Beyond the lobster roll, there's great eating in Maine.
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.
Evans riffs on familiar combinations—say, lamb in mint sauce, with carrots and squash—only in novel forms. In this case, the lamb saddle came with a luscious carrot mousse and a spearmint-zucchini "cake." Both side dishes were like understudies outshining the original cast. Therein lies Evans's talent: his creations seem hypercerebral on paper (it took our waitress 37 seconds to "explain" the duck) but are ultimately about pure flavor. Meanwhile, ingredients that sound extraneous are revealed as essential. Take that duck, for instance—the breast cooked sous-vide, the leg slow-roasted, both tender and moist—paired with golden beets and spiced plums. The fundamentals were excellent. Add the surprising crunch of diced water chestnuts and the complementary bitterness of kola-nut froth, and the dish was transcendent.
I visit Portland several times a year and go to Fore Street whenever I'm in town—not to trace the culinary vanguard but to be sated with honest, earthbound cooking. Over a 10-year run, Fore Street has become Maine's answer to Chez Panisse, with chef Sam Hayward as Alice Waters—champion of local producers, proponent of sustainable fishing and farming, sultan of the greenmarket. For Maine farmers, a namecheck on Fore Street's menu is equivalent to a spot in an Oscar-party gift bag.
Even on weeknights, you might wait an hour for one of Fore Street's copper-topped tables. Faded brick walls, burlap sacks, and unfinished beams set the tone in the dining room, a former garage for oil tankers. The male clientele is clad in regulation New England guy-wear—Top-Siders, Red Sox caps, khaki shorts with belts. (Ahh, my people!) In the open kitchen a dozen cooks, also wearing Sox caps, tend to flame-licked turnspits and stoke a roaring brick oven.
Out of that 900-degree oven come Fore Street's famous roasted mussels, shrouded in steam: juicy, raft-cultured gems from nearby Bangs Island. "We're so spoiled by Maine mussels that we never use anyone else's," Hayward says. "If they're not available, we just take mussels off the menu." Splashed with vermouth and cooked with garlic-and-lemon butter, parsley, and toasted almonds, they're the platonic ideal of shellfish.
Despite Fore Street's proximity to the sea—the misty wharves are visible through the windows—Hayward's menu focuses on meat and fowl. We were wowed by spatchcocked, wood-grilled harlequin quail. Spatchcocked means the bird is butterflied to allow for faster cooking time and moister meat. Dryness was a nonissue, however, since the quail had also been basted in a stock of shiitakes, veal, and duck fat, then finished with I don't want to know how much butter. Bring Lipitor; the result is fabulous and worth the risk.
In Portland's highly democratic dining scene, Erik Desjarlais's cooking can be described as defiantly uncasual. Desjarlais opened Bandol in 2003, when he was just 26. Despite rave reviews, his often brilliant $69 tasting menus—with their predilection for offal—never found a wide audience in Portland. Nor did the hushed, Vivaldian tone of the dining room. Desjarlais abandoned the original space last fall, and at press time planned to reopen at a new location this fall.
At the original Bandol we were knocked out by three—count 'em, three—amuses, including a sublime fried oyster in a cucumber consommé. The pan-roasted sweetbreads were remarkably light; the succulent leg of lamb was matched with a delightful cassoulet of leeks and cranberry beans. But the highlight was Desjarlais's way with the cheese course. Translucent plum slices, like shards of stained glass, complemented a wedge of creamy, mushroomy Constant Bliss from Vermont. A sharp Neal's Yard Cheshire came drizzled with wildflower honey and scattered with diced pear. Even the fig tart was topped with a dollop of chalky-yet-sweet chèvre ice cream.
While seeking a new address for Bandol, Desjarlais opened an informal soup joint called Ladle, confirming a new trend in Portland: name chefs starting casual lunch spots. Sam Hayward gets his ya-ya's out at Scales. And Rob Evans of Hugo's finds his outlet at Duckfat, an all-day eatery that's as homey as Hugo's is refined: bar stools, rose stems in Coke bottles, and a communal Magnetic Poetry board (today's entry: I AM NOT YOUR TROUSERS). The kitchen is staffed by friendly dudes in cargo shorts who crank My Morning Jacket while assembling the city's best sandwiches, including a fall-apart duck-confit panino with black-currant chutney. There are also fries, twice cooked in duck fat and seasoned with a powder of dried capers, onions, parsley, and garlic—umami heaven in a paper cone. And for dessert, a root-beer float made with Duckfat's fizzy concoction of Italian soda water and sassafras. Add two scoops of fragrant vanilla ice cream from Smiling Hill Farm, and presto—a tumblerful of childhood.
