Thursday, August 25, 2005

What I learned about food this summer, Act IV

Start with great local ingredients. Prepare them simply and don't get in their way.

5:30am. Bar Harbor, ME. After our so-called "epic sunrise" fiasco, we headed to the water and looked around for a fishermen's diner where grizzled old salts fill their dented steel thermoses with thin, nasty coffee and head out for a day of drowning bait. Where the crusty old fishermen go, so goes some worthwhile chow at a good price. What docks in Bar Harbor aren't fishing boats, but billionaires' yachts and the barf barges that take landlubbing tourists to see whales and puffins. We therefore ate very nicely in a diner where $10 breakfast items were served. Prices felt like we were in Beverly Hills, not way-the-hell-far-from-anywhere rural Maine.

Robin Leach would be impressed

We found the working boats a short drive away in Seal Harbor.

This lobsterman brought ashore the morning's catch and I got to ask a few questions.

Me: "Do you have to throw back the females?"
Him: "No, they just have to be big enough."
Me: "How do you sex a lobster?"
Him: "Dinner and dancing, then ask nicely."

How it's really done is by flipping the beastie on its back and looking at the small pair of swimmerets just behind the last set of legs. Females will have a soft, fin-like pair, while the males have hard, pointed "pistols." The male is on the left of the photo below. Now you know what to look for if you want a female lobster filled with red "coral!"

Lobsters molt in late Spring, so their shells are still thin and easily cracked when caught during the summer. The meat inside hasn't yet filled out their new carapace, so some will argue that it's not as firm, or sweet tasting, as the same critter harvested in the winter. I can't vouch for one argument or the other, but I do know they're still delicious when served on a buttered and toasted roll.

Here's another variation of the lobster roll, from Beal's Lobster Pier. This one has a wan crunch of iceberg lettuce and smallish chunks of cold lobster meat dressed with mayo. Although it's a fine sandwich, I much prefer the caveman style hunks of unadorned meat at Red's Eats.

The creamy broth of their lobster chowder slicked with red lobster fat tasted great and left a rich lobster slick in my mouth, but the chunks of meat in it were overcooked and tough. As with any fish chowder, presenting piping hot broth and just-barely-cooked-through seafood is a tough trick to pull off.

Fried strips of clam, not whole bellies

Fried clams strips are from a different animal than the whole belly clams I'd written about previously, and not nearly as clamtastic. Hard shell clams are called littlenecks or cherrystones while they're small, and their little bellies and firm muscle are delicious eaten raw on the half shell. As they grow larger, they're called surf, skimmer, or sea clams and they grow a rotund beer gut that's usually set aside for fish bait and no longer delish for humans. The firm muscle also grows thick, and is cut into chewable, bite sized slices. These fried and battered strips you see above are the result. While they bring back memories of the Howard Johnson's clams strips I loved in my youth, they're an anticlamactic experience compared to the more tender, more flavorful whole belly clams.

Beal's Lobster Pier
182 Clark Point Rd.
Southwest Harbor, ME

Even in Maine, where sun burnished fishermen deliver lobsters caught that morning , inattentive cooks can mistreat ingredients that demand the utmost attention and respect. Though Beal's has all the elements of a working dockside fish market & restaurant, it lacked the care practiced in the kitchen at Red's and Scales. I suppose comparing lobster rolls in Maine is like comparing sushi bars in Los Angeles (read: splitting hairs). Life is short; why not do both? Travel widely and eat well, dear reader.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


We'd arrived rather late at a motel near Acadia National Park when I mentioned that the park was known for epic sunrises, and perhaps it might be worth waking before daycrack to take some unforgettable photos. The irony of such words leaving my mouth was not lost on these very close friends of nearly two decades.

"Um, aren't you the vampire who works nights and wakes up at the crack of noon? Crack being the operative word there. Please put down the pipe before you burn your lip."

"Ha fucking ha. How many times in your life are you going to be in Acadia to see this?"

We rose after precious few hours of sleep and drove toward the highest peak of Mount Desert Isle. As we neared, an ominous fog rolled across our windshield. By the time we climbed Cadillac Mountain, the fog didn't roll so much as barrel through us like rain clouds caught in a blustery sea squall. Our clothing got soaked just standing against a 40 mph wind. Next "winter" if I bitch about the "freezing" 45 degree weather we have in Southern California, please reference this photo and ask me what that wind would feel like in February.

Isn't the sunrise breathtaking?

Soon after the aborted sunrise recon mission, we retreated to a diner in Bar Harbor and realized that Mainers are a fun lot with a particular code of humor known only to each other. So a few questions for you Maine readers out there:

1) How many days a year can you see this alleged epic sunrise? Is this a local gag to clear out the motels early so's Housekeeping can get home in time to watch Oprah?

