Corner Room Offers Pasta Perfection at Affordable Price
Translation: With Books, You Can Be Whatever You Want To Be!
Inexpensive Italian classics are a draw at the Corner Room, the third of restaurateur Harding Lee Smith's three Portland restaurant "rooms." Smith's Front Room on Munjoy Hill and the Grill Room just doors away both have a history of crowds. At the Corner Room, which opened in early July, the pasta is mixed, extruded and boiled into a state of toothsome resilience. A dish such as bucatini all'Amatriciana makes it clear why this room, too, fills up with customers.
The Pasta is mixed, extruded, and boiled as opposed to mixed, formed into marshmallows, and cooked over an open campfire
We are like the shepherds of Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast of central Italy, consoled by this spicy pasta dish after watching over their flocks in high meadows. Living in an economic landscape of precipitous declines, we need some plated courage to face the future.
We are like the plate-mailed Calormen of Narnia as we ready for battle. Our peasant wives have slaved over this mighty dish in hopes that we may be granted the strength (and dexterity, charisma, wisdom, constitution + intelligence) needed to lead us to victory over the Orcs and Trolls we will surely face in droves on this day of days..
Here's more: Cotechino ($13), part of an appetizer that is a meal in itself, is a thick pink sausage traditionally enjoyed on New Year's Day and made with pork, cloves and nutmeg. Three browned slices are served under two fried eggs, both on top of the creamiest, fluffiest polenta in Portland.
Still hungry for more? The creamiest, fluffiest(?!) polenta in Portland is ALSO part of an appetizer than is a meal in itself. We are unsure of it’s involvement with New Year’s Day festivities but rest assured that both of your eggs are on top of your Cotechino, which is on top of your polenta.
The polenta is made with milk, water, cheese and butter along with corn meal, according to our perfectly attentive server, who asked the kitchen what went into it. And, while delicious, that polenta presents one problem at the Corner Room, where some dishes can be simply too rich.
I have chosen to provide you with the ingredients for the polenta, one of which being polenta – You’re welcome. Chef Smith would love to hear about your own results at home. You can contact him at any of the three rooms, the best time being during dinner service around 7:30 pm.
Foccacia had so much olive oil in its making that its base was saturated. It was gilding the lily, frosting the frosting, to dip the oily stuff into the olive oil in the dish on the table – not that we didn't. Rosemary and salt flavored that spongy bread.
It was slappin’ the salami, jibbering the kibber, saluting the bishop, diddling the hoo-ha, and jazzing me-hoff to dip my oily stuff into the oily olive oil in the dish on the table in the dining room in the restaurant on the street corner in the city of Portland in the state of Maine.
A second problem, encountered in a side dish of garlicky wilted spinach ($4) served with a heck of a lot of green-tinted olive oil, was too much salt.
Technically this would be the third problem, after the “heck of a lot of green-tinted olive oil.”
The bartenders will be happy to relieve any thirst you might have.
I can think of a few ways.... sorry. The bartenders here are not like other bartenders who delight in watching you cry out in a raspy, parched voice for a “drink of any kind – even toilet water will do!”
Head bartender John Myers, recent subject of an affectionate profile in Down East Magazine, is Portland's master of historic cocktails. His champagne cocktail ($9) fuses bitter Aperol and Angostura with a sugar cube that slowly dissolves in the base of a champagne flute filled with Prosecco. Curved over the rim, a twist of orange peel added its own bitterness tempered by a sweet scent.
So, a PROSECCO cocktail rather than a CHAMPAGNE cocktail
The wine is less exciting than the cocktails and pricey by the glass. Trappolini Orvieto ($10) from Campania, Italy, refreshing and crisp, is poured from a little carafe that holds four ounces. Baroncini Messere Chianti ($8) is a light-bodied, mild red. A larger carafe of each, about three glasses, is $19 and $18 respectively, a better deal. Bottles are even less expensive, $27 and $22 for the two mentioned here.
You could spend $18 on a large carafe, or spend less getting the bottle for $22. Orvieto is in Umbria, and Trapollini is in Lazio. Rather than tell you anything about the wine list as a whole, I’ve decided to focus on these two. These are the prices. You probably shouldn’t stray from these choices, because you’re supposed to always order Chianti at an Italian restaurant. That’s a rule that everyone knows, whether or not you prefer your Chianti to be “light-bodied and mild.” Whatever. The cocktails are more exciting anyway..
The elegant room holds fluted columns supporting a floating cornice, which sheds light on the ceiling above it. Wood booths are fitted with ornamental cushions made with pretty silky piping or brocade. But happy diners can make the room loud.
