The Front Room
73 Congress St., Portland
As holidays go, New Year’s Day is perfectly suited to brunch. A good, hearty meal is the only civilized way to cap off a long, wild night of drinking and noisemaking — or even the tamer, red-wine-and-board-game festivities that seem a wiser choice when there’s a 2-year-old at home who’s going to wake up at 6 a.m. no matter what her parents did the night before.
With the big event nearly upon us, I set out to preview one of the most popular brunch spots in town in order to help you, fellow reveler, choose where to ring in your personal culinary new year.
I’d been hearing great things about The Front Room since former Back Bay Grill chef Harding Lee Smith opened up shop a little over a year ago. I scouted the menu online before arriving, and so, armed with high hopes and empty bellies, my party of five headed up to Munjoy Hill.
At such a popular spot, I’d naturally expect something of a wait at 10:30 on a Sunday. So I was pleased when we were seated after only about 15 minutes. Keep in mind that this was just a practice run — expect a much longer wait on New Year’s Day.
Drinks arrived promptly. The coffee was strong, fresh and flavorful. In the interest of science — i.e., to closer approximate actual New Year’s conditions — I also ordered a Bloody Mary. Few drinks reveal more about a brunch-time bartender than the cocktail known in some circles as “Our Lady of the Immaculate Hangover.” I disagree with the choice of garnish — green olives and a slice of lemon, rather than the traditional celery stalk or other swizzle-stick-shaped alternative — but the drink itself was mighty tasty, up until an unexpected and unwelcome mouthful of coarsely ground pepper killed my burgeoning buzz.
As I finished off my Bloody Mary, it occurred to me that we still had yet to order. Checking the time, I realized we’d been sitting for nearly 20 minutes since last we saw our server. Uh oh. If the service was this slow now, I would be nervous about coming back on New Year’s Day. But, to be fair, once she reappeared, our waitress was convivial and attentive for the duration of the meal. So, forgive and forget. On with the show.
The menu reads like a love letter to the late-rising foodie. Those inclined toward the “unch” in brunch would be well served with choices like the salmon pastrami sandwich ($9), fish chowder ($5), croque monsieur (ham and cheese sandwich griddled and baked with cream sauce; $6) and an impressive array of entrée salads ($6-$8). But at 11 a.m., the members of my party were all still in the mood for breakfast.
I opted for the grilled fried-egg sandwich with blue cheese, bacon and aioli ($5). The bacon was excellent — crisp, slightly chewy, salty and not overly smoky — but unfortunately, the balance of flavor was tipped too heavily toward the pungent blue, so the rest was pretty much lost. For an extra buck fifty, a side of lightly dressed field greens rounded out the plate nicely.
The French toast ($4.50) seemed not to have been given sufficient time to bathe in batter, and was somewhat dry as a result. Even so, the thick-cut brioche was flavorful in its own right, and my faith in humanity was restored by the inclusion of real, honest-to-goodness maple syrup at no additional charge. Happy new year, indeed.
The basic two-egg breakfast ($5.50) was described by one of my dining companions as “OK, I guess.” Her bacon was fatty and underdone, and the homefries were soft and uninspired. But my 2-year-old gave an enthusiastic review of her blueberry, silver-dollar pancakes ($5). They were nicely browned and stocked so full of tiny wild blueberries, it took three paper towels and, eventually, a bath to clean the purple tint from her fingers and chin.
As is often the case, my wife had the best luck. She started with a bowl of rich, flavorful, vegetarian mushroom soup ($4) that would have made an excellent lunch in its own right. The soup was followed by an inspired dish of gnocchi and poached eggs with bacon, spinach and hollandaise ($8). This was practically perfect save for a single mouthful (once again, unexpected and unwelcome) of coarse black pepper.
Prices were eminently reasonable — a little higher than standard diner prices, but lower than other comparable menus in the area. Brunch for five, including three coffees, one juice and my lone cocktail, came to less than $50 before tip.
We left The Front Room with mixed feelings. The food was good, but didn’t quite live up to our inflated expectations. Despite initial fears to the contrary, the service turned out to be competent and friendly — but on a busier day, I’m not sure I’d be willing to take the chance. My advice: look elsewhere for your New Year’s Day brunch needs, and save The Front Room for another morning.
— Dan Zarin
Brunch is served at The Front Room daily from 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner is available Mon.-Sat. from 5 p.m.-10 p.m., and Sun. from 4 p.m.-9 p.m. The bar is open until 11 p.m.