PORTLAND, Maine -- Around here, getting lobster is easy; getting perfect lobster is not. Lobster joints salt the coast from Kittery to Calais. It seems nearly every village on the ocean side of Route 1 has at least one lobster shack or equivalent, a casual, usually take-out place.
``Everyone wants it, so it's thrown into a pot and not a lot of attention is paid to it," said Rob Evans, chef-owner of Hugo's Restaurant in Portland. That's not the case in the state's nationally acclaimed restaurants, where the tasty crustacean is treated like a celebrity rather than a commodity.
Like most chefs in top restaurants, Evans takes the work out of eating lobster . Named one of the top 10 new chefs in the country by Food & Wine magazine in 2004, he applies a creativity that goes well beyond baked, stuffed, boiled, or steamed.
``We try to be innovative as often as possible and tend to stay away from traditional preparations," Evans said. Asian-influenced lobster sashimi , for example, is just a whisper beyond raw. ``We poach the lobster for 30 seconds to get the tail meat out, slice it, put it on a skewer and do a light brushing with Asian citrus and soy and sprinkle it with crystallized orange peel," he said. It's served in an iced, applewood-smoked preparation. ``Not only is it raw and cold smoked, it's done tableside," he said. ``It's extremely tender, and the taste is subtle."
Far richer are the classical preparations of Steve Corry, chef-owner with his wife, Michelle, of Portland's five fifty-five restaurant. ``When people think of lobster, they want some decadence," said Corry , whose lobster Benedict contains half the meat from a 1 1/2-pounder poached in butter. ``We're talking decadence here: pure hollandaise made with egg yolk and clarified butter slowly tempered together, lemon, a touch of our house-made hot sauce, served on a brioche, puff pastry, or house-made biscuits."
Corry obviously ignored the childhood admonishment not to play with his food. His take on a lobster roll, a New England classic, has verve with a Southwestern accent. He begins with a lobster guacamole, made from fresh California avocados, lemon juice, a little garlic, knuckle meat, and a touch of cayenne pepper. That rests upon sliced, toasted-and-buttered brioche rounds and is topped with tail meat that has been sliced in half, so it curls into its natural shape. Crowning it is a claw, set askew and garnished with lobster tentacles.
``Lobster is very versatile. It has a strong flavor, but it's sweet and goes with many different things," said Melissa Kelly , a James Beard award-winner who is the executive chef and co-owner of Primo in Rockland, Maine. Her inspirations complement the restaurant's northern Italian fare and her commitment to using fresh, seasonal ingredients. ``We borrow classic Mediterranean and Italian techniques and dishes but use local ingredients," she said. Choices might include lobster salad with asparagus and curry-lime vinaigrette; lobster ravioli, risotto, or gnocchi; even lobster-and-chanterelle or lobster-and-artichoke pizzas from Primo's wood-fired oven.
The signature dish at Portland's Fore Street is lobster roasted at about 800 degrees in a wood-fired oven. ``We kill the lobster to order in the back kitchen, then split it, break off the claws and crack them, and roast with the shells down and meat up," said Sam Hayward, the restaurant's co-owner and winner of a Beard award for best chef in the Northeast. Just before it's finished, a compound butter of fresh herbs and diced, sauteed wild mushrooms is tossed in , creating a light, creamy sauce for basting. ``I love to serve it with cornmeal hasty pudding, a creamy polenta, and more wild mushrooms -- chanterelles or morels, ideally," he said.
A bit more casual is Hayward's lobster BLT, made with a slick slice of pain de maïs (cornbread) brushed with butter, lightly toasted and cut in two. Half is layered with inner leaves of Boston lettuce and thick slices of ``really great" local tomato (the tomato must, Hayward says, be local, and impeccably fresh). After seasoning, it's topped with the chilled meat of a half lobster, a thick slice of crisp, roasted apple-smoked bacon, and a dollop of homemade mayo, usually flavored with fresh chervil. ``It's not really a sandwich, but it has all the elements of a sandwich," Hayward said.
Fresh and local with an accent frequently earn Arrows, in Ogunquit, national accolades. The menu blends inspirations garnered from chef-owners Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier's frequent travels in Asia with selections from their justly famous garden. ``We love to do lobster with Thai curries and lots of fun, different condiments, perhaps cilantro, coriander, and mint from our garden," Frasier said, noting that they also grow lemongrass, various onions, and chilis that may be used .
If one must overindulge in lobster, the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, a Relais & Châteaux property with a five-star rating and Relais Gourmand status, is the place to do it. ``Around here, there's not a problem with richness," said chef Jonathan Cartwright. Not only is lobster featured prominently on Cartwright's menus, but the inn will arrange anything lobster-oriented their guests might desire, from a trip with a local lobsterman to a lobster picnic. Breakfast might be poached eggs on Kennebunkport lobster hash or a lobster omelet. Lunch, served poolside, might be Cartwright's version of a lobster roll. ``We do it in a lavosh bread as a roll up," he said. ``It's made with diced lobster meat, cayenne, lemon juice, crème fraîche, mayo, diced cucumber, and tomato."
Lobster is always on the White Barn's four- or six-course, fixed-price menu, and Cartwright often offers a lobster amuse-bouche to awaken the palate. His signature lobster dishes are in ``The White Barn Inn Cookbook" (Running , 2003). Lobster spring roll, with carrot, daikon radish , and snow peas in a Thai-inspired spicy sweet sauce, is an appetizer . Cartwright describes his steamed Maine lobster on a bed of homemade fettuccine with carrot, ginger, snow peas, and cognac-coral butter sauce entree as ``a typical American melting pot," with Asian, Italian, and French influences.
``I'm sure if we did a lobster dessert, we'd sell that as well; perhaps a lobster souffle with vanilla ice cream," Cartwright mused. ``People just can't get enough of it."
Contact Hilary Nangle, a freelance writer in Waldoboro, Maine, and author of ``Moon Handbooks Coastal Maine" and ``Moon Handbooks Acadia National Park," through her website www.hilarynangle.com.