omeone once told me that the Back Bay Grill was by far the best restaurant in Portland. I felt obligated to try this restaurant with such a well-respected and beloved audience. After the experience, I am not sure I would deem it the best in Portland, but I would highly recommend Back Bay Grill for it's overall atmosphere and amazing delectable desserts.
We made a reservation for 8:00 on a Saturday evening and were pleasantly surprised when, as we were putting our coats on to leave, the host called our home to apologize and let us know that the people sitting at our table were running a bit behind and they wouldn't be able to seat us until 8:15. When we arrived we were very grateful for this gracious phone call as the waiting area is nearly non-existent in the tiny restaurant. We walked in at 8:15, the hostess hung our jackets, and we were promptly seated.
The restaurant itself is two bright rooms with a predominantly large area reserved for the open kitchen, bar, and servers' area. The walls are white, with large chunky pieces of artwork displayed here and there. The place was crowded, and conversation carries extremely well making for a loud room drowning out background music. In the bathrooms, there are real washcloths to dry one's hands in lieu of paper towels. Our waitress was very polite, quiet and unobtrusive.
We were given a little bit of time to peruse the beautifully designed seasonal menu and the huge wine list before ordering glasses of wine, a Savignon Blanc and a Merlot, and bottles of beer, Allaghash White, Bass, and Old Thumper. We decided against ordering bottles of wine on this particular evening but had we chosen otherwise, we would have had an extensive list of possibilities to eliminate. There was a full bar available as well, but I did not notice any beer on tap. After delivering our beverages our waitress described the one special for the evening, a tomato soup with mushrooms and a scallop.
It was not difficult for any of us to decide what to choose for our respective appetizers and entrees. There was one selection that spoke to each of us. After placing our orders, our waitress brought two baskets of fresh wheat bread with dishes of butter. The bread was mediocre, not too exciting, but a good snack to munch on while waiting for our appetizers.
For my first course, I selected the Hearts of Romaine with garlic dressing and shaved Reggiano parmesan ($7). The salad was delicious, a whole heart of romaine, still nearly intact, with the perfect amount of delicious garlicky homemade dressing, large shavings of fresh parmesan and topped with delightful tiny croutons rich in flavor. Two other diners at our table decided to try the tomato soup special, and another tried the Roasted Vegetable Napoleon of Grilled Eggplant, Olive Oil Poached Roma Tomatoes and Marinated Peppers with Sauteed Goat Cheese and Szcheuan Peppered Balsamic Glaze ($9). The Napoleon was equally tasty with plenty of rich creamy goat cheese and some of the best tomatoes our vegetarian diner has yet to taste. Our fifth diner ordered the Mixed Baby Greens Salad with Port Wine Vinaigrette, Candied Walnuts and Crumbled Stilton ($7) described as having powerful vinaigrette that complemented the sweet of the walnut and the potent cheese very well.
Our appetizer plates were cleared and our well-used silverware replaced by new in preparation for our entrees which arrived promptly after. All of the dishes were beautifully sculpted on simple white plates, void of any sprinkled garnish around the edges that has become so cliché in gourmet restaurants, the actual food made the artful presentation.
I tried the "Chicken and Dumplings" with stuffing, tomato petals and pearl onions in
zinfandel/pancetta demi-glace ($21). I was a little surprised to see what was actually on my plate in comparison to the menu description, but I suppose that's why they used quotation marks. There was a piece of chicken on a bone that was marinated and then cooked, two mounds of stuffing wrapped in thin pounded chicken with the skin still on, which I assumed was the "dumplings" until I noticed a few little pockets of potatoes strewn on my plate along with a single pearl onion and many bits of pancetta. The tomato petals were arranged in a pretty floral shape on one side of my plate with a small bunch of grilled radicchio garnishing the other, and then everything was doused in the
thick brown demi-glace. The chicken on the bone was quite good, very moist and the marinade has crisped onto the chicken for a great texture. The stuffing, which I would have preferred sans chicken wrapping, was very moist and full of strong spices. Yet the dumplings were not too flavorful, nor were the tomato petals.
Amongst our other diners, they tried the Wild Mushroom Ravioli with Riesling Butter Sauce, the Duck Two Ways, with Olive Oil Smashed Potatoes, Baby Spinach and Lingonberry-Port Sauce ($24), and the Fresh Fettuccini with Hickory Smoked Tomatoes, Broccoli Rabe, King Oyster Mushrooms and Basil Pesto ($18). The ravioli was good, the filling mainly composed of chopped mushrooms, the sauce not too extravagant, and the overall entrée needed to be enhanced with a bit of salt. Our duck-connoisseur that evening enjoyed every bit of his Duck Two Ways and another diner delighted in describing the
fettuccini entrée saying that the smoked tomatoes lent a robust overpowering yet delicious flavor that melded well with the cooked mushrooms, slightly bitter broccoli rabi, and pesto sauce.
After finishing up our meals in near silence, no raving comments as we all imbibed our food, we all agreed that dessert and espresso were definitely in order to close out the evening, especially since we had caught glimpses of other diners' desserts that looked astounding. The majority of the after-dinner menu comprised of a huge selection of dessert wines and coffees with five actual dessert selections, each priced at $7.00. We all skipped over the Crème Brulee and the Roasted Banana and Rum Ice Cream Swans in Pooled Chocolate to try the Caramel Ice Cream with Bourbon-Caramel Sauce, the White Chocolate Ice Cream with Chocolate Spaghetti, and the Dark Chocolate Truffle Cake on White Chocolate and Hazelnut Ganache with Chocolate Mousse and Mango Coulis. These desserts were absolutely amazing! They were so rich and delicious, an excellent ending to our evening. The caramel ice cream was some of the creamiest, smoothest ice cream I have ever tasted, full of flavor with the most wonderful texture. The warm bourbon caramel sauce was just perfect on the caramel ice cream, it wasn't too sweet or too overpowering at all. The other desserts were equally as enjoyable. The white chocolate ice cream was topped with warm chocolate sauce and the festive "spaghetti" of bittersweet chocolate, almost the texture of a cookie, was piled in a bunch of thin crispy strands on top. Both ice cream desserts were served in wonderful glass bowls that each resembled a glass globe on a pedestal with an open side. The latter dessert comprised of a thick round of hazelnut and white chocolate ganache, topped with another round of rich dark chocolate fudge, covered with a layer of mousse and a single graceful chocolate shaving imprinted with confectioner's sugar designs propped against the whole concoction like a chocolate sail that just melted in your mouth. The orange mango coulis was drizzled on the plate and served as more of a colorful counterpart to the rich fudge rather than a substantial fruit addition.
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Amongst our group, we had mixed reviews of our dinner at Back Bay Grill. Overall, I determined that the appetizers and desserts were simply elegant, entirely worth the trip, and the middle entrée a little less extraordinary, especially for the lofty price. I would definitely like to return to Back Bay Grill again, after replenishing our wallets (the bill for 5 of us totaled well over $200), to try the Spring or Summer menus.
Tracy B. Wheeler is a classical flutist and freelance writer who lives in Portland.