Everybody has a dream of going somewhere that they’ve always wanted to go. And while I have a long list, which is headlined with Holland, Paris, Hanoi, Tokyo, and St. Petersburg, for the past three years, I’ve been dying to go to Krista Kern Desjarlais’s Bresca. From the moment I saw it walking home from a trip to Norm’s BBQ on the East End, about three years ago, I began daydreaming about what a meal would be like in this intimate, rustic eatery. I peered inside the front window and discovered the seven lonely tables (oddly similar to Snow White & the Seven Dwarves) which were decorated with crisp white napkins, sparkling crystal glasses, and finely cut silverware. There were stars in my eyes on that first day, and ever since, at the slightest mention of Bresca, my desire to go and dine has been overwhelming. Obviously over the course of three years, one’s expectations are profound and romanticized. And it should be mentioned that my expectations for most restaurants are often too high and are rarely met. But Bresca is just one of those rare cases which meets every expectation and goes an extra nine yards further. I was partially pleased that Bresca was not participating in restaurant week- however upon sitting down at one of the seven tables, the waitress placed in front of me a prixe fix menu, and explained that was all Desjarlais was offering for the upcoming weeks. $40 a person is an incredibly deal, so in essence Bresca was participating in Maine Restaurant week, however they just didn’t want to be labeled as a participant. Our reservation was for 8pm and we had to wait about 15 minutes before being seated, but it was well worth it, and while you may not believe me, I actually didn’t mind waiting. Since working in the restaurant industry I’ve become much more sympathetic for restaurants because sometimes people show up late for their reservation, or spend too much time thinking over the menu, or they just enjoy hanging out. So I scratched that off of the possible list of faults, and instead made due with looking around at the collection of pictures and small French tchotchke strewn about. To make this review a bit more inclusive and cohesive I am breaking it down into five categories: the foreword (you just read it if you’re here), food, service, atmosphere, and the afterword.
First off I should let you know that this will be the lengthiest section in this entire review. The food is the biggest part of what makes Bresca so incredible. If you check out the website, it’s pretty evident that Bresca has a nice collection of wines and beers. Anna and I opted for a bottle of the Piemonte Barbera, which hails from the Alba region in Barbaresco ($34- which is reasonably priced). This red is dark and seductive, with strong undertones of cherry, and something that might slightly represent birch bark. The waitress described it as meaty, and while I oftentimes disagree with what waitstaff says, I whole-heartedly agree with her. A rich meatiness, that is incredibly rustic at the same time. It transitioned well from course to course, and even in the end when I was finishing with a buttermilk Panna Cotta, the flavour of the Barbera worked harmoniously. There were moments where it felt spicy on the palate, and others where it flowed like a cascade over the tongue. The earthiness was versatile, and ended up being what made the Barbera so drinkable in the first place.
For my first course I chose the braised tuscan black kale with a 6 minute egg, crispy pancetta, kombu butter, and charred multigrain bread. I ought to let you know, that even three days after eating at Bresca, I still don’t know what was the star of this dish. The tuscan black kale, was cooked to absolute perfection, tender- with no resemblance to steamed greens. There was still a little bit of a bite left to the kale, which contrasted nicely with the poached egg. In my food journal I wrote down “possibly the best poached egg I’ve ever had in my entire life-” yes, I said possibly, but I’d like to make a correction. It was without a doubt the best poached egg I’ve ever had. The whites were delightful, and the yoke was runny and exploded onto the white plate beneath, where it mixed harmoniously with the kombu butter that was also prepared. The pancetta was crisp and salty. On top of the bread with a piece of the poached egg, the meat acted as a wonderful device which spoke solely of indulgence and savoriness.
Anna chose the Bit o Bresca which consisted of a date stuffed with gorgonozola and proscuitto, shaved brussels, toasted walnuts, Parmesan, Pecorino and olive oil (which I must add was the best olive oil I’ve ever tasted), and Pecorino Cheese with local honeycomb. Mum swooned over the date and the Pecorino with local honeycomb, because as she put it, the flavors worked “oh so wonderfully”. The brussels retained a strong natural flavor, and even though they were served raw, I couldn’t tell they were the veggie that everyone – besides myself- hates.
Deciding on what pasta dish I wanted was perhaps the easiest part of the entire evening. The Fregola Sarda with winter tomato sauce, petite potatoes, sauteed herbs and Littleneck Clams. When I think of Fregola, I think authentic Italian alfresco dining. When I think of clams, I immediately think of this past summer eating steamers in Pemaquid. Naturally I don’t think Fregola and Clams. But perhaps I should start thinking that way. The clams were cooked so well, and I’m not just saying that to be friendly. I had clams the evening before, and while I thought those were good at the time, now I feel like they were too chewy and not succulent enough. Bresca’s clams however were indeed succulent. They were well cleaned (thank god for that), and they tasted so fresh. Fregola for those who don’t know, is similar to couscous but bigger. The winter tomato sauce was light, but absolutely creamy and rich. Strewn throughout the body of the sauce were little julienned basil leaves, which brought that familiar taste of spring and summer into my mouth. But before I forget, I should also tell you about the petite potatoes. The cutest little spuds I ever did see! The skins popped right off after I bit into each potato, and the natural earthiness supported the freshness of the herbs. There has only been one other time in my life where I thought a potato had been perfectly prepared (coincidentally, it was the night before).
