The Best Farm-to-Table Dining in Portland, Maine

The Top of the Crop event at Maine’s Harvest on the Harbor festival showcases the region’s best local food

Ted Axelrod Photography at axelrodphotography.com

Chef Kerry Altiero's cider-braised pork belly with sour apples, garlic, lacinato kale, and little neck clams.

This year, The Daily Meal was lucky enough to attend Portland, Maine’s Harvest on the Harbor festival. One of the most popular events at the festival is the Top of the Crop competition, in which local chefs compete for the title of Maine’s best farm-to-table restaurant chef. This topic is particularly relevant in Maine, given that the state is ranked number two out of all 50 states on Strolling of the Heifers’ 2013 Locavore Index (Vermont is number one). If you haven’t heard of them, Strolling of the Heifers is an 11-year-old organization committed to increasing the public’s appreciation of farming, support of farmers, and consumption of local foods.

As evident by this ranking, chefs in Maine take this topic very seriously. They all feel it’s part of their duty as chefs to support local foragers, farmers, and fisherman who make up a large part of the state’s job force. Not to mention, all of Maine’s local produce is incredibly fresh, easy to obtain, and delicious — so why not?

Chef David Levi does not only value this philosophy, but he’s taking it to a whole new level with Vinland Restaurant, opening later this year in Portland. At Vinland, every single ingredient used will be locally sourced. Levi's restaurant will be the only restaurant in the world to operate this way, and that’s no surprise; not only will he be restricted from using exotic herbs, spices, fruits, and vegetables, but he also won’t be able to use even the simplest, most ubiquitous restaurant ingredients like olive oil, lemon, and black pepper. Chef Levi’s dish for the competition reflected this philosophy, with fried local beet chips, yogurt from Winter Hill Farm, local herbs, radish, and arugula. As one might expect, this dish was very light, fresh, and simple.

While chef Richard Hanson isn’t as strictly farm-to-table as chef Levi, he does source as many local ingredients as he can for his restaurant, Cleonice Mediterranean Bistro, in Ellsworth. For instance, at the end of every tomato season, he cans Maine tomatoes so he can use them throughout the winter. For his dish in the competition, roasted pork sausage ragù with polenta, he used local Morgan Mills polenta and local cheese from Harmony Mill Farm. The dish was very homey and comforting, made with a homemade Italian tomato sauce that starts with batutto (an Italian soffritto), including carrots, celery, onion, garlic, and dried oregano.

The third course also featured pork, this time in the form of tender pork belly. Chef Chad Conley from Gather restaurant in Yarmouth used pork belly from Farmers’ Gate Market, a Maine-based market that sources and butchers only local, pasture-raised meats. He braised the pork belly overnight in a mixture of salt, sugar, water, and fall spices, which helps to maintain the moisture and tenderness of the meat, and also adds an extra layer of flavor. He served the pork belly with stewed Jacob’s Cattle Beans cooked with bacon, celery, carrot, and onion. Traditionally, baked beans are cooked until some of the beans break down and thicken the liquid. Chef Conley explained that he actually removes some of the beans and purées them, then folds the purée back into the beans once they’re done cooking, as this allows him more control over the thickness of the finished product. The dish was accented with mustard seeds, house-pickled in water, white-wine vinegar, turmeric, sugar, and salt. The finishing touches included roasted celeriac, raw radish and celery slices, lemon vinaigrette, and East End micro greens.

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