Portland, ME: Wood Oven-Roasted Mussels and Turnspit Roast Chicken at Fore Street
There are many reasons why I love dining at Fore Street, but two of them are in direct contradiction with one another. First, the menu changes daily, which means that there are always new dishes to try. Second, the restaurant has a few signature items that never come off the menu, and I order two of them—the mussels ($10) and the roast chicken ($22)—almost every time I eat there.
With the exception of my weekly Thai and sushi cravings (pad si ew, Alaska roll, respectively), I rarely order the same dish on repeat—especially at a place like Fore Street, where I could happily eat my through every item on the menu. But I just can't tear myself away from these two particular dishes, and my only real justification is that so many other Fore Street die-hards like me seem to be in the same predicament.*
I once read that in a busy week, chef Sam Hayward goes through 800 pounds of mussels. I'd believe it; every time I'm there, I see at least half a dozen orders get whisked from the open kitchen to a waiting table. And though the concept of the dish is not unlike most mussel appetizers you see around—mussels in a garlicky wine broth—this particular version eclipses them all.
For starters, the specimens served here are bigger and much sweeter than most—a hand-harvested crop from nearby Casco Bay waters. They're added raw to the heatproof serving dish—a shallow, loop-handed vessel that looks like a small paella pan—with some white wine and a garlic-almond compound butter, and roasted in the super-hot wood-fired oven until they pop open. The finished mussels are plump and juicy; the broth tastes briny and clean yet decadent from the butter and almonds, and there's a definite smoky edge from the charred mussel shells. I always think that an order of these, a few rounds of the restaurants fabulous bread from their belowground Standard Baking Co., and a glass of wine is all you need for a perfect, very affordable meal.
But then there's the chicken—an even simpler preparation—and if you're one of those people who appreciates really good roast chicken, this bird's for you. A high-quality chicken (regularly from Warren, Maine-based Maine-ly Poultry or another producer of premium poultry) is brined overnight with salt, brown sugar, and a little bourbon, and then spit-roasted. The naturally self-basting process produces meat that's moist (but not spongy), tender, and faintly sweet from the sugar and booze, with gorgeously bronzed crisp skin. This particular night the chicken arrived over a bed of duck fat-fried sourdough bread and a few stems of wilted chard. Utterly perfect.
* Full disclosure: The real reason I'm able to order these dishes over and over again without regret is that my friends freely indulge my habit and agree to order many of the other dishes on the menu. This post is dedicated to them.