Taste for Travel…Or Where to Eat in Maine

One of the joys of traveling back to Maine, aside from the obvious pleasure of spending time with good friends, is eating fabulous food.  Those who follow my posts on Instagram and Facebook are well-acquainted with my seemingly endless appetite for good eats.  So in the interest of those who are thinking about a trip to Maine, or Portland in particular, here are my top five food/drink destinations:

Back Bay Grill –  If you’re going to splurge on a fancy dinner, then do it here.  Regardless of the fact that my friend Jesse works at this fine establishment, it is still hands down one of the best restaurants in Portland.  Their seasonal menu is exceptional, but what really keeps me going back time and again is their foie gras.  The accompaniments change with the seasons but the preparation is essentially the same–handled with utmost attention to detail, seared to perfection.  I recommend starting your evening off with an artfully crafted cocktail from the bar and a nibble of truffle popcorn.

Duckfat – The name pretty much says it all–duck is the fat of choice and forget about the calories.  They love the stuff so much it’s in quite a number of their dishes, including duck egg aioli, duck fat Belgian fries, duck confit, and duck fat fried donut holes (have them with the Duckfat milkshake if you’re feeling extra decadent).   A poutine aficionado, I’m obsessed with their version–duck fat fries, studded with locally sourced cheese curds and drenched in duck gravy.  Since the restaurant doesn’t take reservations, be prepared to wait.  I guarantee it’ll be worth it.

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Hot Suppa – While they do serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I’ve somehow managed to only go there for brunch.  The fact that you can order a Bloody Mary or Mimosa to go with your French Toast and Pulled Pork Hash is no doubt the attraction–makes having a cocktail at breakfast entirely respectable.  Like all great brunch places, this one’s especially busy on the weekends, so put your name on the list and stroll down a couple of blocks to Tandem Coffee and Bakery for a latte and maybe a small pastry to tie you over until your name is called.

Eventide Oyster Co.– Yes, this is yet another popular, often busy restaurant (just down the street from Duckfat), which specializes in phenomenally fresh and tasty seafood.  I’m a late bloomer when it comes to my love and appreciation of raw oysters, only having begun enjoying them in the last seven years or so.  Eventide’s selection of these “kisses from the ocean” is extensive, about ten Maine varieties and another six from other regions, not to mention a choice of eight accoutrements–from the traditional cocktail sauce to kimchi ice.  If their raw seafood menu isn’t enough to satisfy you, I highly recommend their version of lobster roll (glistening with brown butter, served in a Chinese steamed bun) and buttermilk fried chicken sandwich.

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Central Provisions –  It’s taken four trips to Maine, but I finally made it here.  Central Provisions is the type of place that defies expectations–an ever-changing small plates menu hyper focused on seasonality, so much so that there’s a new menu every week, taking cues from a variety of global influences.   The night I went, the menu featured both Japanese and Spanish inspired dishes–from the gorgeously presented blue fin tuna crudo served with rice cracker, avocado creme and goji berry puree to the suckling pig with marcona almonds to the squash cheesecake with housemate rum raisin ice cream.  All the flavors were on point, from the small plates to the expertly fashioned cocktails.

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Vena’s Fizz House –  I discovered this gem on my last day in Portland.  For fans of mixology and craft cocktails, this place is the real deal.  The front section is a haven for mixology enthusiast with shelves brimming with bitters, syrups, shrubs, tonics, infusion kits, mixers, and cocktail paraphernalia of all kinds.  I spent a good fifteen minutes just browsing the bitters section alone.  For more inspiration, take a seat at the bar and sample their dizzying menu of craft cocktails, mocktails, and housemate sodas.  If I didn’t have to fly out that afternoon I would’ve spent a few more hours there.