Melancholy diners, on the other hand, are more pleasant to be seated near. I enjoy sipping my wine accompanied by the soft weeping sounds coming from the next table. I recommend that when you ask for a table, you request to be as far from the happy diners as you can possibly be. In my experience, columns have held a room, as opposed to the other way around. The magic cornice sheds light on the celing above it, not below it.
Salads favor mild dressings, and when they flavor bitter greens ($8), radicchio and arugula as in my version – tossed with walnuts, raisins and pickled onion with grated Pecorino – that was the best choice.
When I was approached about allowing the restaurant to prepare my version of this Italian classic, I knew they had done their research. They clearly knew it was “The Best Choice.”
In a salad of mild arugula and milder goat cheese setting off cubed red and pink beets ($8), a little red wine vinegar could have added a welcome dimension.
Maybe they should have mildly consulted me for my mild version of this mild salad as well..
Served with garlicky aioli and tomato sauce were pale gold rings and squiggly tentacles of small squid ($10). They alone needed a touch of salt, just at hand in a little bowl, along with ground pepper in its own miniature dish.
I keenly identified the pale golden rings and squiggly tentacles as the body parts of a squid, a small one at that. I knew that they alone, nothing else, needed a touch of salt. Luckily I found seasonings at hand in a small bowl on the table in the dining room in the restaurant. I imagined the decorative glass snowballs at Christmas as I whimsically flung the tiniest pinch into the air and watched it coat the small squid like new fallen snow.
The bucatini all'Amatriciana uses hollow tubes of pasta to lighten a sauce built on sauted guanciale – cured pork cut from the jowls simmered with red pepper, garlic and red sauce and sharpened with grated Romano. Perfectly balanced, the dish reveals the Italian genius for simple greatness.
The soothing light at the end of your bucatini tunnel is just a freight train heading your way. Also, that seems like an excessive process for making guanciale.
Other pasta dishes might reveal the same thing, this time with wild boar ragu or served alla carbonara or with sausage.
They might reveal the same thing, or they may not. Alas, reader, I cannot always be the say-all, end-all. You need to come in and find out for yourself. You need to unlock your personal Narnian Calorman and find out what moves you back to jousting atop fiery red dragons or lightning-ridden blue dragons. Take a look. It’s in a book. You can find your own personal reading rainbow. Or maybe you could review books.
The secondi or second course list, served from 5 p.m., comes traditionally after the pasta, but most include a starchy side like beans, polenta or potatoes. Veal saltimbocca ($15), two lightly browned cutlets of tender veal in a light salty sauce made with Madeira and veal stock, wore a bit of prosciutto and fontina. Acrid fried sage was an edible ornament to avoid. Polenta offered its milky contrast.
I was surprised by the Saltimbocca’s decision to wear prosciutto and fontina, especially with that cap of acrid sage. Top designers had offered Veal S. the milky contrast of the polenta, but to no avail. Honestly, Veal Saltimbocca looked a little trampy bordering on dumpy and, I hate to say it, cheap. Also, "Secondi" is Italian for "Second." Fun.
One pizza, heaped with arugula and gossamer slices of prosciutto ($16), required rearranging as we pulled the crisp slices out from under the fresh leaves and then tried to pile them on top as they scattered with each crunchy bite. Abundant garlic and Grana Padano flavored the crust. The margarita with tomato, basil and mozzarella and any other pizza would no doubt be easier to eat.
One look at this fucking disaster and I knew that this simply wouldn’t do. Out came my hungry little digits and I started re-sculpting the dish. Halfway through we became aware of the mess we had made. Hysterical laughter gave way to throwing the toppings at one another. The other pizzas, we concluded, would be easier to eat but not nearly as much fun.
Panna cotta ($6) had a grainy texture in its creaminess; three fat blackberries seemed disappointingly little fruit to go alongside. But fig and almond cake ($6) was superb, its texture tender and coarse and full of bits of dried fig. The pleasantly dry Italian cake is surely best enjoyed with coffee, like the cappuccino ($3.25) and decaf ($2.25) – tasting too good to be decaffeinated – that perfectly ended one of two dinners.
The fig cake was inexplicably full of figs. “The Cappuccino” and “The Decaf” are not to be missed, because so many Italians drink cappuccinos after dinner. The decaf was so good that I felt like I was in one of those Folgers Crystals commercials where they tricked the diners into drinking shitty coffee. Regardless, it ended my dinner perfectly. The other dinner was complete after using the restroom.