Reviewed: Fall, 1999
How often do you walk out of a restaurant completely satisfied, mind, body, and wallet? Sure, you're bound to satiate a desire or two, but what about the whole package? Ultimate satisfaction seems rare when dining out. Well, last night, I found an exception at the completely gratifying Pepperclub.Matt O'Donnell is a poet and freelance writer who lives in Portland.
Arriving at 7:30 on a Saturday night, we were told it would be between a twenty and thirty-minute wait for a table. From our initial impression of the restaurant, we decided to bide our time. Even if we'd had to wait longer, it would've been well worth it. The hostess showed us to the lounge, a separate room adjacent to the dining room, containing a half dozen or more tables, and a small bar. The congenial waitress promptly handed us wine lists, and retired behind the bar, where she could see and wait on the room. She returned to the table as soon as we set our menus down, took our wine orders and answered questions about the appetizers. Very shortly after she left us, the hostess returned to show us to our table in the dining room. We hadn't waited ten minutes.
The Pepperclub isn't large, which is one of its pleasing qualities. The decor, as well as the food and pervading atmosphere, is eclectic. The orange, blue, yellow, red…the color scheme, is festive, yet subdued at the same time. Bright paint is toned down by a tasteful combination of low lighting, candle glow, white Christmas lights, and several orange and peach-tinted bulbs. Candles and fresh flowers adorn each table, adding further charm to the character. Two large tables of people being served when we arrived indicated that, though not ample in size, the restaurant can comfortably accommodate large parties of diners. The setting is intimate, but not crowded. During our dinner, the dozen or so tables remained full as a line of clients filed from street to lounge to dining room.
The wine we ordered in the lounge arrived at the dinner table as soon as the hostess had seated us. My date chose the Ironstone Symphony, a white wine ($12.00/bottle and $3.00/glass), and I selected the Rosemount Cabernet Sauvignon ($18.00/bottle and $4.50/glass). The Pepperclub has an above average selection of wine, both white and red, as well as a selection of port. The wine ranges in price from $10.00 to $22.00 a bottle and from $3.00 to $6.00 a glass. They also offer a list of "Select Wines" from Chile, New Zealand, and California, at $18.00 to $32.00 a bottle. I'm usually a beer man, myself, and almost always enjoy a good beer when I dine out. However, there was something about the atmosphere at the Pepperclub that made me crave wine.
For those beer-lovers not swayed by fine wine in the air, you'll find a decent list of bottled imports and domestic beers. With only two beers on tap, Gritty McDuff's, ($3.50), and Allagash White ($3.00), and no liquor served, Pepperclub is an eatery rather than a drinking establishment.
Our appetizer soon followed the wine to our table. Of the three offerings of starters, we chose the Mezze plate ($4.95), which consisted of feta cheese, grated carrots, cucumbers, red onion slices, sprouts, tomato slices, olives, and some of the best homemade humus we've ever had. Along with the humus was a homemade sundried tomato pesto, which was equally delicious. The artful presentation of the dish was constant throughout the courses. Aesthetically arranged on the plate, the portion was also substantial. We had one complaint, that the number of crackers, 5, was inadequate. We didn't hold the thought long because our waitress, unsolicited, brought us more. She also left us a basket of still-warm, homemade oatmeal molasses bread.
I should mention here that our waitress was pleasant and helpful, though I wish she had introduced herself. She was attentive to us, but not extremely so. We waited on one occasion to get her attention for a glass of wine. But, to her credit, she brought extra crackers, and it was a busy Saturday night.
Until my date mentioned it, I hadn't noticed that dinner did take a bit long once we ordered. Yet, we didn't particularly mind because we were having a good time. There was laughter from other tables in the background, and it was a wonderful ambiance in which to sip our wine and talk.
Our meals arrived without further delay, and were worth an even longer wait. Initially, I'd had a difficult time deciding on an entrée because of the wonderful menu choices. Pepperclub selects their daily menu items based on the freshness of available ingredients at market. Along with the Pepper Burger ($7.95), there were six or seven seafood dishes listed, four vegetarian, one duck, and one chicken dish, cooked with various fresh chutneys and homemade salsas (all entrées were $7.95 to $13.95). I finally settled on the Roasted Portebello Mushrooms with Pumpkin Potato Crust and Goat Cheese ($10.95) after the waitress patiently explained the dish to me, and offered the goat cheese on the side. Pumpkin and mashed potato, puréed together, lined a casserole dish as a soft crust for tender, sliced portabello mushrooms in their own gravy. Each ingredient complimented the others perfectly, none overpowering or weak. I chose wisely. Yet, if my dish was any indication, there wasn't a poor choice to be had.
My date settled on the Maine Crabmeat & Asparagus Quesedilia ($13.95). It contained red peppers, corn, asparagus, cheese, and crabmeat folded in a spinach tortilla. She enjoyed it immensely. A wonderful combination of complimentary flavors, not to mention, beautiful colors; it was obvious that the ingredients were very fresh. Both entrées were served with a side salad with cucumber dill vinaigrette dressing. They poured just the right amount of dressing, so we could still taste the fresh vegetables. The only fault we could find was the rather bland Thai and brown rice side dish that accompanied the quesedilia.
With food I would classify as "gourmet," as artfully arranged as it is tasteful, you might not expect the generous portions we found. In fact, I was too full to clean my plate. That doesn't happen very often.
But, I did save room for dessert. We knew that if dessert were half as good as the entrées, we were in for a treat. "Not disappointed" is an understatement. Catering to vegans and vegetarians, Pepperclub offers dairy-free desserts as well as those that carry more penance. My eyes immediately passed over the Chocolate Pepper Cake, the Mocha Hazelnut Dacquoise, Carrot Cake, Lemon Raspberry Torte, and Key Lime Pie, and fell straight on the Bourbon Pecan Pie. Most of the desserts on the menu are made by Carrie and Jeff at Handmade Desserts of Portland. If I could bake like that, I would never leave my kitchen. The pecan pie was the best I've ever had. You've heard the "melt in your mouth" cliché. Well, I think I found its origin. Again, the food was beautifully presented on the plate, served with a side of fresh whipped cream, orange slices, a mint sprig, and three large dots of chocolate sauce. It may have been my post-Thanksgiving eyes, used to my grandmother's portions, but I thought perhaps the piece of pie was a touch small. My date didn't think so. I may have just been greedy.
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We ordered coffee to accompany our shared piece of pie. I feel that good coffee is very important to the dining experience, and was happy to find that Pepperclub serves Coffee by Design, a Portland favorite. As we savored the last of our meal, I remembered I needed to make a phone call. When I inquired for a pay phone, the waitress brought me the house phone. I was impressed. That kind of service really adds to the dining experience. The only negative we could come up with was that there wasn't real sugar on the table for the coffee.
Raving about what a wonderful dinner we'd had, we happily finished our coffee and departed with full stomachs, smiling psyches, and an only slightly dented wallet. A $54.00 bill, $3.79 tax, and $12.00 tip, equaled a grand total of $57.99-and worth every penny. Even for a (formerly) starving poet.