My neighborhood is the Old Port so there are a lot of restaurants around. But very few of them feel quite like a "neighborhood restaurant." In even the most comfortable of the Old Port’s nice food spots you get a sense that they are trying to get things exactly right — to earn their place as a destination people are willing to struggle with parking to visit. This striving is infectious, and soon you find yourself expecting this perfection, scrutinizing the meal, conscious of too much.
True neighborhood restaurants have a way of setting you at ease. Caiola’s, a new venture on Pine Street in the West End, does just that from the moment you walk up to the door. It is just far enough from Congress to feel tucked away. Inside the space feels intimate and warm. There is a pleasant buzz of conversation from the nook of tables to your right and the modest bar to your left. If you eat in the back you notice that even the doors to the kitchen, salvaged from some old house it looks like, are charming. Once when I was working at a small gallery, an artist painted the walls a dark maroon, trying to make the place feel womb-like. Caiola’s uses that same color, and it enhances the feeling of deep-comfort the place creates. By the time you rip off a piece of the wonderful bread (and wonderfully familiar — it’s from One Fifty Ate), you have been subconsciously prepared not to examine, but to enjoy.
Though Caiola’s very nature dissolves the impulse to scrutinize, the food rewards attention. Caiola’s patrons get the best of both worlds, a neighborhood restaurant with a destination chef — Abby Harmon, recently of Street and Company. She has put together a quirky menu, loosely focused on southern Europe it seems, changing a few things from week to week, while establishing some regular dishes. There are enough interesting entrees under $17 to make Caiola’s affordable, as a neighborhood place should be. There are also plenty of reasonable wines — our waiter pointed us to a nice and inexpensive bottle. She, like the rest of the staff, was both attentive and easy-going. She seemed as happy to offer relationship advice (how soon is it appropriate to call someone your girlfriend?) as to explain the menu.
Harmon packs a lot of variety (salads, soup, pasta, antipasto) into a half-dozen first-course options. We liked a salad that was modesty done perfectly — butter lettuce and shallots with a nice vinaigrette. Even the escargot served on mushroom caps managed to seem humble. It offered a combination of flavors that reminded me of nothing so much as a snail stroganoff — which was nicer than it sounds.
Entrees range from the homey (takes on a burger and mac ‘n cheese) to the elegant. I was glad to see that, though Harmon is now liberated from Street's cult of Pisces, there are still some interesting seafood options. The sautéed fluke piccata was prepared with that familiar excellence. The fish was light, flakey and a little buttery, and not overwhelmed by the capers. It is really nice to have a place to get Street and Co. excellence in seafood even if your companions are not in the mood for fish.
Things are so pleasant at Caiola’s that small missteps are easily forgiven. I enjoyed my ribeye, but the béarnaise, a cool dollop perched on a slice of orange, left me a little cool as well. I tasted the orange and perhaps mustard when I craved stronger flavors of tarragon and shallots. Caiola’s gets most of the details right — like side vegetables that are nicely roasted, fresh, and delicious. One exception was the Jerusalem artichokes — a puree that was an interesting idea but too sweet, and ultimately brought to mind baby food. We liked the womb-like room, but that took us back too far. A lovely chocolate torte, however, transported us just far enough. Rich and creamy, it reminded us ever so slightly of the flavor of the old Hostess choco-bliss. It was just another of the many pleasures at Caiola’s that feel so easy and familiar.
Caiola’s | 58 Pine St., Portland | 207.772.1110
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Brian Duff: firstname.lastname@example.org