One of the most captivating things about Central Provisions is that within one restaurant are two varied dining experiences. The aesthetic is uniform throughout and was designed to preserve the look of the original provisional storehouse built in 1828 and was connected to the East India Trading Company. However, there is a distinct change in ambience between the softly lit upper floor, at the heart of which is the entirely open kitchen, and the more casual pub feel of the lower level. There is the option of sitting along the bar bordering the kitchen upstairs for those who want to be closer to the food, but making the descent to the actual bar is more conducive to people like myself, who prefer to maintain close proximity to the persons making and serving the drinks.
Chef Chris Gould, who owns Central Provisions with his wife, Paige, brings an enormous amount of stylistic range to his menu, which is arranged under the headings of raw, cold, hot, and sweets. There are many people who would liken this to the now common practice of offering small plates, but to be honest that would group the dishes into a broad category when they truly deserve to stand-alone. In this regard, it is more of a “build your own tasting menu” setup, with certain options, like suckling pig or dry-aged sirloin being available in larger portions for those seeking fewer courses.
This being said, on a recent visit I simply instruct Gould to “feed me,” a message I also relay to bar manager Patrick McDonald in regards to an aperitif. Although all of the house cocktails maintain a pleasant balance of flavors and heat, this is exemplified beautifully in the barrel-aged N.E.D. La Louisiane, with its components of New England Distilling Gunpowder Rye, Cocchi Americano, Bénédictine, absinthe, and bitters all having been married together in oak barrel for six months. It is remarkably mellow, not too sweet, and perfect to enjoy while I read the wine list. The selection, curated by wine director Justin DeWalt, is refreshing in that each bottle is appropriate to at least a portion of the food menu while it also possesses accessibility for those seeking familiar varietals without including painfully generic producers—a practice that will hopefully have other restaurants following suit.
The first course arrives, a small wooden box containing several pieces of sea urchin topped with small amounts of minced turnip, umeboshi plum paste, and lemon zest. The urchin itself is so bracingly fresh that it practically dissolves the instant I put it in my mouth, it’s briny yet mild flavors are reminiscent of the cold Maine oceans. I recall that Gould spent quite a bit of time cutting his teeth in the art of sashimi at Uni, one of the Boston’s finest sushi restaurants, and this particular urchin is among the best I have ever tasted. To take me through the early portion of the meal I select a glass of Chateau Tour de Mirambeau, a Sauvignon Blanc-driven Bordeaux that has the high-minerality content that I’m going for balanced out with subtle notes of lime zest.
The winter citrus salad is a dish that Gould has been working to refine for quite sometime, employing a plethora of fruit, including kumquat, cara cara orange, grapefruit, mandarin, and blood orange, alongside the sweeter, richer components of jasmine crema, black sesame cocoa nibs, and candied pistachio. Further increasing the overall complexity is very high-quality red watercress lightly tossed with a somewhat bitter amaranth vinaigrette. Not only is the result visually stunning but its playful blending of sweet and tart flavors is refreshing and entirely unique.
As many people know, Maine shrimp season was cancelled once again this year for reasons of repopulation, but the hauls by science vessels for research purposes have been doled out to a few very fortunate restaurants this year, Central Provisions being among them. One thing that I have always found to be completely baffling is the large amount of diners with an aversion to consuming the whole shrimp, shell-on, after they are fried – opting to painstakingly remove the tiny amount of meat from each individual shrimp and discard the crunchy goodness of the shell. Gould’s preparation combines the best of both worlds, he marinades the sweet, succulent shrimp with Meyer lemon, chives, and chili, alongside the crispy fried heads and ribbons of daikon radish. The finishing touches are crunchy sunchoke chips and a velvety puree of olive oil and egg yolk. I eat this dish with such reckless abandon that even the fact that I skewer the roof of my mouth with the fried antenna at least four times does nothing to slow me down.
Keeping with the Japanese influences found in prior courses is the crab and waffles, a buckwheat waffle topped with fresh crab salad, spicy aioli, bonito flake, and nori vinaigrette. It is not unlike the classic Izikaya dish, okonomiyaki, in its unabashed richness, and the texture of the waffle is similar to a blini pancake. The dish brings out a very pleasant peppery nuance in the glass of Les Chardon Gamay that I have transitioned into especially when paired with the smoky flavor of the bonito.
At this point McDonald offers a palate cleanser of Thomas H. Handy Sazerac Rye, which arrives in a gorgeous hand-numbered bottle. One of the Buffalo Trace Distillery’s “antique” selections, it has an incredibly lush texture with flavors of dried fruit and warm spice. I highly recommend you taste this whiskey for yourself.
The meal continues at a relaxed pace, aided by knowledgeable servers, and the portion sizes thus far leave me still feeling prepared to tackle several more. A handsome piece of wild-caught Bluenose Perch, a species of fish that I had yet to ever taste, is served alongside thick royal trumpet mushrooms, topped with a spicy lime pickle relish and resting in a pool of miso and rutabaga puree. The rich, umami-laden puree is particularly brilliant with the crispy skin of the mild, meaty fish. As I finish, DeWalt appears with a glass of Produttori Nebbiolo to accompany my final courses, and I couldn’t imagine anything more perfect with a bowl of potato gnocchi in brood with grilled bread, Parmesan rind, and shaved lardo.
Before I dig in, Gould approaches bearing a large canister filled with “every last black Perigord truffle from this season” that he could get his hands on. As he shaves a liberal portion of the hauntingly aromatic treasures on to my pasta, he explains, “This is one of the perks of owning your own restaurant. There’s no one around to tell me I can’t splurge on things like this when I feel like it.”
This lavish dish is every bit as good as it sounds and the truffles impart flavors of both dark chocolate and wet earth while the lardo melts into the gnocchi. All the while, the bread absorbs each element mingling with the broth and I save it for very last. Admittedly, this is an incredibly hard act to follow, but the next dish of blushingly pink, outrageously tender North Star Farms lamb is up to task. It is served with a silky white bean puree and a hardy chiffonade of kale, accentuated with both acidity and sweetness from an apricot and lemon relish. The quality of the lamb itself is showcased beautifully, and the fat is not unlike candy.
Although all of these dishes are fairly decadent in their own right, they are still very balanced. Gould is skilled in the art of knowing when to use restraint and let the subtle elements of the food speak for themselves. Even my dessert of foie gras parfait, topped with strawberry jelly, has a much lighter, fluffier texture than one would expect from a custard driven by rich, fatty duck liver. A glass of Sauternes further elevates the experience, leaving me room for one last drink before I take my leave.
McDonald pours me a glass of Herbsaint, which is an absinthe-style liqueur developed in New Orleans after the repeal of prohibition. Its high-alcohol content and powerful anise flavors impart the perfect glow to my mood and cap off what was truly a thrilling dining experience.
414 Fore St. | Portland | 207.805.1085 | central-provisions.com