide that a Sazerac, with its strong liquor component tempered by aromatic citrus peel, may be a reasonable distraction as a I gingerly eat the popcorn, kernel by kernel.
My first course is a pristine rectangle of Hudson Valley foie gras terrine, accompanied by a cone-shaped pistachio tuille filled with sweet apricot gelée. An arugula and almond salad imparts a pleasant crunchy texture and a hint of needed bitterness to complement all of the sweet, creamy elements of the dish. The terrine has a clean, intense finish that seems to go on for days. In my opinion, proper implementation of cold foie gras is few and far between, with so many would-be chefs butchering both the consistency and flavor of such a wonderful ingredient due to carelessness.
To set up my next course, Stratton pours me the Domaine La Suffrene Rosé from the Bandol region of Provence. Bandol is known for producing the finest expressions of the Mourvedre grape, and its rosé wines are the stuff of legend. I once heard someone describe the flavor of a Champagne as “if strawberries had orgasms,” and this is exactly what came to mind when I tasted the Suffrene, though I would probably venture to say “strawberries and rocks.”
Regardless of where your mind may be, it would be hard to dispute that the rosé is a beautiful pairing for the truffled beef tartare, topped with a quivering, raw egg yolk and flanked by white anchovy and cornichon. Olive oil crackers are the perfect conduits on which to smear the tender, raw filet mignon, a preparation that best accentuates the more attractive attributes of this lean cut of meat.
The mineral and cherry elements of the 2006 Chateau Mont-Redon Chateauneuf-du-Pape mark a seamless transition to pair with the celebration of pork that I’m to be confronted with. It’s a trio of preparations, beginning with hand-rolled pappardelle pasta tossed with a traditional Bolognese sauce loaded with luscious braised pork. A cube of braised pork belly melts away upon biting into it, the sweet fat almost taking on a delicate, airy characteristic. The final element on the plate is coppa, which is basically the pork collar. It becomes pure magic when slowly cooked over long periods of time, and Matthews takes it to the next level by forming the pulled meat into a disc and deep-frying it.
At this point it would seemed careless and wasteful to leave without sampling the lavender marinated duck breast, which is supplemented by wonderfully crisp, fatty, and salty confit, as well as dried Black Mission Figs soaked in cognac. I conclude the meal with a lemon sabayon tart topped with fresh tangerine, served alongside vanilla ice cream with an English toffee crumble.
There is a level of service in place at Back Bay Grill that sets the standard for all other restaurants in the state to aspire to. Needs are met a split second before you recognize that you have them by a professional waitstaff, without any pretentiousness. Many would question how a restaurant maintains these standards over such along period of time.
It’s all in the details.
65 Portland Street | Portland | 207.772.8833 | backbaygrill.com