Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Maine Restaurant Journal: An Introduction to Maine Seafood

Graphic: J. L. Kates

This guide to restaurants is the result of over three decades of visiting Maine, including twenty wonderful years owning a home in Southwest Harbor, which we rented to vacationers as Wesley Avenue Cottage. In 2010 we sold the house and the new owners made numerous improvements such as beautiful hardwood floors, and it is still available for rent, now rechristened Cedar Cottage.

There are many things about Maine that pull me northward whenever I can get away, not the least of which is the food. Some of the best food I've ever been privileged to eat has been in the Pine Tree State. I'm not talking about fancy, gourmet, expensive, or high-end restaurants; they have them in Maine to be sure, but we don't usually eat that way. I'm talking about the everyday restaurants, the lunch counters, the cafes, the drive-ins, the dockside seafood places and so forth. Early on, several guiding principles about Maine food became clear.

Better:  The restaurants in Maine, type for type, are better than the restaurants in your town. No, that's not a tourism slogan, but it could be. I'm no expert on the restaurant industry, but I suspect that Maine's tourism-dependent economy has a lot to do with it. Maine restaurants only have, at the most, six months to earn the majority of their money for the year, and most of that must be earned during July and August. It seems to be a case of natural selection, a restaurant must be significantly better than average in order to thrive. Even the year-round places that serve locals more than tourists compete on the same playing field.

Fresher:  There's an old adage that says, "Don't order seafood unless you can see the water it came from." There's a lot of wisdom in that, especially if you live in Pennsylvania (or any landlocked state). You don't need to take it so literally in Maine. Fresh local seafood is the norm in Maine's coastal areas. In 30+ years I've never run across anything but, but you can always ask.

Sweeter:  Maine seafood - lobsters, clams, mussels, scallops, and shrimp have a slightly sweeter taste than seafood from elsewhere. You can easily taste the difference. Also, the Maine crab is so different from it's Maryland cousins that if you've only ever had Maryland crabs, you are in for a tasty surprise. There's a scientific explanation for the sweet taste; it has to do with the deep and cold water off the Maine coast.

One Rule:  We only have one rule when it comes to picking restaurants: no chains in Maine. This is not snobbery; I enjoy breadsticks and salad at the Olive Garden or an Egg McMuffin occasionally. But with all the great local places in Maine (way more than you could hit in one vacation), it would be a shame to use a meal opportunity on something you could easily get at home.

Maine Seafood Basics

New England Rolls: All Maine seafood rolls (and hot dogs) are made with New England rolls, which are like regular hot dog rolls with the crust sliced off the sides. The sides are grilled to a golden buttery brown.

Ordering: Maine is blessed with many roadside and dockside drive-ins and take-out stands, usually with picnic tables and sometimes offering a dining room. At most such places, especially those serving fried seafood, you will see the following configurations. An order (or side order) is usually a container of the seafood, small, medium, or large. For example, let's say we're ordering fried clams. A clam roll is a New England roll, with fried clams in and piled on top of it. A clam basket is usually fried clams with french fries. A clam lunch is fried clams with french fries and cole slaw. A clam dinner is the same as a clam lunch, only with slightly larger portions.

A hot boiled lobster is the quintessential Maine meal for vacationers. You will see the terms steamed and boiled used interchangeably. Lobster is quite often priced by the pound and prices can vary widely. Lobsters take about twenty minutes to cook so if you are at a lobster pound, you can get clams and/or mussels for an appetizer; they go into the pot at the same time as the lobster, but they will be done in about five minutes. As good as hot boiled lobster is, for me it's only the third best way to eat lobster.

A lobster roll is made by mixing cooked, chilled lobster with mayonnaise and stuffing it into a New England roll. Some places may put an unnecessary piece of lettuce in the roll under the lobster. This can be excused, but if you find any place mixing anything else with the lobster to make lobster salad (heaven forbid), find another place. There are a couple of variable in lobster rolls; one is the amount of lobster, the other is the parts of the lobster used (claw meat and tail meat). A good lobster roll should have both kinds of meat, and the lobster should more than fill the roll.