Smiling Hill Farm, it turned out, was just a 10-minute drive from downtown Portland. It's been owned by the Knight family since the 1700's, but only recently has its dairy been gaining broader renown. Besides that fantastic ice cream, Danny Meyer now sources Smiling Hill's butter for his restaurant, The Modern, in New York. The farm is also home to one of Maine's top cheese makers, Silvery Moon Creamery.
A HEAD OF CABBAGE
Farther up the coast, Maine's shoreline becomes craggier and the Atlantic breezes more insistent, and one's thoughts inevitably turn to sauerkraut. Generations have made the pilgrimage to Morse's, a little red farmhouse in North Waldoboro.
This area was settled by German immigrants adept at farming and fermenting cabbage. Continuing in this tradition was Virgil Morse, who began selling his sauerkraut commercially in 1918; his family kept up the business for decades until David Swetnam and Jacquelyn Sawyer took over in 2000. Not much has changed.
The best sauerkraut is made from sweet, ivory-hued "winter" cabbage, which holds its flavor better than its more attractive, green-tinged cousin. Here it's fermented in plastic drums in a frigid storage room, slowing down the process—"the longer it takes to make, the better the kraut," says Swetnam—then transferred to wooden barrels. The genial staff will scoop out pints into flimsy plastic tubs that inevitably leak when you carry them on to, say, an airplane. (Trust me on this.) No matter: the result is tangy and assertive, clean and still crunchy. This is raw, unpasteurized, "live" kraut, almost too good to use as a mere garnish.
BACK TO THE GARDEN
A salad is a salad, you say. But not in Maine, not in late summer. The $7 salad we had at Primo was, by any measure, above and beyond. On the surface it was an unassuming tangle of summer lettuces, subtly dressed with a red-wine vinaigrette. But tucked within were powerful herbs from Primo's own garden—verbena, basil, mint, fennel, cinnamon basil—so that each forkful was like slamming hits of herbal extract. Mark sat dumbfounded for minutes, ruminating over a shiso leaf.
If chef and co-owner Melissa Kelly weren't a star in her own right, her garden could carry the day. I've followed Kelly since she was at the great Old Chatham Sheepherding Inn near the Berkshires. After leaving in 1999, she and her pastry-chef fiancé, Price Kushner, ended up in Rockland, Maine, where they bought and renovated a gingerbread Victorian, carving out several homey dining rooms across two floors. Primo (named for Kelly's grandfather from Bologna) is nominally an Italian restaurant, though not so you'd recognize it. Consider Kelly's take on, er, spaghetti and meatballs: bright-green arugula linguine cooked al dente and an ethereal tomato-veal-and-pork ragù topped with feathery wisps of fennel. Every dish manages to seem light and delicate while carrying the most robust and assertive flavors—none more so than what comes from that magnificent garden.
Kelly gets the bulk of attention from out-of-staters, but another young chef has been causing a stir in nearby Camden. One of the nation's most photogenic seaside resorts, Camden remains a favored retreat for the Rockefellers and their ilk. Most chefs up here remain stuck in Ye Olde New England mode—but not Brian Hill of Francine Bistro. Hill got his start in Boston, working under Todd English at Olives when it was still good; after stints in L.A., Hawaii, and New York, he washed up in Camden in 2002 and took a job at Francine. Back then it was just a modest 25-seat café with a single hot plate for a stove. This didn't stop Hill from dazzling local foodies with improbable hot-plate feasts. Hill eventually bought the place, installed a proper kitchen, and drew a devoted following. The night we stopped in, there was an hour wait for a table; James Rockefeller Jr. was ahead of us in line. But Francine is hardly posh. The wooden tables were bare except for tiny planters of chive blossoms.
