Wow, back to back blog posts! That’s what happens when your wife is away and you’re all alone. No, this isn’t a pity party – but Paula is in Argentina and I have some time on my hands. Last weekend was the Memorial Day weekend – for many, the beginning of summer. Knowing Paula was going to be gone, I organized a little guys weekend at La Escondida del Mar (our little slice of paradise in Maine). That’s a tough weekend to have a guy’s weekend – too many family gatherings – but I guess Ron and Joe’s respective wives went soft on them and gave the green light (thank you Jeanine and Cindy!). The plan was to meet in NYC Thursday night and drive up very early on Friday morning. The weather forecast fluctuated all week, but Friday was shaping up to be a warm day. After being dormant for 2 years, I had had the pool rehabilitated (and returned it to a saltwater pool), and newly opened that week. Come hell or high water (or cold air temps), I was going to use the pool at least once on the weekend. We made it up to Maine by 11 am, and quickly decamped to the pool. Ed, my pool guy, had planned to set the pool temp at 80. 80!?? Far too warm for my cheap pocket as I thought about the propane bills from the previous winter. 75 sounds pretty good. No…75 isn’t good…75, to skin temperature at 96, is pretty damn cold! In any case, after the first shock of cold, the pool felt nice, and we spent a lazy afternoon listening to music and drinking beer. The three of us had different tastes in music, with some overlap. I am firmly rooted in the 70’s (Zeppelin; Floyd; etc.); Joe was stuck in the 80’s (Style Council; Tears for Fears); and Ron is our festival guy (Umphrey’s McGee; Avett Bros; Government Mule). Having one Bluetooth wireless speaker complicated things, and there was frequent hijacking of the Bluetooth connection – but I came out with a new appreciation for Paul Weller and Umphrey’s McGee (go download the Zonkey album, now!). Anyway, despite the weather turning cool on us (we went from pool and beers to fleeces and bourbon by the firepit in 24 hours), it was a great weekend of fun, and resulted in my first explorations of the Boothbay area, and a few small reviews for those that may be enticed to come here.
Before I get into the (mini) reviews, I do want to touch on the subject of trust. Maine people are an interesting study in contrasts. While much has been written about the taciturn Mainer who doesn’t trust people “from away” – we have been pleasantly surprised by the trust extended to us in our encounters with most businesses here. As some of you probably know, a second house isn’t easy to maintain, especially getting one that wasn’t used much and had some undiscovered maintenance issues. As a result, there are a lot of on-going needs (dock service; landscaping; pool; snow plowing; etc.) and the inevitable unexpected issues (appliance repair; HVAC repair; etc.). We’re used to arranging for service, and providing the obligatory credit card to either pay, or guarantee payment – but it seems that here in Maine, trust still exists. I can’t tell you how many of our service providers have just asked for a billing address – no credit card needed, I’ll just send you a bill! It even extends to retail business – I’ll talk in a bit about Barb Scully’s Lobster and Oyster stand at her house – hundreds (probably thousands) of dollars of oysters and lobsters open to the public, with a prominent sign that indicates if she isn’t around, take what you want and leave the money – the honor system!! This morning (in NYC), as I dreamed wistfully about how trusting Mainers were…I was jarred awake at 6am by my cell phone – it was the water truck company (my pool needed to be topped off) asking if there was anyone home (in Maine) since they don’t take credit cards, prefer cash, and wanted payment before delivering the water! Ahhh, back to reality!
