We'd bought 14 of the heirlooms, with thoughts of a seaside picnic. We meant to stop at eight—two each—but couldn't help ourselves. They were the most glorious tomatoes, showing every hue from bottle-green to burgundy, and heavy with juice, like water balloons on the verge of bursting. The idea was to save them till Kennebunkport, three hours away.
That notion lasted 20 minutes. We had no plates, but we had a plastic knife. In the backseat, Laura sliced the tomatoes in half and handed them out for us to tip back, squeeze, and drink, as you would a grapefruit, then devour whole. The tomatoes were from Chase's Daily, a farmstand-slash-restaurant-slash-revelation in Belfast, Maine. I would call them the best midday snack of our trip—but then, we'd said the same about yesterday's crab roll, and the previous day's Camembert, and the previous afternoon's oysters.
Last summer I combed the Maine coast on a two-week culinary tour. As fortification I brought along my wife, Nilou, and two food-obsessed friends. Mark is from New England, but Laura, a California native, had never been north of Boston. Our goal was to convert her to the cult of Maine. Me, I grew up 20 minutes from the beaches of York and Ogunquit. What taco stands were to Laura's youth, lobster pounds were to mine.
Lobster is still the go-to order here, but there's so much more to Maine's pantry: artisanal breads and farmstead cheeses, zesty herbs and buttery greens, gold-glowing squash blossoms and sweet corn, wild mushrooms and blueberries. Even the humblest kitchens have access to luscious peekytoe crab, plump mussels, and absurdly fresh fish.
What Maine also has, more than ever before, is a roster of talented chefs who are redefining local cooking. Sure, plenty of restaurants still dish out retro Yankee resort food (maple-glazed salmon, potato-crusted lamb) for people like, say, the senior Bushes, whose portraits hang by the door. Now, however, you can find a bold and inventive contemporary cuisine that never places novelty before flavor, gimmickry over essence.
But hold up. First I have to tell you about the oysters.
DROWNING, WITH SHALLOTS
The Damariscotta River is a tidal estuary that juts into Maine's central coast. Two thousand years ago, oysters thrived here; along the banks remain vast shell middens left by Native American tribes. By the 1970's the oysters were long gone. Yet to a handful of aqua-farmers, the Damariscotta seemed an ideal spot for cultivation: today the river yields 23 million oysters each year.
One of those pioneers was Dick Clime, who founded Dodge Cove Marine Farm in 1977. To my mind, Clime's oysters are the finest in New England. Strong and hardy, the bivalves also retain their water (or "liquor") exceptionally well. Clime's harvest finds its way to oyster bars across the nation, but I've never had fresher ones than at Scales, a winning little raw bar in Portland. (It has closed temporarily but will soon reopen in a new location on the waterfront.) Knocking back a Dodge Cove was like diving headfirst into the ocean and being walloped by a wave—a bracing, briny shot of the chilly Atlantic, backed by a captivating sweetness and the tingle of the house mignonette. "It's like drowning, with shallots," was Mark's euphoric description. After two we were practically afloat; after three we considered donning snorkels.
Portland claims to have as many restaurants per capita as San Francisco, which may or may not be true. For a city of only 64,000, it certainly has more than its share of great ones. Ever since the eighties, when quirky bistros like Café Always and Alberta's were raising the bar on New England cooking, Portland has been a magnet for aspiring chefs. What's not to love, after all?With its mix of stately roseate façades and dingy sailors' haunts, its brine-reeking wharves and its I. M. Pei & Partnersdesigned art museum, Portland nicely straddles the line between highbrow and hardscrabble.
The city's most inspired cooking can be found at Hugo's, where chef Rob Evans's technique owes much to the bold inventions of Thomas Keller. (Evans worked at Keller's French Laundry in Napa before moving to Portland and taking over Hugo's in 2000.) Forgive the eighties-kitsch interior and focus your attention on the food, which is arty, strange, and utterly luxurious. First up for us: an espresso cup rimmed with popcorn dust (!), containing a shot of lobster-and-corn bisque laced with chorizo oil. Next came Evans's masterstroke: an heirloom-tomato plate, in theory, except the tomatoes were delicately peeled, accompanied by a quivering, silken panna cotta of lemon olive oil and tomato water, then dressed with white anchovies and a Thai basilinfused vinaigrette.