The White Cap Grille (Portland, ME)

by chubbywerewolf on 17 August 2011

The #5 Burger at the White Cap Grille, featuring a half-pound of beef, swiss cheese, bacon, sauteed mushrooms and onions

The #5 Burger at the White Cap Grille, featuring a half-pound of beef, swiss cheese, bacon, sauteed mushrooms and onions

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As a child who was not only catastrophically uncoordinated, but also a frequent patron of the “Husky Boys” section of the local Hills department store, I wasn’t a big fan of gym class. Actually, it wasn’t so much the class that I disliked as it was the two minutes at the start of each period when all of the boys would line up to be divided into teams to square off against one another in whatever that day’s competition was.

Generally, the way it worked was that two students would be selected by the Phys. Ed teaacher as team captains. The two captains would then pick their teams from the line-up of students standing before them. It goes without saying that the strongest, fastest kids were typically chosen first.

If you were smart (or anything short of being a complete imbecile), you always chose Carl Johnson with your #1 pick. Carl was a hulking mass of a guy who I’m convinced was not a high school student at all, but rather, a former NFL linebacker turned-undercover cop who had infiltrated our school as part of some “21 Jump Street”-esque sting operation. (This was at the height power for the various Western New York glue-sniffing cartels… dark times indeed.)

As an aside, Carl was actually one of the nicest guys I knew in high school. In my limited interactions with him, he struck me as the type of person who never had a bad thing to say about anyone, and wouldn’t hurt a fly. That said, you did not want to be on the team opposite him, especially if the day’s game was dodgeball. The one rule in dodgeball was that you were not to aim for an opposing player’s head (even then, we had enough sense to know that was a bad idea). Still, the red rubber balls we used—designed by NASA scientists to inflict the most possible damage on another human being—weren’t engineered with accuracy in mind. Accidents happened.

Twenty years after graduating high school, I’m still haunted by one such incident (begin flashback sequence, which—for maximum effect—should be read accompanied by the main theme of the film, “Broken Arrow”). It involved Carl and a kid named Jeremy. Jeremy was the smartest kid in our class, but more importantly, he had the reflexes like a skittish cat. So when he and Carl found themselves on opposite sides of the dodgeball field, it seemed as if it might be duel for the ages, one that would be decided by Carl’s brute strength or Jeremy’s ability to dodge and weave. However, it took exactly 0.8 seconds for the cybernetic device planted inside Carl’s brain to locate his target and authorize him to take the kill shot. Teen Hulk then jettisoned the dodge ball from his massive paw, and it soared across the gymnasium at speeds rivaling those of your average F-16 Fighter Jet. Miraculously, it failed to make direct contact with Jeremy’s body, the force of which would likely have torn a hole in the fabric of time-space.

But what happened next was nearly  as bad. The ball struck the wall behind Jeremy—punching a four-inch gouge into the cement and cinder block surface—and then bounced back into the field of play, careening directly into poor Jeremy’s skull, causing it to explode on contact. As 20 horrified onlookers found themselves awash with blood, skull fragments and brain matter, Jeremy’s glasses spun through the air in slow motion for a full thirty minutes—while somber bagpipes played somewhere in the distance—before finally hitting the gymnasium floor with the crack.

End Flashback Sequence.

Ok, so I might be embellishing a little about the blood, the brain matter and the gouge in the wall. But Jeremy’s eyeglasses really did fly off his head and break. And Carl was definitely part Terminator.)

Anyway, once Carl was off the market, the team captains would whittle their way dowm though the remaining candidates. The jocks were the next to be chosen, followed by non-jocks who showed some level of athletic promise, proceeded by the boys who had shown that they could manage certain extraordinary physical accomplishments, like walking six full yards without tripping over their own feet. Sometimes, depending on what the game-of-the-day was, the order might vary just a bit. If the sport was basketball, a taller kid might move up a few picks. If the game was flag football, the smaller, faster kids might be selected for their ability to worm their way through the opposing team’s defense.

But one thing that never changed, regardless of what the sport-of-the-day was, was the identities of the last students to be picked. Time and again, the same six or seven boys found ourselves standing over to one side, heads bowed in silent shame as the Team Captains grudgingly sorted through the remainders, calling out our names in annoyance and revulsion.  We were the weak, the asthmatic, the uncoordinated, the chubby. Simply put, we were The Unchosen.

