Dish: Destination Duckfat

When you are eating your way along the Northeast seacoast, all roads lead to Portland
French fries at Duckfat in Portland, Maine
It’s all about the fries at Duckfat, Portland, Maine. Photo: Meredith Perdue/Map&Menu
August 19, 2014

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This is one in an occasional series about eating establishments near Tufts’ three campuses—and in the summer, a bit beyond. Have a suggestion for a place for us to explore? Email now@tufts.edu. You can also follow Dish on Foursquare.

You’re on vacation. Relaxing on the beach, not a care in the world—except the vexing question of where to eat tonight.

My idea of roughing it is packing a selection of bitters, a blender and enough salty nuts to keep us alive between oyster bar visits. Perhaps you share my fear of winding up eating in one of those places that are suspiciously empty. Whether you intend to muscle your way into dinner reservations at the best local restaurant or prefer to adopt a breezy nonchalance, it’s helpful to have target destinations at the ready.

A recent daytrip along the Northeast seacoast afforded the opportunity to explore and report back on some discoveries. My simple advice to everyone who’s hunted unsuccessfully for an impressive bite on that route: Hold off on dinner till you get to Portland, Maine.

Before you get that far, though, you’ll need to stop for breakfast, the most important meal of the day. This used to mean a visit to the Friendly Toast in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but a local directed me to Roger’s Redliner Diner, a well-preserved 1950 model reopened this year after 40 years of hibernation.

Since a diner is measured by its breakfast, here’s a no-brainer: Never skip an opportunity to order house-made corned beef hash. A single caveat is that it be requested well-done, or “crispy.” I’ve long given up expectations of being served well-browned home fries, but hash without a trace of surface crust may rightfully be returned to the kitchen. When an unfortunate breakfast starts the day in dejection, it’s an uphill battle to dispel the resulting crankiness. My hash took a while to arrive, and the serving was on the petite side, but it was presentable enough to spare my day.

Roger’s Redliner Diner. Photo: Fred KalilFrittatas were agreed by all to be uncommonly fluffy and moist. Too bad the cinnamon swirl French toast wasn’t allowed a proper soak in its egg bath. Fortunately, I was mollified by the retro tunes dancing in my ear, it having been far too long since I last heard “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”

CIA-trained chef Daryl McGann will also tell you the reasons he’s proud of Redliner’s burger: the domestic meat is aged a minimum of two weeks, never frozen and single muscle in origin (shoulder chuck, no trim cuts or filler). Hand-packed and served on a bodacious bun that’s a cross between brioche and challah, the burger scored well in the taste category. Like sibling bakery Me & Ollie’s up the road, Roger’s uses house-milled grain from a third-generation organic farm in Montana.

Portlandia Beckons

Continuing north, we rejected our next destination in Wells, Maine, following a walkthrough assessment of the bar seating. Instead, we made a beeline for Portland, a known destination for all that’s alive and happening.

We rolled into town on a Saturday night and were met with 90-minute waits at our first three choices. But I’d done my research, and it wasn’t long before we landed at Central Provisions. With an assist from the superior bar staff, we snagged some seats. (Another no-brainer: if you find a great bartender, your visit will improve considerably.)

Open for six months, C Pro easily rises to the achievement of Portland’s highly recognized dining scene. As well as a commitment to source food locally, chef and co-owner Chris Gould brings a pedigree that includes Coppa and a stint at Uni as chef de cuisine. His wife Paige manages the front of the house.

Roasted radish, one of the small plates on the summer menu at Central Provisions in Portland. Photo: Fred Kalil Duck liver crostini have been finding their way onto a number of menus. This version, complemented with kumquats, fried shallot and fresh oregano, set the bar for elevated expectations. Our follow-up of caramelized Miticana sheep cheese from Spain with peaches and 15-year aged balsamic nearly prompted an immediate encore. That distinction was reserved for the insanely glorified Augusta potatoes from Dandelion Spring Farms, bathed in foie gras butter with a farm egg and garlic scapes. I am no potato head, but this was a revelation.

Our entire party, being genetically wired to eat lamb, made ordering the larger portion an automatic choice for us. Harissa, sumac and cocoa nibs harmonized beautifully with the flavorful lamb from Royalton Farms in Vermont. Roasted radishes described by our server as an “umami bomb” were tossed with cipollini onions in miso butter and framed with sea-green nori emulsion for a dramatic stroke of color. I noted throughout the meal that every ingredient on a dish was there for a reason; nothing was purely decorative. I submit my stamp of approval.

Anyone should have been sated following the artfully curated cheese plate that capped our dining experience, but the irresistible attraction of Duckfat around the corner lured us into disregarding all bounds of decency. Having no capacity left for duck confit panini didn’t prevent us from sampling the eponymous fries—twice-fried in the Belgian style and served with a sybaritic choice of dipping stuffs. Torn between Thai chili mayo and truffle ketchup is a happy place to be. Perfectly crispy and seasoned with house-spiced salt, the bagful disappeared while still warm. We saved just enough room for a taste of sea-salted duck fat caramel on a solitary scoop of ice cream.

Roger’s Redliner Diner, 2454 Lafayette St., Southgate Plaza Shopping Center, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. 603.436.7777. Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 7 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 7 a.m.–10 p.m.; http://rogersredlinerdiner.com/.

Central Provisions, 414 Fore St., Portland, Maine. 207.805.1085. Open daily, 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and 5 p.m.–midnight; www.central-provisions.com.

Duckfat, 43 Middle St., Portland, Maine. 207.774.8080. Open daily, 11 a.m.–10 p.m.; www.duckfat.com.

 Fred Kalil can be reached at frederick.kalil@tufts.edu.

Read earlier reviews on the Dish series page.