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What’s up? There’s plenty to do that’s new in Portland

By Necee Regis
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2011

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PORTLAND, Maine — One recent chilly weekend, with flurries whirling in a dull gray sky and cabin-fever knocking at the door, a friend and I climbed in the car, turned the seat heaters on high, and set the GPS for Portland. Our goal, aside from escaping winter’s gloom, was to discover what new places had opened since a visit last year.

First stop: Vervacious, a “voyage-inspired’’ food shop along the waterfront on Commercial Street. As we entered, the owner, Heidi Stanvick, cheerfully greeted us and told the story behind the shop and its unusual name.

In 2003, Stanvick and her husband, Mark, ditched their corporate jobs in the Boston area, sold their home, and sailed around the world on a 43-foot ketch they dubbed Verve.

“You know it’s going to change you but you don’t know how,’’ said Stanvick.

Eventually they returned, and channeled their passions into handmade specialty foods inspired by flavor combinations they discovered while traveling in Southeast Asia, the Caribbean, North Africa, and the Mediterranean.

Last July, they opened this store to showcase their creations. Over 60 products are stacked along the walls and on tables, in cluding rubs for grilling and roasting, mustards, cocoas, finishing salts, pepper blends, tea and infusions, truffles, table sauces, and balsamic vinegars infused with chocolate, curry, and espresso. Cheese platter complements include coffee apple butter, peppered pear, and Azorean piri-piri pepper.

The foods’ stylish glass containers, manufactured in Italy, won the company a Gold trophy in design and packaging at the Fancy Food Show in New York.

“It’s kind of like the Oscars for the food world,’’ said Stanvick, who added they also won a silver trophy for “outstanding product line.’’

After sampling some tangy balsamic vinegars, we headed diagonally across the street to check out Nine Stones, a spa recommended by a friend as having “the best hot stone massage in Portland.’’

The spa is not new, but last summer it expanded to include new pampering services and products. The mani-pedi salon, featuring cozy seats with fabrics by local designer Angela Adams, offers an option — for an additional fee — of a hot stone foot massage.

“Two couples rooms are now available,’’ said owner Pam Macomber, who is a licensed massage therapist. “Each room has its own double steam shower.’’

We liked that, as well as the spiffy lounge with fireplace and couches. Updated services include oxygenating facials, lavender rub and exfoliation, and aromatherapy.

For lunch, we meandered to Nosh Kitchen Bar, an upscale sandwich shop by day and a small plates and burger restaurant by night. Taking a seat at the polished cement bar running the length of the long, narrow space, we met owner and general manager Matt Moran, who opened the place with two partners last winter.

Located on a bustling section of Congress Street, in a building that housed the first movie theater in the city, Nosh was busy on a weekend afternoon. Patrons of all ages sat at tables beneath the original decorative plaster ceiling, seeming to enjoy the sunlight streaming through enormous windows.

“This end of town has been revitalized in the past five years,’’ said Moran. “People come to hear music, and see art and theater.’’

The Nosh sandwich board (“Wrap free since 2010’’) includes such tempting items as a Vietnamese-inspired bahn-mi with porchetta ham and pate, a Bolognese hoagie with slow braised pork and fontina cheese, and something they call Pig Belly Apple Pie, a cheddar cheese, pork belly, and spiced apple compote on a pressed hoagie roll.

French fries, made on the premises with potatoes from a local farmer, can be ordered with salt and pepper, salt and vinegar, or bacon-dusted, and accompanied by one of eight dipping sauces. After 4 p.m., the small plate menu offerings range from mortadella corn dogs to beef tartare to tempura bacon. Locally brewed beers are on tap.

“We want to change the menu every three or four months,’’ said Moran.

He directed us down the street to the State Theater, an Art Deco-era gem that reopened in the fall after a four-year hiatus and $1.5 million in renovations. The 82-year-old venue has been spruced up with state-of-the-art sound systems, updated lighting, new carpeting, textured plaster walls, padded red theater seats, and mahogany bar.

In addition, the interior architectural flourishes have been cleaned and repainted, including four faux balconies and columns that frame the stage. With seating for over 1,400, the venue is designed to attract big music acts to town. The theater also offers an occasional classic movie in conjunction with live music, as on a recent “1940s Night’’ when “Casablanca’’ was screened with the Portland Jazz Orchestra.

The theater is an all-ages venue, meaning you can bring children to all concerts and events. (If you want to partake of the full bar you need a government-issued I.D. to prove you are over 21.) Hot dogs, pretzel bites with dipping sauce, and French bread pizzas will stave off hunger pangs, though you might want to save your appetite for one of the new eating spots in town.

Figa is a terrific addition to the dining scene. Located in a former hair salon, Figa joins the string of mom-and-pop shops along a residential section of Congress Street. Get there early to snag one of the 10 tables or a seat at the small bar. (At 5:45 there was a line.)

Chef and owner Lee Farrington trained at the French Culinary Institute in New York, and got hands-on experience in restaurants in Manhattan and Maine before opening in late October. The food leans toward global-fusion, embracing big flavors: truffle oil, coconut milk, Indonesian spices, Black Mission figs, horseradish, tamarind, and locally sourced products.

“The place is built on tastes,’’ said bartender Bob Murphy.

Everything is made in house from scratch, including the jicama-apple slaw, vinaigrettes, chutneys, soups, ice cream, Brazilian truffles, and the swoon-inducing bread served with honey butter.

The menu is divided by portion sizes: Spoons (small tastes, like tapas), Forks (half portions, a more substantial appetizer), and Knives (entrees) with choices for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Some dishes can be ordered as a taste or an entree, such as wild boar Rendang, Figa’s melt-in-your-mouth signature dish, and the salmon tandoori. The brick walls, low lighting, and open kitchen — where you can watch Farrington and sous chef Justin Edgerton at work — create an intimate and casual ambience.

At each spot along our route we collected more recommendations for new arrivals. We ran out of time, and were too stuffed to eat more, but our next trip will include visits to District, an upscale American restaurant and bar with charcuterie and raw bar; Boda, specializing in tapas-style and street vendor-inspired Thai food; the East Ender, serving snacks, sandwiches, and entrees featuring local products; Havana South, the larger, more ambitious cousin to the original Latin-inspired menu of Havana in Bar Harbor; and Pai Men Miyake, a sushi and noodle bar.

We can’t wait.

Necee Regis can be contacted at neceeregis@gmail.com.

If You Go

State Theater
609 Congress St.
207-956-6000
www.statetheatreportland.com
Ticket prices vary.
Vervacious
227 Commercial St.
207-221-3590
www.vervacious.com
Specialty gourmet products $6.50-$12.
Figa
249 Congress St.
207-518-9400
www.figarestaurant.com
Dinner only. Entrees $16-$20.
Nosh Kitchen Bar
551 Congress St
207-553-2227
www.noshkitchenbar.com
Small plates and sandwiches $6-$14.
Nine Stones
250 Commercial St
207-772-8480
www.ninestonesspa.com
Spa treatments $25-$165.