I have a rule at restaurants: I do not order the grilled cheese.
I’m not trying to brag here, but the reason for this rule is that I make absolutely amazing grilled cheese sandwiches on my own. I vary the construction – adding spinach when I am pretending to be healthy or olives when I’m feeling salty, changing up the cheese formula, going sweet with jam or savory with pesto – and I’ve had a lot of practice. So I usually prefer not to pay for one that is, frankly, not as good as mine.
But I made an exception to my rule at Smalls on Brackett Street in Portland. Their version included French onion jam, taleggio cheese and Dijon mustard. I think it was the onion jam that got me. And I had no regrets when I took my first gooey bite during a recent lunch date.
Smalls is new to the West End neighborhood, with a café and a market in the back. My husband and I stopped in for our first visit around noon on a Friday and found the place nearly full. The inside is trendy and Instagram-ready, accented with colorful wares and green plants. It felt bright and sunny on a blue-sky day, and I imagine the cheerful interior would be a pick-me-up on a gloomy one. The seating is mostly barstools, with a table in one front window and a bench seat in the other, so it might not be the right place to bring a big group that wants to sit together. But it seemed just right for having intimate conversations or reading a book at the bar. We saw a couple people working on their laptops while eating their lunches.
We ordered at the counter, and our order was delivered to us at the little table by the window. The menu focuses on light fare, mostly sandwiches and small plates, such as marinated olives and chicken liver pâté. It also includes a couple salad options, plus croissants and baguettes. My grilled cheese cost $9, and my husband added bacon to his breakfast sandwich to bring the price to $10. The other sandwich options were more expensive, but no single menu item exceeds $14. My sandwich came with pickles, but otherwise, our plates did not have any sides. The prices seemed comparable to other spots in Portland, and the onion jam was worth every penny.
We also got warm drinks, espresso ($3) for him and a chai latte ($5) for me. Our drinks came out within five minutes, our food within 10. We didn’t explore the cocktail menu in detail, but we both thought it would be nice to come back for oysters and a drink. Smalls is open every day – 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on weekdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.
I explored the market during the short wait for our food. One section is dedicated to wellness products, such as soaps, herbal drops and incense. A selection of greeting cards were on one wall. I eyed pottery, candles, dish towels, cups and other housewares. The market also includes pantry items, such as spices, chocolate and crackers. A refrigerated case held drinks, alcoholic and not, plus olives, cheese and other perishables. You could easily assemble a picnic of fancy snacks to eat at the nearby Harbor View Park with a view of the bridge and the water.
I hope the market selection will expand to include more local vendors, but I did find Maine products, like pints of Parlor Ice Cream Co. from Biddeford and sauerkraut from Thirty Acre Farm in Bremen. I treated myself to a bottle from Oyster River Wine Growers out of Warren ($28), plus a jar of hot sauce ($10) and a bag of frozen beef-and-broccoli jiaozi ($20) from Little Brother Chinese Food in Portland. I hadn’t heard of Little Brother, so Smalls gave me both a new local business to try and the supplies for special Valentine’s Day dumplings at home.
I could definitely see Smalls becoming both a funky spot to bring a visiting friend and a sweet place to enjoy happy hour with my husband. I would even order the grilled cheese again.