Fifty Dollar Dinner

photo/Hannah Joyce McCain
photo/Hannah Joyce McCain

61 Pleasant St., Portland

I love the rituals of restaurants: the refilling of water glasses, the perusing of the menu. I love the grace of an accomplished server and the quiet that falls over the first few bites of a transcendent dish.

Alas, it’s not often enough that my modest paycheck can accommodate the profligacy of a meal out. Appetizers, salads, entrées, wine — it all adds up way too fast. Ergo, the task at hand: find the local restaurants where a soul- and belly-satisfying meal for two can be had for 50 bucks or less (before tax and tip).

Artemisia, a popular brunch and lunch destination for years now, welcomed a dinner chef late last year. Guy Frenette’s consistent ability to tease out a subtle, comfort-food feel in elegant dishes has drawn me back for dinner at Artemisia again and again. Now I was back once more — but this time, on a budget.

Our meal began with a clever amuse-bouche in the form of two delicate crostini. Humbly presented with a succinct description of the ingredients and a smile, these tantalizing micro-appetizers are almost less about the food than the gesture. A plate of warm bread (chewy, with a pleasing sourness) with salted, sweet-cream butter soon followed — another small kindness.

Figuring out what to order turned out to be a comical process involving way too much mental math. “We could get wine, but then we couldn’t afford the coq au vin…” Conveniently, everything on the menu sounded delicious, so my boyfriend and I didn’t feel like we’d be denying ourselves by choosing less-expensive entrées.

We decided to indulge in a pricey appetizer, and had no regrets. The hand-picked Maine crab with avocado, pickled ginger, and wonton chips ($12) arrived as a gravity-defying work of art: half an avocado balanced on a puddle of spicy mayo, piled high with tangy crab and topped with thin strips of fried wonton. A dribble of soy sauce completed the artistic presentation and added a background of savory umami flavor to each bite.

Artemisia’s menu divides main courses into two camps: pasta (four seasonal pasta dishes, $12-$18) and entrée. The entrées, which change based on the availability of local ingredients and the chef’s inspiration, included, the night of our visit, local lamb with roasted fig jus ($23) and Maine cod swathed in a creamy celery-root puree on a bed of rainbow chard ($22). Entrées are generally priced at $18 and up, though the vegetarian option tends to be less expensive.

My fettuccine with pork ragu ($13) was a rich, freshly made egg pasta topped with succulent pork in a wine-spiked stock. A scattering of pecorino cheese kept things lively. The dish was stick-to-your-ribs good — perfect for a brisk fall evening.

My boyfriend’s spaghetti with scallops and pancetta ($15) was pleasant, but bordered on boring. A simple, buttery red sauce allowed the tender scallops to shine. Hot pepper and garlic lent the dish some brightness.

We both would have appreciated a crunchy, fresh salad to balance out our heavy entrées. I’ve had salads at Artemisia before, and they were delightful — I recall a tangy Meyer lemon dressing on one; crispy shallots (the classed-up sister to fried onions) on another. Artemisia offers a spaghetti, side salad and wine special ($18) on Wednesday nights that’s a boon to diners on a budget.

As we polished off our plates, we wished we’d budgeted for dessert. Should we have passed up our Red Hook IPAs ($4.50 each)? Our waitress asked if we’d saved any room for dessert. “Yup, but we haven’t saved any money!” I quipped.

She returned with a pair of diminutive zeppole: sweet ricotta and dough fried and topped with powdered sugar. They were irresistible, and they were on the house.

Although the prices at Artemisia are admirably moderate, especially for the quality of the food, I wouldn’t say it’s easy for a twosome to dine there on a fifty-dollar budget. Still, we managed to have an intimate, inviting and satisfying dining experience for about $49 (again, before Uncle Sam and the waitress got their due). It was worth every penny.

— Hannah Joyce McCain