The combination of ingredients in a lobster roll is so extraordinarily tasty that you will be tempted to get two, but bear in mind that they are more expensive than most sandwiches (and worth every cent). If you are economy minded, you can pair a lobster roll with a less expensive sandwich or soup. Most take-out stands make a delicious grilled cheese and prices under $5.00 are still common. Then again, if cost is not an issue, go ahead and order two.

Photo: Jordan Pond House, Cruise Gourmet

Lobster stew is a deceptively simple combination of lobster, milk, butter, and salt (many restaurants have more complex recipes). What it is, is a hot cup or bowl of lobster surrounded by a thin milky broth. The same variables apply to stew as well as lobster rolls. Stew should have a good amount of lobster, both tail and claw, and it should have a flavorful broth.

A good stew broth tastes so insanely good that you won't want to spill a drop. About that, many years ago, the family was having lobster stew at the Lobster Pound Restaurant in Lincolnville (who made the best lobster stew in Maine, more about that in a future post). The kids were young and I told them (half) jokingly that to spill a drop of stew broth would be like spilling "life's blood". From that point on, we only ever referred to lobster stew as life's blood.

Note: Some restaurants might use the term "lobster bisque" for lobster stew, but they are not really the same. Lobster bisque frequently is thicker, only has small bits of lobster in it, and almost always includes sherry.


Photo: Simple Recipes

Steamed clams or steamers, are soft shell clams, also called littlenecks (because of their size), which are unique to Maine. The sweetness factor described above makes Maine clams likely the tastiest clams you will ever eat, whether you have them steamed, fried, or in chowder. Maine steamers are not pretty and there is a definite procedure to eating them. They nearly fall out of their shells after a cooking (discard any clams that don't open). Maine steamers have a tail that ranges from 1-3" in length. First you pull off the black membrane that covers the tail. Next dunk the clam in the bowl of hot clam broth that they give you to wash off any sand. Now you are ready to dip the clam in melted butter and enjoy.

Fresh fried clams are made using whole Maine clams, and just like the steamers, if you haven't had fried clams in Maine, a major taste treat awaits. If you prefer to not have whole clams, you need to order clam strips, which use the same fresh clams, only with the bellies removed.

Clam chowder in Maine is New England style (white), but there are a few variables that you don't run into elsewhere. Some chowders have a thin milky broth, rather than the thicker soup that's commonly associated with New England chowder. The other variable is that some chowders are made with whole bellied clams, rather than chopped clams which are more common. Thick chowder will always have chopped clams, whereas thin chowder could have either chopped or whole clams. If this makes a difference to you, ask before you order.

Photo courtesy of New England Today

Clam stew has thin milky broth, whole clams, and nothing else.

Mussels: Steamed mussels benefit from that Maine sweetness. They are served hot, with melted butter.

Crab: The taste of Maine crabmeat is so radically different from Maryland crabmeat that the closest comparison would be to the Alaskan king crab, only Maine crabs don't have the long legs and Maine crabmeat is sweeter. You will see crab on restaurant dinner menus, broiled or au gratin, or as part of dishes like pasta or stuffed fish, but crabmeat is like other seafood, in that the less you do to it the better.

A crab roll is just like a lobster roll except it's made with Maine crabmeat instead of lobster, just cooked, chilled crabmeat with mayonnaise on a New England roll. Most places that sell lobster rolls also sell crab rolls, and crab rolls are generally priced $2-$3.00 less than lobster rolls. Some folks prefer crab rolls to lobster rolls, although in my view both are excellent.

Steamed crab claws can be found at many places that cook lobster. They are served hot, with melted butter.

Photo: Bob's Clam Hut,

Shrimp: Maine shrimp are small, about an inch long, so you don't normally see them eaten cold like in shrimp cocktail. They are very tasty, and fried Maine shrimp are a treat. They are also good in seafood chowder or stew, and cooked dishes. Gulf shrimp (2-4" long) are also served in Maine so you may see both on the menu.

Scallops: Sometimes there in nothing better than a piping hot order of fresh Maine fried scallops. Scallops are also good in seafood chowder or stew, and cooked dishes.

Photos are mine except where noted.