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Summer Travels…or Mainely Lobsters and Rhubarb

I fell in love with Maine on my first trip to Portland three summers ago.  A very good friend and former pastry assistant of mine, Renee, moved back home with her boyfriend Jesse (now husband) after a wild, eventful ride through the rough and tumble culinary world of San Francisco and had finally, after about seven years, lured me up to Maine for a visit.  It was one of the most enjoyable, relaxing, fun vacations I’d had in years–full of great company, sensational regional cuisine, gorgeous scenery and kayaking.

Needless to say, I was hooked.  And so began my yearly summer sojourn to Maine, where for a week my friends, the Lohreys and Landrys, indulge me with the best food and drink the state has to offer–which invariable involves copious amounts of craft beer, seafood, ice cream, and this year in particular, rhubarb picked fresh from the garden.

I admit, prior to visiting Maine, I never really cared much for lobster.  In culinary school I learned how to dispatch a live one by plunging the tip of a chef’s knife between its head and body and turn it into Lobster Americain.  Occasionally, I’d have it wok-fried in garlic and fermented black sauce at a Chinese banquet.  But it was never my crustacean of choice.   Of course, now I know why.  I’d never had a Maine lobster, which is arguably the finest lobster one can pluck from the ocean. The meat is sweet and favorable, the texture divine.

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I credit the Landrys for turning me into a lobster snob–I won’t even bother eating anything other than the Maine variety now.   But when you have something this perfect, it would be criminal to not just to let it shine.  The most traditional (and many would insist the best) way to have Maine lobster is steamed whole, served with drawn butter, which is how it’s done at the Landry home near Farmington.  It’s a roll-up-your-sleeves, messy shell-cracking endeavor (I’m still getting the hang of the technique), but well worth the effort.

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Now no Lobsterpalooza (it’s what I’ve called this latest trip) is complete, however, without a few lobster rolls.  I eat at least three on every visit, so after three trips to Maine, it’s safe to say I’ve become somewhat of a  connoisseur.  I’ve gone to the recommended places like Red’s Eats in Wiscasset and The Lobster Shack at Two Lights, but my favorites so far are the lobster rolls at Eventide and High Roller in Portland–both of which take creative spins on the classic.   At Eventide, the lobster rolls are bathed in browned butter and served on a pillowy soft Chinese-style steamed bun.

Lobster Roll at Eventide
Lobster Roll at Eventide

At the High Roller food cart,  I had mine fully-loaded with crisp smokey bacon, fresh avocado and a drizzle of lime mayo.  Renee had hers drizzled with jalapeño mayo.

High Roller
High Roller

The thing I’ve discovered about eating a lot of lobster in a short period of time is that you won’t get bored or “lobstered out” if you change it up a bit and have it in different forms–whole steamed one day, truffled lobster mac ‘n cheese the next– so you hopefully won’t end up feeling like Julia Roberts (Daisy) in Mystic Pizza (1988).

Summer is not only the best time to indulge in Maine lobster, but it’s also the perfect time (since the season is short) to savor fresh field-grown rhubarb in all its glory.  Rhubarb is featured on practically every menu this time of year, from fine dining establishments to truck stop diners.  On this trip, I’ve enjoyed an expertly crafted rhubarb cocktail at Back Bay Grill, a deliriously melt-in-your-mouth flaky, buttery rhubarb galette at The Standard Baking Company, a delightful rhubarb pie ice cream at Catbird Creamery, and an impossibly light and airy donut with tangy rhubarb compote at The Well at Jordan’s Farm.

And if this wasn’t enough, Renee had rhubarb growing in her backyard, just begging to be harvested and turned into something delicious.  After a couple minutes of brainstorming, and perusal of her refrigerator, we came up with Lemon Ginger Rhubarb Swirl Ice Cream–a rich vanilla bean custard base infused with fresh lemon zest and ginger root, swirled with a sweet, tangy rhubarb compote. While Renee cooked down the diced rhubarb with a little sugar and tapioca starch, I steeped lots of freshly grated ginger root and lemon zest in a mixture of hot milk and heavy cream, then used the infused liquid to make a custard ice cream base.  Everything was chilled overnight.  The next morning we spun the ice cream base and folded the rhubarb compote into the soft frozen custard.