As another aside, there was one magnificent year when we got a new Phys. Ed teacher, Coach Lord. In defiance of the unwritten code which says that male physical education instructors are required to be insecure, sadistic pricks who—unable to cope effectively with their own various shortcomings—must do everything in their Slytherin-like power to scar young boys for life (can you tell that I’m working out some anger with this post?), Coach Lord—in his Christ-like wisdom—instituted a variety of policies designed to make The Unchosen feel slightly less so. For instance, he often selected two Unchosens as team captains. Ha! Suck it, athletes! On other occasions, in a spectacular coup de grâce to the athletic elite,  he abandoned the team captain approach entirely and simply had all of the students line up in row while he counted us off as “evens” and “odds.”

Alas, as our gym class was more corrupt than the Italian Parliament, the popular and athletic kids almost always found ways to keep their little caste system in tact. Still, it was a noble effort on the part of Coach Lord (who left us after just a year to coach at a nearby college) and on behalf of The Unchosen, I thank him for his compassion.

It is worth mentioning that as I grew older, I became a little more coordinated, and even managed to play some high school tennis. And in college, I broke out of my awkward “husky” phase, graduating to “Level 1 Fat” thanks to a strict regimen of beer and pizza. So hang in there, kids. It really does get better.

 

* * *

 

In light of my personal history, you can probably understand my fondness and appreciation for a particular page on the PortlandFoodMap web site, dubbed “Unreviewed.” If you’re unfamiliar with this section, is a tally of the 30 or so Portland area establishments that, for any one of a multitude of reasons, have yet to be critiqued by any of the various writers, bloggers or media outlets in our city.

While higher profile restaurants—the Fore Streets, the Brescas and the Miyakes—often benefit from lots of (well-deserved) attention from my blogging brethren, some of The Unreviewed have sat on the list for months or even years. This is not to say that these restaurants are not worth reviewing. Nor is it a jab at the establishments that often have reviews coming out of the woodwork mere days after opening. Its just a simple reality, one which says that when you have as many dining choices in a city like ours, there are always going to be a few places that just slip through the cracks.

This past Saturday, while watching pornography online catching up on some back-issues of The Economist, I found myself thinking about the Unreviewed (please don’t ask how it connects to either activity). It had been quite awhile since I had checked out the list, and I didn’t have much going on that day. Consequently, I resolved to revisit the page, choose one of the establishments listed, go there for lunch and publish a review which—for better or worse—would forever release said restaurant from the bonds of Unreviewed-ness. I regarded this resolution as a somewhat charitable one, and it made me feel good. For once, I was the team captain, and I was about to strike a well-deserved blow of justice on behalf of the Unchosens of the world.

I had the best of intentions. I really, truly did. It is important to me that you know that. As I scanned through the list, I spotted a number of viable contenders that were open for lunch on a Saturday and worthy of consideration. I had my list narrowed down to Foodworks (an establishment that I’ve visited, but never reviewed… their dagwood sandwich is great, by the way) or Morrill’s Corner Pub, which I’ve driven by countless times but, quite honestly, don’t even know if they serve food.

That’s when I saw the listing for the White Cap Grille.

I’d been semi-familiar with the White Cap Grille for awhile. Its sister restaurant, the Black Cap Grille (North Conway, NH) enjoys solid reviews on sites like Yelp and UrbanSpoon. When I heard that the White Cap Grille would be opening in Portland, filling the vacancy left by Sebago Brewing Company (which has moved to the Hampton Inn on Fore Street), I was certainly intrigued. I was aware that it had opened its doors in mid-July and—this being mid-August—I just assumed that it had been reviewed by now. Needless to say, it came as a surprise to see it sitting on the Unreviewed list in between Top Thai and Zackery’s.

“This is the best of both worlds,” I said to myself. “A place I’ve been wanting to try AND it is one of the Unreviewed.” Not only would I get to check out a place that has been on my radar, I’d be a hero for doing it. As I laced up my shoes, various fantasies played out in my mind: the Grille’s owners showing up at my door, their eyes filled with tears of gratitude, thanking me for removing them from the ranks of the Unreviewed. There’d be pledges to name their children after me, and offers of free hamburgers for life. “Not necessary,” I’d say with the humble stoicism of Captain America, “I was just doing my duty.”

