I’ve Been Everywhere, and Then I Had Dinner
by Jessica Conoley
Location: 11 Central, Downtown, Bangor, Maine. Oil paintings by a local artist, favoring vibrant colors, brighten the brick walls. Large plate glass windows at the front of the restaurant overlook Central Street. The tables are arranged with an open feel, and the curved bar in the center of the restaurant allows the bartendress to greet guests as they enter the establishment. Mom, Don (my step-dad), and I are at a table against the wall. (Which I prefer, as I feel the chance of being snuck up on is greatly diminished when you sit with your back to a wall.) Subtle lights, invoking the feel of white Christmas lights, are strung about the place, offering cozy warmth that is very inviting. This is the dinner we have built our entire vacation around.
Time: Monday, September 21, 2015. 8 P.M. EST
All of us have earned this reward. Yesterday had been a very long day, including: twenty-two hours of travel, a seven-alarm fire causing an extensive delay, two cabs, two air-planes, one train, and three very worn out adventurers. But, after naps on fluffy hotel beds, piled with landslides of pillows, the world was right again, and we are full of hope the locally sourced restaurant will treat us well.
Our server is young, tall, and patient. Patient is good, as my parents like to get to know people. By the end of the meal I know he is not a Maine native, he loves Acadia National Park, and he’s a student. In between the swapping of life stories, I slip in an order for a Mad Men—a drink that promises to be stiff and serious. We pour over the menu, and there are five entrees I want. (While I have been known to order multiple desserts on more than one occasion, five full dinners does seem a bit excessive, even for vacation.) My drink comes and has the perfect heat of Rye with a touch of citrus. The weight of the Rye confirms this is a sipping drink and I am pleased with my choice. My parents wrinkle their noses when they try it. Instead of following my lead, Don settles on red wine, and Mom orders something called a Dirty Blonde. (A martini-esque drink that is so sweet one sip was enough for me.)
I love goat cheese with a digestively dangerous ardor, and talk Mom and Don into the prosciutto and goat-cheese crostini. Four crostini are delivered on a long rectangular plate. The ciabatta bread is topped with a miniscule amount of strawberry and piled with basil, goat cheese, and prosciutto. When you get the bite with the strawberry, the balance is perfect: bright juicy sweetness from the strawberry, offset by the tang of the goat cheese, and the saltiness of the prosciutto and the freshness of the basil. I wish there were more strawberries, but it’s a very promising start to the meal.
Don and I ordered the house salad, while Mom went for the Caesar. I probably made the decision based solely upon the bourbon-glazed walnuts. I’m a sucker for bourbon. (It may be genetic—instilled from my youth and Grandpa’s medicinal bourbon/honey concoction that was ladled down our throats when our coughs kept us from school.) The salads are portioned just right, not so gigantic that we won’t have room for entrees, but not so tiny we wonder what we’re paying for. The walnuts are hidden in the mixed greens, amongst dried cranberries, feta, cucumber, red onion, and tomato. A light toss of vinaigrette preserves the texture of the lettuce. I enjoy the earthy warmth of the toasted walnuts with the creaminess of the cheese and the bright sweet surprise of the occasional cranberry. The salad was a bit salty, but my guess is it was the feta, and the saltiness didn’t keep me from shoveling forkful after forkful into my mouth.
When dinner comes I know I have chosen wisely. I had narrowed down my five choices based upon the premise I had to eat as much seafood on this trip as possible. Broiled sea bass, on a bed of sautéed kale, with a side of mashed potatoes is set before me. From the look of the fish I know I will not be disappointed. The top of the fish has just the right amount of color that promises a delicate crunch to the top layer without drying out the juicy flesh of the underside. The first bite confirms a buttery melt of meat against the bright ginger, soy, and lime marinade. Generally speaking, kale is too healthy for me, but I eat the well-seasoned greens in conjunction with the fish and am pleased with the combination—the richness of the fish makes me forget all healthy qualities of the greens. Mashed potatoes were my choice of side and they fill me with the expected happiness I get from massive amounts of carbs smashed with cream and butter to a silky pile, but maybe that’s genetics again—I am part Irish.
A highlight of eating with your family is everyone is willing to share. I traded forkfuls of sea bass to Don for tastes of his grilled swordfish atop fire roasted wilted spinach and tomatoes. Mom bartered with her chicken caprese, a Parmesan almond crusted chicken breast stuffed with: mozzarella, fire roasted tomato basil, and red onion, topped with a balsamic cream reduction. What I really loved on Mom’s plate was her haricot-vert with slivered almonds. The nuttiness of the almonds brought out the freshness of the green beans, and the kiss of seasoning made the side addictive. I wouldn’t have traded my plate with either of theirs though—it was the perfectly cooked, rich and silky sea bass that made the meal for me.
I did sneak in a blood orange martini at the end of the dinner, and it’s probably good the restaurant closed at nine or else I would have been tempted to have two or three more. The martini was bright and citrusy with just enough sweetness to keep me from crying over the fact there was no time for dessert. We would have loved to try dessert, but none of us believe in making restaurants stay open after hours, and at five ’til nine we were already the last table. At nine we thanked our very attentive waiter and slipped onto a deserted Central Street. All of us full and confident we had chosen the right restaurant and meal to build our vacation around.