Despite a looming presence of questionable new construction in every corner of the city, 2017 was actually a rather good year for historical architecture in Portland’s West End neighborhood. Residents nostalgic for a touch of the “Old Portland" found solace in the reopening of the Roma Cafe at 769 Congress St. last August after nearly nine years of dormancy. Just two months later would bring the Francis — a boutique hotel — to the historic Mellen E. Bolster House at 747 Congress St., and with it, Bolster, Snow & Co.
Located adjacent to a pleasant lounge area on the first floor of the Francis (complete with roaring fireplace and separate bar), Bolster, Snow & Co. serves modern, seasonal American cuisine not unlike what might be found at Chez Panisse or The French Laundry. It makes sense, given that Chef Nick Verdisco comes to Portland from New York’s Inn at Pound Ridge by Jean Georges — a restored 1833 home-turned-restaurant in Westchester County, spearheaded by one of the world’s most well-known chefs.
Verdisco’s talents are obvious right from the start in his beautiful food, making smart use of colorful garnishes like pink peppercorn, tobiko, and various herbs and microgreens to make each dish visually pop. The technique is there, too — sauces with lasting structure, foams that tantalize without being distracting, proteins approached with true care and cooked to perfection.
Most important is that in most cases, Verdisco’s food tastes just as good as it looks. Scallop crudo is somehow both bright and buttery, framed by torched citrus and pomegranate for a delicate balance of acid and salinity. Braised lamb is almost ethereal in its depth of earthy flavor, spoon-tender and served over potato purée with pearl onions, scallions and racy pickled mushrooms. A lemon eclair (lemon curd, crème chiboust, blueberry preserves) tasted at a recent press preview of the restaurant’s new winter menu was the best end to a meal I’ve had this year. Even the cocktails — though some test the waters on area price point at $15 — are strong, thought-out and intriguing.
What Bolster, Snow & Co. lacks at the moment to some degree, however, is cohesion. The entirety of an initial visit was soundtracked by early 2000s pop music, which forced me to ponder the commonalities between Lifehouse and Duck Two Ways (I’m still stumped, if anyone can help). That same visit included an otherwise delicious entrée of fettuccine, lobster, sausage, fennel and egg that unfortunately arrived at the table lukewarm due to a miscommunication in the dining room. While neither of these incidents are deal-breakers, dinner at Bolster isn’t exactly cheap, and the overall dining experience at the moment could be more reflective of the quality of the food coming out of the kitchen, which is excellent.
That said, Bolster, Snow & Co. is still in its infancy, with just three months of service under its belt. Conceptually, it’s almost where it needs to be. Verdisco is adamant about his venture being viewed as its own entity rather than a “hotel restaurant,” and his commitment to making Bolster, Snow & Co. a destination dining spot is evident and earnest. With some tweaks, he may just get there.