Coming soon: Now that we've defined our terms, I will be posting profiles of some favorite Maine restaurants, including passages from the family restaurant journal. Watch this blog.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Wesley Avenue Cottage, A Tale of Destiny: How We Came to Buy Our Maine House

During the first part of my life, I never believed in such things as destiny, for even a second. But, in 1989 I had an experience in which a series of totally unplanned, and unlikely, events conspired to result in a situation where I had to believe that some sort of higher power was at work, trying to tell me something. On that day, we bought our house in Southwest Harbor, ME, which we rented to Acadia National Park visitors for 20 good years. That day turned out to be life-changing, for the better.

We named the house Wesley Avenue Cottage. Our family took numerous family vacations here, having opportunity to visit at all times of the year: fall, winter, and spring, as well as summer. For me, perhaps the best part was coming up twice a year to open the house in the spring, and close the house in the fall. It was a lot of work, but considering the place and our reason for being there all of the work was fun. I always took time to do some hiking in Acadia and to visit the stores and restaurants of Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island. Having cause to be there twice a year (and sometimes more), was one of the great joys of my life. Due to illness we had to sell the house in 2010, but fortunately the new owners still rent to vacationers as Cedar Cottage.

Rewind to October 1989. One day I received a call from the Realtor who had helped us look at properties years before. She called to inform me that a house located directly across Wesley Avenue from the Hutchins' cottages (which we had rented for annually, for the previous ten years) was available for private sale. Maine real estate often changes hands this way, by word of mouth, with no broker listing. The price was under $100,000. Upon hearing this news, I immediately decided two things: first, that something had to be wrong with the place for it to be priced so low, and second that we had to see for ourselves.

This call came on the Friday of Columbus Day weekend. Columbus Day is a major holiday in New England where everything closes to make a long weekend for tourists who come out in droves to see the colored leaves. Saturday morning we hopped in the car and headed north. Along the way, our brakes started to make noise, and by the time we got to Augusta, Maine we had to seek service.

Maine State Capitol Building, Augusta (photo courtesy of State of Maine)

We got laughed out of the first place we stopped; they had no mechanics on Saturday and they were going to be closed on Monday. Then we tried the Sears Automotive Shop. We sat in the waiting room for a short while watching the almost comical ineptitude of the service staff, so we took our keys back and decided to seek service elsewhere. Next, we drove across the street to the Augusta Airport figuring to rent a car, but no, the airport was closed. I did manage to find a phone book in which I discovered that Augusta had a Volvo dealer. We drove there next.

It was about five past five as our car limped into the dealership just in time to see the last guy locking the doors. He turned out to be a great guy, as he took us in and set up service for our car on Monday, this being one of the only businesses in NE working on Columbus Day. Better yet, he gave us a loaner car to use for the weekend so that we could continue our journey. We got back on the road delighted by the turn of events at the Volvo dealer. We didn't realize it at the time, but this was the first of three signs that we received before we even looked at the house, indicating that we were meant to buy the house.

Photo Courtesy of Volvo

As we made our way toward Mount Desert Island, our worst fears about the holiday weekend were realized. There were nothing but "No Vacancy" signs on all of the inns and motels we passed. We arrived in Southwest Harbor and parked in the town lot next to the pay phone facing Main St. (these were the days before cell phones). It only took a few calls to confirm that there were no rooms available anywhere on Mount Desert Island or in any of the nearby towns along the coast going north or south from Ellsworth; everything was booked solid for the weekend. Even people we know in the area didn't offer to put us up.

It was about 10 p.m. and we were out of options. We were down to figuring out the best place to park in order to sleep in the car. As we pondered this question, we could see the Inn at Southwest diagonally across the street. We watched incredulously as a guy came out of the inn and took down the "No Vacancy" sign. We drove across the street and took the room (someone who had a reservation didn't show up). Although we were elated by this stroke of good fortune, it still didn't occur to us that this was sign #2, that the house deal was meant to be.

We had great night's sleep. The next morning I got up and looked out the window and what I saw stopped me cold. The Hutchins' cottages and the house we were there to see are both located in the woods at the top of Wesley Ave., a small residential street that comes down a hill and dead ends at Main Street. What I saw when I looked out of our room's second floor window was a view that looked directly up Wesley Ave. in the direction of our destination. A chill went down my spine as I realized that this was sign #3, that we were meant to buy this house.

