Showing posts with label Maine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Maine. Show all posts

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Solo Bistro - Bath, Maine

The Squire Tarbox Farm's produce is perhaps put to even better use at Solo Bistro, in the town of Bath about fifteen minutes away. Bath is one of these pristine, postcard-perfect old towns that seems to have not changed at all in about 150 years, but Solo Bistro is a surprisingly contemporary-looking place. It looks like it was furnished straight out of a Design Within Reach catalog, with molded-plastic chairs in several hues, bare blond wood tables, Le Klint lights hanging from the ceiling, and exposed brick walls (the huge gray stones in a more lounge-y downstairs area are even more dramatic). The food is perhaps not quite as contemporary as the decor, but is equally well-constructed and precise.

It's a short menu with maybe a half dozen choices each for starters and mains. We began with a smoked tomato tart which I suspect was indeed using some of those same tomatoes we'd had at the Inn (the Squire Tarbox Farm was included among about a half dozen local suppliers listed on the menu, and the restaurant had been recommended to us at the Inn). Their sweet and tangy flavor was given another layer of complexity from light smoking, as well as a touch of richness from some melty local Hahn's End cheese and a short crust. A lentil and bacon soup was richly flavored without being plodding or heavy.

Lobster risotto was creamy and suffused with crustacean goodness, generously studded throughout with the picked meat of a whole lobster which happily was tender and not overcooked. A sprinkle of truffle salt was perhaps unnecessary, but also much more subtle than the typically overhwelming artificial notes of most truffle oils. Possibly even better was a vegetable risotto, flavored primarily with carrots (why are the Maine carrots so crazy good?) and tomatoes, giving the rice a ruddy orange hue. The "Bistro Burger" made with house-ground beef was juicy to the point of sloppiness, a good thing in a burger, topped with some nice cheddar and a brioche bun and served with some good herb-flecked fries. Only the flatbread, topped with grilled mushrooms and creamy mascarpone, failed to make much of an impression.

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Squire Tarbox Inn - Westport Island, Maine

After a couple days in Portland, we worked our way up Maine's coast to less populated territory: Westport Island, where we stayed at the Squire Tarbox Inn. The town of Westport was formed in 1828 on a petition started by one Samuel Tarbox and signed by all 73 of the residents. In nearly two centuries, that's grown to a positively bustling 745 residents, and it remains primarily a fishing and farming town.

History runs deep in Maine: Samuel Tarbox (the "Squire") was the great-great-grandson of one John Tarbox, who came to Massachusetts from England in 1639. The Inn is comprised of what was originally the Tarbox house, built in 1763, as well as the "newer addition" which was built in 1820. More recently, the original house, along with the "newer addition" and a carriage barn, have been converted to an eleven-room B&B.

We had first stayed here nearly fifteen years ago, at which time the property was also home to a dozen or so nubian goats (in a farmhouse, not in the rooms, fortunately). The inn had a restaurant that made its own cheese and used other dairy products from the goats throughout its menu. Since that time, the property has changed hands, but the new owners have in their own way carried on the agrarian traditions. The owners' son has turned several acres behind the property into an organic farm, which supplies vegetables to not only the inn's small restaurant but several other local restaurants as well.

Though the herd of nubian goats are gone, the Inn's owners did adopt a foursome of new goats (who unfortunately were being neglected by a prior owner; unlike the nubian dairy goats, these serve no purpose other than to entertain our kids), and the farm also hosts a flock of chickens and a small crew of piglets so unremittingly adorable that they could make you briefly - briefly, I say - consider giving up bacon.

Breakfasts at the Inn were simple and hearty, the highlights, unsurprisingly, being those things that came from the Inn's farm: fresh eggs with beautiful sunrise-orange yolks, home-made zucchini bread, stewed peaches plucked a couple days earlier from the tree a few yards from our room.

The same was true of dinner at the Inn. The owners are Swiss, and let's face it, the Swiss are not exactly known as culinary trailblazers.[*] The menu is mostly basic "continental" fare, and the closer we stayed to the farm, the better things tasted. A simple salad featured several greens from the garden, as well as a nice celeriac salad and a classic vinaigrette, perked up a bit with some dried cranberries and pine nuts. Even better was a tomato and mozzarella salad, with gorgeous, perfectly ripe red and yellow tomatoes straight out of the greenhouse directly behind the dining room.

