Lobster roll to microbrew, Portland lays a groaning board of fresh and lusciously local delights. It's best to arrive hungry.
PORTLAND, Maine -- That the Maine coast has gone the way of Martha's Vineyard and Provincetown is a popular lament. Sure, the lobster may be scarcer, but it still tastes just as good. The gulls still make their lonely cries. The water is still freezing. And even the southern part of the state retains its rocky charm.
In short, the Black Dog-ification of Maine is far from complete, and if your summer retreats tend to revolve around food, you could make a case for Maine as first among equals.
At this time of year you don't have to go far to get a taste of the state's culinary aspirations. You need stop only in Portland to experience the full force of its agricultural and maritime bounty. Farmstands and farmers' markets join fish markets and the annual lobster fever, and the dairies are in high production for summer cheeses. And this city certainly knows what to do with its barley and wheat -- it's a mecca for small breweries and topnotch bakeries.
There is no single recipe for a successful dining excursion around coastal Maine; in the summer, it's hard to go wrong. But if you make some of these stops, you won't be sorry.
On the lobster roll hunt
You can find a picture-perfect lobster roll in nearly any town along the coast. It will set you back about $15, but that won't stop a fan. The true Mainer eats his lobster roll cold, the tender, sweet flesh set off with mayonnaise and celery. I have to have mine hot, southern New England style. We had barely crossed into the state when we stopped for lunch at the marine blue awnings of the ever-popular Maine Diner in Wells. There we found bliss: warm chunks of lobster in a toasted, buttered bun, with fresh-sliced cole slaw tinged with caraway. There was enough extra drawn butter on the side to slosh a bit over every bite, and that's just what I did.
A harbor town spoils you with choices. In the picturesque Old Port neighborhood, you can visit the Harbor Fish Market, its cavernous, cool interior dominated by a hammerhead shark suspended from the ceiling. Everywhere, the fresh catch glistens. The shellfish has a dewy, pearly sheen, and the fish repose on thick ice beds, their eyes staring up as clear as in life. The market is that rare blend of high quality and low prices, possible only when the sea is at your back door.
If you're feeling flush, you could go for the equally pristine, if more rarefied, selection at Browne Trading Co., suppliers to world-class chefs like Daniel Boulud. Here you can get fresh fish from farther afield, such as loup de mer, royal daurade, and wild pink sea bream. There's caviar and smoked shrimp and other treats for the well-dressed cocktail table.
If your idea of vacation doesn't include food preparation, you can still enjoy gorgeous fish, thanks to the vibrant dining scene. The Front Room on Munjoy Hill is a local favorite, with mussels, Casco Bay scallops, salmon, and crab cakes regularly on the menu. For a sunset excursion, take the short ferry ride to Peaks Island, where The Cockeyed Gull serves meticulous French- and Asian-influenced fare to consistent raves. On our visit the steamed mussels with white wine and tomato were so good we sat silently soaking up the juices with our bread, only to be dazzled moments later by fried monkfish with tarragon beurre blanc and grilled salmon with seaweed salad.
A walking tour of the wharves demands a stop at one of many excellent bakeries, such as the Standard Baking Co. on Commercial Street, where the croissants are warm and the anadama loaf offers up its captivating aroma every Thursday. Do you need a sticky, nutty, impossibly rich morning bun for sustenance on your walk? Of course you do.
For a few glorious years, the Portland Public Market fulfilled the city's dream of a great indoor space devoted to local vendors. Although it proved unprofitable and closed, its spirit lives on in the colorful weekly farmers' market in Monument Square. Each Wednesday, the area comes alive with people selling fruit, vegetables, flowers, paintings, and music. The nearby Public Market House acts as an anchor for the farmers' market. Here fresh cheeses from Maine and Vermont, fresh-baked breads, and Maine blueberry wines are among the offerings.
Maine potatoes are just coming into season, but you can get native spuds in irresistible form all year at Duckfat on Middle Street. This small storefront's fries are made with duck fat, which, as food fanatics know, makes for a superior texture and taste. Just one of Duckfat's shatteringly crisp, deeply gilded fries is enough to sell anyone on the superiority of the Maine potato (in this case, the Shepody variety from Caribou, in Aroostook County).
There is one other thing the serious food lover should not miss in Portland, and that is not food but drink. Stop in at the cool, dark haven of Gritty McDuff's, where the brick walls and copper bartops lead your eye to the brick-and-copper brew kettle in full view behind the counter. Gritty's beers are deep-flavored, nutty, and complex, the sort you sip slowly, while thinking about how much you love beer. Just a few blocks away, you can tour Shipyard Brewing Co., the largest micro-brewer in Maine. Though it sprawls across the old shipyard from which it takes its name, the brewery still has a crafter's heart, and tours of the facilities end with tastings (and a soda tasting bar for kids).
For artisanal beer fans, it's worth taking a drive to the Outer Forest Avenue neighborhood, where three small breweries -- Allagash Brewing, D.L. Geary, and Casco Bay -- all offer tours. You may need to call ahead, to check the schedule.
Before you leave Maine, take a dip in the frigid Atlantic at York Beach like normal, non-food-obsessed vacationers. A short skip from the rocky little island where Nubble Light perches, you'll find Brown's Old-Fashioned Ice Cream, where they serve the soft, creamy stuff in a plethora of flavors.
Order your favorite, then sit on the rocks and marvel at the fact that you can enjoy an ice cream cone even after a weekend of nonstop indulging.
T. Susan Chang can be reached at tsusanchang.com.