And yet, somewhere between walking out the door and climbing into my car, my thoughts began to shift. Was I doing the right thing? Sure, the White Cap Grille—all shiny and new and exciting—was technically one of the Unreviewed. But how long had it really been on the list? A few weeks? A month, at best? What of the dozens of other restaurants on that list… the ones that have been there for over a year? They were the true Unreviewed, were they not? And yet, here I was, myself a victim of years of anguish as an Unchosen, about to choose something fancy and new over all of them. This was my shot at pulling some lowly establishment out of the critical muck and giving it a shot a blogger glory. Yet, here I was… picking the Carl Johnson of unreviewed restaurants. Shame began to wash over me.

 

* * *

 

By the time I found a parking spot on Middle Street, I was completely wracked with guilt. I got out of my car, fed the parking meter and approached the stairs leading up to the White Cap Grille. For a brief second I considered walking right on by and on to Foodworks. “There is still time to fix this,” I told myself. But then I caught sight of the dozen or so happy-looking diners sitting at outside tables adorned with colorful umbrellas emblazoned with the Stella Artois logo, and curiosity got the better of me. Maybe, I told myself, I would walk through those doors and proceed to have one of the best lunches of my life—or even just a very good meal—and all of this worry and guilt will have been for naught.

And so it was, a few minutes later, that I found myself sitting at one of the tables in the White Cap Grille’s spacious dining room (all of the outside tables were occupied). As I scanned the lunch menu that the hostess had given to me, I took stock of my surroundings. Having only visited Sebago Brewing Co. a couple of times in the past (the most recent visit being almost three years ago), it was difficult to tell how much—if any—of the dining room had changed. The exception would be the inclusion of the restaurant logo on what seemed like every available flat surface. The rest of the room—featuring a combination of cozy booths and wooden tables—was tastefully decorated, but seemed kind of mundane.

Change was a little more evident in the bar area, where hanging lights, shaped like giant glowing cotton balls, hover over the renovated bar, lending a soft, comfortable feel to the room. I liked the effect, and I feel that it is a big improvement to an area that I recall as having a lot of sharp corners, harsh lighting and little appeal.

As I waited on the arrival of my waitress, I took a gander at the menu. Like the decor in the dining room, I felt that the menu—featuring a selection of soups, salads, sandwiches and wraps—also played it kind of safe. Its not the the offerings didn’t sound appetizing. Everything sounded just fine. But that’s all it was: fine. Nothing really stood out to me as something I couldn’t find somewhere else, or in an “Oh-My-God-You-Have-to-Try-This” type of way. That said, I was impressed by the burger selection, which occupies an entire panel of the six page menu. Customers can either choose from one of five pre-configured burgers, or build their own burger from a wide selection of buns, cheeses, toppings and condiments. With toppings ranging from cole slaw to black garlic hummus to “cherry bomb” relish, it is an impressive array, and one which allows for thousands of possible combinations.

A note of caution: As interesting as the “Build Your Own Burger” idea is, I can also see how it could be a bit of a pain in the pocket book. Depending on which burger you start out with as your baseline (your choices include all natural beef, veggie burger and turkey burger), you are paying between $8 and $9. Want a gluten-free bun? Tack on a dollar. Adding a slice of cheese will cost you another dollar. Various other toppings range from twenty-five cents (for raw red or white onion) to a buck fifty for a fried egg. There’s even a charge for dressings and condiments like Sriracha Mayo and Bourbon Barbecue Sauce. If you love your toppings, you might easily wind up paying $14 or more for your burger, not including side dishes. Unless you are truly intent on building your own burger, you may find it less expensive to go with one of the pre-configured burgers, many of which have three or four toppings on them (and come with fries and a pickle) for around $11.

French onion soup at the White Cap Grille

French onion soup at the White Cap Grille

My waitress appeared as I was perusing the menu. I found her to be pleasant and attentive but I’ll admit to being a little disappointed that she didn’t offer much advice when I asked for her opinion of the menu offerings. I told her that I was leaning toward one of the burgers, but said that I was open to her suggestions of any other stand-out dishes. (As fond as I am of burgers, I think maybe part of me was secretly hoping that she’d tell me that the swordfish club sandwich, the pastrami sandwich or the lobster roll was out of this world.) Alas, she merely said that the “Build Your Own Burger” was a good choice, and left it at that. As I was still firmly in the grip of my guilt and neuroses, I found myself wondering if there was more to her reply than I thought. Did she feel that there was nothing else on the menu worth recommending? Was there some sort of directive from management to sell the Build-Your-Own-Burger? Or did she just genuinely feel that the burger was a great choice?

