I knew Portland in Maine was a town full of food fanatics, but I don't think I was quite expecting the level of innovation that I experienced.
That statement might seem ironic, coming from a New Yorker who lives in the epicenter of the home to some of the best restaurants in the world.
But in New York, it's tough to be a competitive restaurant or cocktail bar. There's not as much room for creative risks with the slim margin for success in such expensive real estate-- many restauranteurs and chefs many times go with what will guarantee to draw the trendy, consistent crowd coming in and the flavor combinations have all been done.
I'm writing up my entire guide to Portland for you guys, but I had to first share this restaurant you absolutely cannot miss when traveling to Portland, Maine: Tempo Dulu
Why? Because this was mind-blowingly memorable (I don't say that lightly), and it would be sorely amiss to go to Portland and not eat at one of the best restaurants I've ever experienced.
Tucked away in the beautiful luxury boutique The Danforth Inn, Tempo Dulu has several little pockets of their dining area. It was recently renovated, and you can appreciate the beautifully modern design with a nod to the southeast Asian theme of the house cuisine, while it also maintains the classic New-England historical feel through the original hardwood floors and beautiful moldings.
Also, I need to take a moment to say that we received the warmest welcome upon our arrival. The staff all clearly personally care about making Tempo Dulu the best it can be, and the attention to detail in every aspect (decor, hospitality, food, drink, presentation) was a 10/10 slam dunk.
The cocktail scene in Portland is quite competitive. I had seen on several websites that Tempo Dulu was one of the top-ranked spots for cocktails, so I was really looking forward to this part of the experience.
Tempo Dulu really started winning the night with the cocktails at the bar.
Trevin Hutchins is the bar master here. He creates the most stunningly crafted drinks that not only look photogenic, but actually taste fantastic, as well. I mean, let's be real here- how many of us have had some beautiful and complex-sounding drink, only to have it taste like the bartender tried way too hard to get creative and it's just overkill? Not at all the case here.
Trevin's signature cocktail, the Jakarta, was awarded best cocktail in the USA by StarChefs in 2015. I got this artfully crafted drink and it was the most nuanced, flavorful, yet balanced cocktail I've had. It was also quite the fascinating process to watch him prepare it.
The actually making of this drink is what makes the flavors so intricate, rather than just the liquors involved. He sprayed the interior of the glass with absinthe mist, then torched the Chinese 5 Spices (similar to a Chai-spice blend) to set it on fire, set the glass over the spices to capture the smokey spice gas that then blends with the absinthe mist. The coastal root bitters (I found to be quite ubiquitous in Portland!) also mixed in there just perfectly.
Mary Catherine (@bettericecreamed) got The Wayang, which is double cross vodka, canton ginger, cilantro, kaffir lime, topped with mangosteen/turmeric foam. This was then topped with these edible orchids that tasted like crunchy fresh cucumbers.
We later then also had the Mai Tai and the Cà phê đá, which were also fantastic spins on the classics. You can see the rest of the cocktail menu and wine list here.
I've never felt utterly inundated with good food, like I did here. It was almost difficult to appreciate each dish because they were all just blindingly fantastic.
Even prior to sitting down at our table, we were sent out a little amuse bouche from the chef, Michael McDonnell (who I would later bow down to as a culinary genius): Thai-cured swordfish with dilly beans, black pepper, and rice cracker. I really could have had a few more spoonfuls of these and called it a day right then and there.
Mary Catherine decided to get a Lobster Tasting Menu (yes, that exists and dreams do come true) and I a Chef's Tasting Menu to be able to sample and share the best variety possible. I love that they had a lobster tasting menu, to combine the flavors of the restaurant with the local highlight of lobster.
Chef Michael also was quite generous to send out a few surprises in between dishes, that we thoroughly welcomed as well. As a side note, the staff at Tempo Dulu was extremely accommodating and helpful with my dietary restrictions, and it was so nice to not be treated like a nuisance as some other restaurants certainly have! We were very appreciative of this.
Rather than starting out with a traditional bread basket, you get a Shrimp-flavored Tapioca Cracker basket with sides of sambal chili and peanut sauce. This reminded me of a classic Korean kids cracker I used to eat growing up! Though, this certainly was the the far more refined version of it. We then had a Strawberry-Pineapple shooter with a Salt/Sugar rim and a micro cilantro (for Mary Catherine) and micro bean sprout (for me). Was the perfect way to transition from our sweeter start into savory.
