Located at the eastern end of Middle Street in Portland, the East Ender has been a favorite haunt of mine since it opened last January. Meg and Mitch, the proprietors, renovated the former Norm’s East End Grill and brought good wine, microbrews, and cocktails of a surprisingly refined nature to the locale. Entrees like duck and risotto rub shoulders with wings and barbeque on the menu — a mix of offerings that mirrors Munjoy Hill’s urbane/profane demographic. (See: lobster poutine.)
The East Ender is split into two levels. The layout downstairs naturally leads you to the bar at the back, which offers glimpses of the kitchen. The bar itself, tall, with a handful of seats, has been tastefully updated to mesh with the room’s contemporary décor. Couches and small tables in the front offer more intimate seating. More couches and a fireplace are said to be on the way for this winter.
Customers arriving for dinner are usually directed to the second floor. It has booths that comfortably fit four, as well as tables and a larger, dark wood bar. The liquor selection on view is limited, but the top-shelf spirits and liqueurs are well represented. In a continuing effort to make the restaurant more accessible, Mitch and Meg recently installed a large flat-screen TV upstairs and expanded their Sunday hours to catch some of the football crowd.
I often start my night with one of their most accessible cocktails, the Mule, a concoction of vodka, ginger beer and blood orange, with a bit of lime. It’s a spin on the classic Moscow Mule (vodka, ginger beer and lime). Ginger beer is an almost viciously sweet cocktail component. Here, the blood orange joins the lime to bring the drink into a unique and refreshing balance.
The Gypsy is a drink for those of a particular breed who want a little weight in their cup. The body is vodka, with the French herbal liqueur Bénédictine and rhubarb bitters, but the addition of absinthe changes everything. The flavors blend seamlessly in the Martini glass (served up). Try as they may, the bitters can’t fight through the absinthe to invade your palate. I’m a big fan of anise, a key ingredient in absinthe, so I find the heaviness welcome. The Gypsy is a drink you sip, not suck down. It delivers a punch of flavor every time it hits your lips.
Of similar character, but less appealing to me, is the Toronto, one of the most popular cocktails on the menu. The rye-based Toronto is a heavy, deeply flavorful offering, thanks to the inclusion of Fernet Branca. Fernet is a type of aromatic and bitter spirit, Italian in origin, with an earthy, rooty flavor that tends to dominate almost any mixer or base spirit. That is certainly the case with the Toronto. The decision to use a hint of maple liqueur is a wise move, one that’s noticeable in each nip. Fernet Branca is an acquired taste, recommended for fans of Campari and Luxardo. The uninitiated will get an intentionally strong introduction here.
When salads or the East Ender’s fantastic calamari are on order, I find the Vesper to be the perfect companion. A classic cocktail from across the pond, it became an international phenomenon when James Bond ordered one in Ian Fleming’s 1953 book, Casino Royale. The East Ender’s version retains all the original ingredients (vodka, gin, Lillet Blanc) and adds a lemon-stuffed olive to the mix. It’s a wonderful touch that references the drink’s roots in the Martini and adds a subtle layer of saltiness. As a server remarked while placing one before me, the Vesper is a “sexy drink.” I couldn’t agree more.
If you haven’t visited the East Ender yet, I urge you to check it out. Get there while you can still get a table.
— Carl Currie