Hill sources most of his ingredients at the Camden farmers' market: broiler chickens from Mainely Poultry in Warren; organic beef from Caldwell Farms in Turner ("the finest I've tasted, anywhere," Hill raves); and wild-foraged chanterelles from the Oyster Creek Mushroom Co. in Damariscotta. Like me, Hill is obsessed with fungi. "Maine's chanterelles are actually better than the European variety—they give off this intense apricot-jam aroma the second they hit the pan," he says. "Black trumpets, too. I've never found anything as satisfying as truffles, but these come closest to that big, animal flavor." That evening the black trumpets found their way into a marvelously savory spinach soup. A cluster of oyster mushrooms lent a peppery bite to the sautéed calamari. Hill's cooking is rooted less in the sea than in the funky flavors of the earth; for instance, the powerful tastes of rosemary and braised bacon that accompanied the seared scallops.
Odd coincidence: before he donned his chef's whites, Hill was the guitarist for Heretix, one of Boston's great unsung bands and a favorite of mine and Mark's back in college. We both recognized him as soon as he stepped out of the kitchen: "Wait, weren't you ?" Hill was a talented guitarist, but he's even better behind the stoves—alt-rock's loss, gastronomy's gain.
THE OTHER HARD SHELL
The cove-studded, wildflower-laced Blue Hill Peninsula is famous as the home turf of E. B. White, Helen and Scott Nearing, and Robert McCloskey, who together go a long way in describing the region's bucolic appeal as well as its demographic. Pottery studios, antiques emporiums, glassblowers' studios, yarn boutiques: Blue Hill is heaven for some, twee for others, and absolute hell for anyone between the ages of 6 and 22. I was a sixth-grader when my parents first dragged me here on vacation, and besides the cool sailboats, the only thing that kept me from bolting was the crab rolls.
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.
Look, I love lobster as much as—no, way more than the next guy. I come from a line of New Englanders who eat the slimy green tomalley and knock back "claw shots" to savor the remaining juice. But I'll admit that lobster doesn't dress up well. Maine menus are rife with whimsical takes—lobster spring rolls, lobster @#$%ing nachos—but do any chefs improve on the classic, saltwater-steamed preparation?Hardly ever.
Jonathan Cartwright does. The chef at Kennebunk's White Barn Inn has developed a repertoire of inventive lobster riffs that are clever but never cloying. Funny, too, because WBI is a resolutely old-school place, with linen-topped tables and a tuxedoed pianist. The menu spells out the prices ("eighty-nine dollars" for a four-course prix fixe). Jackets are required; if you forget yours they'll issue you a spare—invariably navy with brass buttons. And service is impeccably formal: our waiter said things like, "I'll give you a moment to explore the menu," then returned to ask, "Are you tempted to enjoy anything you see?" It's a throwback in every way, except for Cartwright's cooking.
You can order lobster for every course and never tire of the flavor. Our meal began with a sensational amuse: a coddled egg served in the shell with poached lobster medallions and a subtle, not-too-sweet maple compote. Next came a zesty lobster gazpacho, sharpened with roasted pine nuts and accompanied by a miniature lobster roll on warm brioche. A powerful grapefruit sorbet served as a palate cleanser (another retro touch). Then came Cartwright's signature dish: a 1 3/4-pound lobster removed from its shell and steamed in a reduction of Cognac, cream, butter, and coral (lobster roe), then served atop a nest of white fettuccine with snow peas, carrots, and ginger. The dish is richer than the couple at the next table and ridiculously good.
But let's face it: coddled eggs and Cognac are kind of cheating, no?Sometimes you simply need a great lobster roll. For that, you head a quarter-mile down the road and queue up at the Clam Shack, next to the Kennebunkport Bridge. It's been said by every food writer who ever passed through here, but the Clam Shack's lobster roll really is the best in Maine. Actually, it's tied for first with the one from Red's Eats, another roadside stand up the coast in Wiscasset. Both are generously filled (Red's claims to use an entire one-pound lobster per sandwich). And each comes with your choice of mayo or drawn butter—or, if you're insane, both. Both make a point of shredding the meat by hand instead of by knife, to avoid the taint of oxidation; the resultant morsels are pleasingly intact and clean-tasting.
