The recent renovation transforming the historic Eastland Hotel into the sleek new Westin Harborview also worked its magic on its street-level restaurant, Congress Squared. The Top of the East gets all the glory, but a strong case can be made for the sophisticated spot just off the lobby. The room is all clean lines, neutral colors, and squared-off edges. The two-level centerpiece bar is a beauty—wide and bright white surrounded by comfortable stools. Behind the bar are friendly faces at the ready to mix you one of Congress Squared’s signature cocktails. Bartender Jessica Emery presents me with a St. Valery, a bright blend of Sauza Tequila, freshly squeezed orange, carrot, and lime juices, and thyme simple syrup. We joke that it’s really a carrot margarita and the drink’s fresh flavor and color considerably brighten the gloom outside today.
Dawn Clemens sits down with me. She joined the Westin as director of restaurants after eight years as Fore Street’s general manager. “I was ready for a change and wanted more of a challenge,” she tells me. Here, her job involves three meals a day, a larger staff, and more marketing responsibilities. “I’m much more hands on now and have more creative influence.” Part of that creativity involves working with the staff on the development of new cocktails, such as the Red Ace—fresh beets are roasted, pureed, and combined with Bulleit Rye, a bit of orange juice, and a sprig of tarragon. Clemens admits this is a favorite for its vibrant fuchsia hue and to her because “it appeals to me as a gardener.” Her imprint is also on the wine list; she helped it evolve to a selection of smaller production labels. Wednesday night is wine night, when all bottles are 50 percent off in the dining room. Clemens has also introduced Monday Matters—every week a portion of that day’s food sales is donated to a local nonprofit. Clemens rotates benefitting organizations, which have included MOFGA and Animal Refuge League.
While we’re talking, executive chef Brian Anderson appears with a small cast iron skillet of crispy cheese croquettes, like an American version of gougère stuffed with melted Pineland Farm smoked cheddar. The snack is part of the bar menu, as are Maine mussels in a rich horseradish butter sauce and oxtail poutine. The tender, braised meat is served on top of thick house fries with cheese curds and a demi-glace that’s a perfect vehicle for the potatoes. It’s winter comfort food that’s especially good for sharing.
Over the past several months, Anderson and chef-de-cuisine Eli Irland have brought fresh ideas, creative passion, and a commitment to quality ingredients to Congress Squared. They’re focusing more on small plates of traditional American food and putting their own twist on the dishes. “I saw this as a great opportunity to set my mark and do my own things,” says Anderson. He trained with world-famous chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and gained a backbone of knowledge, techniques, and attention to detail that serves him well. His experience is shown in a dish of smoked and pan-roasted duck, accompanied by roasted grapes and rosemary garlic confit sauce, and is finished with a crunch of Maine sea salt. Both Anderson and Irland handle dessert making, and draw inspiration from New England favorites. A trio of hot brioche doughnut holes is filled with fresh blueberry sauce. Toasted walnut crumble on top brings to mind a good old-fashioned crumb pastry.
“Our food isn’t about showing off,” says Anderson. “It’s craveable food that people really want to eat. But it’s the little touches that set it apart.” Both chefs are looking forward to spring and the new ingredients it brings. The menu will change accordingly as more produce becomes readily available. “We’re restaurateurs at heart,” Anderson says. ”We’re hoping people will see this is much more than a hotel restaurant. We really want to build a relationship with Portland.”
Congress Square | 157 High St, Portland | 207.517.8831 | congresssquared.com