Anna chose the Srozzapreti, which had pancetta, rogue snow peas, brown butter and sage sauce, and fresh parmasean cheese. While she liked the concept of the dish, and enjoyed the taste, she soon became bored, and found the portion to be too generous. For me, I thought that too. A brown butter sage sauce oftentimes can be a bit too much, especially for a large bowl of pasta with pancetta and parmasean cheese. Regardless, the rogue snow peas were delicious and crisp. I thought that they complimented the dish rather nicely, if I do say so myself.
You all know that I’m a sucker for duck. I always have been, and I always will be. But when I saw what Bresca was offering for entree options, I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited. Not only would I be receiving duck- but I’d be getting polenta too! The honey glazed duck breast with roman trading spices (I’m so curious about what these are…), frisee, soft marscarpone polenta, roasted grapes in a sumac reduction was even beautiful in the description. I asked for my duck to be cooked medium, even though I tend to order it well done. This however, I feel was the right choice, because the duck was so juicy and so flavorful, I don’t think I can ever consume anytime of poultry without remembering how delicious this duck was. The roman trading spices and the honey worked nicely with the duck because they were just undertones, and the natural flavor of the duck was the real star. The soft marscarpone polenta was even better than I could have imagined. I’m used to polenta fritters with jalapenos diced up and included. Or I’m used to the Corner Room’s Polenta with Pecorino cheese on top. But I feel like I can say I never thought polenta could be prepared so well. A lot of folks hate polenta because of its strong resemblance to grits (which I must admit I’m quite fond of), but this one bore no resemblance. Instead it was soft and warm and melty and gooey. Imagine a superfine au gratin with marscarpone and fresh cracked pepper. It was that good. The roasted grapes were a minor element in the dish, however they were fantastic. They almost tasted like applesauce when you bit into the fruit itself. The sumac was wonderful, and provided the desire that not too many sauces have done for me in the past few years- to lick the dish clean.
When I went to the Portland Food Blogger’s cocktail hour a few weeks ago, everyone told me to get the Buttermilk Panna Cotta when I went to Bresca. I listened to them because of their rants, but also because I love Panna Cotta. I had what I thought was the best Panna Cotta this past June at Street & Co. It was rich and creamy and had black currants on top. Perhaps it was the black currants that did it for me, because at that moment, I was sold on the idea that Panna Cotta is a delicacy that should be savored. Bresca’s offering was presented on a handwritten dessert list, along with two other items that could be purchased. Buttermilk Panna Cotta- in a passion fruit broth, with white pepper & orange blossom sorbet, along with fresh passion fruit, mango, strawberries, blackberries and mint. It was delicate and intricate, cremey and tangy, the acidity cut by the passion fruit, mango and fresh mint. The only thing I could think of when I was sipping the passion fruit broth was, “This is what Tahiti must taste like!” The tropical fruit matched the hints of vanilla in the panna cotta. Not to mention the white pepper & orange blossom sorbet was like biting into a lavender sachet. It exploded in my mouth and teased each and every one of my tastebuds. Decadent, sour and pure, I don’t think I’ve ever had a better dessert.
As you can tell, if you’ve made it this far, the food lacked nothing, and exceeded my expectations in most cases. In fact, it even got to the point where I realized that this was the exact reason why I love food so much- because it can evoke so many emotions, convey so many stories, and take your palate on an exciting journey. But the food isn’t the only aspect of a restaurant that should be judged. Service, for example, can easily make or break an experience, and in the past I’ve been ruthless (see Figa review- which was well-deserved). But come on. Do you really think that Bresca could let me down on an area such as service? You’re right. They didn’t. In fact, until this meal, it was uncontested that the best service in town was at 555, because it almost seems like the waiters are waiting for you to drop a crumb so they can pick it up for you. But the waitstaff at Bresca was quite attentive, kind, and accommodating. They had a good knowledge base of the wine they served as well as the menu itself. Course after course, they would clear the table in a timely manner, replace my salad fork with a dinner fork, and my dinner fork with a pastry fork. Their overall demeanor was approachable and pleasant, and by the end of the evening I felt as though I could easily carry on a conversation with either of them regarding the restaurant business, the weather, or what’s going on in the world. That’s right. They were that good.
Perhaps it was the ambiance and aesthetic of Bresca that first captured my attention. A restaurant as intimate as Bresca, only hosting 19 seats and 7 tables, would automatically be considered romantic. And I agree, it is very romantic, but that’s not all. The displayed artwork is rather worldly- many shots are from Rome and Paris, and the walls painted with chalkboard paint are playful yet unique. The displayed wines are absolutely beautiful, they captured my attention the moment I walked in. And even the close vicinity in which you sit to your neighbors works in favor of Bresca. The couple sitting next to us was very kind, and we engaged in conversation about Vin et Grub and the quality of the food we were consuming. There’s something about Bresca that’s just so whimsical, and even after I’ve eaten there, the magic behind the closed door is still a mystery. There wasn’t a single thing about Bresca that could be improved. From the 7 seats to the handwritten dessert menu, Bresca encompasses what I’ve always wanted in a restaurant. Not to mention the staff is entirely female, which makes me love it even more.
It goes without saying that my meal at Bresca was by far the best meal I’ve ever had. It redefined eating and reaffirmed my passion. I’ve always felt that my expectations are a bit lofty, but Bresca met each and everyone of them. The only thing I can think to compare Bresca to is a Chanel Purse. It’s classic and it’s a luxury item. Indulging is well worth the price and the wait, especially because spots fill up two weeks in advance. I certainly recommend taking a trip to Bresca- especially when you feel like spoiling yourself rotten and changing your perspective on the food you eat.