Monday, May 22, 2006

Curmudgeons eat, too

All work and no food makes Dick a grumpy editor. I am delighted to report a distinct lack of grumpiness, though, after a few days of R&R on the mid-coast of Maine with my wife. We had a bit of a false start, following restaurant recommendations from non-foodies; but once we got our bearings, we did fine.

One of our goals, in an unfamiliar place, is to discover the local cuisine. This is not always possible, of course. As anyone who has traveled the Interstate highways in Pennsylvania can attest, you will—sadly—get a better meal at any national chain restaurant than you will at the most convincingly quaint home cookin’ establishment touting its Pennsylvania Dutch heritage.

But this is about Maine, thankfully, not Pennsylvania. Thus I report:

Thursday evening, on the inn-sitter’s recommendation, in Lewiston, we went to a large, local Italian restaurant, DaVinci’s. It’s inside the old Bates Mill and the decor is suitably funky. Food was mediocre or worse. I do not recommended it for foodies, but it is okay for families looking for pizza. Actually, the Caesar salad was interesting in an idiosyncratic sort of way; and our entrées weren’t bad; but the complimentary sides of pasta (one with a red sauce, one with something they called Alfredo sauce but that bore no resemblance to Alfredo sauce) were awful.

Friday, I did better for lunch (on my own, as my wife was eating awful conference food at the hospital where she was speaking). Nothing But the Blues is a small, informal bistro not too far from Bates College. The place was inoffensive and clean, set up mostly for takeout, but they served real silverware for dining in. Menu was interesting and varied, with several vegetarian choices. If you are in Lewiston at lunchtime or are looking for a light, informal dinner, you could do a lot worse.

Friday for dinner, the conference organizers took us to a local institution, a well run, family-owned, mostly-fried-seafood place, the Village Inn. If you are looking for a place to take the family and fried seafood appeals to you, it will do. If you want something other than fried seafood, go elsewhere.

Saturday our actual vacation began. We puttered around all morning and did not get on the road until after eleven. Then we drove in circles for a while until we found the route we were looking for (shorter on the map, longer in real life) to get over to Bath, where we decided to have lunch. We bypassed a pleasant, upscale place, Bistro Bistro, that seemed to be doing a good business with the ladies-who-lunch crowd and had an interesting menu that would have been at home in any upscale neighborhood in the world but that didn’t seem very Maine-y. Up the street was J.R. Maxwell & Co. This was the first time we felt we were eating real Maine food. I had a tasty lobster roll of modest size. The coleslaw and baked beans it came with were both obviously homemade and several cuts above the ordinary. My wife had a quiche that she did not offer to share. For a large, busy, somewhat tourist-focused place, I’d rate it good to excellent and a good value, too.

Across the street and up the block is a wonderful kitchen store, Now You’re Cooking, where we spent close to an hour and some dollars. This was one of several kitchen stores I’ve seen in Maine that put better known establishments, like Sur Le Table, to shame. Apparently the natives spend those long winters cooking.

After a visit to The Maine Maritime Museum in Bath—a place particularly worth visiting if you happen to be writing a historical novel that involves the age of the great sailing ships, which I am not but you might be—we got back on the road and headed down to Brunswick.

We drove around a bit, then hung out at a café for a while to check email and reconnoiter local restaurants. We ended up at Star Fish Grill, and we’re delighted we did. Despite the unfortunate fact that the restaurant shares a building with a pest control company, the place is superb. Décor, ambiance, service, and especially the food are all great. It’s a chef-owned restaurant that features a lot of Maine-raised and Maine-caught food. Dishes are imaginative and delicious without being pretentious or weird. And the localness was in evidence; this did not feel like a transplanted Boston or Manhattan restaurant. It was definitely a four-star experience and would be worth driving to from anywhere in southern Maine.

We shared an appetizer, locally made chorizo in a sherry and tomato sauce, that was sublime. I had sea scallops, local and the largest I have ever seen, in a sauce of flambeed brandy, shiitake mushrooms, shallots, and cream. My wife took advantage of an offer on the menu for a light meal: a dinner salad with a half-portion of a meat entrée. She had a pork tenderloin schnitzel over a salad consisting of braised greens in a balsamic reduction. We had two desserts, a lemon tart to end all lemon tarts and a chocolate-raspberry crème brulée. With drinks, appetizer, desserts, and tip we got out of there for less than ninety dollars. We walked in, without trouble, around 6:30. My guess is that a reservation would be in order during the summer, though. The place was full when we left.

On Sunday, we set off in the right direction and did some wandering up and down what the locals call fingers (a glance at a map shows why). We ended up in Wiscasset in time to do some antiquing (I bought a slew of old books) and to have lunch at Red’s Eats, where we stood in line for the better part of an hour. I understand why it’s a place that must be experienced. It’s a bit reminiscent of standing in line for pizza at Pepe’s in New Haven. Everyone should do it once, but neither a pizza nor a lobster roll, when you think about it, is really a food worth standing in line for. Nonetheless, the immense lobster roll was everything it promised to be; the crab cakes were tasty; and any place that has iced coffee on the menu is okay in my book.

We spent the rest of the afternoon doing non-food-related touristy things and found ourselves in Rockland at dinner time. We scouted Main Street, ending up at a phenomenal little wine bar/bistro called In Good Company. The owner-chef is a Culinary Institute of America graduate who owned restaurants in major cities before moving home to Rockland, where she also owns a wine store. We were astounded to learn that the woman who waited on us was not the owner (she certainly had a proprietary attitude about ensuring that everything was running smoothly) and that the chef was the regular Sunday stand-in for the owner, who does the cooking five nights a week. The owner believes in making a fair profit at reasonable prices. The hors d’oeuvres we had (a large bowl of nicely spiced mixed nuts and a baked whole garlic) were three dollars apiece. The entrées were quite reasonable (a large piece of beautifully rare beef tenderloin with an elegant cremini butter sauce, served with a vegetable hash, was sixteen dollars; a local microbrew porter was three dollars). All in all, the place was an unpretentious but elegant delight that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Tomorrow, business as usual.


Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Now, Dick, your post was quite unfair; it contained no photographs of the delicious items you consumed. But I must admit that you described the items well enough that I am salivating and am now dying to travel to Maine.

Dick Margulis said...

Fellow editor "Edie in Maine," who got us oriented in the right general direction for our travels, says she doesn't go to restaurants because she hates paying for food she can make better at home. So if you do travel to Maine, Katherine, I urge you to cadge a home-cooked meal from Edie. It might well put everything we ate to shame.

Anonymous said...

Why Dick! I had no idea you were a food writer too, in addition to all you other manifest talents. You really make me wish I had a reason to go to Maine, other than the obvious motive of following in your footsteps to these great places.

Dick Margulis said...

You're too kind. I'm less of a food writer than a food eater, though. You know—I eat; therefore I am. I think my doctor would rather I ate less and wrote more. Anyway, if you do get out of town now and then, let me know which way you're headed. If it's someplace I've been, maybe I'll be able to point you to a good meal or two.