As I said, the weekend was good fun, and we took the opportunity to explore a bit. First stop, on Friday afternoon, was to two businesses, side by side, in Damariscotta that I’d like to give a shout out to. Fisherman’s Catch, located on Main St. just as you cross the bridge from Newcastle, is a nice little seafood purveyor. It’s a small shop, but fully stocked with plenty of fresh lobsters; clams; mussels; oysters; scallops; fish – all fresh, and most locally caught. It’s my “go to” local seafood seller, and I highly recommend it. If you’ve read this blog before, you might have caught my post on Oysters, where I speak prominently about oyster farming in Midcoast Maine, particularly on the Damariscotta. I am thrilled to be living so close to such an amazing fishery, and Fisherman’s Catch always has several varieties to choose from. Heath Reed is the owner – always a smile, always helpful. We ended up picking up 3 dozen Norumbegas – oysters so fresh I have no doubt they were harvested that morning – and 4 pound of Littleneck clams for a spaghetti vongole we planned on for Saturday night. Note that they will also ship, overnight, anywhere in the U.S. Right next door is Riverside Butcher. August Avantaggio opened the shop a couple of years ago, and I’m happy to see it seems to be thriving. Oftentimes specialty shops like this (especially in small towns) don’t survive. Riverside is a full-service butcher shop – they always have amazing meat and other items (including some non-traditional, but wonderful, empanadas), and what they don’t have on display, they can get, or they can cut. On a previous visit I was pleasantly surprised to find that August was familiar with Argentine Asado and could provide the types of cuts I was looking for to supply the asado. I highly recommend this shop as well. The similarities in both shops highlights everything you want in a business: (1) they are knowledgeable about their product; (2) their prices are reasonable; (3) their quality is outstanding; (4) they are always ready with a smile. These are the types of shops we all need to support – and they both have my business! Between the oysters and steaks, we were set – and I was able to get both without walking 5 steps between them!
The next place I want to review was, for us, the highlight of our trip. We woke up Saturday to a 30-degree temperature drop (common, unfortunately, at this time of year in Maine), and overcast skies. There would be no swimming today. Well – didn’t matter…just made the morning coffee that more pleasant. Let me digress here for a second on coffee. I started out my adult life hating coffee, but soon progressed to drinking a milked up, sugared up beverage that I’m sure was flavored with a touch of coffee. Over time, the proportion of milk and sugar decreased, until by my early 30’s, I was drinking it like my father used to – black. By my late 30’s I was beginning my transition…to full on coffee snob. Starbucks was my entrée. This continued through my 40’s, progressing well beyond Starbucks (too pedestrian) – when I first met Paula I was hitting up Stumptown on 29th and Broadway with my pal (Hi Jim!) once a week, parsing through all of the beans to get the freshest, and only using a burr grinder on them. And then something happened. It was a Sunday morning…and I discovered with horror that I had run out of Stumptown beans. It was really early (another sad by-product of getting older – you can’t sleep), and the only place open was a corner bodega, where I found this – a little red tub of Folgers Classic Roast. What! Was this what I was reduced to? However, desperation for my morning brew overcame my disgust. I dug out the old Mr. Coffee machine we had in the closet, and brewed up a cup (thankfully, it had a “bold” setting). And to my surprise – it wasn’t bad. In fact, it was pretty darn good. I managed to get some of my precious Stumptown beans the next day, but not wanting to waste the tub of Folgers (I am an honorary Yorkshireman), I began blending it in with the Stumptown. And so, I devolved, so to speak, gradually turning a 90/10 blend of Stumptown/Folgers into a 10/90…and eventually 100%, full on Folgers. If this keeps up, I can envision returning to milk and sugar in my 70’s, and by my 80’s I will be back, once again, to diapers and hating coffee (no…just kidding about the diapers!). Ok, where was I? Oh, yeah coffee. Coffee on a cold Maine morning is wonderful. Unfortunately, Ron, while putting on a good game face, is still in the coffee snob portion of his life…Joe seems to be transitioning, and I think he was fine with the Folgers. Ok, where were we? Oh yeah – the highlight of the weekend. I’ve completely wasted this paragraph, so time to start another.
Bet’s Famous Fish Fry is a local fish shack in Boothbay. If you drive down Rt. 27 to Boothbay, you can’t miss it – just before Mr. Coulombe’s new roundabout, on the left – a pretty little shack with picnic tables, and lots of people. Now, this isn’t Red’s Eats. You won’t find a lobster roll here, which is why, I suspect, that it seems to be more of a local place than a tourist destination. For me (and I’m guessing for the locals), I hope it stays that way (so why are you writing about it on a blog???? Because it’s my blog, that’s why!). Tourists come to Maine and they want lobster rolls. I can hear many people now “Oh fish sandwich…big deal – what’s so great about that?”. It is a big deal. Bet’s has, hand’s down, the best fish sandwich you will have…anywhere…ever…period. First let me comment on the portions. You approach the window and see the menu – fried fish, several different ways. And not just any fish – fresh haddock. Ok, we all agreed – fish sandwiches all around. 3 fish sandwiches, please. “You want the whole or half sandwich?”. Oh – come on! Three big guys, are you kidding – whole please.