Our Catbird Creamery-inspired creation provided the perfect sweet ending to yet another spectacular culinary adventure through Maine.

Lemon Ginger Rhubarb Ice Cream

Yield: about 2 1/2 qts.

  • 6-8 stalks of rhubarb, washed and diced
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 2 tsp. tapioca starch
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
  • 2 Tbsp. grated fresh ginger (peeled)
  • 2 Tbsp. lemon zest
  • 2 tsp. vanilla paste or 1/2 vanilla bean, split & scraped
  • 10 yolks
  • 1 cup + 2 Tbsp. sugar
  • 1/4 tsp. sea or kosher salt

Combine the rhubarb, sugar and tapioca starch in a medium saucepan with a splash of water.  Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally for about 8-10 mins., until the rhubarb is soft but still chunky.  Cool the mixture to room temperature then transfer it into an airtight container and chill in the refrigerator.

For the custard base, heat the milk and cream in a heavy bottom pot to scalding.  Stir in the ginger and lemon zest and let it steep in the hot mixture for about 10-15 mins. covered.  *If you’re using vanilla bean instead of vanilla paste add it to the pot now.  Meanwhile, whisk the yolks, sugar, vanilla paste, and salt together until pale yellow.  Temper some of the hot liquid into the yolks, then whisk all of the tempered egg mixture into the rest of the hot liquid.  Cook the custard base on medium heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until it is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.  Immediately remove the custard from the heat and strain into a bowl set over ice, stirring occasionally to cool down the mixture.  Chill the custard for several hours or overnight.

Freeze the custard base according to your ice cream machine instructions.  Swirl and fold the chilled rhubarb compote into the soft frozen ice cream, then freeze to set.

Small Dice Challenge: Buttermilk Salmon

Let me tell you a little story.  It involves love, betrayal, and possibly….muuuurder.  It was a chilly night.  My husband ran to the corner store because alas we were out of milk. I wouldn’t be going to our regular store until the next day, and it was a milk and cookies emergency. After dinner, I reached into the refrigerator to pour a glass and picked up…Buttermilk!!! Son of a… My husband bought buttermilk! The only people I have known to drink buttermilk are my Papa and Rosemary Clooney in White Christmas. Besides being disappointed, I didn’t know what to do with it.  I thought about fried buttermilk chicken, like Mimi is known for, but I had a whole chicken and wasn’t about to cut it up.  I did however have some salmon.  So I decided to try it, except baked not fried.  I put buttermilk and salmon into a Ziploc bag overnight.

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The next day I took it out.  I had some pecans so I decided to smash some to mix with flour for some nutty taste.  It was fun crushing them in a bag.  I then set up a little work station for my flour/pecan mix and egg.  I took the salmon out of the bag and dipped it into the egg and then into the flour/pecan mix and placed it on a piece of foil.  Then, I put it into the oven at 350°.

I quickly sautéed some Brussel sprouts with butter and garlic which is absolutely the best way to cook them.

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After about 15 mins., I checked on my baking salmon and wondered why it was not making a crust.  Then I realized it needed some oil on top, so I threw some avocado oil on it, and it finally started to get that crust.  After about 20 more mins., it was sizzling and ready to come out.

IMG_20160323_204532My children loved it.  My daughter usually doesn’t eat the skin off of the salmon, but this time she ate the whole thing!

 

Small Dice Challenge: Semi-healthy Shrimp and “potato”soup

A couple of weeks ago, I had my anniversary dinner at a French restaurant called Liaison Bistro.  I can’t remember the last time I ate so well.  Actually, I can’t even remember the last time my husband and I went on a date without a child.  I ordered a sole stuffed with crab drowned in cream.  I’m sure there was a much fancier name for it, but that describes it perfectly.

