The Corner Room
Late afternoon light fills the big picture windows of the Corner Room. The low light is almost like a signal, the start of happy hour. Chef de Cuisine Greg Wilson and other kitchen staff set out plates of snacks on the counter by the open kitchen – focaccia pizza, fried onions, green salad. People are coming through the door, taking seats at the bar, friends meeting friends and couples greeting each other happily at the end of the day. The atmosphere is convivial and sociable, with an air of the relief that comes at the end of a work week.
This is just what owner Harding Lee Smith hoped for when he opened the Corner Room in 2009. When the space became available on the corner of Exchange Street, just up the street from his Grill Room restaurant, Smith thought to himself, “What does Portland need?”. His vision was for an osteria, a place serving wine and simple food, a gathering spot where friends can share a snack or a meal. Diners could watch pasta being made and mozzarella being pulled by hand. It’s the type of spot you’d find in any village in Italy, a place near and dear to Smith. He spent a year cooking in Venice, and has travelled the country often, developing a deep appreciation for the cuisine and the skills to execute it.
Chef Wilson has been cooking at the Corner Room for three years, after spending several years at the Front Room. He’s picked up Smith’s passion for authentic Italian ingredients and techniques. Each day he develops specials using the house-made pasta, relying on what’s seasonal and what products are available at the market. “I like to find a vegetable first,” he says, “and base a dish around that.” Right now he’s excited about all the great local mushrooms. He uses four or five varieties of them in the pappardelle dish, a velvety bowl of chewy wide noodles, cream, Parmesan and those earthy forest mushrooms. It’s a rich, delightful taste of fall. Wilson will be adding more fall-like items to the menu as the months goes by, including a hearty boar ragu with root vegetables. Kale and pumpkin seed pesto is ready to replace summer’s basil pesto.
One item that always remains on the menu, the baked crespelle, is subtitled “the best thing you will ever eat”. It’s a thin crepe stuffed with tender braised beef, a little ricotta and herbs. The crepe is covered in “mama sauce”, the restaurant’s own full-flavored red sauce. Or add the Corner Room antipasti platter, a large wooden board overflowing with a variety of salumi, Italian cheeses (including the whipped ricotta, a personal favorite), tiny cubes of lightly pickled vegetables, olives and crostini. The two starters are perfect to share with a friend, along with a glass of red wine.
The Corner Room has been recognized by Wine Spectator magazine for the past three years with an Award of Excellence for its wine list, which includes bottles from a wide variety of regions in Italy, Alto-Adige and Lombardy in the north all the way to Puglia and Sicily in the far south. There’s great depth in both varietals and vintages. Wine director Erica Archer works to educate the staff on wine pairings and selections.
The contented crowd remains at the bar as happy hour blends into dinner time. They may stay for a while and perhaps order a pizza to share. Or ask for a table and settle in for a full meal. There’s seems to be no hurry to move on from this warm, mellow spot.
The Corner Room | 110 Exchange St. | Portland | 207.879.4747 | thecornerroomkitchenandbar.com