We went on a cold, rainy evening – the kind of Maine spring night when damp penetrates to the bone. As Adam ordered a California Syrah, I scanned my pink menu and gazed out the big picture window. Fat raindrops splashed the wet-glossed streets. I relished even the artificial warmth of rose-tinged brown walls and flickering tea lights.
Cupping my wine glass, I leaned back onto the puffy, fringed pillows lining the banquette and watched the waitresses flit across the small space like the bees in the logo stitched on their aprons. Glasses clinked. Crimson tulips arched from a large, crystal vase on the antique sideboard. The aired filled with the strains of a single violin and the soft murmur of romance.
Unique in Portland, tiny Bresca succeeds in creating a distinctly feminine – and thoroughly delightful – environment without slipping onto the wrong side of “precious.”
And the food is – in a word – lovely.
While we awaited our order, I eavesdropped on the couple next to us. The woman raved about her sea urchin linguini. A wave of lemon zest, basil and mint wafted my way. I leaned over slightly to take a whiff. It smelled heavenly. She popped a piece of uni into her mouth and pronounced the dish “wonderful.”
They were celebrating her birthday and her boyfriend had wisely chosen Bresca not only for chef Krista Kern Desjarlais’ fast-growing reputation, but also for its charm appeal. They both seemed pleased.
My impressions corroborated, I turned my attention to the arrival of my appetizer – a pile of shaved brussels sprouts. Earthy and crunchy, with toasted walnuts and a blend of parmesan and pecorino, I found the sprouts tasty and rich in a roasty, slightly sweet way – like a homemade peanut butter. While not groundbreaking, it was a very good starter.
Across the table, Adam was humming a happy little tune as he slurped up slices of pickled veal tongue doused with dollops of chive oil and cabernet/port reduction. Velvety and delicate in consistency – much like carpaccio – the tongue was both piquant and marvelously complex in flavor. Marinated mushrooms and shaved foie gras added to its sheer lushness. A truly stellar dish.
I chose veal for my main course, as well, and while the meaty chop came slightly overcooked, the fragrant jus made up for it. Thick and brown, the sauce hit my tastebuds with a punch of onion and spice. Heavy at first, it quickly melted away to a gentle film of flavor that I can only describe as “the essence of meat.”
It was at this point in the meal that I realized chef Kern Desjarlais’ true brilliance. She’s a master of sauces. No wonder she was nominated for a James Beard award for Best Chef: Northeast. Even the simple stew on Adam’s otherwise unremarkable market fish (Atlantic char) took artisanal Italian to another level. Charred cherry tomatos and olives never tasted so good. It elevated the fish from “fine” to “fabulous.”
Finally, it was time for dessert and – with trepidation – I ordered the much-lauded buttermilk panna cotta. Adam opted for a bittersweet chocolate soup.
Reviewers far and wide wax poetic about Bresca’s panna cotta, so I steeled myself for a let down. How could it possibly live up to the hype, I reasoned? Made with buttermilk, cream, and vanilla, and served in a passionfruit broth with white pepper orange flower sorbet, it’s just about the best dessert I’ve ever eaten. It defies words. You just have to try it yourself.