Originally published by Maine Magazine in May 2015
The Honey Paw is like no other restaurant I know. The new Portland restaurant’s unique personality completely defies any attempts to group it into traditional restaurant categories or even vague ones like “contemporary American” or “fusion.” Its menu and ambience unapologetically combine a staggering number of elements into a streamlined dining experience while circumventing any kind of identity crisis by keeping the offerings as concise as possible.
Chefs Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley worked with chef-de-cuisine Thomas Pisha-Duffly to create an ever-changing menu of around twenty offerings that in no way are trying to be “edgy” or overly cerebral, but rather just take into consideration ingredients that will taste great together regardless of what part of the world they come from. There is a reason that the dining room is, outside of window and bar seating, dominated by one big communal table, made from butcher block. This is a place where you want to bring a group of hungry companions and attempt to make your way through as many of the dishes as possible.
A meal at the Honey Paw should begin with an assortment of bar food, which for myself involved kimchi served cubed to provide a refreshing contrast to the heat from the pickle. The Bar Mix combines rice crackers, sugar peanuts, crunchy nori, and their own interpretation of classic Funyuns, in which they are completely successful in dialing in the flavor while the texture is slightly more akin to pork rinds, making it the best of both worlds, in a sense. The “Meat Snack” rotates and tonight is spicy coppa, the cured top shoulder portion of the pig, and it is served with a micro salad of pea shoots. I personally prefer the focus here rather than being pummeled with a barge of 10-12 different kinds of charcuterie that not only occupies valuable table real estate, but also often overwhelms the appetite.
Whenever one is confronted with a diverse menu, or any menu for that matter, there is no workhorse more reliable than dry rosé to go the distance, in this case the Honey Paw I opt for Charles-Bieler’s Sabine Rosé, which they serve on tap. The concept of wine in kegs is becoming increasingly popular—it is profitable for the business owner, vastly reduces waste, and is beneficial to the customer as each pour is always fresh.The Honey Paw’s wine program is quite progressive as a whole and each selection has the same price of $9 per glass and $34 per bottle (at time of this story). In most cases, only the varietal and region are listed, allowing them to always keep the list fresh and interesting.
With rosé in hand, I dig into a plate of wok-fried bok choy, which has attained a beautiful charred flavor and rests in a pool of creamy, piquant romesco sauce that is most commonly found in the cuisine of Catalonia. At this moment I recognize the first few notes of “Over the Mountain” by Ozzy Osbourne booming through the speakers, and I am overjoyed as the staff plays the entire album Diary of a Madman. All of the music is on vinyl, picked by the staff as they read the crowd throughout the evening, with an emphasis on encouraging the guests to let go of their inhibitions and just have a damn good time.
At this point the food really ramps up in pace, starting with the Lobster Tartine, an open-faced sandwich on grilled sourdough with lobster mousse, radish, fried shallot, cilantro emulsion, and, adding a very pleasant element of flavor, celery leaves. A perfect companion to this is Pisha-Duffly’s classic poke made with tender octopus, crunchy nori, red cabbage, and puffed rice accentuated by a pleasurable, slowly building heat.
Co-owner Arlin Smith, who has since joined me at the communal table, explains that, “Although all of the plates are different sizes, we want each diner to be able to order a few things without feeling overwhelmed, hence the reason we don’t use the term ‘shared plates.’”
A beautiful presentation of agnolotti filled with pork sausage is served with crumbled pistachio and dehydrated black olive to complement an earthy parsnip puree and small cubes of lardo. While there are so many rich ingredients, the dish remains balanced and each flavor is easily discernable (plus I’ve never experienced “lardo cubes” before and now I’m not quite sure how I’ve been living without them). The progression gets increasingly decadent, and I work my way through their Northern China-style moo shu lamb, which contains perfectly smoked shank and crunchy vegetables meant to be wrapped up in the accompanying pancakes, which resemble very soft, toothsome flour tortillas.
At this point in the meal a raging thunderstorm moves through Portland and this seems like the perfect moment to take in the aromas from my bowl of yellow noodles. There are many important elements to this dish, beginning with a rich, spicy broth, containing pork meatballs, smoked pork jowl, and slices of mortadella made from a combination of veal and pork. Pickled chilies and herbs round out the equation aided by a plethora of spicy, tangy, and fresh garnishes. Amidst all of these delicious things, the first thing I notice is how intense the flavor of the freshly made noodles is, and I learn they achieve their springy, chewy texture with the use of kansui, a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate that also gives the noodles their yellow hue.
The final element of the savory assault is a classic Korean staple, Dolsot Bibimbap. Served in a nuclear-hot stone bowl, the mix of rice, vegetables, beef, and raw egg, which cooks as it is being served, forming a crust on the bottom that is reminiscent of paella while being doused with fruity, spicy gochujang sauce. The difference with the Honey Paw’s version is that the beef is a skewer of rib-eye steak that has been dry-aged for 60 days and is quite possibly one of the most tender, perfect pieces of meat that I have ever tasted.
Garnering a well-deserved, almost cult-like following, even this early on, is pastry chef Kim Rodger’s caramelized honey soft-serve ice cream, which is topped with Maldon sea salt, honeycomb candy, and covered in what she refers to as a “magic chocolate shell.” The dessert is complemented by a slice of layer cake with chocolate, buttercream, orange, saffron, and orange blossom water.
The Honey Paw is sometimes billed as a “noodle bar,” but there is so much more to it than that. The Middle Street restaurant confidently represents the new Portland—a place that embodies the talent and creativity of restaurateurs that the city has become known for without any of the needless pretense.
78 Middle St. | Portland | 207.774.8538 | thehoneypaw.com