539 Deering Ave., Portland
I really wanted to love Abilene. I’d been meaning to check out the restaurant since it opened last year, the latest in a fits-and-starts culinary renaissance in Portland’s Woodford’s Corner neighborhood. With its upscale-comfort-food menu and welcoming, casual vibe, Abilene seemed like the kind of place I’d rate among the greats. But after a recent visit for brunch with friends, the highest rating I can bestow is “pretty good.”
We started with drinks. Abilene’s house blend of organic, low-acidity Peruvian coffee was flavorful and strong without being too bitter. My Bloody Mary ($7) was perfectly acceptable, but unspectacular — I like mine spicy and strong; this one was mild and on the weak side. My wife, a big fan of sour drinks, ordered a strawberry, basil and rum “shrub” cocktail ($7). In contrast to the bracing, vinegary shrubs made down the street at Woodford Food & Beverage, Abilene’s was watery and not especially tart. My daughter ordered a non-alcoholic version of the shrub. The flavor came through much better without the rum to dilute and sweeten it.
Our server was friendly and happy to answer our questions about the menu. However, once we placed our order she disappeared for nearly half an hour — a long wait, considering ours was the only occupied table during that time.
When it finally arrived, the food was artfully plated and beautiful to behold. I’d chosen the creamy herb scramble ($11). After I added a healthy shake of salt, the flavors of the fresh herbs came through nicely. I wasn’t crazy about the scramble’s uniformly smooth texture, so I piled it onto a slice of crunchy toast. On the side, the cubed potatoes were perfectly crisp on the outside and soft and creamy inside, but they desperately needed seasoning. The true stars of the plate were two strips of salty-sweet candied bacon that I attempted, unsuccessfully, to make last until the end of the meal.
My wife’s sweet-potato-and-spicy-sausage hash ($12) looked excellent on the menu but didn’t live up to its promise on the plate. The sausage was greasy, the poached eggs were overcooked, the toast was charred and, again, lack of seasoning was an issue. My friends felt similarly about the pulled pork hash ($12) and the daily special: broccoli, cheddar and sausage hash ($12). Of all the dishes, the one I’d consider returning for was my daughter’s French toast ($10). Rich, crisp and custardy, it was served with real maple syrup, caramelized banana, and a ramekin of highly addictive toasted-pecan butter.
If I lived in the neighborhood, I might consider giving Abilene another try, but I don’t, and there are many better options in Portland (particularly at that price point). You know a city has reached brunch greatness when “pretty good” isn’t good enough.
Abilene serves brunch Friday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.