Duck fat-fried fries and doughnut holes. Duck confit. Poutine with duck gravy and, if you want, a fried duck egg. Suffice it to say, Duckfat in Portland, Maine, has become a destination for all things anti-diet. That's not to say fried food is all the Old Port cafe offers, but it's what they take most seriously and what they've always done best. Lately, however, the menu's grown, attracting patrons looking for both guilty and (relatively) guiltless pleasures alike. I went in for the latter.
Duckfat has always offered at least one soup, but last weekend there were three, including a borscht (cup: $6) special. Served tepid, the beet broth was as good as any I've had at a Jewish deli—full-flavored and not just sweet—with pulpy bits of grated beet and a fine-chopped beef. A tiny spoonful of tangy, sharp braised mustard seeds tamped down on the sweetness nicely.
The other soup, lamb and black lentil (cup: $5.50), didn't coat the spoon, but there's something luxurious about the texture of those pearly beluga lentils (the same ones used in decadent Indian dal makhani) and they paired well with the rich lamb. There was a good bit of harissa stirred in as well—maybe too much, since it was hard to detect the mint and cilantro, but there might have been a distracting amount of cumin in there as well.
Salads impressed, too, especially the one with charred broccoli ($7.25). The pieces are left large and on the raw side of al dente, then blackened here and there—a contrast of fresh and smoky flavor I'd never tasted with broccoli. There were minced pieces of dried black olive peppered throughout the spring mix greens—which functioned like pungent flecks of coarse salt—dabs of mild-mannered goat cheese, and a creamy Meyer lemon vinaigrette. All in all, a really well thought-out salad.
The chopped Brussels sprouts salad ($6.75) might have paled in comparison to the broccoli, but it was no slouch. For one thing, the portion was big, and while I wasn't expecting a bowl teeming with mostly torn romaine (I found myself digging around for the crunchy sprouts), the heavy shower of salty-rich Parmesan shavings, apples and tangy dried cranberries, and herb vinaigrette were refreshing and satisfying.
Besides Belgian-style fries, milkshakes ($5-$6) are Duckfat's other biggest draw, and it's hard to leave without one. In fact, I didn't; the special shake that day was roasted banana with nutmeg and local goat's milk—you would have caved, too. But the kitchen is also well known for making its own sodas ($2.50), which are imaginative and well executed. Cider vinegar and maple shrub is tangy but not sharp, clean, and complexly sweet; wish I could buy it by the case.
About the author: Liz Bomze lives in Brookline, MA, and works as the Senior Features Editor for Cook's Illustrated Magazine. In her free time, she freelances regularly for the Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, the Improper Bostonian, and Martha's Vineyard Magazine; practices bread-baking and canning; takes photos; reads; and watches baseball. Top 5 foods: fresh noodles, gravlax, sour cherry pie, burrata, ma po tofu.