The last thing Kim and Teale Smith of Saco, Maine, needed to do on the night before their European epicurian tour was to attend a gala gourmet tasting dinner of eight courses accompanied by wines throughout the evening.
But there they were on October 21, attending the first event of Portland, Maine’s, 8th annual Harvest on the Harbor, a festival of exceptional food and wine prepared by a gaggle of chefs who are becoming known throughout the country for their talents. “We’re going to a truffle festival in Croatia, hunting the truffles with the dogs,” smiled Kim Smith, while her husband, enjoying one of the evening’s first courses: seared halibut cheek and quick braised kimchi in a blood orange curry butter prepared by Steve Sicinski, chef at Sea Glass at Inn By the Sea, admitted that “we like to eat.'”
The Smiths were at one of the newest events of the festival’s 10 offerings from October 21 through 25. The ever-expanding fest has grown each year to the point that its most popular event, the Lobster Chef of the Year contest, sells out within minutes of its ticket announcement. The October 21 gathering, “Moonlight Gala, Chefs of the Coast,” took place at the Landing at Pine Point in Scarborough, a former church, and featured, in addition to the halibut and other courses, a grilled endive and pickled plum salad with confit chicken, homemade ricotta, toasted walnuts and cilantro in a charred plum vinaigrette done by Chef William Benner of Black Point Inn in Scarborough, and a wood charred local pumpkin, Headacre Farm onion and mushrooms with sweet red pepper, garlic and almond sauce finish of whole basil leaf, wood toasted almond and Fiore extra virgin olive oil cooked by Chef Kerry Altiero of Cafe Miranda of Rockland paired with a Barbaresco Tradizione 100 percent Nebbiolo Robust wine.
The good thing about all the food at the tasting gala was that, unlike many tasting parties where the courses are presented in such a higglely-pigglely way that confused diners might find a dessert at the first table in the room, followed by a main course, followed by an appetizer, these two first courses were set out on the tables, with the wines, while the chefs discussed how they were made, and then there was a pause until the second courses came out, and so on. As the desserts came out, the band Sly Chi set up and played at what was the former altar of this church, and guests danced where once congregants lined up for communion.
The second event of the festival took place on the stage of Merrill Auditorium in Portland’s city hall and featured six beautifully prepared courses, including Maine salmon with chestnut brown butter, cauliflower, caper berries, roast grapes and smoked salmon powder from Chef Josh Berry of Union at The Press Hotel and mussels escabeche, coal roasted beets with toasted nut component by Chef Guy Hernandez of Lolita, accompanied by a 2013 Galerie Naissance, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley and Delamotte, Brut champagne from France. Here again, each chef appeared to discuss his preparation of the cuisine, and sommelier Erica Archer, founder of Wine Wise Events, explained the pairings of wines with the food. Through the courses and discussions from those who prepared them diners learned that Chef Hernandez is a trained architect and Chef Chris Basset of Azure Cafe rescues bulldogs in his spare time.
Food Network “Cutthroat Kitchen” star, author, speaker and radio host Chef Elliot Farmer of Atlanta, who was a guest chef and judge at the Rock ‘n Roast barbecue event later in the week, attended the Merrill dinner and told guests he discovered his passion — cooking — when he was five years old and had never before traveled to Maine.
A beneficiary of Harvest on the Harbor is the Good Shepherd Food Bank, which feeds the hungry in Maine, where one out of every four children does not have enough food. The Greater Portland Convention and visitors Bureau organizes the event and Bank of American sponsors it. Premium winery Marchesi di Barolo of Piedmont, Italy, is its exclusive wine sponsor.
Some of the out-of-town guests to Harvest on the Harbor chose to stay right across the street from the Merrill Auditorium, where the brand new Press Hotel has opened its doors as of this past summer. The Press, as it’s called, is in a building that has been creatively transformed from the old Portland Press Herald newspaper office into a delightful luxury boutique facility by the New York City architecture and design firm Stonehill and Taylor. They have cleverly placed reminders of the building’s provenance everywhere: the front doormat reads “Beyond Words” and the corridor walls are filled with original Press Herald headlines, such as “Elderly lobster set free,” and “Honest, warden, the doe really had an antler.”
Below the corridor walls, the carpet pattern is scattered with what looks like letters from a linotype machine. In the lower lobby of Press hangs a Calder-like mobile of antique typewriters called “SWARM” (representing the chaos of the newsroom) created by Maine College of Art, while the fitness room sports a huge Toledo scale that the newspaper used for weighing rolls of newsprint. The wall covering in the “Editorial” room is actual recycled newspaper that has been woven together with a polyester yarn, and the previous newsroom is now Inkwell Bar, something that former reporters probably would have appreciated having when they worked in this building! (The Press Herald, by the way, is alive and kicking today, in another building).
Guest bedrooms are roomy and contemporary, with large marble bathrooms and fun sayings on the water bottles near the ice buckets on the desks, such as the W.C. Fields quote “Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” Even the hotel shuttle is colorfully painted with block letters of varying size in this museum hotel, which is rich in memories-turned-to-modern-comfort.
People came from all over the country for this event in the city where the famous chef Emeril Lagasse was plucked from cooking by culinary luminary Paul Prudhomme to work in his beloved New Orleans restaurant, Commander’s Palace, where he remains. (Prudhomme, a longtime respected giant in the food world, died earlier this month).
If you’re coming to Portland from Boston for this event or for just coming up to enjoy the town’s incredible food scene, the best way to travel is the 2 1/2-hour train ride on Amtrak’s Downeaster. It is particularly delightful to take the train in autumn because instead of having to concentrate on the road when you’re driving, you can sit back and see a breathtaking display of colorful foliage along the way, with no distractions on the road.