Review: Upstairs at the Public Market House

Gustatory altitude
By BRIAN DUFF  |  January 19, 2011

SERIOUS SOUP Kamasouptra’s bowls of goodness.

Everybody likes a scrappy tale of redemption. Remember how good the movie Lucas was? Remember the way Al Gore's Florida vote-count slowly crept up all November? What makes scrappy redemption so appealing is that success is so rare. Go back and check the tape: Lucas did not catch the ball! Gore never got all the votes counted!

So when a scrappy redemption actually succeeds, it is especially gratifying. Perhaps that explains why it is so pleasant to sit upstairs at the Public Market House. The PMH, on Monument Square, has grown out of the ashes of the old Portland Public Market a block away. While the Public Market was carefully planned and designed, structurally impressive, and connected to ample indoor parking, the Public Market House was created by sheer gumption in an old Army surplus store.

While the downstairs at the PMH can feel a bit crowded and mazelike, the upstairs space is simultaneously sprawling and cozy. Big windows at either end of the huge room keep it from feeling cave-like. The mix-and-match tables and chairs are comfortably haphazard in layout. The brick walls, inlaid ceiling, and wood counters add a bit of class.

What makes the upstairs work is that they have stumbled into just the right vendors — a group that seems quirky and laid-back, but serious about good food. The anchor seems to be KAMASOUPTRA, run by small group of soup fanatics from Texas. Their six to eight choices tend to veer toward the vegetarian and vegan. Some bacon did sneak into the white bean soup, infusing the broth with a smoky flavor, along with notes of celery and thyme. Kamasouptra's blends many soups, like broccoli cheddar or roasted red pepper, but lets them maintain some bumpy texture. The bowl of red pepper had the perfect bit of spicy bite to it, followed on the palate by the pepper's sweetness. A buttery, creamy clam chowder tasted more of vegetables than seafood.

Every bowl comes with its own little loaf of warm wheat bread, a gorgeous speckled brown, with a chewy crust and soft, aromatic interior. It's a sign of the care Kamasouptra brings to the enterprise that the crust gets an ample sprinkling of salt, which makes this bread more ideal for soup-dipping than it would be for anything else. In another example of that care, I watched one soupmaster help a new member of the soup club pick out a personal bowl (a two-toned beauty with a wide handle). He urged her to avoid chips by skipping the communal bus-bins to return the empty bowl back to him directly.

The next counter over is PEANUT BUTTER JELLY TIME, which brings some whimsy to the room. The owner takes his sandwiches seriously, however, and uses fresh seedy breads that stand up to the sweetness and moisture of the jellies and jams. His most popular sandwich features homemade cashew butter with raspberry jam. The fruit has some great sharp sour flavor to go with the sweet, and the cashew nuttiness lingers on the tongue. PBJ Time also offers breakfast, including a good egg sandwich that features a thick, gooey slice of cheddar.

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