The Best Farm-To-Table Dining In Portland, Maine

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.

For the last course in the competition, chef Kerry Altiero took the demonstration stage. Chef Altiero had the most stage presence of all of the chefs, and used his personality to his advantage! He first told the audience about his restaurant, Café Miranda, the first restaurant in Maine to use a wood-fired oven. He then discussed the sources for his competition dish, including Sewall Orchard, Headacre Farm, and Casco Bay Creamery. He prepared a cider-braised pork belly with sour apples, garlic, lacinato kale, and little neck clams.

Everyone in the audience received ballot cards to fill out, including four categories on which to judge the chefs: Originality and Creativity of Recipe (15 points), Use of Local Farm Products in Your Dish (25 points), Use of Local Farm Products in Your Restaurant (25 points), Farm-to-Table Philosophy (15 points), and Taste, Texture, and Presentation (20 points). Everyone awarded a certain number of points for each category to each chef, and added up the totals to determine the winner.

While the ballots were being tallied, dessert was served along with handcrafted, micro-roasted coffee from Coffee by Design. For dessert, Annette Marin, who owns Gone Loco Café and No View Farm & Bakery in Rumford, served a chewy, health-minded oatmeal cookie. She used oats, whole-wheat flour, flax, butter, brown and granulated sugar, eggs, cinnamon, mace, dates, raisins, dried cranberries, and dark chocolate, all resulting in a unique and delicious cookie.  The cookie was perfectly paired with vanilla gelato by Others! fair trade coffee.

While all of the chefs' dishes were incredibly delicious, chef Kerry Altiero was ultimately named the Top of the Crop winner; both because all of the ingredients in his dish were truly farm-to-table, and also because he had clearly won the audience over with his personality! If the categories could have been split in half, chef Chad Conley would have won for taste, texture, and originality and creativity. Regardless of the winner, attending the event was a great way to experience some of Maine's best farm-to-table restaurants.

Allison Stone is a trained pastry chef, caterer, and writer. Follow her at @bakingstoneny, and check out her Facebook page.