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Anyways I had a craving this week for some creamy soup to fill the void of waiting another year to have a meal like that.  My husband recently bought the nutri-bullet, his electronic of the month, and has been suggesting that I use it for more than smoothies.  I swear he should be a spokesperson for all of these products, because it seems like he memorizes the manual to make my life miserable.  He wanted me to make a potato soup, but I didn’t have any in the pantry.  I decided to use cauliflower instead since there was some rotting away in my fridge.  I also added carrots for texture and color.  Finally, I threw in some garlic for flavor.

IMG_20160310_194619 I let them sit in a pot for about ten minutes with some vegetable broth until they were soft.

IMG_20160310_194554 Afterwards I threw them into the bullet and blended them all together until silky smooth.  I poured it back into the pot after putting a little bit in a bowl for my son.  He was ok with it, but it might have still been hot.  Oops.

I added cream and let it boil while I stir-fried some shrimp.

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I wanted that seafood flavor like I had at the restaurant.  Finally, it was all ready to eat.

No thrills, just soup.
No thrills, just soup.

My daughter thought it was delicious and ate her whole bowl.  The next day, my husband tried my son’s baby food and said it had “very good flavor.” And this was eating it cold without the cream and shrimp, so I figured I received his approval.

 

Finger in the Eggnog–Our Christmas favorites

Laura’s Favorite:  Take a sip of wassail and Scrooge yourself

There always is a need for an anti-hero, otherwise you wouldn’t recognize the good people in this world.  Christmas is not Christmas without Scrooge.  He just happens to embody the good and the bad, just like me. For this reason, I always have to watch Scrooged during the holidays.  It puts me in the festive spirit. Bill Murray portrays the best version of Scrooge. His quips are flawless and you fall in love with him just like Karen Allen who also happens to be the love interest of Indiana Jones in my favorite of the series (Raiders of the Lost Ark, not that horrible skull crystal one).  The best part is the ending as he relays a speech about love and the spirit of Christmas.  It always gets me going “Niagara Falls.”

For my holiday treat, I chose wassail. I grew up in a historic small town. Every Christmas, my mom and I would go on a tour to look at the old Victorian houses that were decorated inside and out.  Certain houses had snacks for their guests, and I always looked forward to getting steaming hot wassail in a fancy teacup. Now I believe traditional wassail has eggs and alcohol in it, but kids showed up for these events so I doubt there were any of those things in it. Therefore, I tweaked a traditional recipe to make it more kid-friendly and closer to what I think they used during my childhood.

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  • 4 cups Apple Cider
  • 1 cup of Orange Juice
  • 1/4 cup of lemon juice
  • 2 whole cinnamon sticks
  • 1/2 tsp ground cloves
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • Pinch of ginger
  1. Combine all ingredients into a pot.
  2. Bring to simmer over medium low heat. Reduce heat and continue simmering for 45 min.
  3. Ladle into your favorite teacup and enjoy.

Rina’s Favorite: Martinis and Miracles

As Mimi has said in the While You Were Sleeping post, I’ve been in the Christmas spirit watching as many holiday movies and tv shows as I can before the month ends. I’m like this every year, so you can imagine how hard it is for me to pick just one movie as my absolute favorite. If I really had to choose, the one that I can never get tired of is Miracle on 34th Street (1947). First off, Edmund Gwenn plays the best Santa of all Christmas films, and secondly it has a smart script masterfully performed by Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood. The film’s reference to Macy’s and Gimbels department stores rivalry takes me back to my own childhood, staring in wonderment at all the holiday window displays and having a conversation with the Talking Christmas Tree at the Gimbel’s department store in downtown Pittsburgh.