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Monday, August 30, 2010

Duck Fat - Portland, Maine

We had a couple nice dinners in Portland at Fore Street and Street and Company, but there are of course more meals in the day. When not scarfing down lobster rolls, we had one particularly notable lunch at Duck Fat. Duck Fat is a spin-off from Hugo's, whose chef Rob Evans was the 2009 winner of the James Beard Best Chef Northeast award. While Hugo's appears to play with many contemporary motifs (the menu intrigued but its schedule did not coincide with ours), Duck Fat has a much narrower focus: Belgian style fries, fried in duck fat, with panini and a few other things to eat along with those fries. It is outrageously successful at what it sets out to do.

The restaurant is folded into a tiny space just a couple blocks off the main drag of the Old Port area, with most of the seating at stools facing the wall, a smattering of two-tops, and a couple long tables. I'm not quite sure if these were intended to be communal tables, but that's what they became when we were there. Needless to say, the thing to get is the fries, served up in a cone of paper and with a choice of a half-dozen different dipping sauces. I went with the curry mayo, while Frod Jr., the second in command fry maven, chose a truffle ketchup.

They are indeed classic Belgian style frites, right at a happy medium between shoestring-thin and steak-fry-floppy, undoubtedly twice-fried, perfectly crispy outside and toasty, barely fluffy and potato-y within. We had an extensive debate at the table over whether they were indeed the best fries we've ever tasted. They might well get my vote, though Mrs. F is still partial to the fries at Bourbon Steak. It was a robust debate. You also have the option of having those fries in a poutine (the Canadian border is pretty close, after all) with curds from the nearby Silvery Moon Creamery and duck gravy, but that seemed a wee bit excessive (though not to the petite collegian sharing our table with us).

Panini make up most of the rest of the menu, made with bread that comes from Standard Baking Company (another member of the Fore Street clan). I had a delicious special of the day made with pork belly, pickled radishes and carrots, some spicy mustard; it could have taught a Cuban sandwich a thing or two. The couple regular menu items we tried were equally good - roast turkey with gruyere and a spicy cherry pepper relish, a tuna melt with provolone and some preserved lemon. The beer list was solid, and I chose a locally brewed Allagash White witbier to wash things down.

If you're feeling especially peckish, you can also round out your meal with one of several milkshakes, and/or some duck fat fried beignets, though perhaps that's better saved for a second visit.

Duck Fat
43 Middle Street
Portland, Maine

Duck Fat on Urbanspoon

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Street and Company - Portland, Maine

Having had such a good experience at Fore Street, the following night we went to its sister restaurant, Street and Company, just a few blocks away on cobblestoned Wharf Street.[1] Street and Co. has a more singular mission than its sibling, with a menu focusing almost exclusively on fish and seafood dishes. While several things we had at Street and Co. were excellent, the overall experience was somewhat more haphazard.

If Fore Street's food is straightforward and honest, Street and Co. takes things even further in the direction of rusticity. Though some small "tastes" and appetizers show a little more variety, entrées are limited to a selection of seafoods simply prepared: grilled, blackened, broiled, or over pasta. Tables are all topped with brass both for decorative and practical purposes, the latter being to provide a safe landing for a number of dishes that are served right in the pan.

I started with a selection of local oysters that were some of the finest I've ever had. Notwithstanding the traditional "Months with an R" rule, because of its more temperate waters, Maine oysters are excellent year-round, and these were good evidence of that. My half-dozen included a couple each from three different sources: Nonesuch oysters from a new producer in the Nonesuch and Scarborough rivers; Pemaquids; and possibly Glidden Points, though the memory falters. Our server wisely suggested I proceed in order of salinity (which she advised of), but they were all just about perfect in their own way, tasting as purely and wonderfully of the sea as almost anything I've ever eaten. The presentation was minimalist - just iced oysters on the half shell with a lemon wedge and some mignonette, but these were oysters that wanted of absolutely nothing, not even those simple accompaniments. Indeed at the time they even inspired poetic recitations from the Walrus and the Carpenter:

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none--
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

An appetizer of beets and carrots (more of those wonderfully tasty carrots) came with some creamy, tangy, locally produced feta cheese, and dressed with a light vinaigrette. A calamari puttanesca app was a smart borrowing of flavors from the traditional pasta dish, with capers, olives and garlic in a spicy tomato sauce.

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Fore Street - Portland, Maine

picture via Fore Street
It was perhaps fitting that our first dinner in Portland was at Fore Street. Opened in 1996, the restaurant appears to have been on the front edge of Portland's emergence as a serious food town. As I noted earlier, the whole farm-to-table ethos seems to come very naturally to Maine's restaurants, and this is on clear display - even literally - at Fore Street.

