Scoping out Scarpa’s
In early June, at the suggestion of one of my regulars at Ruski’s, I decided to check out the new restaurant at 15 Exchange St., the space Walter’s occupied for years before moving to Portland Square. A restaurant named after its address had most recently tried and failed to make it in this location, one of legendary Old Port landlord Joe Soley’s buildings. The new place is called Scarpa’s.
I stopped by at least a half dozen times on various days and at various times over the course of two weeks, only to find the door locked. I Googled the phone number and called repeatedly, to no answer. I was beginning to think this was the most exclusive restaurant in town: no one was getting in.
On Friday the 15th, after promising my companions this would be the last time I’d try, I pulled the door and it opened. We entered a lovely room with small, dark wooden tables and a matching stretch of bar. Under the stairwell leading to the larger dining area upstairs is a tidy open kitchen. The walls are exposed brick — not uncommon in this neck of Portland — adorned with an interesting assortment of artwork. A huge poster for a Goddard film starring Brigitte Bardot hangs near an original portrait by N.C. Wyeth (owned by Soley and for sale for $24,000) and (considerably cheaper) paintings by City Councilor Dave Marshall.
The décor gives the place a refined ambiance, but it still feels quite welcoming. The bartender, Maciek Tasarz, greeted us warmly in a thick Polish accent, which reinforced this impression. We learned that we’d stumbled into the soft opening. Chef Tom Scarpa and the rest of the staff were still fine tuning the operation, which will eventually be open Tuesday through Saturday evenings.
My Rusty Nail was the first cocktail served under the new banner. It’s hardly the most creative choice I could have made, but they didn’t yet have a cocktail list and the stock was still limited. A splash of Johnnie Walker and Drambuie is an easy way to get the evening going. Maciek, however, was not content with tradition. He added a dash of vermouth that flattened the sweetness of the Drambuie ever so slightly while letting the accented notes of the scotch shimmer through. Very impressive.
I followed the drink with a dish from the evolving menu. The steak tips were cooked to medium rare and lightly seasoned; the sides included perfectly cooked asparagus spears. As I enjoyed them, Maciek offered me a sample of his recently concocted sangria. Still fresh, the flavors had not completely settled, but it showed signs of life.
On my follow-up visit, I tested Maciek’s creative side. Still strapped for selection behind the bar, he whipped up a light mix of Stoli orange and raspberry vodkas with citrus juices. As a summer drink, it hit the spot and was a competent companion to the delicious Chicken Saltimbocca — the broth was so good I ordered a side of bread to clean my plate.
A week later I was back again, this time to try Maciek’s Manhattan. When he pulled out a bottle of Maker’s Mark, I was not particularly excited do see that bourbon selected, but he gave his mix a firm shake and poured it into my glass, garnished with a cherry. With one sip, I was taken aback. I have not had a more perfectly balanced Manhattan before. My grudge against the light, shiny bourbon’s use in cocktails dissolved. This may be the best Bourbon Manhattan I’ve ever had.
“I feel like this room has a great martini feel,” Maciek said, “and martinis are also a specialty of mine.” I agreed — Scarpa’s could also be a very comfortable martini bar. Maciek asked other customers what libations they’d like the establishment to offer (Absinthe, my friend, absinthe!).
Given the enthusiasm, skill and taste Maciek and Scarpa have demonstrated thus far, I’m confident they’ll create a place I’ll want to return to again and again. Let’s make sure their door stays open.
— Carl Currie