Just south of Brunswick on Maine’s rugged coastline is the glacially-formed archipelago that’s well worth some exploration. Harpswell Island Road traverses the 8 kilometre long Sebascodegan Island, across Orr’s Island and down to Bailey Island. Enviable homes overlook quiet coves and numerous lobster shacks decorated with colourful buoys dot the landscape.
My dream would have been to stay in the area and make my way to every lobster shack to sample their wares, but realistically, only one made the cut. Gurnet Trading Co. is a place that has been wholesaling locally harvested seafood for many years; purchased from local fishermen and sold from the commercial wharf where the boats offload their lobsters and seafood as well as the retail market and takeaway that we visited.
The small market is packed with nautical gifts but the main attraction is all of that fresh seafood. Live lobsters clutch the netting in seawater tanks near a fridge loaded with fresh mussels clams, crabs and fish. The eat-in/take-out menu has a lot on offer; covering stews and chowder, fried or grilled seafood, burgers and sandwiches.
My pick was the good old lobster roll (11.95). Served in a warm and slightly crisp roll, the chunks of lobster were lightly coated in mayonnaise; with meat so fresh and sweet I could still taste the ocean. Without a doubt the best lobster roll I’ve tried.
One well-photographed landmark is the Nubble Bait Shack on Bailey Island. It’s the quintessential image of Maine’s coastline and came as a bit of a challenge to locate, thanks to us not knowing its whereabouts and the fact that it can’t be seen from the road. We had an idea that it was on one of the islands in the area so it was a resort to Google satellite view to find it. And we did. The shack seemed to be on private property so the best I could do was clamber down a rocky and junk-filled embankment to get a better view.
Two days remained on our New England road trip so as we made our way down the coast it was an overnighter in Maine’s largest city, Portland. For us it began in the Arts District, seeing our hotel was in the West End. Museums, theatres and other cultural buildings are centred in an area that’s a hot-spot for students and residents that want to be in the thick of it all. A bunch of cafés and restaurants dot the main and side streets and, first things first, it was lunch for this pair of travellers.
Pai Men Miyake sits on the intersection of busy Congress and State Streets and by the look of things on that particular afternoon, we couldn’t help but consider ourselves fortunate for the small table we acquired. With a name the translates to “one hundred noodles”, we didn’t quite make it to even one strand in a place that has a firm focus on ramen. This was a light lunch that was more about keeping things minimal rather than jumping in and going crazy. And I’m glad we didn’t overdo it.
Pork buns (9) come as a pair and are simply filled with sexily-tender chunks of caramelised swine, green pepper relish and gouchujang mayonnaise. A deliciously brief flavour explosion. The porking didn’t end there. Coming from the restaurants own farm, the guinea hog porchetta (10) was another dish that didn’t disappoint. Combining it with sugar pumpkin, eggplant vinaigrette and crackling made for a tasty plate of goodies.
And then there was the Maine crab roll (15). Five large mouthfuls of local crabmeat, grilled mayo glaze, togarashi, tobiko, black sesame & soy wrap with house-grown micro radish. All very soft-on-soft, but that just means you can get it down faster.
Is that coffee I can smell? Congress Street is a good place to start should the caffeine addiction need maintaining, and the Speckled Ax surely took care of that. The café uses wood fired organic beans supplied by local roaster Matt’s, who so happens to run the café as well. Specialty of the house is pour-over, but syphon and espresso are up for grabs as well. Their macchiato – done noisette-style – packs a mean punch and had us returning a couple of times.
Down in the Old Port is Portland’s historic waterfront, a revitalised warehouse precinct that’s not only a hive of shops, bars, restaurants and apartment, but it’s a working wharf area as well. The Harbor Fish Market has been in operation for over 30 years and is well worth dropping into. A huge variety of seafood is on display and surging saltwater tanks harbour live lobsters for the buying.
Back on Congress Street in the Arts District we dropped into this place; the flagship of several other Coffee By Design branches. The tiny and cluttered space offers several places to sit, coffee paraphernalia, even an extensive range of beans they roast themselves. If I can make comparisons, the macchiato at Speckled Ax was far more superior than the one at this CBD location. Seemed to lack the pow.
In a small city that has a bit of a name with its progressive dining scene – supposedly with more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in America – choosing where to have dinner posed as a bit of a challenge. Our pick was at Hugo’s, a polished and loungy set-up on the edge of the Old Port district. The brightly-lit kitchen sits like a beacon in the centre of the otherwise dimly-lit restaurant. A few booths line the side brick wall with the rest of the seating arcing around a red birch bar, constructed from a 160 year old tree pulled from the bottom of a lake in central Maine.
The menu is designed to keep any locavore happy and is divided into three categories – Foraged & Farmed, From the Sea and Forest & Field. Several tasting menus are also on offer plus a great value $45 “Lighter Meal” option that gives you two courses from any menu. We went with the latter.
First up we have some local guinea hen served two ways with poached breast and roasted leg meat. Farro cooked in rutabaga purée comes with it, plus some caramelised pan-rooasted rutabaga.
Our other starter is steamed Atlantic fluke with compressed melon, black vinegar-braised peanuts, ham chip, radish, mushrooms and leaves.
A complimentary rare beef salad introduces some Thai flavours with a nam prik-style dressing, coriander and shaved spring onions.
Onto the mains, there’s ginger glazed swordfish belly with fermented scallion, matsutake mushrooms braised in dashi and sushi rice laced with mustard powder. The sticky texture of the fish was a delight. From the Japanese-style swordfish it went to contemporary American leg of lamb over squash purée. Some fried delicate squash joined in with Swiss chard and pressure-cooked and steamed sunflower seeds.