Putting these questions aside, I went ahead and ordered a bowl of french onion soup, a soda and one of the preconfigured burgers, the “#5:” a half-pound burger (which I asked to be cooked medium rare), and topped with bacon, swiss cheese, sautéed mushrooms and onions. My waitress re-appeared a moment later with drinks, departed, and returned again in no time at all with my french onion soup in hand. If you look at the photo to your left, you can immediately see what the problem is. The cheese, while sufficiently melted, bears not even the slightest trace of that aesthetically-pleasing golden brown color that says to the diner, “I’m french onion soup. I’m hot, I’m delicious and I’m satisfying. I’m going to rock your world.” As much as I appreciated the fact that so much effort was being made to get food out of the kitchen quickly, I would have much preferred it if my soup had spent an extra 45 seconds under the broiler, so as to not  look quite so sickly and pale.

The #5 Burger at the White Cap Grille, featuring a half-pound of beef, swiss cheese, bacon, sauteed mushrooms and onions

The #5 Burger at the White Cap Grille, featuring a half-pound of beef, swiss cheese, bacon, sauteed mushrooms and onions

Unfortunately, the taste of the soup wasn’t much better than its appearance. Diving into it with my spoon, I encountered large pieces of tender onion, which were actually quite nice. But the one-note broth had a bit of a grainy consistency to it that I didn’t much care for. Furthermore, the only detectable flavor in the soup was the almost overpowering taste of black pepper. When my waitress came by to check on me, I asked her to confirm my suspicion that the broth was made using a mix, and she acknowledged that it was, but also noted that the onions were fresh. I nodded my head in agreement, apparently causing a bit of a miscommunication. She said, “Soup is kind of our thing, so I’m glad that you liked it. I’ll pass your compliments along to the kitchen.” Unsure of how she construed my inquiry as a compliment, I started to protest but ultimately decided to just let it go. My culinary hubris had already offended the food Gods enough for one day, and I wasn’t about to press my luck.

Luckily my #5 burger was much better than the soup. Big and juicy, and accompanied by enough french fries to build a small house with, it looked quite good. Lifting off the top bun, I could see that the kitchen had not skimped on any of the toppings. A layer of melted swiss cheese covered much of the patty, providing a gooey canvas for a robust offering of sautéed mushrooms and onions. At the top of the heap sat two strips of thick-cut bacon. As I cut my dense burger patty in half, I was delighted to see that it was perfectly cooked, with just the right amount of pink inside. That said, I did find that the meat—while wonderfully succulent—was a little bit underseasoned, though the bacon (and a little help from my salt shaker) helped to remedy that.

The only significant issue I encountered with the burger was that the bulkie roll it was served on couldn’t hold up to the weight and juiciness of the meat and toppings it supported. By the midpoint of my meal, the bottom half of the bun was completely saturated with juices, and falling apart as a result. With a burger as large and as moist as this one, I really think it might behoove the White Cap Grille to invest in slightly sturdier buns. (Somewhere along the way, it occured to me that I’d love to eat this burger on a poppy seed bun. I can’t really explain why. The thought just feels right.) Aside from the problems with the bun, the #5  is a solid addition to the Portland burger landscape.

As far as the standard-issue fries and pickle that came with the #5, the best and worst I can say about them is that they were competently prepared and neither enhanced nor detracted from my experience in any meaningful way. (Sweet potato fries can be substitued for french fries, for a dollar more.)

 

* * *

 

The White Cap Grille

The White Cap Grille

So why is it that, after enjoying a better-than-average burger, I was feeling so “blah” about my time at the White Cap Grille? Sure, the french onion soup wasn’t great (or even good), but it was hardly a deal-breaker.

I arrived at my answer when my check was placed in front of me. Accompanying the bill was a sign-up form for something called the “White Cap Grille Diner’s Club.” It is one of those loyalty clubs that you generally see at chain restaurants like T.G.I. Fridays or Ruby Tuesday’s that rewards frequent customers with gift cards and perks like call-ahead seating.

Now, I should mention that I don’t have a problem with loyalty programs, per se. In this age of Groupons and deals exclusive to Twitter followers and Facebook fans, a restaurant loyalty program doesn’t strike me as being some grievous sin.