A block off the waterfront in an old warehouse, the restaurant's physical layout is a fine preview for the straightforward honesty of its food. As you enter, there's a glassed-in pantry that holds a bountiful display of fresh produce, mostly sourced from local farms. But even more striking is that if you're not careful, you will walk right into the garde manger station, which is set up in an open kitchen right as you walk into the main restaurant space. In its own way, it was one of the most dramatic and effective restaurant entrances I've ever experienced, in part because it feels uncannily as if you're walking into someone's home and kitchen.

The seating areas are arranged in two tiers, one at the height of the kitchen and filling the center of the room, with more seating around the walls opposite the kitchen, raised stadium-style a few steps higher. We had a cozy spot right in the corner which gave a fine vantage for that open kitchen.[1]

My recollection is that the menu was divided up by preparation methods as much as by typical "appetizer" "entrée" "side dish" groupings, though candidly my memory is a bit fuzzy.[2] Throughout, the menu showed a strong focus on seasonal and local ingredients, both from the ocean and the ground, as well as a section devoted to charcuterie and offal, which of course I found alluring.

I started with a dish of grilled squid, cut into wide curling ribbons, paired with a variety of pickled zucchini, peppers, and carrots, and spinkled with snipped chives. It was a simple dish with the tart pickled vegetables pairing well with the super-fresh squid. We also had a tomato soup with corn, its bright vermilion hue matched by a real intensity of fresh tomato flavor. The only miss among starter-type items we had was a salad with cold, slippery mushrooms that didn't highlight their flavor or texture. The bread, I should note, was fantastic, all crusty and chewy: the restaurant is part of a family that also includes a couple bakeries, a happily symbiotic relationship.

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Friday, August 20, 2010

And Back Again

Ten days in Maine. So what have I learned?

While other areas along the Eastern seaboard contemplate five-year lobstering moratoriums due to depleted fisheries, Maine has an abundance, likely largely due to forward-thinking, stock-preserving industry self-regulation which has been incorporated into state law since 1933. Healthy supply and lower demand due to the economy have driven prices down: Maine lobster retails for as low as $3.99 a pound - good for consumers, tough for lobsterers. This is actually an improvement for the industry from last year, when prices were so low, and tempers so high, that some lobsterers resorted to gunfire to settle disputes over rules both written and unwritten. Even if not priced like a luxury item, it still tastes like one.

The whole farm-to-table (or ocean-to-table) thing has taken hold quite nicely in Maine. Indeed, one gets the sense that it's not seen so much as a current trend as just the way things always were and continue to be done. Aside from the ubiquitous lobster, wild blueberries and "native" sweet corn dotted both roadside stands and menus throughout our travels along the coast. We ate at multiple places that literally had their own farms supplying produce, and of course there are still lobster docks where the buggers go pretty much straight from the boat to the boiling pot. Though I suspect eating seasonally and locally may be a lot more interesting this time of year than the dead of winter.

That kind of tradition and independence manifests in other ways too. Maine turned out to be quite an off the grid experience, as cellphone reception apparently is considered to be highly overrated by the locals, the 3G variety basically unheard of, and wi-fi networks functioning, as often as not, about as effectively as they would have been a hundred years ago when the places we were staying in were built.

Some of the more memorable tastes from our trip: blueberry-blackberry shortbread with sweet corn ice cream at Fore Street in Portland; the fries at Duckfat; Pemaquid Point oysters, on the half shell at Street and Company, wood oven roasted with chanterelles, corn and coriander butter at Primo in Rockland; tomatoes from the Squire Tarbox Organic Farm; a whoopie pie at Moody's Diner; General Tso's sweetbreads with ramen noodles and bacon dashi at The Edge in Lincolnville; Thai chili ice cream from Mount Desert Island Ice Cream. More details to come - I've got my work cut out for me.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

On Vacation

Off to Maine for a little vacation. Portland, ME looks to be turning into a pretty food-centric town, some interesting stuff going on there. Fore Street is on the agenda, hopefully a stop at DuckFat, with a few others on the list too, plus maybe a trip out on a lobster boat. A couple days at an inn and organic farm near Wiscasset, likely some lobsters on the dock in Boothbay Harbor, then off to Camden, with a side trip to Primo in Rockland. Mrs. F also has fond memories of Moody's Diner in Waldoboro from a meal there about fifteen years ago. Then off to Bar Harbor for a few days. Do we follow in the President's footsteps to Havana and Mount Desert Island Ice Cream (a/k/a "Black Power Ice Cream")? Which is more implausible: black militants in Maine, or good Cuban food?

Suggestions welcomed.