First up on the lobster tasting menu was the Lobster with Chili Sambal Aioli, Avocado, Pickled Fresno Chilies, Salmon Roe, and Tempura Nori. To make me feel not neglected while Mary Catherine started on this, Chef Michael sent out Pickled Mussels topped with pickled Shallot and Radish, and Dill. Both were unreal, but I could have gone for thirds on that lobster.
Then we had a Lobster Broth of Roasted Chili Paste and Coconut, Lemongrass, Kaffir Lime, and Pickled Hon Shimeji Mushrooms, alongside the Coconut Duck Shiitake Lime Mushroom Soup. I am not normally a duck fan, but it was so unbelievably tender and flavorful in the soup. The lobster broth was perfectly balanced between spicy and cooling.
At this point, our stomachs are already ready for the most delicious nap, but we still weren't even halfway through. Next up on the lobster tasting menu was Lobster Dumplings with Spicy Glaze, Ramps, Radish, and Pickled Fresno; then for the Chef's Tasting menu, it was a Fried Lobster Spring Roll with a Wagyu Beef Sate. The dumplings were divine and perfectly crisp and chewy at the same time-- I also could have taken a bucket of that spicy glaze home. The spring roll was solid, but the Wagyu beef was so perfectly tender that I wanted more.
After that was the most refreshing palate cleanser, a shaved lime ice. This then prepared us for our main courses, because we hadn't already had enough food or anything...
On the lobster side of the table, it was a Panang-Glazed Butter Poached Lobster with Pickled Beans, Lychee, and a Kaffir Emulsion. On the Chef's tasting side, it was a little medley buffet served on a mini hot-plate, of: Steamed Artic Char, Beef Rendang, Wok Charred Squid, Chicken Sate, Egg Telur, Yellow Rice, and Pickles Sambal.
The foamy kaffir emulsion was just perfect on top of the tenderly poached lobster, and the lychee was a surprisingly good sweet twist. I adored the wok charred squid and artic char atop the yellow rice and egg telur; the chicken sate was solid but not noteworthy, and the beef rendang was a bit heavy-- I suspect mostly because it was at the end of the meal and I was ready to go into a food coma.
The lobster tasting came with a choice of dessert, so we chose the Caramelized Banana with Palm Sugar, Star Anise, Vanilla, Raisins, and Mekong Mint Ice Cream and the Chef's tasting came with a "trio of Indonesian Desserts," which included the Strawberry Sorbet with Coconut Cake, Coconut Foam, Macadamia Nuts and Lime Zest, the Indonesian Spekkoek (cake) with Apple, Star Anise, Cinnamon, and Coconut Ice Cream, and the Black Glutinous Rice Panna Cotta Pandan Essence Passion Fruit.
Have no words to say about any of those, really. It was the ultimate finish to the ultimate meal. My favorites were the caramelized banana and the black rice panna cotta, but all four were stunning culinary works.
The biggest thing that stood out to me about the food and drink was that they were adventurous and complex, but never once over-done. Sure, most dishes were a mouthful ingredients, but it never felt overwhelming at all. I'm not all that familiar with southeast Asian cuisine, yet everything felt approachable and like something you'd find in a southeast Asian family's home, but with a bit of professional creative flair.
Mary Catherine said something that I felt hit the nail right on the head: "You can tell when food is made with love." And indeed, this is very true. We had the pleasure of meeting with the Chef, and turns out that Chef Michael lived in Thailand for a number of years. He married into a Thai family, so his experience and learning of this southeast Asian cooking style hits true to home for him. Cooking for his family is a big part of who he is, but he also is a Maine man, born and raised. So the natural combination of Maine local foods and the southeast Asian cooking style now all made sense, and his cooking feels very much from the heart.
Like I said from the start, this experience is one I'll always remember. Yes, the food and drink were on another level of innovative and delicious, but the team here truly cares. Chef Michael and bar manager Trevin both collaborate to make creations that blend seamlessly together, and the staff all seem so happy to be a part of this team.
If traveling to the Portland area, I highly recommend you not miss out on this dining experience at Tempo Dulu- it will make your entire trip worth it on it's own! While I was welcomed for dinner here, I would go back in a heartbeat and definitely plan to during my next trip up to Maine.
Thank you to Tempo Dulu for welcoming Living Minnaly- as always, all opinions are of my own.