Later that morning, we visited the house. It was a simple but attractive three bedroom contemporary home with loft and deck. It had an outbuilding that had a storage room on one side and a former chicken coop on the other that looked perfect for storing firewood. We looked hard but we could not find the flaw, so we decided on the spot to buy it. In reality, we could never afford to buy two houses. All of the consideration of buying Maine real estate was predicated on the premise that we would rent the house to vacationers on a weekly basis using the Hutchins' cottages rental terms as a model.

We spent the rest of this beautiful fall weekend hiking, shopping, and eating. Acadia is so gorgeous in the fall that you can understand the crush of tourists who come out every year at this time. Monday morning we drove back to the Volvo dealer in Augusta.

While we were waiting for our car we struck up a conversation with a school teacher from Central Maine who was also waiting for her car. Since neither car was going to be ready before lunch, and since we still had the loaner car, we invited her to join us for lunch. I looked in the phone book to find a good place. We drove about a mile up the road to a place called The Red Barn. Their specialty is fresh fried seafood. They also make a wicked seafood stew and a good lobster roll. The food here is so good and so incredibly low priced that we've been back many times over the years and have made this a regular stop on our Maine travels.

Photo Courtesy of The Red Barn, Augusta, ME

I returned to the house Memorial Day weekend of 2009 to spend a week jammed packed with cleaning, fixing, and organizing the house, hiking, eating, shopping, and listening to Maine Public Radio. When all was said and done, the house was ready for the 2009 rental season. I did some photography of the house and you can click here for a photo tour of Wesley Avenue Cottage.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Memorial Day Weekend in Acadia

Jordan Pond and the Bubble Mountains.

5/25/08, Updated:  Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends bookend the summer season and many shops, restaurants, and accommodations are opening for the season now. Having arrived in Maine late last night for opening as well, the first order of business this morning was to hike, then hit Jordan's in Bar Harbor for breakfast.

Jordan Stream.

Acadia National Park is always well attended on this holiday weekend, but today's weather (65-70° and gorgeous clear sunshine) really brought out the crowds to Acadia. Parking areas in the park were full and there were so many cars parking on the road shoulder that it looked more like August than May.

We found a spot in the Jordan Pond House overflow lot and had a nice walk by the lake and up the Penobscot Mountain trail. From there it was on to Bar Harbor for breakfast and a walk around town. Here's a tiny sampling of some of the many activities that take place in Acadia and Mt. Desert Island on any typical day. Welcome to the unofficial start of summer, it didn't get here a moment too soon.

Penobscot Mountain Trail.

Hikers stopping for a photo.

South Bubble, Jordan Pond, & Pemetic Mountain.

Blooms on the Jordan Pond shore trail.

Bar Harbor.

Jordan Pond House ice cream in Bar Harbor.

The start of the shore trail.

Bike riders on the boat ramp.

The Maasdam (Holland America Line) docked in Bar Harbor.

Views from the shore trail.

Sea kayaking in Bar Harbor.

Sea kayaks at the ready.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Sebasticook River, Late Afternoon, With Frosting, Near Palmyra (Photoblog)

Sebasticook River: Driving from Bangor to Skowhegan, I jumped off I-95 at Newport and took Route 2. About three miles west of Palmyra, Route 2 crosses the Sebasticook River. It was a clear late November day, and as I crossed the bridge, the sun was low in the sky and the light was too good not to stop for a quick photoshoot. The early snow gave the scene a magical quality. This spot is just east of the intersection of Routes 2 and 152, not far north of Pittsfield. These photos were taken on November 25,2005.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

New Painting by Lucy Packert - Boathouse at Spednic Lake (6/09)

Spednic Lake is one of the Chiputneticook Lakes, a chain of lakes that form the border between Maine and Canada, located roughly halfway between Calais and Houlton. Spednic is one of the largest lakes in Maine with over 100 miles of shoreline that for the most part remains wilderness but for the occasional house or camp; much of the surrounding forests are paper company owned. Spednic feeds the St. Croix River from a dam at Vanceboro, the St. Croix continues the international border until it empties into the Atlantic Ocean south of Calais.