If Portland’s economy is still depressed by the Great Recession, you couldn’t tell by its restaurant scene. Local food sites like Portland Food Map report new places opening seemingly every week. With nearly every available commercial space suitable for restaurant use filled, gastro-entrepreneurs have gone mobile, trolling in their food trucks for vacant lots and parking spots, or expanding into the suburbs (e.g., Otto, the Portland-born pizzeria now nearing completion of its second South Portland location).
This week I was invited to the “soft opening” of Timber, a steakhouse on a block of Exchange Street that’s almost entirely composed of restaurants. The proprietors are brothers Dan and Noah Talmatch. Noah ran numerous restaurants in New York City before he moved Portland in late 2012. Dan, who had spent the past couple decades working in finance in Scandinavia, joined his brother and the pair converted a small Old Port space on Silver Street, formerly occupied by a hair salon, into The North Point, a cocktail bar and bistro that has done quite well in its first year.
Timber, which opens for dinners on May 29, is the Talmatch brothers’ second Portland restaurant in as many years, and may or may not be their last. The space it occupies, at 106 Exchange St., was home to The Oriental Table from 1995 until spring of last year, when owner Yan Lam reportedly closed the eatery because of disagreements with the landlord, Joe Palacci (who told the Press Herald he disagreed with the restaurateur’s contention that there had been disagreements).
Timber sits between two of the four restaurants in Chef Harding Lee Smith’s mini-culinary-empire: It’s next door to The Corner Room, and just a few doors down from Smith’s “urban steakhouse,” The Grill Room. Timber stands a good chance of giving Smith a run for his money. Unlike the tiny North Point, Timber has plenty of seating and plans to add patio space out back within the next month. The Talmatchs scored star mixologist Henry Jost from the recently closed El Rayo Cantina, and the food, though not cheap, is pretty darn delicious. The brothers boast of being the only steakhouse in Maine exclusively serving certified Angus beef, and a rotisserie fills the room with the aroma of roasted chicken.
I sat down with Dan Talmatch after dinner and asked him if he and his brother were at all intimidated to start another restaurant in a town already filthy with ’em.
“Not really, because we saw that there was a need for a good steakhouse,” he said. “There is no true, traditional steakhouse in Portland, so we knew if we stuck to the niche, we’d be OK.”
Errr … what about The Grill Room?
“Well, we talked to a lot of people who don’t quite see that as a steakhouse,” he replied. “It’s certainly a good restaurant; certainly a lot of people love it. But we thought we could specialize in steaks and do that extremely well.”
(Chef Smith, if you’re reading this, please take a deep breath and put down any sharp objects you may be holding.)
It took the Talmatchs about three months to build The North Point, doing most of the work themselves “with no professional training whatsoever — a couple of bumbling idiots,” Dan Talmatch said. The build-out of Timber took twice as long, despite the fact the brothers hired contractors this time, in part because of “the permit process, doing and redoing certain things because the city didn’t like the way they were done,” Dan Talmatch said. “That all took a lot of time.”
Working with City Hall “is extremely difficult,” he continued. “The city is very whimsical in their decision-making process. Depending on who you meet, they may tell you you need to do a particular thing before you get a permit or before you can open, then you’ll meet another person at the end of the process who’s wondering, ‘Why did you do that? You didn’t need to do that’ — not realizing the first person told us we had to do it.”
That said, Portland is still a much easier place to be in the restaurant biz than the Big Apple, where “you actually have to climb over dead bodies to get to the top … or even just to make it,” Dan Talmatch told me. “You don’t have to do that here. There’s not that elbowing for the top dog [spot] …. Everybody can enjoy life — ‘life as it should be,’ I believe is the expression they use here, and it is.”