2) If you're going to name a far-from-deserted island Mount Desert Isle, shouldn't its highest peak be called Mt. Desert and not Cadillac Mountain? If the National Park Service is selling off corporate naming rights, may I suggest the very obvious Golden Arches National Park?

3) The stereotyped "cahn't get there from he-ah" Downeaster spirit is very much alive and persistent with nearly everyone we asked for directions. For future reference, instructions like "we're right next to the Coast Guard station" are not useful to us tourists arriving by land and therefore bereft of nautical charts that might guide us to the Coast Guard station that you're looking at through your window. When I asked for directions, perhaps I neglected to mention we were driving. Y'know, in a car. My bad.

I loved visiting Maine, the great folks we met, and the food they made for us with love and pride. Next time I'll bring a GPS and we won't have these directional miscues distracting us from the important things like lobster boats, you-pick berry farms and county fairs. To be continued...

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What I learned about food this summer, Act III

Eat bad food on vacation and miss home. Eat great food and reconsider going home.

When the bike tour ended in Maine, we enjoyed a lobster banquet and bid vaya con dios to the compadres with whom we'd ridden 1700 miles.

Of the 3 or 4 people who tried lobster for the first time, one common comment was that cracking the shells was too much trouble. Mainers have a solution for this, and it's called the lobster roll, a top-loading New England roll conveniently filled with shelled lobster meat.

These first two photos are from our post ride banquet dinner at Governor's, a chain of restaurants that host banquets. As with most banquet halls, the food is not all that great. However, it did serve to compare their small, scantily filled, appetizer sized lobster rolls to the more impressive versions we'd try later.

Wee bitty appetizer sized lobter rolls

Our old college buddy Matt joined Marlene and I the next morning for the post-vacation vacation. This is the guy who drove with me from New York to Texas ostensibly for Marlene's wedding, but also to sample the country's finest Southern barbecue along the way. After hearing about our food vacations, she couldn't wait for our bike trip to end so that we could drive around and gorge on lobster rolls and fried whole belly clams.

First stop for the day: the Portland Public Market. Our English friend James had a couple hours to kill before his shuttle to the airport, so he gamely joined us for a shellfish and microbrew orgy at Scales Seafood.

Gimme one of everything...
James after eating his first ever raw oyster
Fried whole belly clams and mussels & fries

Eat locally whenever possible. The raw oysters that James gamely choked down are Damariscottas from the eponymous town less than an hour's drive north of Portland. The fried clams are also locally harvested soft shell clams (aka steamers or piss clams). These tender, smallish clams buried in the sand flats will squirt water at you if step near them at low tide. More importantly, these clams have a firmly tender neck as well as a soft, minerally, briny belly, which when fried provide a wonderful contrast in texture and flavor.

Soft shell clams are expensive. They can't be farmed like mussels or oysters, and by law can only be backbreakingly harvested for commercial sale with hand held rakes. They don't travel well like hard shell clams, and thus aren't found much outside their native New England and Canada. Find a reputable place that insists on serving local clams and seek these out while you're on the Northeast coast, m'kay?

Scales used a light cornmeal batter that simulatenously had a lightly tender batter matter and a cruchy, toothy cornmeal deal encasing the wonderfully sweet briny clams. Grease? What grease? Look at the butcher paper cone they're served in. Scales made the best fried clams I've ever eaten. After this, I need to visit the clam shacks near Ipswich, Mass for some comparative clam research.

Scales Fish Market
25 Preble St
Portland, ME

"Venezuelan beaver cheese?"

Kristin Horton opens a stinky wheel of Bravura, a washed rind cows milk cheese

David Lynch fans take note

Mainers take a great deal of pride in their many food traditions, be it the seafood, the Moxie soda, or the church pie socials. Unsurprisinsgly, we found a cheesemonger in the Public Market that sold many varieties from local producers. We bought Blue Velvet and a Colby from Hahn's End Farm; some mild cheddar curds; an intesely stinky wedge of Bravura which I enjoyed in combination with a tempering, sweet Spanish quince paste; two kinds of Italian salumi. We enjoyed these with a whole wheat baguette and Chianti at an improvised picnic overlooking Southwest Harbor, near Acadia National Park. Click on any of these photos to see my complete Flickr album of the trip.

Kris Horton supplies many area restaurants, and sells their local Maine cheeses via mail order.

K.Horton Specialty Foods
25 Preble Street
Portland, Maine 04101

Boathouse brown ale and Frye's Leap I.P.A.