But seeing that card—and the “chain” vibe that it elicited within me—coupled with the safe decor in the dining room, the seemingly uninspired menu, the strategic placement of the logo on various walls and windows… Well, it all felt very “Corporate,” as if every last detail of the restaurant was the product of some marketing guru’s “best practices” manual, and every menu item had undergone extensive testing in focus groups. As I fished some money out of my wallet (my meal came to a very reasonable $20, by the way), I imagined a windowless room where some slick marketing executive might be polling a group of test subjects on their dining experiences: “Now, when you bite into your club sandwich and look at our logo, would you say that you are satisfied, deeply satisfied or not satisfied?”

To be fair, every aspect of my visit—save for the soup—was pleasant enough. But that’s all it was. And not to sound mean-spirited, but little of my experience there struck me as being the product of people who are really, truly passionate about food. Bear in mind that this is mere speculation on my part (fueled by neuroses and pornography back issues of The Economist, no less). I can’t tell you how much passion actually went into my lunch, the menu or the color of the walls for that matter. I can only tell you how I felt. And how I felt was like I was eating lunch at some nameless restaurant in a nameless hotel in a nameless city. Even with a better-than-average burger, it is hard to know when—or even if—I’ll go back, simply because there are a dozen other restaurants within a five minute walk that seem to pour their hearts and souls into every single meal every single day.

Finally, I ought to mention that when I left the building, I ran into a gentleman who identified himself as one of the owners of the restaurant. He saw me exit and asked me how my meal had been. Though I was fairly ambiguous about my concerns (I mumbled something about the soup being kind of “blah” and said that that burger was “better”), he seemed genuinely receptive to my feedback. I appreciate him taking the time to ask what I thought, and I appreciate him even more for being receptive to the feedback he received, however lame and ambiguous I was about it. My criticisms of the White Cap Grille aside, I’m hopeful for its future here in Portland because I sensed that he—and others, I’m sure—does care. That’s something.

PS: Of course, the kicker of this story is that the White Cap Grille turned out to be not so “Unreviewed” after all. Unbeknownst to me, another Portland Food Blogger was dining there at the same time I was. She published her impressions of the White Cap Grille a bit earlier this week. Its a well-written piece, and one that is decidedly less neurotic than this one. Please do give it a read… and please be nice to fat kids.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt August 18, 2011 at 11:32 am

Very thoughtful, excellent review. I think it must be difficult to write a review of a restaurant that offers no real ‘wow’ factor–you don’t want to create negative press, but at the same time I think restaurants owe it to themselves to showcase a little more risk and creativity. Well done, and I enjoyed the personal narrative as well.

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chubbywerewolf August 18, 2011 at 11:36 am

Thank you, Matt (Great name, by the way). I did, in fact, find it very difficult to write this review… and even agonized a bit over whether or not to publish it as I didn’t want to seem mean-spirited about my experiences there. That said, I think my criticisms are valid ones, and I agree wholeheartedly with your statement about the risk and creativity factor. Thanks again for the great comment.

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vrai-lean-uh August 19, 2011 at 9:57 am

Nicely written review. I was talking with some other people not long ago about how hard it is to write about something that isn’t at an extreme– the BEST or the WORST. You handled it well. I have very strong feelings about the importance of broth in regard to soup, though, and I may have said out loud to the dog “BROTH IS THE BACKBONE OF SOUP” while reading your review.

Also, dodgeball is the worst. It just so profoundly punishes the people who are mostly not athletic but able to dodge fairly well. So many times I ended up in these insane death matches where I would be the only person left on my team, desperately dodging with a whole ton of people yelling at me to throw the ball. My high school gym class had both a ropes course and a swimming component, and somehow STILL dodgeball is worse in my mind.

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Joe Ricchio August 19, 2011 at 4:05 pm

As a fellow “husky boy,” I enjoyed this post thoroughly.

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Chris2fer August 26, 2011 at 10:52 am

Great review. I agree with you when it comes to “meh” (sorry) restaurants. They’re just not worth it. There are many places that shine in Portland, there’s no reason for Blah.
Also, thanks for the gym flashbacks. Stupid lineup of shame.

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J December 1, 2011 at 10:36 pm

The place is still open since I just went there for the first time today.

other than saying the waiter we had was EXCELLENT (and I wish I could remember his name, just for a shout out), but I also thought the food I had was “blah”.
I too had the “French” Onion Soup and even though the cheese was cooked way more than in that photo and looked decent to look at, it is the worst French Onion Soup I ever have had. They must be still using the same mix or whatever. It is so lacking “love” and taste, except that overwhelming pepper taste, ick!!

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