The majority of visitors to Portland, Maine meander around the old port searching for the perfect lobster roll; they usually find them at various seafood joints that pepper the piers and back alley streets. While the scent of sea urchin, mollusks and steamed crustaceans permeate the air, my friend Tony and I wandered away from the port and into the old town with its cobblestone streets and a mix of antique, maritime architecture melding with current day aesthetics. The commercial buildings are short and several church steeples pierce the skyline of the town marking the history of religion that once prevailed from settlers dating back to the 1800’s.
Tucked away off the beaten brick path on Chestnut Street is Grace Restaurant. The building (circa 1856) is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the few surviving examples of work by the architect Charles Alexander, who was very popular in Portland from the 1850s thru 1860s. Beyond the crimson red doors and wrought iron railings and lanterns is a dining experience that elevates the palate to the heavens. Tony and I entered the one-time sanctuary while a group of teenagers cheered for a basketball game at a high school directly across the street. The wooden doors creaked opened without a waft of incense but instead a savory scent as if someone was cooking for the high holidays.
The spacious dining room is split into two levels. A circular bar with a stone top counter rests like a majestic centerpiece in the middle of the dining room. The pews have been converted into a swanky lounge area on the periphery of the room — a second bar upstairs genuflects under a spectacular stained glass window. The ambiance is so full of grace that you can practically hear a choir of angels sing the praise of the architect and interior designer.
With all of the elements of the restaurant to observe, Tony and I opted to dine at the bar for the most spectacular views of the entire interior and exposed kitchen where the talented Executive Chef Adam Flood performs his culinary magic with a team of professionals. (Yes, I did find a little humor and irony in his first name and working as a chef in a church). We watched him attentively as he instructed the wait staff with the ingredients and combinations of various plates for this evening’s specials. Following are just a few suggestions of the seasonal Grace Restaurant menu.
The starters include a raw bar, charcuterie and cheese platters as well as a separate bar menu. Tony and I passed on the Cured Foi Gras, Crawfish Étouffée and the Korean BBQ Veal Sweetbreads are not exactly on the top of our list — sweetbreads tend to be tough and chewy. However, The Hawaiian Marlin Poke (above) was outstanding. The fish is melt-in-your-mouth fresh and flavorful. The chef wisely serves it with a combination of watermelon, ginger beer, avocado, heirloom radish, sesame and garnished with petite greens. Tony turned to me and said, “It’s like an inspired version of ceviche.” I noted that many Pervian chefs have perfected the pescado crudo dish, Chef Flood has given them some competition.
Traveling from Canada to New York City, I had my fill of lobster, oysters, mussels and crustaceans, however, when I read the ingredients in Grace Restaurant Frogmore Stew (above), I simply had to ‘belly up to the bar’ and indulge one more time. Chef Flood created a dish with Maine lobster, blowfish tails, mussels, purple potatoes, corn, broccolini, cipollini onions, sea beans and bouillabaisse. His broth was more like a loose gravy as opposed to a white wine/garlic and tomato based consommé — the lobster was succulent, the mussels were amazingly fresh and the fried blow fish tails were very crispy and tasty. Chef also added andoulle sausage giving this dish an extra kick. It’s a great choice for entreé. Tony mentioned the design of the oblong bowl making the presentation beautiful and easier to eat due to its slope.
Note: Not all blowfish are poisonous so have no fear.
No dinner is complete without a little sweet ending. The selection at Grace changes often but you can expect the traditional go-to desserts — with a confectionary spin — treats like Blackberry Tres Leches and Fig Crème Brulee to Apple Turnover. We received a special dish on this Fall evening that was like a fabulous S’more without sitting at a campfire.
After a quick 10 minute taxi ride back to the port, Tony and I were sated and ready to sail back to New York with a memorable dining experience in Portland, Maine.
Tip: Grace is only open for dinner starting at 5:00. It’s worth the trip up the hill and you should have plenty of time to board your cruise ship before 7:30 pm.
Note: Grace Restaurant has saved the impressive church after the abandonment of its congregation.
The overall experience is nothing short of Nirvana.
Discover more and make your plans here:
15 Chestnut Street
Portland, ME 04101
207 | 828 | 4422
Fall foliage travel with Norwegian Cruise Line coming this month in our Travel Section.