The Old Port Sea Grill
The Old Port Sea Grill makes me wish, just for a moment, that I worked in a bank. That I wore serious suits and wept the contents of my striving-for-love-where-is-he-already-I’m-way past-30-damn-it-universe-heart, while Michael Buble crooned from the speakers of my Lexus. But I don’t wallow in self-pity often. Most of the time, I’m in control. I like money. And magazines about money. And men with money. And The Bachelor. And gelato. And Brazilian waxes. And Twilight. And Tiffany’s. And Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And Design Within Reach. And Louis Vuitton. And Jo Malone scented candles. And Ann Coulter. And pictures of horses. And the Royal Wedding. And J. Crew sales. And small dogs. And espresso, but I pronounce it “expresso”. And Aruba. And cobb salads. It would be a nice break from my own set of likes and dislikes, problems, hangups, thought patterns, and the sometimes exhausting business of being oneself. If I were this other person, this alternate universe version of myself, I would very possibly be a regular at The Old Port Sea Grill. I’d go after I left work, never before seven, have a few cocktails and a rack of oysters, flirt with older men with whom I’d only very rarely sleep, and unwind in the fishtank-like environment on Commercial Street.
Malcolm: It’s tough to figure out exactly what the scene is at the Old Port Sea Grill. A sleek, lit, glass-and-chrome facade opens into a large, dim, somewhat basically-appointed dining room, with a lively, clinking bar scene on one side, and a quiet dining room on the other, where tables of businessmen crowd around small tables. It wants to be sleek, sophisticated, and hip, maybe even a little spendy, but also needs to cater to tourists and the post-work crowd. This puts an emphasis on fine cocktails and an excellent raw bar, with less attention seemingly paid to the entrees, which are a little all over the place and seem, like other places in town, to suffer from some perplexing Asian fusion elements.
It is magical there in December. Lights are twinkling from trees and buildings faceted with bright, illuminated ornaments. There is a brisk salt chill in the air and every little shop or bar seems especially cozy once you are settled inside. It was thus when we were there earlier in the week. The seasonal cocktails at the Old Port Sea Grill look fantastic, with punches and eggnog and a Manhattan made with what I’m assuming are house-made Luxardo cherries, dark and potent. It was neither crowded nor empty, and I imagine many of the other patrons had spilled in from surrounding hotels. An Asian man sitting alone under a painting of waves, a girl pecking on her laptop while picking at trout, and a table of six guys in varying hues of blue button-down shirts, carousing mechanically. I already knew what I wanted for dinner. Malcolm had more to consider, but settled on the $28 North Atlantic swordfish, even though he wasn’t entirely sold on the description of the sides and accompaniments.
Malcolm: Every single entree contained an element that threw me for a loop. The trout is served with pistachios. The blue fish is served with oxtail. And the swordfish came similarly accompanied by roasted shisito peppers, pickled bambino eggplant, and a romesco sauce. Trusting that the kitchen knew what they were doing, I forged ahead. My plate, when it arrived, was a real puzzle. It contained a pile of around 30 hot peppers, charred black with fire, with a beautiful swordfish filet resting on top. There was a scoop of bright orange, nutty romesco, a dab of the pickled eggplant, and then, seemingly in an effort to make certain there were one too many things on the plate, two deep-fried mashed potato balls. It was one of few meals, where I quite simply wasn’t sure what to do. The peppers were too hot by themselves. The eggplant much too tart. It was only when, about halfway through the meal, I combined all of these elements onto one fork, that the dish began to make sense, with the heat from the peppers, and the sour eggplant, and the strong flavor of the swordfish all working together to create a single, new taste, that I quite enjoyed. I still didn’t understand why there were a half-pound of peppers on the plate. And the potato balls were still a bit of a mystery.
We started, as has become our habit, with fried calamari, Fritto Misto ($12). This plate also had a few gooey oysters rubbing elbows with the rings and tentacles. It was basic, but good. In fact, it was so good because it was crafted without embellishment or loftier goals. Nothing to excess. I liked the aioli. It was kicky. The menu on their site tells me that the mystery ingredient is saffron. Isn’t it always? I allowed myself one perfect, creamy raw local Maine oysters ($2.95 each) from Malcolm’s salty bed, served with eye-squinching mignonette. Just the way I want them, not too briny or gnarled or ugly. Small and white. Clean and bright. No wait, that’s edelweiss. Anyway, it applies.
Malcolm: There are different oysters for different moods. Sometimes, you want to be in Florida, eating them by the bucket off a plastic tablecloth, for a nickle a piece, with lots of saltine crackers and hot sauce. Sometimes, you want to go across the street to J’s, were they’ll cost 60% less per piece, but you’ll be eating as much of the hull of the boat they were scraped off of, as you are the oysters themselves. Sometimes, though, you want to treat oysters as the magical creatures they are, to slurp the briney liquor, to tart them up with mignonette, and to wash them down with a perfect, ice-cold Cold River gin martini. These were those oysters.
For my entree I had the Hearts of Romaine salad ($8) and Wild Maine Mussels ($10). A sensible and pleasing order, and so inexpensive. Who knew I was such a cheap date? The salad looked a little peaked with one lonely anchovy peeking out from a pile of lettuce. There was nothing wrong with it, per se; the tiny thyme crouton pieces were tasty and the acid of the dressing worked well as a counterpart to the richness of the mussels. Oh, and those are nice. Plump and sweet, bulbous fruits of the sea. And the broth they were resting in was so outstanding, I wanted to take it home with me and knit it a Christmas sweater. It’s the “fennel cream” that I found so endlessly satisfying, I now know. I can’t even describe it. Words will not do it justice, just know that I like it, like, more than a friend. A hunk of grilled bread, very charred and charcoal tasting, was heavenly when dunked in the broth. Well done, me! And, also, I suppose, the chefs or whatever. The dessert menu was a bit of a yawn, so we skipped it in favor of trashy snacks from the convenience store on the way home.
We had read before going that it was all about the bar scene, which was so apparent when we got there. Like a window into another world, over the banquette barrier we could spy overgrown frat boys washing down crab cakes with amber-colored beer, sporting events on television sets, gossping girls with Chardonnay, and it was cheerful and heartening that all that is going on, as my life hurtles ever faster in another direction. At The Old Port Sea Grill, small plates of super fresh seafood reign supreme. The entrees, though we only saw a very limited sampling, seemed uninspired, or maybe too inspired. Too many cooks, perhaps, trying to please too many lonely palates. But you could totally curate a meal from appetizers and such and be happy. I was. Contented, full, flushed and rosy as we left, thinking old Commercial Street is a lovely place to visit.