The benches outside were occupied, so we ate the rolls while leaning against the railing of the bridge, watching the yachts and sailboats bob gently in the Kennebunkport Marina, alternating hits of salty air with tangy, sweet bites of lobster. In the end, it was the Clam Shack lobster roll that proved the tipping point in our Maine-indoctrination experiment: Laura was thoroughly converted. We're all going back for another go-round next month. See you at Chase's—and, for God's sake, save us some tomatoes.
Peter Jon Lindberg is a T+L editor-at-large.
19 Essential Maine Tastes
1 Crab roll from Bayview Market & Takeout (Penobscot)
2 Heirloom tomato salad from Chase's Daily (Belfast)
3 Pick-your-own blueberries from Sewall's Orchards (Lincolnville)
4 Any dish with foraged mushrooms at Francine Bistro (Camden)
5 House-grown greens and herbs at Primo (Rockland)
6 Sauerkraut at Morse's (North Waldoboro)
7 The lobster roll at Red's Eats (Wiscasset)
8 Silvery Moon Camembert (Westbrook)
9 Gingerbread from Standard Baking Co. (Portland)
10 Lamb-and-feta flatbread at 555 (Portland)
11 Olive-oil panna cotta at Hugo's (Portland)
12 Belgian frites and a root-beer float at Duckfat (Portland)
13 Roasted mussels at Fore Street (Portland)
14 Smoked salmon from Browne Trading Co. (Portland)
15 Lobster with Cognac and coral butter sauce at White Barn Inn (Kennebunk)
16 Fried clams and a lobster roll at the Clam Shack (Kennebunkport)
17 Soup at Joshua's(Wells)
18 Classic clam chowder at Barnacle Billy's (Ogunquit)
19 Deconstructed clam chowder at MC Perkins Cove (Ogunquit)
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
All of the places mentioned in this story are within a three-hour drive north or south of Portland, Maine's largest city. Portland International Jetport is served by USAirways, Continental, Northwest, Delta Connection, United Express, and, as of this spring, JetBlue. There's also a decent airport in Bangor that's more convenient to Camden, Rockport, and Blue Hill.
WHERE TO EAT
50 & 70 Perkins Cove Rd., Ogunquit; 207/646-5575; www.barnbilly.com; lobster rolls and clam chowder for two $40.
Bayview Market & Takeout
Bayview Rd. (Rte. 175), Penobscot; 207/326-4882; crab rolls for two $14.
Browne Trading Co.
New England's finest seafood market sells incredible smoked salmon, Iranian caviar, and a dizzying range of delicacies for picnics. 260 Commercial St., Portland; 207/775-7560; www.browne-trading.com.
96 Main St., Belfast; 207/338-0555; lunch for two $35.
2 Western Ave. (Rte. 9), Kennebunkport; 207/967-2560; lobster rolls for two $27.
43 Middle St., Portland; 207/774-8080; www.duckfat.com; lunch for two $26.
Open just three years, 555 has quietly become one of Portland's most assured restaurants, hewing to the greenmarket school of fresh, clear-flavored food, such as a mint- and lemon-tinged pea soup laced with baby fiddleheads. 555 Congress St., Portland; 207/761-0555; www.fivefifty-five.com; dinner for two $75.
Five Islands Farm
Fantastic selection of Maine farmstead cheeses. 1375 Five Islands Rd., Georgetown; 207/371-9383; www.fiveislandsfarm.com.
288 Fore St., Portland; 207/775-2717; www.forestreet.biz; dinner for two $72.
55 Chestnut St., Camden; 207/230-0083; dinner for two $80.
88 Middle St., Portland; 207/774-8538; www.hugos.net; dinner for two $120.
This south-coast newcomer occupies a beautifully restored 1774 clapboard house on Route 1. Chef Joshua Mather grew up on his family's farm up the road; mom Barbara is the hostess, and father Mort harvests most of the produce—and what produce it is. The kitchen showed great promise last summer, especially in a well-balanced potage of leek and potato spiked with Parma ham and drizzled with neon-green chive oil. Keep an eye on this guy. 1637 Post Rd., Wells; 207/646-3355; www.joshuas.biz; dinner for two $40.
K. Horton Specialty Foods
Portland's top cheesemonger returns to a new address this fall. 28 Monument Sq., Portland; www.khortonfoods.com.
