I feel as though I’ve already dined at 555, though I have yet to make an official reservation.
The moment I step into the space on Congress Street to meet with executive chef Steve Corry, I’m overcome by a sensory overload. And this is before the topic of food is even put on the table.
The restaurant’s interior is a configuration of brick and wide windows divided by sleek black panels. It is at once open and intimate, sophisticated but practical. It subtly gestures to both the cosmopolitan and the rustic, reconciling the dual personality of Portland itself.
“I want to create a period of time in the day where the customer is content,” said Corry. “I want to them to have a complete experience. It’s quite a responsibility.”
Part of Corry’s duty as executive chef lies in accommodating a complex clientele.
“Maine is intimidated by the white tablecloth,” he said. “A lot of our clients aren’t convinced that they should try something new, so we try to cater to the customer’s sense of comfort. But we do so in a whimsical way.”
Many dishes on the 555’s menu echo this theme of the familiar adventure.
“One of our most popular is the ‘lobster mac and cheese’,” Corry said. “It sets the customer at ease.”
Maybe the familiar “mac and cheese” tag does offset the elegance of the subtext: shucked Maine lobster, artisanal cheese blend, torchio pasta, white truffle oil, and shaved black truffle. Under the guise of comfort food, these thoughtful accents remind you that this is a chef who knows what he’s doing.
Corry has been working to create and execute such artful creations for 555 since he founded the restaurant in 2003. But his first taste of the culinary world was a sip rather than a bite.
After earning a biology degree from the University of Massachusetts, he moved westward to California where he enrolled in a six month intensive at the American Brewer’s Guild.
“I was intrigued by the business,” he explained. “It seemed wild and raw and fun.”
But after completing the programs and working as the head brewer at the Mammoth Lakes Brewing Company, Corry found himself inspired by the artistic vibrancy and community element of food preparation.
“I felt myself drawn towards the kitchen as a creative space,” he said. “With brews you’re confined to variables. It’s a lonely job. I felt that cooking offered a more social end.”
Corry attended the New England Culinary Institute in Burlington, Vt., “and from there, I was totally hooked on food,” he said.
He traded coasts once again to try his hand at fine dining. He worked under Chef Robert Curry at the renowned restaurant and winery Domaine Chandon in Napa Valley. Despite his success, Corry still wasn’t quite satisfied.
“[My wife and I] had a desire to run our own establishment,” he explained. “We wanted to work towards something being ours.”
Corry’s final shift back to the east coast and the establishment of 555 brought with it the artistic challenge of catering to Maine’s specific sense of place.
“We realized that it is a seasonal town, and to sustain the long winter we had to build a restaurant for the people,” he said. “So we listened to feedback from customers. Our first menu was really straightforward. We didn’t push boundaries; we just did simple, fresh food. From there we expanded our repertoire to more exotic ingredients.”
The menu at 555 is constantly in flux. The restaurant offers two tasting menus with set prices for special occasions, and the main menu is always changing based on seasonality and new ideas.
“It’s really at the whim of the kitchen,” he said.
Like any artist, Corry’s creative process is driven by both individual instinct and a collaborative effort.
“It’s not brain surgery; you can’t overthink it. There are certain [ingredients] that classically go well together, so you just experiment with them,” he said. “But the best dishes that come out of the kitchen are ones that are born from a conversation while we’re cooking. We all build it together. We get writer’s block like anyone, but it’s important to stay inspired and have confidence to try it.”
But while Corry is inspired by his team, he has also developed an individual methodology in his approach to creating a dish.
“First, it has to taste good,” he told me. “Then you have start thinking about balance, which of course plays into tasting good. You also have to consider seasoning. There needs to be acid and fat. There should be a liveliness. Appearance is also important. Visually, the components need to work in harmony. There should be some definition to the dish. There should be a hot and cold component to the plate.”
This artistic doctrine keeps Corry accountable for the caliber of his cuisine. “It’s easy to fall into that trap of just adding more butter. But sometimes you need to look for more creative alternatives.”
Take, for example, one of Corry’s most classic and well-received creations: the pepper-crusted New England scallops with a carrot emulsion.
“Here we’re playing with things that are sweet: scallops, carrots, vanilla—even the fennel has a sweet quality to it,” said Corry. “Then there’s the spiciness of the peppercorns that you can’t hide from. There’s a richness because eighty percent of the sauce is butter. The potatoes have a rich, creamy quality as well.”
“I think people are intrigued by the dish because they don’t think it could work,” he suggested with a shrug.
But of course, it does.