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.