Sometimes in a marriage roles are reversed. This is the case when I suggest to my husband that we plan a get-away in Maine this summer. I am seduced by a Maine travel poster showcasing a beautiful outdoor vista. My husband exclaims that he’s always wanted to visit Portland because it’s a “foodie” destination. That’s usually my line. The beauty of Maine is that food and scenery are equally compelling reasons to visit.
We are joined by friends, who suggest we begin with an overnight stay in Bar Harbor. After a couple of delightful meals and hiking in Acadia National Park (people who know me are snickering right now), we drive to Portland for two nights at the wonderfully eclectic Pomegranate Inn. Here are highlights of our maine-ly food-centric four days.
Graffam Bros. Seafood Shack, Rockport
It’s Maine so our first stop is for lobster rolls. Graffam Bros. online reviews are promising, and there is a haddock sandwich on the menu for my non-shellfish eating husband. Truth be told, I’ve never understood why people are so enamored by hunks of lobster on a bun. But the lobster here is fresh and plentiful, and there is just a hint of mayo holding it together. While I’m secretly hankering for some kimchi to perk things up, there really is no better way to start a Maine vacation. My husband is happy as a clam (so to speak) with his enormous lightly-crisped fish sandwich. Graffam Bros. Seafood Shack is a worthwhile stop for take-out, situated halfway between the Portland Airport and Bar Harbor.
Burning Tree, Bar Harbor
On our way up the coast we take a break in Ellsworth, at a coffee shop attached to an artist’s studio. My friend and I depart with some beautiful jewelry and a recommendation for Burning Tree restaurant just outside Bar Harbor in Otter Creek. The restaurant oozes Maine with its simple woodsy decor. We are blown away by explosively good gorgonzola bombolini, served with a fresh beet salad. I waver over entree options, but our patient server steers me to a monkfish special. I savor every single bite of the meaty fish adorned with chanterelle mushrooms, and accompanied by rosemary garlic mashed potatoes. I’m not often spontaneous when it comes to dining, so the last minute assistance from an artist and a waitress is greatly appreciated, and richly rewarding.
Cafe This Way, Bar Harbor
Cafe This Way is a perfect breakfast spot in the center of Bar Harbor. Still reveling in fond memories of the previous night’s dinner, we can’t believe our eyes when we realize that our server is the same young woman who waited on us at Burning Tree. Will she be with us the entire trip, I wonder? ” Green Eggs and Sam” with spinach, kalamata olives, artichokes, and feta is precisely the fuel I need before heading to the park.
Mount Desert Island Ice Cream, Bar Harbor and Portland
DC food blogger Jessica Strelitz is from Maine, and while we haven’t met, our Twitter conversation has provided me with numerous dining recommendations. She says that Mainers are serious about their ice cream, and Mount Desert is best known in the area. I am intrigued by the the flavors, and thoroughly enjoy a duo of Basil Coriander Blackberry and Bay of Figs. I love the smooth creamy texture, and complex flavors. This ice cream is not to be missed. Seriously.
Tell anyone in the know that you are going to Portland and you’ll hear that a visit to Duckfat is mandatory. Duckfat’s chef/owner Rob Evans has a James Beard Award for best chef Northeast (2009). Even late in the afternoon, this tiny spot is buzzing. Be prepared to wait for a table, or enjoy your food in the grassy area just across the street. The draw here is Belgian fries cooked in duck fat and served with a dipping sauce of your choice. They are hot, crispy, and wonderful. Sandwiches are just as awe-inspiring, particularly duck confit on a warm and crunchy panini. I wash it down with a thick, coffee milkshake made from locally roasted beans. And then, as if this isn’t enough, we dig into a fantastic blueberry pie from the nearby Two Fat Cats. It’s a vacation. No regrets.
This is a restaurant that helped put Portland on the map as a dining destination.* Hugo’s offers a tasting menu with five small plates for $90, or two for $45. You can add a dish for $22. Dishes are selected from three categories: foraged and farmed, from the sea, and forest and field. The process is confusing, as the small plates vary in terms of size and heft. On the plus side, diners are not obligated to select the same number of courses. This may be a challenge for the wait staff, but they handle it with aplomb. Extras add value to the somewhat pricey meal, including excellent pumpernickel with raisin port butter and ponzu fried chicken bites. Dishes are creative and refined, and the presentation is stunning. My favorite is steak and cheese with homemade “craft” cheese and jalapeno jam. I yearn for another bite of the tiny sandwich. Overall, the experience is lovely, but I find that some of the flavors fall a bit flat. My three dining companions agree when I conclude that sometimes simpler food can be superior.
* Rob Evans of Duckfat is the previous chef/owner, but he sold Hugo to three employees in 2012.
One of the guests at Pomegranate Inn tells us that a visit to Grace, a restaurant transformed from a historic church, is a must. We don’t have space on our itinerary for a meal, so we stop by for cocktails. From the moment we enter Grace, we are enthralled by the preserved stained glass windows and lofty ceilings. Drinks named Redemption and Divinity are to be expected, but creative ingredients make them more than just a tempting name. The menu looks interesting, and a woman at the bar raves about the food. Nothing wrong with having a reason to go back to Portland.
Five Fifty-Five, Portland
Another restaurant transformed, this one from a 19th century firehouse. Five Fifty-Five is elegant, but not stuffy. A reverence for local sourcing is evident, and I am eager to continue my exploration of Maine ingredients. A signature dish from Chef Steve Corry is pepper-crusted diver scallops with carrot-vanilla emulsion and whipped fennel-potatoes. The sweet scallops are balanced by just the right amount of peppery char. This standout dish makes me grateful that we are dining at Five Fifty-Five. A vegetarian option entitled “chef’s whim” is a pastry shell encasing goat cheese, tomato, and other summer vegetables. At $28 for a small portion, the chef’s whim on this particular night isn’t the best. My friends extol the virtues of a juicy pan-roasted chicken breast, served with a braised leg and carrots. Vegetarian dish aside, Five Fifty-Five results in another positive dining experience for us in Portland.
On our way out of town I am obsessed with finding another blueberry pie as a last taste of Maine. It’s after 3:30 on Sunday afternoon, and we’re having no luck. As an alternative we stop by Holy Donut with a variety of donuts, including blueberry, made from Maine mashed potatoes. The person in front of me orders and then I hear “that’s it for today. No more donuts.” I realize with horror that I will have to depart the state without pie or donuts! My friend recognizes my plight, which he relays to a stranger on the street who has just exited the shop. The stranger sympathizes and offers me part of a donut. I am embarrassed that it’s come to this, but do I decline? Absolutely not. I relish the last bite of what Portland has to offer…with a big smile on my face. From lobster to blueberries to potato donuts, there really is nothing like Maine ingredients.