A small selection of desserts tempted us and with a price tag of $10, we’d have been silly to not try anything. A bit of palate cleanser came first; a persimmon sorbet with paprika sablé crumbs and basil seeds.
The first dessert was the Vietnamese coffee, but nothing like the real thing. The coffee component came in the form of ice cream, sitting alongside black tapioca pearls, puffed tapioca, coconut foam and locally grown ginger. A cilantro crêpe kept it all together.
My initial choice of the s’mores was quickly changed to the peach & rice pudding when I saw it being constructed in the kitchen. Braised peach, grilled peach sorbet and a rice & coconut pudding with some very interesting savoury notes. A very subtle undertone of fish sauce brought a saltiness to the sweet rice and the addition of tamarind gel added some sourness.
All in all a bit of a fab meal.
Our final overnighter on this New England road trip was at Kennebunkport, the summer home to many-a-privileged as well as the summer home of the 41st President of the USA. Yes, that would be the Bush’s. Our compound for the night was the extravagant Colony Hotel, built in the early 1900’s on a rocky promontory that juts into the Atlantic. Think manicured gardens, white wicker chairs, afternoon tea and lawn games. I was expecting to see Baby and Johnny from one of the scenes of Dirty Dancing busting a move downstairs in the function room.
Gone were the blue skies and sunshine. This part of the Maine coast was putting on its gloomy monotone face and walking about the compact town centre in the rain wasn’t proving to be much fun. The usual offerings of tourist-centric shops keep the vacationers happy at Dock Square. Souvenir mugs, hand-painted plates and nautical gifts don’t really float my boat, but stopping to try what’s meant to be one of the best lobster rolls in Maine was top of my agenda.
The Clam Shack comes with its own accolades and many firmly state that it is here you can sample Maine’s best lobster roll. As its name suggests, it really is nothing more than a shack perched on the Kennebunk Riverbank. There’s plenty of seating next door in the seafood market or outside at the lobster crates, but for a slightly quieter and secluded spot there’s seating on the narrow boardwalk overlooking the river behind the shack.
“The best fried clams in New England” says Barbara Bush. Just some of the praise this little joint receives.
I wasn’t here to try the clams. In fact I wasn’t even hungry, but I made sure I tried the lobster roll (18). Unlike many that I’d previously seen and the several I tried, this particular specimen is served up in a toasted and buttered round bread roll. Not the elongated ones. A few lobster tails take centre stage, delicately dipped in butter and dabbed lightly with mayo. All together the only flavour that came through was the buttery toasted bread, something that drowned out the sweetness of the lobster. There could have been tofu in there and it would have tasted the same.
The incessant drizzle didn’t deter us from getting out in the car and exploring the countryside, and seeing it was nearing lunch time, the neighbouring town of Wells provided us with a venue. And into the Maine Diner we went. Well, not quite straight in as it was already heaving with punters tucking into diner stodge. This being the case, we’re given a menu to peruse as we await our pager to flash and buzz.
Something tells me the interior of the diner hasn’t altered much since its inception. Fluorescent overhead lighting, swivel seating at the counter and loads of tables and chairs scattered throughout the monochromatic rooms. The large menu doubles as your placemat and offers all of the diner staples as well as the expected New England seafood favourites.
Our lunch choices had their own monochromatic golden hue about them. For me it was the clam-o-rama (20.95) – an extravaganza of most things fried. A cup of runny clam chowder, a sweet cornbread muffin with whipped butter and an enormous plate of loaded with clam strips, whole Maine clams, a clam cake, mashed squash and chips. Most things were ok in small doses – with exception of the very pasty more-bread-than-clam cake. Even with my large appetite I struggled. Moreso with the quantity of oil I was consuming, and I’m no health-nut.
The home-made cod cakes & beans (10.95) are done New England-style and served with a cornbread muffin and coleslaw. The salt cod in the cake was playing some serious peek-a-boo in the mainly-mashed potato fried patty. And then there were the beans. Wowsers. We’d tried these sweet beans in other places but the ones at Maine Diner have enough sugar in them to make your teeth tingle. We couldn’t eat them and the waitress even noticed they weren’t being touched. You’ve got to be honest in these situations and all she said was “We like our beans sweet in New England”.
That sure is the case. And it doesn’t only apply to beans.
Dinner-time took on a whole different calibre of food and ambiance at Old Vines Wine & Tapas, back in the lower village of Kennebunk. The renovated barn couldn’t be any more cosy. Great music, candlelight, open fire, friendly service and a nice selection of vino from family-run vineyards. Not to mention the cocktails.
The tapas concept extends as far as the dishes being small enough to nibble on of large enough to grab a few and share with your drinking buddy. The good old roasted beet salad (10) graced our table once again, something we’d been really digging on this trip. A simple arrangement of golden beets, leaves, feta, dried sour cherries and hazelnut vinaigrette. I could feel the oil from lunch flushing out of my system already.
Something that caught us both by surprise was the coffee-braised short ribs (17). Not the prettiest looking lump of meat, but if you can imagine melting slow-cooked meat spiked with a little coffee – plus some luscious caramelised shallot polenta – then you know what I’m talking about.
Buratta (13) is always a winner as far as I’m concerned and it’s creaminess was only enhanced when teamed with roasted red peppers, arugula, toasted hazelnuts, basil oil and a beautiful honey orange balsamic.
Pity we were still a little full from lunch otherwise we’d have tried more from this menu.
With just hours remaining in America’s northeast, we lapped up the last of the New England scenery as we made our return to Boston. Things were about to become hot and steamy for this pair of Aussies in our next home just 3½ hours away.