She could tell we were neophytes. “It’s a whole pound of fish on the sandwich – you sure?”. By now our confidence was starting to crack…a whole pound? We looked at each other and gave her a very shaky nod yes. Sensing our uncertainty, she said “Let me show you a whole sandwich” – as our eyes followed her hand, we were in awe at the enormity! “Half sandwiches, please” we quickly said in unison. No time to be brash – an unfinished sandwich would shatter our reputations. She smiled knowingly, took our money (cash only please), and we wandered over to the picnic tables to wait. The sandwiches come with your choice of homemade tartar sauce, or homemade dill sauce. As newbies, we asked for both (good choice, as we were to find – both are fantastic). No fast food here – each order is cooked up fresh. You can tell just from the fragrance of frying fish that they are serious about the food here – the oil is fresh. One thing that always puts me off (and is immediately noticeable by the odor) is when a place stretches between oil changes on its fryer. Not here – only the clean smell of fresh oil. We waited about 10 minutes, and the sandwiches arrived. The half sandwiches. Unbelievable! The fish is battered, but the coating isn’t really heavy. The filets are thick pieces of haddock. They were fried to a golden brown and piled high on a bun. Even with a half sandwich, it’s a little tough getting your mouth around the bun – you’ll have to make an exploratory bite first to fit it in. Let me just say, here and now, that you won’t find a better fish sandwich anywhere. Joe lamented the fact that, after having the sandwich at Bet’s, he’ll never be able to eat another fish sandwich other than here, as all others will pale in comparison. Note that the drinks will be from a vending machine; and we didn’t try the fries (I’m sure they are equally good – but there was no sense in filling up on fries…and we’d have never finished them anyway). Even if the portion size were not so immense, the quality of the fresh fish fried to perfection would put this place on top of my list (and by the way – $9 for a half sandwich – that’s a steal!) Do not miss this spot.
The day was still relatively young, so we wandered around the Boothbay peninsula a bit. It’s a beautiful part of Midcoast Maine – lots of Islands, inlets, peninsulas, etc. We took a spin around Southport Island, and headed to Cozy Harbor, passing Robinson’s Wharf on the way (will be subject of another review at some point, but needless to say I’ll be giving it a thumbs up). Oliver’s is a small, upscale restaurant located in Cozy Harbor, a picturesque little village on the east side of Southport Island (no ferries needed – it’s connected to the mainland via a bridge). I’m not sure what it was before, but it’s been renovated within the last few years, and part of Paul Coulombe’s growing empire (Paul Coulombe is a wealthy businessman that lives on Southport – it appears people have a love/hate relationship with him, but from my perspective, he seems like he is a big supporter of the area). Paula and I have tried to visit Oliver’s on two previous visits, but were thwarted on both occasions, once because it was closed and once due to a private party. The location is perfect, right on a stunning little harbor. Oliver’s itself, while beautiful and clean inside, feels a little artificial. Perhaps it’s because I’m used to (and expect) a little wear and tear on these seaside places, and I’m not (yet) a local. In any case, we were there today just for a quick bloody mary (the previous night’s bourbon tasting, preceded by wine, beer, and champagne, had done us in – so a bloody mary was a good entrée back). We were shown to a nice outdoor table under a covered balcony. Service was friendly and fast, and three bloody mary’s were soon in front of us. They were quite good, with a large shrimp and celery as the accompaniments – and very spicy as I like them. I was shocked, however, to find out that they actually didn’t contain any vodka. Apparently, Oliver’s doesn’t have a license to serve distilled spirits – so their cocktails are made with – wine. Yup, wine. Well, to be fair, it’s a specialized fermented wine product that’s been developed just for situations like this where an establishment has a beer/wine license, but not one for hard liquor. Anyway, I honestly couldn’t have noticed the difference between it and one made with vodka. I have no idea how the food is – we’ll return sometime for a follow-up visit and try the food – but I can give it a provisional thumbs up as the location is stellar, the service is great, and the bloody mary was just right.
