Portland & Rochester Public House
Upon mention of my disdain for the term gastropub, Garrett Fitzgerald, owner of the Portland & Rochester Public House, agrees with me and asserts, ”pubs should always have good food; a special label for that is entirely unnecessary.”
My thoughts exactly.
But it took Portland & Rochester a bit of time to find their rhythm. Fitzgerald, a native of Canada, came from years of experience in all aspects of the restaurant business, which most recently included a lengthy stint in Bar Harbor. He decided to move to Portland, a place he refers to as a ”mini-Montreal” because of the lively food and arts communities. By opening the restaurant on Preble Street, he sought to be part of the revival of the West Bayside neighborhood.
Fitzgerald took over the space from a sports bar that had gone under. Renovation was a labor of love, and an undertaking borne almost entirely by Fitzgerald, his long-time girlfriend Tegan Curry, and experienced builders Seth Kearns and Colin Dougher.
The décor came to us organically as we marched on. I knew I wanted warm colors and plenty of wood to compliment the hard, heavy metals, though as Fitzgerald plunged into ripping up the old green carpets and 20,000 leagues of coaxial cable from a gazillion TVs, he began to sense he had bitten off more than he could chew. But after a few months of toiling away, things began to take shape and define themselves. The bar was to have a separate, more boisterous vibe than the dining room and its adjoining patio. The bar has become a place to hide away while the dining room is open and airy, with light pouring in through ceiling to floor windows.
When discussing the inspiration for Portland & Rochester, Fitzgerald cites his primary influences as David McMillan and Frederic Morin of Montreal’s Joe Beef, and more so for their theory on restaurants than anything else. He references their book, The Art of Living According to Joe Beef, and tells me, ”After visiting several times I realized the experience is the value of going there. The food is certainly fine, and their love of ingredients takes center stage, but the vibe is genuine, fun, and can be borderline rude but always in the best way. I dare anyone to go there and not have a great time.”
After pouring blood, sweat, and tears into the construction of furniture, the design of the floors, and countless trips to Portland Architectural Salvage, Fitzgerald and Curry finally opened the doors to the Portland & Rochester in the summer of 2013. The first year has brought challenges, and Fitzgerald admits they have had a pretty tough go of things with chefs. Until chef Paul Lively, who relocated to Maine in the winter of 2013 came across an ad placed by Fitzgerald.
Lively is a self-taught chef who cut his teeth through the 90’s in New York City kitchens, such as the venerable Russian Tea Room. He moved to Maine with his wife after a lengthy stint as a private caterer and running a chocolate truffle business in Cape Cod. Initially, Livelys resume raised concern for Fitzgerald. He thought it was ambitious for a pub. But after an interview it was apparent that the two were on the same page, and they set to enhance the original menu by incorporating Livelys unique spin on classic pub dishes.
The current menu relies heavily on Livelys infatuation with the combination of sweet and savory. There is no better example of this than the terrine of slow roasted red and golden beets, which is as visually stunning as it is delicious. The beets are sliced thin, layered with vanilla- and honey-laced goat cheese into a terrine mold to solidify, and then garnished with sweet chili vinaigrette, roasted garlic, and parsley oil, and a reduction of golden beets. The result is, as Fitzgerald puts it, “a beet salad,” yet it just happens to be one of the best I have ever tasted.
Another play on the classic salad is the Portland & Rochester’s version of the grilled Caesar, in which the dressing is aerated for a lighter texture, and instead of traditional croutons, Lively uses a brioche cup baked with egg and Parmesan cheese. It can be served with or without a grilled cuolotte steak the flavorful top sirloin cap.
Other dishes are even more inventive, such as the grilled, thick-cut pork chop that is coated with coconut brioche crumbs and garlic aioli, and served atop a shallot and orange waffle with black currant butter, sautéed romaine, and a black rum and coffee emulsion. Each element is curious, a conversation piece of sorts, that works successfully in tandem with the others. In his rendition of the surf-and-turf dinner, Lively employs the cuolotte steak once again, which is dusted with porcini and blueberry powder and served alongside mussels poached in garlic and Jack Daniels butter. He finishes the plate with Marcona almonds that he has marinated for 240 days in sweet chili sauce.
Livelys presentations border on grandiose, and no more is this the case than with his desserts, which he considers to be his first love. Savory elements are used freely here as well, such as in his chocolate and rum mousse served with brûléed bananas, roasted golden beets, sweet corn dust, and salted chocolate brioche.
Fitzgerald and Curry continue to maintain an ever-changing array of beers on draught. They pride themselves on offering the best of what Maine has to offer as well as pouring a staggering amount of Labatt’s Blue, an homage to his Canadian heritage. Wine selections lean mostly towards French, a reasonable choice given the nature of the menu, and it’s worth inquiring about potential off-list options hiding out in the cellar.
All in all the Portland Rochester has become an indispensable staple in East Bayside, offering a variety of different experiences to loyal patrons. The recent update with the menu only furthers the eclectic nature of a pub that should be on everyone’s radar this summer.
No special labels necessary.
118 Preble Street | Portland | (207) 773-2000 | 118preble.com