7/31/05, Portland Press Herald, GO Entertainment Weekly  

Review by N.L. English ()

Back Bay Grill`s still doing things delightfully right

Twelve years is a long tenure for a restaurant, let alone to sustain high quality food and service. Back Bay Grill does just that.

Tables were full on a recent weeknight and the kitchen turned out one pleasing dish after another.

I tried Back Bay Grill's crab cakes ($12) last summer, and thought they were the best I ever had. This summer is no different.

The crab cakes were prepared with lime curry aioli and carrot, daikon and scallion salad. The crumbs all are on the outer surface, crisp and brown, and the herbs enhance the fresh, clear taste of this delectable creature.

My one cavil is with the amount of the sauce. Back Bay Grill has never been as over-the- top with its decorations as some places, where looks take precedence over taste. The crab cake here is set in a small circle of aioli.

But it's time to forsake the minimalist splots and dots of sauces, and to tempt the mouth as much as the eye.

A simple salad of garden tomatoes ($9), red and yellow crescents cut from this summer's finally-back-again succulent tomatoes, held just the right touches of manchego, a hard Spanish sheep's milk cheese, basil and balsamic and oil, a welcome harbinger of summer's abundance.

The lace "cookie" of fried Parmesan breaks crisply in the mouth, exuding fresh salty flavor, as if just made.

The wine list here will take care of us all, from wine snobs to novices and from extravagant spenders to diners on a budget. Each section starts off cheap - one bottle is $16. It rides up to a $215 bottle of Perrier Jouet Fleur de Champagne, and higher.

Meanwhile, a big selection of half bottles, which hold two almost full glasses of wine, widens the fresh selection of 16 to 20 wines offered by the glass.

We tried a half-bottle of the Caymus white wine, Conundrum ($23). After enjoying a martini straight up with a twist, and being disappointed that it was somewhat watery, this wine had fruit and zing, and its light presence in the mouth was delightful.

Pork chops ($22), filet mignon ($35) and rack of lamb ($33) are some highlights of the meat served here.

Scottish salmon ($23), fresh fish supplied by Browne Trading Co., has been a presence on the menu for three years, according to Larry Matthews Jr. He has been the owner for the same time, and worked here for 10 years altogether.

There is no equal to its silken texture. Here it is cut in a high, thick cylinder, cooked medium rare in the center - to the soft translucency our punctilious server had prepared us for, unless we wished it cooked differently.

It was set on a low scree of orzo, rice-shaped pasta that tasted quietly of marscapone. With tender, almost clear loops of vanilla-scented onion, the plate carried its theme of round soft sweetness in every bite.

The truffled mushroom ravioli ($17), with chanterelles and pearl onions, was splendid. Round ravioli with zigzag edges held a bubbling foam of browned butter, tender and thin packages of this earthy flavor.

Truffles come out of the ground, as ugly among tubers as the crab is among sea creatures.

Chanterelles stand glowing orange gold on the dark woods ground, as a mushroom forager told me; but truffles are buried, and only a hungry soul will ever discover their strange, musky scent.

A few bright green fava beans and the sulfurous pearl onions took the range of flavors elsewhere, while every bite of ravioli took it emphatically back, to the soul of the terrain - as if you could taste the essence of a woodland in one mouthful.

Matthews said the food here has grown slightly simpler over his tenure, while remaining elegant.

"Not over the top fine dining," he likes to think of it, where little kids can sit - quietly - at one table as folks two tables away drank a very expensive bottle of wine.

On a hot night this restaurant keeps its doors open, with fans stirring the air. An air conditioner over a door cannot compete in the worst heat of summer with the open kitchen's fires. But don't let that stop you.

Much of the food also is available for takeout, too, for a really good dinner at home when you don't want to cook.

Desserts are all $8, and another fashion victim. Orange pound cake with crème Anglaise could have used more of that luscious sauce, and of the dabs of raspberry, too.

A hazelnut praline wrapped up a cylinder of berries in Champagne sabayon, light, creamy sorcery with yolks and wine.

And a little pyramid of different flavored sorbets took our taste buds from ginger and lemon, to orange and poppyseed, to evanescent watermelon, even as I gazed longingly at passing plates of chocolate Marquis - a dark tower - with bing cherry cabernet sauce.

On a cooler night, no one will be able to ignore the caramel ice cream with bourbon caramel sauce.

But I cannot argue with the elegant - read small - slice of that orange pound cake. I'm grateful for the restrained portions here, where I fended off my good server and ate every last bite.

N.L. English, Portland Press Herald

Back Bay Grill
65 Portland St., Portland772-8833

HOURS: Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 to 9:30, Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10.

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, MC. American Express and Discover

$17 to $33



BAR: Full, with a chic corner bar for cocktails (there's a burger available at the bar)


BOTTOM LINE: Elegance and attention to detail, courteous service and delicious food, make dinner here delightful.


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