By now it was late afternoon, and we needed to get to the Hannaford’s in Damariscotta to pick up a few things for dinner. I then remembered another place that I’d been wanting to try – Round Top Ice Cream. It wouldn’t be summer in Maine without a trip to one of the many seasonal ice cream stands dotting this beautiful state. Round Top, named for a high point just above Damariscotta, started life as a dairy farm just after World War I. The ice cream stand has been there since the 1920’s…yes, almost 100 years! Started as a way to utilize more of the production from their prize Holsteins, the dairy farm itself closed in 1968, but the ice cream stand has survived and thrived. I love places like this…unpretentious, simple. I like the fact that, as far as I can tell, they employ local high school students – a perfect fit as it’s a summer business. While it was pretty cool when we visited, there was still quite a full parking lot – always a good sign. Upon entering, we were charmed by the simplicity – a large converted barn, with a simple counter and about 10 coolers behind. While they did have a soft serve machine, it was clear that hand dipped cones were what they were about. We were a little overwhelmed with all the flavors, and particularly intrigued by the flavor “Alewife Pudding” (alewife is a local fish similar to a sardine; turns out this was just Round Top having fun, as it was actually chocolate with M&M’s and espresso beans). In the end, it was Strawberry and Banana for Joe; Salted Caramel and Eagle Tracks (a vanilla/oreos/reese’s pieces mix) for Ron; and Salted Caramel and Butter Pecan for me. This is what ice cream is (or should be) all about – fresh, homemade ice cream; lots of great flavors; families just having fun. If you come to Midcoast Maine, this is highly worth a stop.
Saturday night was pretty low-key – we had learned our lesson the previous night and went easy on the bourbon. Dinner was a nice Spaghetti Vongole (unfortunately without fresh parsley, as both Joe and I had been fooled by a bunch of Cilantro masquerading as Parsley – but it didn’t matter), accompanied by a Saint Emilion that Joe had kindly brought from his cellar. We did finish the evening around the firepit but went easy on the drinking; as a result, we woke up Sunday morning in much better shape than the previous morning. A full breakfast was in order – eggs, bacon, the works. It was, unfortunately, another overcast and cool day, but no matter. The salt air and pine scent of coastal Maine can’t be replicated – and yet another reason I love it there. By early afternoon, we were up for another adventure. Today it was time to have a lobster roll – the boys had been promised. First, let me say – while I like lobster, it’s one of those things I can have once or twice a season, and I’m happy not to have more. Paula could eat it every night of the week, but I find a little goes a long way. While this may seem a bit blasphemous in Maine, I’ve increasingly found that this is a sentiment shared by many Mainers. Tourists go crazy for lobster, and particularly, lobster rolls. The Maine lobster roll has become one of the unofficial symbols of the state. Every place has their own “recipe” so to speak (it’s really about overall preparation, as there isn’t much to a lobster roll) – but generally an authentic Maine lobster roll will be fresh lobster piled on griddled, split top hot dog roll. You’ll find these split top hot dog rolls all over New England, and they are a perfect vehicle for the lobster, as you can griddle up the roll on both sides to get a crispy brown exterior. Various places will change up the way they prepare the lobster inside the roll – some places only use butter; some only use mayo – but simplicity is best. You won’t find lettuce or other accompaniments. Today we were going to the Boothbay Lobster Wharf, which I had heard served a fantastic (and huge) lobster roll in a nice setting. It’s right on the water, with a little complex consisting of an indoor bar, an outdoor lobster stand steaming whole lobsters, and a window serving lobster rolls and other sandwiches. While the day was cool, we decided to get some lobster rolls and a beer, and eat at one of the many outdoor tables by the water. Your choices on lobster rolls were the regular or large. The large wasn’t cheap ($34 – but lobster rolls in Maine, even a regular one, are going to set you back around $25). Joe was up first and was on the verge of getting the regular size – but Ron and I had to intervene and mention that the regular was probably the ladies/child portion. He quickly switched to the large, not wanting to come across as wimpy. Ron then ordered the regular, and I got the crab roll…Joe was on his own. Haha! We grabbed a beer (Ron continued with his mid-day bloody mary) and waited for our rolls. The setting is just perfect – while it was a little cool that day, this was the place to have a lobster roll – right on the water; a working lobster wharf; gorgeous view of the Maine coast. Joe went to pick up the rolls, and we enjoyed the view. We noticed he was struggling with the tray a bit as he approached with our food. His lobster roll wasn’t just large – it was ginormous!! There must have been the equivalent of two full lobsters stuffed into the roll (which you couldn’t even really see for the lobster). Our rolls seemed anemic by comparison, especially my runty crab roll. While he had a brief moment of hesitation on how he was even going to eat it, Joe quickly tucked in, and before we knew it, our rolls were resting comfortably in our (ample) bellies. I like the lobster rolls here – for me, I like my lobster roll with a touch more mayo than most places use – and the Boothbay Lobster Wharf was just right. My crab roll was delicious – I usually opt for crab rolls instead of lobster rolls – full of sweet Maine crab meat bound with just a touch of mayo. This place is all you want in a lobster roll joint – absolutely fresh seafood; beautiful rustic setting; fast and friendly service. So far, my favourite lobster roll place in Midcoast Maine. We reluctantly waddled back to the car to continue our meanderings, fully satisfied with our choice.
