90 Exchange St., Portland
Until fairly recently, the classic soul-food combination of chicken and waffles was virtually unheard of in Maine. It was only seven years ago that I first spotted it on a brunch menu, at the tragically short-lived District, on Danforth Street in Portland. Since then, at least a half dozen Portland restaurants have begun serving it. I’m not going to lie — even mediocre chicken and waffles are better than none at all. But after seven years, I still couldn’t find my go-to place when the craving hit.
Until now. Eaux, the New Orleans–themed restaurant on Exchange Street, in Portland’s Old Port, that recently graduated from food cart to brick-and-mortar, is serving some of the best fried chicken and waffles I have ever eaten. For real.
It’s not strictly traditional; the chicken is boneless, which I know is blasphemy to purists. But from the spicy, crunchy coating — fried just to the brink of burnt — to the moist and succulent meat inside, this is damn near perfect. The waffle is just as good. Crisp on the outside, impossibly light and fluffy on the inside, the only thing these beauties need is a smear of the sweet, earthy cane syrup that’s gently drizzled around the edge of the plate.
Eaux’s chicken and waffles ($15) are available for dinner, as well, but the rest of the brunch menu makes it worth a trip on a Sunday morning or afternoon. On a recent visit with my wife and daughter, I enjoyed an excellent, spicy Bloody Mary ($11) and a mug of fresh, strong coffee ($2.25) while the three of us tore through an order of drop biscuits ($7). Those biscuits were as airy and soft as any I’ve had, and the accompanying honey-chive butter was delicious.
My wife ordered the roast beef hash ($14). Its tender chunks of meat were lightly charred and smoky; the hollandaise sauce was silky smooth and delicate, with a subtle hint of spiciness provided by a dash of bayou-brand Crystal Hot Sauce. The eggs were expertly poached, and the garnish of pickled “holy trinity” (carrots, celery and onions) added just enough acidity to balance the dish.
Meanwhile, my daughter was happily chowing down on Bananas Foster beignets ($10): crisp, sweet, New Orleans–style doughnuts served with caramelized bananas, slightly salty candied pecans, and a not-too-sweet Hennessy whipped cream that I’d gladly eat on a piece of cardboard if push came to shove.
Let’s get real: it would be irresponsible to eat at Eaux every week, or even every month. My meal left me in a full-on food stupor that rendered me basically useless for the rest of the day. But it was totally worth it. And any time I feel the need for some chicken and waffles, I know exactly where I’m headed.
— Dan Zarin
Eaux serves brunch on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.