It was a sweltering early August afternoon, and maybe my brain had fried, because I couldn’t settle on a lunch order at Browne Trading Company. After much waffling – I wanted everything on the menu of roughly a dozen items – I narrowed my choices to two: either the Octopus & White Bean Salad ($20) or the Squid & Edamame Parfait ($15).
I asked the bearded guy behind the fish counter for guidance. The octopus, he said with no hesitation. “I love octopus.” And after some banter about how smart they are, how delicious they are, and how guilty we both feel eating them, he held out his arm to show me a large tattoo of the mollusk.
It was excellent advice, and a superlative lunch. But based on how delicious the octopus salad was, I am going to hazard a guess that I would have loved the squid parfait, too. The octopus dish came in a narrow bespoke takeout box, so prettily packaged it looked like a Christmas present. The napkin that came with it was almost plush.
The octopus meat itself had chew, light char and heft. The giant beans the mollusk sat atop were meaty, firm and flavorful. Canned beans and these beans had about as much in common as a backyard above-ground pool has with a cold, clear mountain lake. The pile of beans sat in a deep puddle of mild vinaigrette. Roasted red and green peppers and angled, precisely sliced scallions played vegetal counterpoint.
I ate my lunch at one of the ice cream tables in front of the store, which supplies pristine fish and caviar to big-name chefs around the country and is a newcomer to the lunch trade. You can also get lunch for takeaway. Seated at the umbrellaed table, I felt sophisticated, pampered and very, very well fed. Was I in Portland, I idly wondered, or Barcelona?
Items I did not eat and would return for in a heartbeat: That squid parfait, the smoked salmon BLT ($19), the tuna tartare ($18), the Peeky-toe Mac & Cheese ($23), and any one of the three soups specials that day (small $5, large $9), pretty much everything and anything. Frankly, I am reluctant to tell you about my lunch at Browne Trading Co. because – at least on the afternoon I stopped by – it seemed to be my little secret.
In the hour or so I spent there, hemming and hawing, then feasting, not a single other person came to the store for lunch. Browne Trading Co. started lunch service in June, and it has been hit or miss, my fellow octopus lover/fishmonger said, as not many Portlanders, or tourists, seem to be aware of the option. But given staff shortages, he said, that may be a blessing in disguise. The 15-20 minutes it took for my clearly made-to-order lunch to arrive may be an indication of those.
Have I mentioned the generous portion? I was unable to finish the lobster salad, and I was highly unwilling to leave anything behind. But I had a problem: Fearful of challenging summertime parking in the Old Port, I’d parked my car some distance away. Could I walk my seafood leftovers there safely in the 90-plus degree heat? To complicate matters, the air conditioning in my car is on the fritz.
Ignoring the heat, I speed-walked to my car. I may or may not have run a red light in my hurry to get home and refrigerate my treasured leftovers. The next day, I enjoyed the octopus salad for a second time, transformed and extended with cold rice, string beans, fresh basil and just a suggestion of smoked paprika.
While I’d savored my meal outside the fish market the previous day, an out-of-town couple had peered into the store through the big glass windows out front. They looked confused. “Is this Harbor Fish?” they asked me. Harbor Fish, which is down Commercial Street a stretch from Browne Trading Co., ranks on my personal Greatest Hits list for Portland. Still, I tried to persuade them they needn’t take another step if a splendid seafood lunch was on their agenda.
Bar Guide: Peruse Maine-made items with wine in hand at The Maker’s Galley