I don’t really have a family favorite holiday recipe to share as our Christmases mainly consisted of staying up all night on Christmas Eve, eating Archway cookies and Whitman’s Chocolates. So I decided to try out a recipe inspired from one of my favorite scenes in the movie when everyone is having dinner at Doris (O’Hara) and Suzie (Wood) Walker’s apartment, and Mr. Gailey (John Payne) is wearing a makeshift apron and is actually doing the cooking (how modern!) Here is proof at how majorly attractive he is just holding a glass of milk:

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Anyway, also in this scene, Doris gets a call from Mr. Shellhammer who has just “convinced” his wife, by plying her with martinis, to let Kris Kringle live with them. Because I’ve been working like a dog, I’ve decided that this year I could use a reliably good, strong drink (to go with the cookies and candy) just like Mrs. Shellhammer does to celebrate the holidays!

My Version of the Triple Strength Martini

  • 3 oz Vodka
  • 1.5 oz Dry Vermouth
  • 1-2 Candy Canes
  • Ice cubes

Pour some of the vermouth into a chilled martini glass and swirl it around to coat the inside of the glass, then throw the vermouth out. Place a candy cane or three into a ziplock bag, crush into small pieces with a rolling pin or a pan, and then pour onto a saucer. Place the rim of the martini glass (that you just swirled with vermouth) onto the crushed candy cane pieces and rotate to coat the rim. You may need to wet the rim to keep the pieces in place. Add the vodka, 1 ounce of vermouth, ice and (to be festive) half of a candy cane or a hard candy peppermint into a cocktail shaker. Stir well and pour the drink into the martini glass. And that’s it! Sip it slowly, and gradually  you’ll start singing this song. Happy Holidays!

Triple Strength Martini

 

Mimi’s Favorite:  Smile, there’s an Elf in the kitchen.

Like Laura, when it comes to Christmas movies, I go for the comedies.  And nothing makes me laugh more than Elf (2003).  While there is no denying that this charming tale about a six foot three elf,  who discovers that he’s really a human and sets out to find his “true” family, is the kind of heart-warming fare we come to expect at Christmastime, Elf deftly uses humor to appeal to our humanity.  Will Ferrell’s Buddy engages everyone and everything with such genuine childlike enthusiasm that you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of his situation–such as when he gets his first taste of Manhattan.

In fact, some of the best moments in Elf play upon the juxtaposition of Buddy’s innocent “elf” perspective against that of the often more jaded New Yorker’s.  One of my favorites is the famous department store Santa debacle, which starts off with Buddy excitedly awaiting Santa’s arrival at Gimbel’s and ends with him accusing the “fake” Santa of sitting on a “throne of lies” and smelling not at all like the real Santa, but rather like “beef and cheese.”  Another funny scene is when Buddy goes to work with his father (James Caan) and accidentally gets drunk off of a co-worker’s whiskey which he mistakenly takes for syrup.

So, in the spirit of playful juxtaposition (and also because I have a somewhat twisted sense of humor), I give you my culinary take on Elf:

The Plush Lush Elf

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  • 1 oz. Premium Vodka
  • 2 oz. White Chocolate Creme*
  • 1 oz. Peppermint Schnapps
  • 1/2 oz. Creme de Cacao
  • Candy Cane for Garnish

Pour all the liquor into a shaker with 2-3 ice cubes.  Shake and strain into a martini glass, garnish with a candy cane.  *For the white chocolate creme, bring to a simmer 1-1/2 cups half and half with 1/2 vanilla bean scraped.  Pour the hot liquid over 5 oz. chopped premium white chocolate; let the hot liquid melt the white chocolate for a few minutes before whisking smooth.  Stir in 3 oz. vodka.  Transfer the mixture into a glass jar and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

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After a few of these cocktails…

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“Napping” by the Christmas Log

Of course, nothing is better for a hangover than some munchies…

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Like some (Pastry) Thrones of Cheesy Beef…

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The filling is essentially a variation on the one I made for the beef and mushroom pot pie in the previous Love Actually post, substituting ground beef for steak and adding a little heavy cream and shredded Swiss Gruyere cheese to finish.  Cream Cheese Dough will work fine although I did use a Pate Brisee dough this time.  Follow the same basic steps as for mini chicken pot pies, omitting the top pastry.

And finally, because I love this duet…

Merry Christmas!

movie chicks good