MC Perkins Cove
111 Perkins Cove Rd., Ogunquit; 207/646-6263; www.mcperkinscove.com; dinner for two $85.
3856 Washington Rd. (Rte. 220), N. Waldoboro; 866/832-5569 or 207/832-5569; www.morsessauerkraut.com.
2 S. Main St. (Rte. 73), Rockland; 207/596-0770; www.primorestaurant.com; dinner for two $100.
41 Main St. (Rte. 1), Wiscasset; 207/882-6128; lobster rolls for two $28.
Pick your own wild blueberries from mid- to late summer. Masalin Rd., Lincolnville; 207/763-3956; www.sewallsorchard.com.
Silvery Moon Creamery & Smiling Hill Farm
781 County Rd. (Rte. 22), Westbrook; 207/775-4818; www.smilinghill.com.
Standard Baking Co.
Maine's best bakery is housed in an atmospheric old brick warehouse, where there's always a queue for baguettes, sourdough boules, and plush brioche. Secret weapon: the heavenly gingerbread. 75 Commercial St., Portland; 207/773-2112.
White Barn Inn
37 Beach Ave., Kennebunk; 207/967-2321; www.whitebarninn.com; dinner for two $178.
WHERE TO STAY
Inn at Sunrise Point
The most stylish and best-situated of the Camden area's inns—a porch-rimmed 1920's manse overlooking a broad sloping lawn and glittering Penobscot Bay. The best rooms are in the four outlying cottages, each with a fireplace and spacious deck (the Winslow Homer suite was our favorite). 55 Sunrise Point Rd. (Rte. 1), Lincolnville; 207/236-7716; www.sunrisepoint.com; doubles from $305.
Portland Harbor Hotel
In a town with surprisingly few worthy hotels, this 2003 arrival is the top choice for both location (right in the Old Port) and comfort (spacious rooms are done up in butter yellow with dark-wood furnishings; granite bathrooms have outsize soaking tubs). 468 Fore St., Portland; 888/795-9090; www.portlandharborhotel.com; doubles from $289.
Yachtsman Lodge & Marina
Our favorite of the three delightful properties run by the owners of the White Barn Inn (a roster that also includes the oceanfront Beach House). The Yachtsman, on the banks of the Kennebunk River, is the most informal of the lot: a chic, converted motel whose 30 airy rooms have cathedral ceilings, bead-board paneling, and French doors opening to semiprivate patios. 57 Ocean Ave., Kennebunkport; 207/967-2511; www.yachtsmanlodge.com; doubles from $319.
Owned by native chef Joshua Mathers, his namesake eatery serves organic American cuisine in a Colonial house dating back to 1774. The interior blends period detail, such as original fireplaces and pine floors, with contemporary elements like 21st-century bamboo shades and colorful local artwork. Incorporating ingredients from his father Mort's nearby farm, chef Mathers creates a seasonal menu of updated New England classics. Longtime favorites include the crab cakes with lemon-dill aioli, and the Atlantic haddock with caramelized onion crust, chive oil, and wild mushroom risotto. Everything from the bread to the maple ice cream is made from scratch daily.
Yachtsman Lodge & Marina
This single-level, yellow and green inn operates from May through the first week of December on the eastern shore of the scenic Kennebunk River, a half-mile from the Atlantic Ocean in southeast Maine. Guests have the option to drive to the Yachtsman, or arrive in true "maritime style" by boat and dock in the lodge’s marina. Each room is designed to resemble the well-appointed quarters on a yacht, and nearly every window offers views of the busy Kennebunk. There aren’t many amenities on site, but the Yachtsman is just a few minutes' walk from the restaurant and retail scene in Kennebunkport.
Portland Harbor Hotel
Set on the edge of the cobbled Old Port neighborhood, this opened-in-2003 hotel offers upscale (if somewhat corporate) accommodations just steps from some of the city’s best bars, restaurants, and shopping. Grand details like cornices, oversize flower arrangements, and hefty carved-wood antique reproductions adorn the lobby and dining room, while the 101 ample guest rooms and suites—with cheery yellow walls, toile fabrics, his-and-hers armoires, and mega-TVs with 70 channels—are more focused on comfort. Deluxe rooms and suites have positively palatial baths with Jacuzzi tubs. (Ask for the lavender bath “turndown.”) Eve’s, the hotel’s restaurant, serves surprisingly good state-inspired dishes, like beef Oscar served with béarnaise sauce and local Peekytoe crab. And the adjacent cocktail lounge is a favorite local hangout—and a more civilized alternative to raucous brewpubs down the street; its garden terrace is a welcome oasis of calm in warm weather.
