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Maine Course

Hugh Stewart Lobsterman Bobby Daggett in Cape Porpoise, near Kennebunkport.

Photo: Hugh Stewart

Smaller than the familiar Jonah crab, peekytoe crab are endemic to Maine and proliferate in the inshore waters around Blue Hill. Until recently, sand crabs were reviled as worthless pests with a penchant for stealing lobster bait; fishermen called them "picked toes" for the shape of the two hind legs, and usually tossed them back. Then, in the early 1980's, Rod Mitchell, founder, along with his wife, Cynde, of Portland's Browne Trading Co., discovered how tasty picked-toe crabmeat could be when cooked and shelled correctly. "Of course, the name wasn't very appealing, so I started selling them as 'peeky-toe,'" he recalls. A quarter-century later, peekytoe has become a prized catch; Mainers will tell you it's even sweeter than lobster. "Wish I'd patented the name," Mitchell says with a laugh.

Around Blue Hill, everyone's got a favorite crab joint—Crosby's in Bucksport or Jordan's over in Ellsworth—but you can find a great peekytoe roll anywhere. Take the Bayview, a screen-doored trailer parked on Route 175 in Penobscot, where owner Larry Reynolds greets you in a Down East drawl so extreme you wonder if he's putting you on.

To mix the perfect martini, Winston Churchill would reputedly glance across the room at a bottle of vermouth and then pour the gin. The same idea holds for a crab roll. Unadorned peekytoe meat is sweet and creamy enough; any mayo should remain sealed in the jar. Reynolds will add Miracle Whip, but tell him there's no need. Mixed only with a little pepper, served on a toasted hot-dog bun, his crab roll is outstanding—and a bargain at just $7. "Plus the gov'nuh's shayuh," Reynolds says, adding 49 cents tax. "Heck, he's making a bettah mah-gin than we ah!"

THE FARMERS AND THEIR DAUGHTERS

The harbor town of Belfast is one of Maine's overlooked showpieces. Its sloping main street is lined with neo-Gothic and Neoclassical architecture; candy-cane barber poles and soda fountains still occupy the ornate storefronts. But don't take its primness as mere tourist fodder: Belfast is a vital working town, and Chase's Daily is its buzzing hub.

The Chase family—father Addison, mother Penny, and daughters Meg and Phoebe—owns a 500-acre farm in nearby Freedom. That's right, Freedom. Six years ago they took over Belfast's 1888 Odd Fellows Hall, whose ground level is a plank-floored, tin-ceilinged warehouse space. It now resembles a SoHo gallery; funky artwork hangs on the brick walls. A 49-seat restaurant occupies the front half. Out back is a retail market selling produce from the Chases' farm. Shafts of sunlight stream through the tall windows, illuminating bins of vegetables like some ray-of-God tableau: scarlet and fuchsia turnip greens, yellow and purple baby carrots. I challenge you to locate a more tantalizing assortment of produce, outside of a Dutch still life. (This was where we found the aforementioned killer tomatoes.)

The all-day restaurant and bakery fills up with an eclectic crowd: farmers, Feldenkrais practitioners, meter maids on coffee breaks. Three of the waitresses when we visited were ruddy-cheeked farm girls; the other had a Bettie Page tattoo. We came for breakfast (omelettes with roasted sweet onions, sautéed Swiss chard, and fontina) and, not believing our luck, returned two hours later for lunch (a frothy, chilled soup of potato, leek, and fennel, sprinkled with zesty chives—all of it from the Chases' farm). Only after we left did we realize that everything on the menu was vegetarian.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Maine is blessed with a thousand knockout restaurant locations but never enough restaurateurs to properly exploit them. The exception: MC Perkins Cove in the tidy resort of Ogunquit, site of Maine's finest sand beach. Perkins Cove itself is an uncannily pretty harbor, with a whitewashed wooden drawbridge that's cranked up by hand when a tall mast glides in.

For years, the best spot in the Cove was occupied by the late and not-at-all-lamented Hurricanes, which stood on a rocky promontory with views across tidal pools to the roiling ocean beyond. Last summer the site was taken over by chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier (hence the initials in the restaurant's new name), who earned national renown at Arrows, also in Ogunquit. Over the course of two decades I've had great meals at Arrows, but on a recent visit I found the food overthought, overpriced, and underwhelming. MC Perkins Cove goes for the more casual vibe of a seafood shack and succeeds admirably.

The two-story space is nearly all windows, with minimal decoration (that view is drama enough). Service is assured and unforced. And the kitchen works magic with coastal classics: luscious crab cakes, steamed mussels, plank-roasted cod. Gaier and Frasier have a knack for sourcing superb ingredients (the double-tiered shellfish tower is remarkably fresh), while most of the produce comes from the vast garden at Arrows. The chefs inject just enough creativity to keep things interesting. Take the deconstructed clam chowder: a timbale of succulent clams and herbed potatoes forms an island in the buttery milk broth, which is topped with a swirl of paprika oil and a sprig of fragrant thyme. I grew up on the chowder served at Barnacle Billy's down the street—but MC's reinvention made me consider switching sides.

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