If you read my review of Petite Jacqueline some months back, you know that I regard the fact that I never visited Pat’s Cafe (484 Stevens Avenue) prior to its closure last year as one of my greatest foodie failures. Not long after publishing that review, I was greeted with some good news (courtesy of my contact at PortlandFoodMap.com), which was that Pat’s would be re-opening this summer.
In the weeks that followed, I found myself driving by Pat’s increasingly often, going extra, extra slow over the speed bumps on nearby Stevens Avenue, all so that I might get a look through the upstairs windows to see what—if any—developments were being made inside. Weeks quickly turned to months and, seeing little apparent progress, I began to worry that perhaps they wouldn’t be re-opening after all.
I needn’t have been concerned. Early last week came the news last week that Pat’s —now dubbed “The Cafe at Pat’s”—was open for business. Two minutes after receiving the good news, I had texted a friend of mine to see if she might be up for dinner the following night. And five minutes after that, our reservation was booked.
Before moving forward, I should note that it is generally considered bad form to review a dining establishment—or any business, really—in the first few weeks after it has opened. Even in today’s world of instant news and who-can-get-there-first reporting, food writers and bloggers need to understand that restaurants are enormously complex entities. On a normal night, there might be a hundred little things that could go wrong, each with the potential to throw a disruptive wrench into the works. But during opening week, “a hundred little things” is more like “a thousand little things,” and the consequences of something going wrong can be darn near catastrophic. That being the case, food writers are typically encouraged to give restaurants the courtesy of a few days (or better yet, weeks) to iron out the kinks before descending upon them in hungry anticipation.
That said, having already missed out on Pat’s during its first incarnation and with a busy September travel schedule ahead of me, I wanted to get there sooner rather than later. At the risk of sounding cavalier about the challenges of opening (or re-opening) a restaurant, I reasoned that the Cafe at Pat’s was being re-opened by chef Greg Gilman—who had opened Pat’s back in 1998, and who was intimately familiar with the space—so it had a leg up on a place that was opening for the first time. Plus, in these days of East Coast earthquakes and North Atlantic hurricanes, I’ve been questioning my usually reliable “don’t do today what you can put off tomorrow” philosophy.
Ultimately, what I decided to do was to go to the Cafe at Pat’s hoping for a great meal and prepared publish a review if the experience was worth writing about. If I couldn’t find much good to say, or found that my criticisms—whatever they may be—might be the product of “opening week jitters,” then I would simply not write anything at all, and pay a return visit to Pat’s later this Autumn for the purpose of writing a review.
The fact that there is something here for you to read should serve as an indicator that both I and my dining companion—who I am dubbing “Ilsa the Ski Wolf” in response to her request for a “cool” codename—fared rather well on our first visit to Pat’s.
I arrived at the Cafe about twenty minutes ahead of our 6pm reservation. While I waited on the aforementioned Ski Wolf to battle her way through Forest Avenue traffic, I ordered an Allagash White draft, which I took outside to the small deck where I could enjoy it in the sunshine. Ilsa, arriving a few minutes later, joined me and ordered a glass of the Quinta de Azevedo Vinho Verde off the drink menu.
We briefly considered dining outside amidst the maple branches and the 70’s rock emanating from the mounted speakers, but the gusting winds and the prospect of chilly post-sunset air deterred us. Instead, we made our way indoors where we were seated at a cozy table for two at one of the windows facing Stevens Avenue. The wooden floors, tables and chairs lend a “farmhouse rustic” feel to the dining room while festive lights bathe happy diners in soft, warm light. Ilsa happily noted many of the smaller details, such as the colorful bowls housing the candles on each table.
Our waitress—lovely and affable—arrived and presented our menus before asking if we were all set on drinks for the moment. “I’m going to need another one of these in about thirty seconds,” I said, pointing to my beer and sounding surlier and douchier than I had intended (it had been a rough day). She laughed, told us about the day’s specials and went to fetch a new beer for me while Ilsa and I examined the menu.
The Cafe at Pat’s resides directly above Pat’s Meat Market, so it is no shock that the menu features a number of “meat and potatoes” style dishes, many of which will be great accompaniments on the chilly nights in the months to come. (Had the day been just a little cooler, I think that I would have opted for the delicious sounding pork marsala medallion.) What is a bit of a surprise is that the menu also features a large number of fish dishes, as well as a few that will appeal to vegetarian diners. The cajun salmon filet sounded good, as did the various salads and the wild mushroom sauté. (Incidentally, the menu that is currently on the Cafe’s web site appears to be that of the previous incarnation of Pat’s. Some of those dishes remain in one form or another, but many others have been added.)
For our first appetizer, we tried Asian dumplings stuffed with mushrooms, ginger, cabbage and scallions. Lightly fried, they were served over a sweet chili lime and citrus relish, and accompanied by a tamari dipping sauce (a more viscous, less salty alternative to soy sauce). I’m skeptical of any dish that doesn’t feature meat in at least one of its forms, but the dumplings proved to be substantive without being heavy, and rather flavorful for a dish that didn’t feature a major meat or sodium component.
An even bigger hit was an order of mussels, piled high in a broth made of white wine, garlic, whole plum tomatoes and large pieces of wonderfully salty pancetta. The mussels were good. The broth—which we sopped up with every piece of bread (supplied by Standard Baking Company) within arm’s reach—was spectacular.
For the main event, Ilsa enjoyed a dish featuring Northern sea scallops and crumbled sheep’s milk feta cheese sitting atop a bed of braised leeks and spinach, all of which was contained by huge nest of flaky lemon pastry. The scallops were accompanied by fresh asparagus and baby potatoes, and the plate was garnished with a wedge of lemon and a couple of cherries, a touch which we found quirky and fun. Though we could clearly see that the dish had a bit of a Mediterranean vibe to it, Ilsa noted the lack of synergy between the various ingredients, which didn’t quite come together for her. Nevertheless, this tasty, creative assemblage of components was well-prepared and certainly fun to admire.
As for me, I hit the proverbial jackpot with my entree. Despite feeling a bit guilty about ordering mostly seafood at a restaurant with strong ties to red meat, I opted for something called the “Portuguese Shrimp Saute.” Somewhat evocative of a cioppino stew, the dish featured several large shrimp over a generous helping of fettucini, and accompanied by sweet Italian sausage, Mahogany clams, Jonah crab claws, mussels, lemon, garlic, tomato and saffron. (As with Ilsa’s scallop dish, it came with asparagus, that day’s fresh vegetable offering.) It is a lot of ingredients, but they all worked together in unison to produce the perfect meal: one that is balanced and flavorful enough to be eaten on a breezy summer evening, and yet hearty enough to be savored on some cold night in mid-November.
Though our entrees left us both feeling stuffed to the gills, our journalistic integrity demanded that we sample at least one of the desserts. And so we did, opting for a strawberry rhubarb pie featuring a crisp-style topping and a dollop of house-made whipped cream large enough to choke a horse. The pie was delicious, though neither of us—in the wake of our feast—could manage to eat more than a few bites.
That’s okay, though. Its just one more thing to look forward to as I visit the Cafe at Pat’s again (and again and again and again) this Autumn and beyond. For as long as Chef Gilman and his staff keep cranking out their hearty, deeply satisfying dishes, I’ll be there to enjoy them in the warm glow of the dining room.
The Cafe at Pat’s is now open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 5pm to 9pm.