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.