Though I like visiting restaurants outside Portland, I’m comfortable admitting I don’t do much drinking off the peninsula. But last month I decided to expand my horizons. South Portland is a relatively short walk and cheap cab ride from my place on the West End. I asked a few SoPo folks what places are worth a visit for quality cocktails, not just a beer and burger, and they all mentioned the Snow Squall Restaurant.
I’d never been to the Snow Squall, but this wasn’t the first time I’d heard of it. The restaurant was a landmark in South Portland’s Knightville neighborhood for decades before it closed in 2005. It was dormant for several years until Heather LeRou, a former owner and manager of the Porthole, took over almost three years ago.
Located on Ocean Street, the establishment has a large white-linen dining room, a deck, and a comfortable bar and lounge area with big chairs, couches and a (real) fireplace. LeRou is making the place more casual and affordable. The white linen will be gone by December, and she’s putting in another bar downstairs, where there’s yet another fireplace.
The lounge is an accommodating spot for happy hour. The dozen drafts include beers from Geary’s, Shipyard and Harpoon, as well as micros from away and the now omnipresent Allagash White. The bottled beer selection isn’t quite as considered (Bud, PBR, Miller Lite), but there’s an impressive wine list, with six whites available by the glass or bottle and seven reds. All but three of the reds will set you back $7 a glass; the house options are $6.
I was here for some cocktails, and eager to check out the list. Including The Knightville Rider, a simple pairing of Rouge Dead Guy Ale and a shot of Powers neat named after a neighborhood regular, the cocktail menu has over a dozen selections. With the invaluable assistance of her bartender, Colleen, LeRou has put together an interesting and thoughtful mix of drinks that embraces contemporary styles.
Most of the cocktails cost between $8 and $10. I chose my first like a high-roller: the Meow Meow Kitty Saketini ($12). What I received was a balanced blend of Hyorie sake and Hana Awaka sparkling sake served chilled and up in a generous martini glass.
Sake, which is created by fermenting rice, is known for its subtle nose and flavors, but also for a pronounced texture. Because of this, sakes can be rough on the palate. This is especially true when served warm, as sakes traditionally are. The decision to blend a traditional sake with chilled Hana Awaka, which has less alcohol and more sweetness, overcomes that obstacle. The Saketini is soft on the palate, with a light and bright mouth influenced by the aromatic effect of thick wedges of cucumber garnish.
After such a crisp drink, I wanted my follow-up to be a bit bolder. The Ruby Manhattan, which blends Maker’s Mark with a ruby port and a dash of blood orange bitters, looked inspired. This libation has a solid, traditional feel, with a big profile that’s heavy on your tongue. The Maker’s, as is its wont, hides behind any competing flavors, but in this glass that’s welcome. And while ruby port is not held in very high regard when consumed by the glass, it’s put to good use here and does most of the work. The port is evenly present in the mouth, and shines in the aftertaste. All this is perfectly accented by the bitters. This drink pairs well with the Jack Daniel’s BBQ Pork Sandwich on the restaurant’s bistro menu.
On my next visit, I tried the Lavender French 75. This drink adds a splash of Maine Mead Works Lavender Mead and a dash of champagne to a base of Bombay Sapphire gin and lemon juice. I haven’t yet acquired the taste for mead, and this drink did not help win me over, but I was intrigued by the way the mead easily overpowered the juniper of the gin. If you’re not a big gin drinker — and don’t mind the heavy aftertaste of meads — this just may be your ticket. I’ve always thought of French 75’s as a great brunch drink. You can test that theory at the Snow Squall on Sunday mornings.
My last libation was a more seasonal cocktail, the Citrus Basil Cooler. This is a great summer drink that would be right at home out on the Snow Squall’s spacious deck. It arrived in a goblet with basil leaves throughout and an attractive ruby hue. It’s a vodka-based concoction with a snappy flavor that comes from citrus puree muddled with Thai basil. There’s a dash of club soda to give it some extra jump. The mix comes together quite nicely — highly recommended.
The Snow Squall is only a five-minute drive from downtown Portland, and the walk isn’t bad either. If you do decide to hoof it, get going before the flakes fly.
— Carl Currie