Inn at Sunrise Point
This seasonal property on Maine’s central coast is open from April through October and resides on a grassy knoll along Penobscot Bay’s rocky shore. The compound features white chairs (rocking and stationary) both on the grass and along a patio, a main house, and several cottages named for local legends like writer Richard Russo and painter Winslow Homer. Sunrise Point features a three-course breakfast each morning in the conservatory, with options like a smoked salmon and goat cheese omelet or whole wheat pancakes with wild Maine blueberries. The library has wood walls, a fireplace, and a full bar that yields wine and cocktails.
Standard Baking Co.
Opposite Portland’s ferry terminal in a historic brick warehouse, Alison Pray and Matt James make the best baked goods around, and there’s almost always a line for their famous breads—country boules, focaccias, anadama, cinnamon raisin, pain de mie, baguettes. There’s also a wonderful selection of smaller items that overflow from patisserie-style baskets and fill tiers of heavy porcelain plates. Choose from spicy gingerbread by the slice, sticky buns, oatmeal-cranberry cookies, cheddar cream biscuits, and chewy sesame fougasse—all ideal for nibbling during a stroll around the cobbled streets of the Old Port. The rich, aromatic coffee is excellent, too.
Bob Sewall and Mia Mantello's organic apple orchard was planted in 1980, and is open to the public from late September through mid-November. During that small window, they open their farm to visitors interested in seeing their cider press; buying the naturally sweet, unpasteurized product; and picking apples. Sewall’s grows four varieties: Prima, Priscilla, Golden Delicious, and Jonagold. They also harvest blueberries and bottle apple-cider vinegar. In summer, hike through trees lined with apple blossoms, and in winter, bring snowshoes or skis for cross-country sports.
MC Perkins Cove
Chefs/partners Mark (“M”) Gaier and Clark (“C”) Frasier of the esteemed Ogunquit restaurant Arrows opened this seaside bistro in quaint Perkins Cove in 2006—welcome news for locals and out-of-staters who want to sample their cuisine (and produce from the duo’s renowned garden) but not spend a fortune. And their more casual dining option is proving to be a big hit, surely due in part to MC’s prime setting on a rocky jut of land surrounded by ocean. With wraparound picture windows in the two main dining rooms, there’s not a bad view in the house. The diverse menu features classic coastal dishes like “milk and haddock” chowder alongside more far-flung options—deep-fried sesame-coated mussels, Balinese ground chicken satays, and mezze platters. Even the bar snacks—garlic and exotic spice-dusted peanuts—hint that Mark and Clark bring a little something different to Maine’s often staid dining scene.
K. Horton Specialty Foods
Kris Horton is one of the anchor tenants in Portland’s Public Market House, a cooperative in Old Port’s Monument Square that opened back in 1988 and showcases Maine-made products. Her gourmet grocery and deli features countertops overflowing with 150 varieties of cheese, condiments, crackers, and the handmade wicker baskets that hold them. Since 1998, Horton has expanded her offerings beyond Maine to Europe and has added a number of prepared options. Smoked whitefish salad comes with or without mayo (go for "with"). K. Horton also serves Asian ginger vegetable salads, Greek pasta salads, pre-made wraps, and fresh bagels.
Coastal Maine-influenced cuisine is the inspiration at this bistro in Camden, Maine. Francine is the brainchild of chef-owner Brian Hill, who cut his teeth beside Todd English at the original Olives restaurant before working as chef at notable restaurants in London, Los Angeles, Hawaii, and New Orleans. Specializing in local, organic meats and seafoods, the restaurant's seasonal menu includes four appetizers, a salad, and four entrees, all of which rotate daily. Expect to find items like pemaquid oysters and rope-grown mussels with herbs, lime, and black butter. Unlike many businesses in the area, Francine is open year-round.