We barely had time for one last beer in one of Portland's many microbreweries before James' prearranged trip to the airport. But which one to choose? As we walked along the downtown corridor of brick buildings, Matt and Marlene settled the matter with a quick rock / paper / scissors game, and off we went to Sebago Brewing. We quickly sucked down a pint, returned to our hotel with barely enough time, and loaded a lightly plastered Englishman into his waiting cab.

Sebago Brewing
164 Middle Street
Portland, ME

We quickly improvise arrangements to visit Acadia National park, and leave Portland by mid afternoon. We might make it to Acadia by 8 or 9 pm. Will we find an open restaurant at that hour? Probably not. So we pull off the interstate onto US Highway 1 and head for Red's Eats, a legendary yet modest seafood shack in Wiscasset. This is the kind of place that's been written up for decades in every food and travel media outlet, much like Pink's Hot Dogs in Los Angeles, or Arthur Bryant's BBQ in Kansas City. Because of places like Pink's (which I'm not impressed with) I'm suspicious of that much hype, but Red's lives up to it and then some. They prepare simple foods incredibly well and the pricier-than-average $14 lobster roll was well worth the wait in line.

Now I'll have to try the $22 version served on a brioche roll at Los Angeles seafood restaurant The Hungry Cat. Care to guess whose is better?

Tiny riverside shack

Meal for three

Now THIS is a lobster roll

Battered and fried whole belly clams

Red's lobster rolls start with a buttered and griddled, top-loading New England style roll. That's like a tall hot dog roll split vertically instead of horizontally so's all the fillings don't spill out the side of your sandwich. It's loaded with tender steamed and chilled lobster meat, close to two lobster's worth. Other places dress their lobster with mayo, add celery, etc. Here, the sandwich is overfilled just with meat, and either drawn butter or mayo on the side.

If the fried clams here existed in a vacuum, I'd say they were incredible. But in comparison to the version at Scales just a few hours prior, they weren't as greaseless, or crisp, or as well prepared. Nonetheless, I wanted to sample as many of these as possible during our short stay in Maine and I'm glad we did.

Red's Eats
Water Street
Wiscasset, ME

I promised you food would return to this blog. Do I deliver, or what?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

What I learned about food this summer, Act II

Ride more, eat more. Then eat some more. Lose weight anyway.

We ate in more than a few shitty restaurants during our trip and I was happy about it. Not about the mediocrity of the meal, but that after a 10 hour ride, I was seated on something other than a bicycle saddle, and clutching silverware instead of handlebars. We expended something like 5000 calories a day during this trip, and the need to eat settled in quickly after the need to peel off salt crusted riding clothes and take a bracing shower.

Prior to the trip, I researched places to eat in as many of the stayover towns as possible. I naively figured that after a long day on the bike that I'd be willing to ride a short way from the hotel for food that was worth it. [ed - We did not have access to cars, just our bikes]. I mean, after 100 miles, what's another 5, right? Wrong. Asheville, NC has a slew of great restaurants. We ate in the chain BBQ joint directly across from our motel, cuz there was no way in hell I was going to pedal back up the hill we just rode down.

It had all the hallmarks of mediocre corporate `cue: no smoke smell at all as we approached it; a "waiter wanted" sign in the front door; faux country decor; young underexperienced waitress who didn't know if the pork dinner was pulled, choppped, or sliced. You get the picture. Ordinarily, I'd have turned around running at the lack of smoke leaving the chimney. On that day, I was glad to be eating. Pass the mustard sauce.

One entree was seldom enough. As the trip wore on, I'd add a second dinner. So after soup, a large burger cooked to perfect rosy rare, a large side of fries, and a pint of microbrew, I ordered a plate of steamed mussels and another pint. This was after a heavy breakfast, and stuffing my face throughout the day so I wouldn't bonk during the ride.

You'd think pro football players eat alot. They'd be put to shame by a group of scrawny ass cyclists.

What I learned about food this summer, Act I

Eat ye not so much and shed thine middle-aged beer gut and flabby manboobs.

This I acheived by late June, by throttling down my voracious eating habit and riding my bike every day in preparation for the East Coast death march on bikes. On many nights, my dinner at work consisted of microwaved broccoli with salt and pepper. You wondered why I wasn't writing about food on this blog? "I nuked some broccoli tonight... and last night... but the night before that I melted some brie on top and it was better..."

Though I'd signed on last December for this two week tour that averaged over 100 miles of hilly riding every day, the daunting reality that, "gee, I really haven't ridden that much over the last decade and maybe I oughta lose some weight for this thing" hadn't really set in until March. With some diligent effort, I actually managed to drop 20 pounds before I left for the ride in July.

Eat less, ride more. Lose weight.

End Act I