747 Congress St., Portland
The first snowfall in Portland is always a memorable event, but pair it with a candlelit dinner, delectable food and festively colored mocktails and you’ll feel like you’re in the opening scene of a Hallmark Christmas movie.
Wayside Tavern has quickly become my partner’s and my Saturday-night-out joint, and though it’s only steps from our home in Portland’s West End, it’s made us feel worlds away. Located inside The Francis, a boutique hotel on Congress Street, Wayside Tavern is the third or fourth eatery to occupy the cozy two-room space off the lobby, and in my humble opinion, the best.
Sharing small plates is my favorite way to explore a menu, and after three trips in as many months, we’ve sampled most of the offerings. Among our favorites are the beer-battered cod cheeks ($6 each), simply presented with a lemon wedge and herbaceous tartar sauce. The batter, reminiscent of funnel cakes, gave the briny little nuggets a perfect crunch and a slightly sweet kiss at the end. The broiled Maine oysters ($4 each) are seasoned with a heaping of garlic chili butter and had us literally licking the shells. The daily crudo (market price) has been bluefin tuna during each visit, and I’m not complaining. The thick slabs of tuna are adorned solely with pickled peppers, good olive oil and citrus, allowing the full flavor of the raw fish to be the star.
For salads, we’ve tried both the delicata squash ($11) with spiced honey and melty gorgonzola, and the chickory salad ($13) with anchovy vinaigrette and crunchy breadcrumbs. Just like the starters, the salads allow their top-quality local ingredients to shine on their own, and are perfect palate-cleaners for the heavy hitters to come.
One waft of broiled cheese from the table next to ours and we knew we needed to indulge in the Brussels sprouts gratin ($12). Did. Not. Disappoint. Thinly sliced and swirled with cheesy mornay, the sprouts were served crackling hot in an adorable little cast-iron pan. My only complaint is that there were some stragglers begging for a piece of chewy bread to swoop them up. Similarly, the eggplant terrine ($12), bubbling with tangy marinara and homemade mozzarella as soft as marshmallow fluff, was completely demolished and the dish fingered clean before I could even offer some to my girlfriend. Sorry, not sorry.
Twice, we’ve ordered the monkfish ($29) and the grass-fed bavette steak (m.p.), and twice we’ve been transported to a Parisian bistro (sans snooty waiter!). The monkfish, aggressively slathered in caper brown butter, is served with roasted wild mushrooms and makes up for the fat and salt with wee chunks of zesty lemon. The steak was earthy and perfectly bloody, and what didn’t wipe up the marrow au poivre sauce allowed the side of velvety pureed potatoes to finish the job.
We then mentally travelled to an Italian trattoria with the whole-wheat tonnarelli ($21). Like an even more unctuous version of the classic Cacio e Pepe (“cheese and pepper” pasta), Wayside adds diced guanciale (Italian cured pork jowl) to place this as one of the best pastas I’ve eaten in Portland. For real.
The desserts were solid versions of classics. The chocolate mousse and tiramisu are reminders of what was always taught to me by my chef mentors: use the K.I.S.S. method — Keep It Simple, Stupid. So yeah, our Hallmark movie ended with a kiss.
Wayside Tavern is open Mondays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Sundays noon to 9 p.m. Reservations are recommended and can be made via their website.