Five Islands Farm
Near Bath, this Mid-Coast Maine farm stand and gourmet market specializes in artisanal cheese and seasonal local produce. Five Islands is a member of the Maine Cheese Guild, so most of what's in stock is sourced from nearby farms, including cow, sheep, and goat varieties, as well as a small selection of imported cheeses. Baskets and wooden shelves are piled high with specialty foods: jams and chutneys, imported olives and oils, maple syrup, and cured meats. The store also sells wine and beer, plus gardening tools and plants.
The Clam Shack
The Clam Shack has been a summertime tradition since 1968. That’s when Richard Jacques debuted his seafood hut above the Kennebunk River. In 2000, Jacques sold the shack and adjacent Clam Shack Seafoods to local Steve Kingston. The Clam Shack sells clams, haddock, scallops, and shrimp by the half-pint, pint, and quart. All of those fried items can also appear on toasted rolls, as does the hand picked meat of a one-pound lobster. Clam chowder is another popular option. The market sells uncooked seafood to go, along with local food products and Clam Shack merchandise.
Part farmstand and part restaurant, Chase’s Daily is owned and operated by Penny Chase and her family. The restaurant, housed inside a refurbished 1888 building, has polished wood floors, a handful of tables, and a counter with red leather stools. The menu incorporates produce from the Chase family farm, and the bounty can also be found for sale in small tin wash tubs. Offerings encompass a variety of cuisines and may include everything from pizzas to Thai-inspired fried rice and Latin-infused black beans and rice.
Browne Trading Co.
Rod Browne Mitchell’s seafood store and smokehouse has occupied a brick building in downtown since 1991. His company specializes in luxury items like caviar, fresh fish and shellfish, and smoked seafood. In two decades, Browne has forged bonds with local fishermen and high-profile chefs, allowing for products like Daniel Boulud smoked salmon, which they developed using the Manhattan-based chef’s recipe and smoke in-house. Depending on the season, the shop might have East Coast oysters like Winter Points, Pemaquids, and Wellfleets. Browne also sells mussels, clams, and tins of caviar, including roe from farm-raised California white sturgeon and freshwater Mississippi paddlefish.
Bayview Market & Takeout
This roadside spot on Highway 175 isn’t far from Northern Bay on Maine’s central coast, and it's open only in the summer. Owners Larry and Freda Reynolds prepare warm food to go using primarily local ingredients, including fresh-caught lobster and fish. Crab rolls are the signature dish, and Bayview's fresh peekytoe is best enjoyed with a touch of pepper on toasted bun. The Reynolds don’t provide any seats in-house, but down by the bay, patrons often utilize a small grouping of picnic tables.
In 1961, longtime fisherman and lobsterman Billy Tower started scouring nearby waters for seafood to serve at his casual, Perkins Cove restaurant, which operates from April through late October. Billy’s seasoned kitchen team serves up “lobstah” several ways: in the shell with butter on the side, as the key ingredient in Billy’s special stew, or stuffed into a grilled, butter-lathered bun. Crab rolls and clam chowder are also popular choices, and landlubbers can opt for plates of barbecued chicken or even a grilled hotdog. On nice days, people fill multiple patios to sip Billy’s signature rum punch and watch as the fishing boats pass through Perkins Cove, bound for the open waters of the Atlantic.
Co-owner and James Beard Award–winning chef Melissa Kelly drew on two influences when she opened her Italian restaurant in this renovated 1880s Victorian in 2000. First, as a onetime apprentice of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, Kelly maintained a focus on the freshest possible meat and produce, using seasonal ingredients from her four-acre garden: roasted cardoons, sweet, grilled peaches, caramelized purple cauliflower, jade-hued linguine made with sorrel. (Even her simple salad of summer lettuces and fresh-picked herbs is in a league of its own.) Kelly also takes cues, however, from her Italian ancestry, adapting classic Italian recipes like saltimbocca—a lusty mélange of spinach, mashed potatoes, house-made prosciutto, pork cutlets in mushroom Madeira sauce—from her grandfather, a butcher from Bologna. Since opening the restaurant, Kelly and co-owner/pastry chef Price Kushner have also opened Primo Tucson and Primo Orlando, but nothing compares to the garden-to-table ethic and homey patina of the original location.
