February 14, 2019

Love is in the air for a busy Valentine's night and weekend at Maine restaurants

Photo / Renee Cordes
Photo / Renee Cordes
“It’s definitely looking like a busy night,” says Krista Cole of Sur Lie on Free Street in Portland, where executive chef Emil Rivera specializes in tapas-style shareable small plates.

As Portlanders woke up on Thursday to paper hearts posted around town by the mysterious Valentine's Day bandit every Feb. 14, restaurant owners statewide were gearing up for a busy dinner service.

Mainebiz talked to a handful on Wednesday.

"It's definitely looking like a busy night," said Krista Cole of Sur Lie on Free Street in Portland, where executive chef Emil Rivera specializes in tapas-style shareable small plates.

While Sur Lie has done set tasting menus in the past, Cole said what works best with regular customers is offering the full menu plus an array of special dishes for the romantic holiday.

"There's a couple I might have to eat myself," she said.

This year's specials include a truffled fettuccine dish and homemade doughnuts with rose strawberry jelly, which she promises have "no calories, nothing like that."

Cole added that that Valentine's Day falling towards the end of the week is a plus, and expects to be busy all weekend.

"For folks who want to celebrate this weekend," she said. "We'll still be celebrating."

David Turin, owner of David's Restaurant and David's Opus Ten in Portland and the recently renovated David's 388 in South Portland, said bookings were "pretty good" at all three eateries.

While Opus Ten sold out as soon as the multi-course menu was posted online, he said a couple seats were still available at the other venues the day before.

"We're very nearly sold out everywhere, which is kind of typical for Valentine's Day," he said, laughing about all the calls that come in at the last minute from men who are surprised when they can't get a specific table that night.

"Women tend to make reservations a bit earlier," he said.

Turin, who was able to get out earlier this week for a pre-Valentine's dinner with his wife at Solo Italiano, will be cooking eight courses at Opus Ten tonight that gets kicks off with a sparkling Italian Spumante and includes a dish with Don Juan chorizo.

"I'm pretty excited about the Opus menu," he said.

While it's nice when the weather cooperates, Turin remembers one Valentine's Day ice storm when one of his restaurants stayed open—and won lifelong customers in the process.

"There were maybe 30 people who braved the weather, they came early, and when the last people left the executive chef at the time gave them a ride home," he said. "Those times when you do have terrible weather, people come to appreciate that you stayed open."

Roses are red, and so is Natalie’s in Camden

On the midcoast, Natalie's at Camden Harbour Inn — a member of the Relais & Châteaux group of luxury hotels and restaurants — is also gearing up for a busy night and weekend.

"Valentine's is definitely an extra boost for us," said Raymond Brunyanszki, co-owner of both the restaurant and the hotel. "It helps definitely in a slower season, so we always make an effort to do something extra on Valentine's Day."

That includes more roses than usual in its red-furnished interior, and a seven-course Valentine's tasting menu that starts with a parsnip and thyme velouté with truffle emulsion and ends with a build-your-own sundae for couples to savor together or, he said, "can get in a fight about it."

As of Wednesday, he said the restaurant was nearly sold out with just one or two tables left — unlike last year when there were a lot of weather-related cancellations.

Not to be outdone in the romance department, owner Chip Angell of the Brooklin Inn said tonight's a la carte offerings will include a chocolate-seduction dessert of a flourless chocolate torte with a raspberry coulis and whipped cream.

"Valentine's is almost always a good evening," said Angell. "We give a red rose to each of the ladies who come." He exercises his romantic muscles even in the off-season, emailing rhyming poems about the current menu he might include a cookbook one day.

In Yarmouth, couples still scrambling for a last-minute date-night venue might have better luck at Gather if they're flexible on time, according to owner Matt Chappell.

"We'll probably have a little bit of room for walk-ins, specially at the bar," he said, adding that most calls come in three or four days before Valentine's Day.

"I've turned away at least 20 or 30 people today [Wednesday] who didn't want to come as late as 8 or as early as 5," he said. "Everyone wants 6:30 and we just can't do that."

Besides the a la carte dishes, there's a Valentine's menu featuring lightly breaded local smelts as a "fun little treat," Chappell said. There will also be live jazz music.

Bandit remains a mystery

Back in Portland, Sur Lie's Cole said she has no idea who the Valentine's Day bandit is and always looks forward to seeing hearts all over town every Valentine's morning.

"It's a pleasant surprise when you're coming into a long and busy night of service and you see some love from someone who appreciates you and your business," she said.


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