MAINE: ON THE LOBSTER TRAIL
On the lobster trail in New England
I wake up hungry. Fortunately, I am in a town that is able to satiate a big appetite. My husband Paul and I have flown to Portland, Maine, from New York late the previous night for a five-day road trip up the coast. We want to savour the state’s spring beauty, hike some seaside trails, dip our toes in the still-icy Atlantic. But mostly we plan to eat.
I have lobster rolls — that quintessential summer food — on the brain and after a long, tediously frigid winter, I am only too ready to usher in the season. But the rolls will have to wait. That first morning we take a walk around downtown Portland and stumble on to the Holy Donut.
A small shop in the salt-sprayed Old Port area, the Holy Donut displays a giant blackboard proclaiming that all the establishment’s doughnuts are made with mashed Maine potatoes; as it turns out, this results in a moister texture than flour alone. Calorie counters might baulk, but not us. We gaze lovingly at the display case loaded with colourful specimens, slathered with strawberry or pomegranate or blueberry icing. The maple variety comes sprinkled with bacon. We choose a single darkchocolate, sea-salt doughnut each and, congratulating ourselves on rare self-restraint, move on.
Just a few blocks away, husband and wife Steve and Johanna Corman run Vena’s Fizz House, a combination mixology-equipment store and bar that serves cocktails and mocktails featuring bitters, tonics, spirits, syrups and “shrubs”. As we settle in, Steve eagerly tells us how shrubs (drinking vinegars that date back to colonial times) and bitters enhance beverages much the way spices can elevate food. It is too early for the hard stuff, so we ask him to whip us up a blackberry coconut fruit fizz, a mix of blackberry puree, coconut cream and honey vanilla syrup. It tastes like a summer pool party, sunny and refreshing.
While our itinerary allows room for such serendipitous discoveries, I have armed myself with a list of places to eat from Erin French, chef at the Lost Kitchen, a restaurant in her hometown of Freedom, Maine (population 719). Located in an 1834 gristmill, it exudes rustic charm, with an open kitchen and wooden tables, ceilings and walls. French is a culinary ambassador for her state. She describes her cooking as “modern farmhouse” and uses local ingredients such as asparagus, peas and rhubarb in the spring, and heirloom tomatoes and fresh berries in the summer. “One of my favourite ingredients to cook with are spring dug parsnips,” she says. “They are sweet and creamy after staying in the ground through the winter and letting their sugars concentrate.”
At the top of French’s list of must-visit restaurants is Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland. We grab two seats at one end of the concrete bar; an imposing block of granite loaded with oysters on ice occupies the other. The lobster roll, served on steamed bun, diverts us deliciously, but the real stars are oysters served on the half shell, accompanied by kimchi, horseradish and Tabasco ices. We try a half dozen, including the Basket Island and Glidden Point varieties and could happily while away the afternoon at that sunny counter, sipping white wine and slurping up more oysters, but Bar Harbor awaits.
A couple of hours into the four-hour journey, I already have dinner on my mind. “Dock-and-dine shore dinners will never go out of style,” French has said in an email in reference to Young’s Lobster Pound in Belfast, about halfway to Bar Harbor. Delightfully old school, it has picnic tables outside overlooking an estuary on Penobscot Bay. We order two lobsters, coleslaw and potato salad, and cheerfully make a mess out of prying every morsel out of the shells.
We drive on to Bar Harbor and over the next couple of days burn off a few of the lobster calories by hiking in Acadia National Park. On an overcast day, we walk the popular Ocean Path, enjoying expansive views of the rugged coast, the spruce forests and waves breaking against the rocks. We pass Thunder Hole, a narrow cave where you can hear the ocean roar, and drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain for panoramic views of Frenchman Bay and the Porcupine Islands.
At Beal’s Lobster Pier in Southwest Harbor we order two large lobsters for lunch one day—they weigh almost 2.25kg together. We sit down at a picnic table and take in the views. Our lunch comes on a blue plastic tray loaded with the two crustaceans, two ears of corn, two containers of coleslaw, butter and biscuits on paper plates. This monumental meal can only be followed by a nap. We are so full we skip dinner, if you don’t count a large portion of ice cream we share from CJ’s Big Dipper in Bar Harbor.
Next morning, appetite fully regained, we zip over to Jordan Pond House, a high-ceilinged teahouse located inside the park, for popovers. Our rolls — little clouds of joy —arrive steaming hot; we load them with strawberry jam and butter and discuss our lunch plans.
A couple of days later we make our way south to coastal Camden, where we hike to the top of Mount Battie for a view of the hundreds of islands in Penobscot Bay, a vista that inspired Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem, Renascence. Nearly as inspirational is lunch at Long Grain in Camden, which French says serves the “best Thai street food under the sun”. This small restaurant, with its handful of tables, makes its own noodles and uses seasonal, local ingredients. A standout is the pad see ew, a dish of stir-fried broad noodles, kale, fried egg and tofu.
After a sunset sail in Penobscot Bay aboard Schooner Surprise, a 1918 yacht, we head to Suzuki’s Sushi Bar in Rockland. The nigiri and maki are notably simple, with nothing to undermine the freshness of the fish. Chef Keiko Suzuki Steinberger, who moved to the US from Japan, tells us she buys seafood from Jesse’s Market in Rockland and from individual fishermen. She’s especially pleased with the local tuna, particularly its belly, known as toro. “That is a super delicacy in Japan.”
On our last afternoon in Maine, we have one more lobster roll at the Lobster Shack at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth. We sit outside at a red picnic table and gaze at Maine’s rocky coast, and realise that if we leave right away, we still have time to hit Mount Desert Island Ice Cream in Portland before our flight.
Bar Harbor, Maine; shopping strip in Portland, below; famed lobster roll, bottom