The Maine Course: Cape Elizabeth & Portland
by Ed Wetschler
When Bon Appetit‘s Andrew Knowlton named Portland, Maine, “America’s Foodiest Small Town,” he really should have called it “America’s Foodiest Large Town,” but he did pick the right town, and that’s the Maine thing. This old city abutting organic farms and waters full of fish, lobsters, and other seafood is a center of the farm-to-table, locavore movement. Fact: With 300 restaurants, 90% of them locally owned, Portland has the second most restaurants per capita in the United States, surpassed only by San Francisco. And I’m talking real restaurants, not McDonald’s.
You realize the depth of the Portland slogan, “Buy Local: Keep Portland Independent,” when you stroll into $3 Deweys Restaurant Ale House, and you find blue collar guys at the bar nursing craft-brewed ales, not Bud Light. You know you’re in a foodie town when the menu in a pizzeria (Flatbread Company) assures customers that the sausage pizza features “nitrate-free fennel sausage with organic sulfur-free sundried tomatoes.”
And get this: It was local fishermen—not urban do-gooders like me—who launched Maine’s sustainability program for lobsters. Moreover, that was 78 years ago. Not only did they establish minimal sizes for keepers and catch limits per boat, but the lobstermen throw back all breeding females, not to mention all males above a certain length. As one lobsterman explained it, “We need males down there who are man enough for the females.”
I went out on the Lucky Catch, a working lobster boat that also offers trips to civilians. We hauled up crates, measured lobsters (“Don’t feel guilty about catching them,” said a fellow passenger. “They eat their young”), banded the keepers’ claws, and threw back more than we kept. Afterwards, four of us carried our catch (gingerly) to a harborside lobster shack, the Portland Lobster Company, which steamed the lobsters and served them with Maine potatoes, corn, and melted butter for $10.69.
The Inn by the Sea
The beachfront hotel where I was staying, the Inn by the Sea, takes the sustainability and locavore movement(s) to heart. The biggest import in the kitchen is the chef, Mitchell Morgan Kaldrovich, a New Jerseyan raised in Argentina. Kaldrovich has won applause at the James Beard House, and as a transplant to Maine, the man is mad about lobster. I had an appetizer that offered a panoply of tastes and textures: a shot of rich sherry lobster bisque, a mini lobster roll with a dollop of aioli, and a lobster croquette that was all about the lobster, not the bread crumbs. Kaldrovich also offers a five-course Lobster Tasting Menu ($58).
The gazpacho at the Inn’s much-praised Sea Glass Restaurant, manages to successfully incorporate blueberries, because Maine is Blueberry Nation, and the breakfast menu includes blueberry pancakes with a ton of berries. Other local ingredients, too, are ubiquitous: Instead of conventional eggs Benedict, Kaldrovich prepares fresh poached eggs on Maine crab cakes.
One night at the Inn I ate a moist fillet of hake on a bed of zucchini-corn-tomato-tumeric succotash. Hake is one of five varieties of seafood – the others are mackerel, pollock, redfish, and northern shrimp – that the Gulf of Maine Research Institute has identified as under-appreciated and, thus, sustainable, so chefs like Kaldrovich are finding new ways to prepare them.
“The bonus is, these under-appreciated fish are more affordable,” says Charlie Bryon. I met Bryon on a Maine Foodie Tours‘ culinary prowl of Portland. Owner of The Salt Exchange, a restaurant on Commercial Street, he served us a cioppino with the freshest, plumpest mussels I’ve ever eaten, and I’ve harvested mussels in Alaska.
Other stops on the tour included Old Port Wine Merchants, where tour guide Harold Withee described the local Bartlett Wild Blueberry – what else? — wine as “a complex, medium-body dry red, not a novelty wine.” Next door, Vervacious sells homemade spice and condiment mixes like Cinque Terra Apricot Mostarda. I tasted appetizers with Sahara Harissa Rub and espresso balsamic, and these two very different condiments shared one characteristic: perfect balance.
We walked up to Wharf Street, a cobblestone alley with old brick buildings that now house fine restaurants like Cinque Terra, Street & Company, Passage to India, and Vignola. “The restaurant that put Portland on the culinary map was Fore Street, which opened in 1996,” said Withee. Fore Street’s credo: “Our menu is founded upon the very best raw materials from a community of Maine farmers, fishermen, foragers, and cheesemakers.”
“Portland lives by that philosophy,” declared Withee. “You can’t open a restaurant here and be mediocre.”
Blue Velvet (the Cheese)
The Public Market House at 28 Monument Square is a collection of eateries and shops, one of which, K. Horton Specialty Foods, offers splendid local cheeses. After tasting a Stonington goat cheese that the Chicago Tribune has called “the Holy Grail of cheeses,” I was seduced by a Blue Velvet raw milk bleu cheese, a hardy, front-forward, creamy beauty.
The Market House proves that culinary quality in Portland isn’t just for big spenders. The second floor looks like a food court for college kids, with mismatched chairs and, instead of fast food stands, small businesses like Pie in the Sky Pizza and Karmasouptra soups that serve affordable but intelligently prepared foods.
It’s odd that Portland is also a brewpub town, because in Maine, Prohibition lasted from 1851 through 1938, and residents weren’t allowed to produce beer or spirits until 1988. We stopped at Gritty’s, where we sipped a red amber and, in a cellar crammed with vats and pipes, brewmaster Rob Griffin boasted that “Everything poured in Gritty’s is brewed right here in the basement.”
Back at the Inn by the Sea, I asked someone if the foccacia and blueberry muffins they’d served me were from any of the bakeries I’d seen in Portland. “No,” she said, “our pastry chef makes them here.”
Ed Wetschler is a freelance writer, the associate editor of Everett Potter’s Travel Report, and the executive editor of Tripatini.