In 1979, I landed in Portland, Maine, a gritty tidal treasure of brick wharf buildings, cobblestone streets, and working waterfront overlooking beautiful Casco Bay. In the historic Old Port and downtown Arts District is a vibrant and flourishing dining scene. The new green markets, CSAs (community shared agriculture) and local-food movement are growing in strength and popularity. Even for long-time residents like me, Portland can still delight and astonish.

Portland’s ever-changing restaurant scene is rumored to now be second only to San Francisco.  Some of my favorites: Duckfat‘s Belgian fries,  Fore Street‘s mussels,  The Front Room‘s poached eggs with gnocchi and spinach. And don’t forget Emilitsa‘s chicken livers: savory and delicious, with a glass of crisp Cambas. There is always a new place just opening around the corner or across town, many find a way to become part of the city’s ongoing love affair with good food – to impress, beguile, and remain.

This small city’s many chefs, bakers, farmers and food enthusiasts – amateur and professional – collaborate, conspire, and compete to create a rich food scene. The farm-to-table movement has taken root here with people from around the world fascinated by the specific brand of sustainable agriculture in an decidedly unforgiving climate.

Last year, we hosted Tuscan chef Nicola Bochicchio of restaurant Officina della Cucina Popolare in Siena, Italy. Portland wowed Nicola and his wife, Chiara – Tuscan locavores – with Portland’s fresh take on local fare.   Their refrain: “We need more time here!”

Several years ago, friends visited from New York. I asked if they enjoyed the Portland Museum of Art. That was okay, they said, but could they tell me about the duck frisee salad at Hugo’s restaurant. Did they visit the Old Port and explore the galleries and boutiques? Yes, but could they first tell me about the pork belly at Fore Street. It began to dawn that Portland was suddenly on the culinary map.  Here’s a sampling of  Portland’s Epicurious Pioneers:

Fore Street Restaurant [Map]

Sam Hayward of Fore Street restaurant blazed an early trail. “Good food travels the shortest distance,” Sam said, well before it was fashionable. Late nights with friends over big sizzling pans of mussels, roasted over a wood fire with butter, herbs, vermouth, and the surprising crunch of almonds – ridiculously rich and flavorful.

We ordered most of Fore Street’s bar menu last week over Cold River martinis in their comfy bar – wood-grilled foie gras, robust lamb heart confit, duck paté, a tangle of crunchy organic Maine greens, and the legendary mussels. Confirmed:   They’re still wonderful.

Hugo’s Restaurant [Map]

Hugo’s Restaurant celebrates Maine’s native fare with award winning chef Rob Evans. Try his grilled Scottish salmon, roasted duck or locally sourced meats – perfection. Across the street at DuckFat, Evans celebrates the humble Maine potato by frying it in duck fat, twice(!) for incredible richness and flavor. Try the Belgian fries with horseradish mayo, garlic aioli or truffle ketchup – wow.

Note: Both Hayward and Evans are James Beard award winners and have received countless kudos locally and “from away.”

Vervacious [Map]

“Travel far. Eat well. Live long.” Words to live by and the tagline of Vervacious, an intriguing, slightly exotic addition to the waterfront food scene of Portland. Their artisanal culinary condiments include balsamic drizzles, Fleur de Sel, grilling rubs, specialty sauces and amazing mignonettes. Even the packaging is beautiful.   Check out our delicious recent arrival, Vervacious!

LFK [Map]

Friends recently invited us to join them at LFK, a new bar in an old bookstore in Longfellow Square. The huge windows in front, high ceilings, handcrafted tables and old typewriters give it a nifty, writerly vibe. Paintings of Longfellow decorate the men’s room (I looked), and Emily Dickenson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes–” winds all the way around the bar. I love the L-Squared,  a refreshing iced shandy made with Maine Mead Works Lavender Mead, lemonade, and soda. The rich LFK burger with garlic mayo and cheddar has a growing legion of fans – we are now among them. With a Reverse Happy Hour and Late Night Handheld Food Specials, the place is a quirky addition to the salty seaside flavors of Portland, Maine.