58 Pine St., Portland
Portland’s West End has long been home to plenty of options for breakfast enthusiasts, from foodie-friendly markets like Aurora Provisions to casual sit-down spots like Hot Suppa!. But at the upscale-brunch end of the spectrum, the neighborhood had been shortchanged, until now.
Since Caiola’s (rhymes with Crayolas) opened in 2005, Chef Abby Harmon, formerly of Street & Co., and co-owner Lisa Vaccaro have built a loyal clientele at their comfortable, casual neighborhood café. Sunday brunch is a relatively new addition to the lineup. In the few months since Caiola’s began serving brunch, the buzz among the culinary cognoscenti has been deafening. One recent Sunday morning, I finally got the chance to find out what all the noise is about.
My wife, 4-year-old daughter and I arranged to meet up with two friends. Arriving shortly after the 9 a.m. opening, we stepped inside and peeked around the dining room, but on this particular sunny September morn, our friends had chosen a table out back on the breezy, shaded patio.
My wife and I had had a little difficulty getting out of the house, and thus had neglected to make our traditional first pot of coffee. (Long ago, we agreed never to leave the house without first having at least one cup — our addiction is, sadly, quite severe.) So we were particularly happy and relieved when strong, hot coffee was offered, accepted and delivered within minutes of our arrival. It took a bit longer to scare up refills than I’d like, but at least we were properly medicated when it came time to read the menu.
And such a menu! Though far from the longest brunch menu in town, it had something to tempt everyone in our party. We decided to start with a couple of pastries to anchor the coffee. The House Made Cinnamon and Sugar Pop Tart ($3) proved an inspired choice: a buttery, flaky pastry with oozy butter, brown sugar and cinnamon filling that put lesser toaster pastries to shame. Next came the Polenta, Orange and Currant Morning Cookie ($3), a light and flavorful cross between a scone and a corn muffin, flecked with orange zest. On my next trip, I plan to try the Jam and Chocolate Skivers with Vanilla Cream ($3), which our server described as “balls of waffle batter, stuffed and then cooked on the griddle.” Oh hell, yeah.
For my meal, I ordered the Eggs Tostada ($11): fried eggs with spicy chunks of chorizo, black beans and sour cream, served atop perfectly crisp corn tortillas. I ate every last morsel, including the accompanying sofrito (a fresh, Spanish-style pepper relish).
My wife continued her trend of ordering soups and salads at brunch, rather than the more traditional breakfast offerings. I can’t say I understand why anyone would pass on breakfast, but as always, her choices panned out nicely. The daily soup ($5), a rich, creamy puree of coconut milk, ginger and carrots, was sampled around the table, and my daughter looked like she was ready to arm-wrestle my wife for another sip if necessary (it wasn’t). The Bacon, Egg and Spinach Salad with Gorgonzola and Fried Shallots ($11) was easily as good as it sounded, with lightly dressed greens; crisp, crumbled bacon; and little mounds of delicious egg salad flavored with fresh herbs.
My daughter passed up the Pancakes with Maine Maple Syrup or Honey ($6) and instead chose the House Made Granola with Greek Yogurt ($6) and Fresh Fruit ($2). Sticky, chewy and packed with dried fruit, the granola was essentially a moist oatmeal cookie crumbled up, put in a bowl and called “breakfast.” The sharpness of the thick, creamy yogurt offset the sweetness perfectly.
One of our friends ordered the West Side ($8): two eggs, toast, potatoes and bacon or sausage. The small-dice homefries were crispy and well seasoned, and the eggs and toast were outstanding, as well. But the real star was the bacon. Not content with the status quo, my wise friend requested the maple bacon. Seriously. Maple bacon. It’s brilliant in its simplicity — thick-cut, smoky bacon brushed with maple syrup and baked. Regular Breakfast Serial readers can no doubt predict how this went over at my table. Others can probably venture a guess, too. I mean, it’s maple syrup and bacon. Together! Could it possibly get any better?
Caiola’s brunch ranks among the very best in the city. It’s certainly a welcome addition to the neighborhood. I don’t live in the West End, but places like this make me wish I did.
— Dan Zarin
Caiola’s serves brunch Sundays from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. For dinner hours and menus, visit their Web site.