This central Maine institution has been located along the Wiscasset waterfront since 1954, and before that, in nearby Boothby, beginning in 1938. The shack with the red and white awning rests next to Route 1 and specializes in lobster rolls. Orders are placed at a window from a series wall mounted menus. The restaurant has dishes like steak sandwiches and chicken nuggets, but most people order unadorned lobster rolls, which arrive overflowing in toasted, split-top buns, served with drizzle-ready drawn butter or mayo. Since there’s no indoor seating, Red’s shuts down during colder months, and remains open daily, April through September.
Owner-chef (and James Beard Award–winner) Rob Evans may have trained himself to cook—but it’s not as if he just woke up one day and whipped up a batch of ocean-perfumed shrimp chips or salt-cured foie gras parfait. Rather, Evans worked his way from cruise-ship kitchens to Napa Valley’s French Laundry before taking over this longtime spot (keeping the original name, Hugo’s) in the center of Portland’s restaurant row. Now Evans’s wife, Nancy Pugh, expertly manages the comfy, if somewhat dated, black-and-maroon dining room, with a new bar menu and flat-screen TVs that telecast the ongoing action in the kitchen. But the real drama is on the plate. Evans is a master of creative cookery, blending seemingly unrelated flavors to tongue-tingling surprise, and seafood is his forte. Even a simple glass of rich, briny bouillon hides layer upon layer of flavor. And when Evans takes you down the gourmet rabbit hole with dishes like “ice wine vinegar snow cones” and “smoked milk chocolate mousse,” it’s best to go along for the ride. Any questions, just ask the ultrafriendly waitstaff, each of whom is fluent in Evans’s one-of-a-kind culinary language.
White Barn Inn Restaurant
The centerpiece of Maine’s top-rated inn—its famed white barn with wide-plank floors and soaring exposed beams—is where Brit expat executive chef Jonathan Cartwright weaves a culinary tapestry of Maine-inspired American and European dishes. His seasonal prix fixe–only menu reads like sensorial poetry: asparagus crème, smoked potato foam, steamed lobster with Cognac coral butter sauce. The rustic, romance-inducing dining room, dressed in fine white linen and silver, glows after dark in candlelight (the staff has witnessed countless marriage proposals), and thanks to Cartwright’s exquisite creations, the restaurant has given new definition to destination dining.
Note: Jackets (but not ties) are required for men in the evening.
Silvery Moon Creamery
Located on the 500-acre Smiling Hill Farm, this award-winning creamery produces more than a dozen varieties of handmade cheese. The creamery is housed in the farm’s original red barn, surrounded by rolling green hills and 50 Holstein cows. The company’s specialties include crème fraiche, Tuscan herbed curd (flavored with parsley, red pepper, and garlic), and Rosemary’s Waltz, a tart cheese coated with fresh rosemary and juniper berries. During the colder months, the creamery also produces applewood-smoked mozzarella. In addition to cheese, the farm sells homemade ice cream and fresh milk stored in glass bottles.
There’s comfort food, and then there’s Duckfat. When owner-chef Rob Evans opened this friendly all-day café just down the street from his more sophisticated restaurant, Hugo’s, in 2006, locals could not believe their taste buds—nor Evans’s near-obscene use of its namesake ingredient. He twice-cooks his star menu item—Belgian fries—in duck fat and serves them up, in paper cones, with dipping sauces like truffled ketchup or Thai chile mayo. One of its signature dishes, poutine, is a sinful soupy take on the traditional Quebecois dish, layering fries, duck fat gravy, and Maine cheese curds. There’s a good selection of from-scratch soups, salads, and hot pressed panini too. But not all the treats are savory; chocolate-dipped beignets, orange-scented churros, and real malted milkshakes made with local Smiling Hills Farm ice cream are all sugary, swoon-worthy punctuations to a rich and memorable meal.
Run by the husband-and-wife duo of Steve and Michelle Corry, this farm-to-table restaurant serves up contemporary American dishes with an emphasis on fresh seafood. The open kitchen is nestled in the center of the dining room, which is outfitted with stained hardwood floors, large picture windows, pendant light fixtures, and simple wooden tables. Comfort food dishes like truffled lobster mac and cheese are joined by a number of cleverly-named small plates, including Beets Me, a beet and goat cheese salad, and Snails in a Pail, escargot glazed with chorizo butter and served on a nest of crisp potatoes.