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?


Anonymous Kirk said...

My God - What an orgy of eating! Though you really earned it after that trek! Great pic's.

8/15/2005 08:57:00 AM  
Blogger elmomonster said...

Drool! Daaang buuoy! That's some good eatin'!

Glad you're back!

8/15/2005 09:14:00 AM  
Blogger Professor Salt said...

Hey guys, thanks for the welcome back!

8/15/2005 11:03:00 PM  
Blogger Daily Gluttony said...


I have to remember not to read food blogs this early in the morning =drooling=

Awesome post!

8/16/2005 08:35:00 AM  
Blogger hbgrrl said...

Well, just thanks a lot.
Just ate dinner...

What an amazing feast.
It was incredible reading about it, I can't imagine how gooood it was eating it!!

Welcome back!

8/16/2005 09:10:00 PM  
Blogger Joy said...

This made me so homesick that I am about to cry. Glad I found you!

8/17/2005 08:11:00 AM  
Blogger Cate said...

My mouth is watering ... Maine Lobster Rolls ... there's little better than that!

8/23/2005 07:33:00 AM  

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