After taking a nice drive out to see the Pemaquid Point lighthouse, we wandered back to Edgecomb to prepare for dinner. Actually, we had quite stuffed ourselves all weekend, and none of us were thinking about anything big for dinner. Ron wanted to try to get some live lobsters to bring back to Jeanine (he had an extremely early flight out the next morning), but when we got to Fisherman’s Catch, it had just closed (early closing at 4pm on Sundays). No worries – I remembered a place that just might be open – a place I had been wanting to try for a while. We headed out of Damariscotta and took the River Road turnoff to head down the northeast, Damariscotta river side of Edgecomb. Our destination – The Lobster Store. Also called Barbara Scully’s Oyster and Lobster Market. Barbara Scully is a local legend in these parts (“these parts”? – what am I – a cowboy? sorry, but it sounded right!). She was instrumental in getting oyster farming started on the Damariscotta River. Working with the Darling Marine Center, Scully (a zoologist by education), Scully began experimenting with oyster farming on the Damariscotta almost 32 years ago. Her Glidden Point Oyster Farm was one of the first oyster farms in this area of Maine, but many more soon followed. Now, the oysters from this region are well known, and enjoyed, all over the world. Barbara sold Glidden Point a few years ago, but then opened her roadside market (it’s a quaint little building adjacent to her house) selling clams, fresh oysters, and lobsters. We pulled up to the small building and breathed a sigh of relief as we noticed it was open. As mentioned previously, Barbara operates on the honor system when she isn’t around – which is remarkable. In this case we were greeted first by one of her dogs, and then Barbara herself came out. I introduced myself (as I expected to be a quasi-regular in these parts, and my house was less than 15 minutes away), and we talked about the oysters she had available. There were three choices: Dodge Cove; Norumbegas; and Ring Points. Barbara spent some time talking to us about how each was grown and harvested slightly different, resulting in different flavors. She also talked about the unique characteristics of the Damariscotta River, and various pinch points which stir up the phytoplankton during tides, providing a great environment for oyster growth. Unfortunately for Ron, she had just sold the last of her lobsters, but we picked up 3 dozen oysters (a dozen of each) and headed home. Barbara’s little shop is another one of those places I highly recommend – she is highly knowledgeable and stocks amazing product. Interestingly enough, we asked Barbara if she still ate oysters after all these years – she laughed and said she preferred a nice ribeye!
We headed back to the house and agreed that dinner was just going to be the oysters, and a little cheese/charcuterie that night. The oysters were, like Friday night, the stars. Accompanied by Joe’s house made mignonette, we polished them off in short order. Ron and I took the shucking duties (although Ron was roundly chastised for not cutting the oysters free of the shell for his shucked oysters!). After another fire-pit night (along with one of my neighbors, Eric, who brought over two dozen fresh eggs from his chickens!), we called it a relatively early night. For Ron, this was the end of the weekend as he had that early flight. Joe and I had one last stop. Heading to the airport at midday on Monday, we got across the Wiscasset bridge and were presented with two choices. On the right, the granddaddy of all lobster roll shacks in Maine…the most well-known…the famous Red’s Eats. On the left, the relatively obscure (for those from away) Sprague’s. The line at Red’s was already quite long (at least an hour and a half) for this early in the season. Sprague’s had no line. The choice was easy (and one that was pre-selected as I already knew what I was doing). We pulled into the parking lot at Sprague’s, which, unlike Red’s, actually sits on the water. I’ve never understood the hype about Red’s. This has been written about many times, but it’s weird how celebrity starts. Red’s celebrity origins are a bit murky, but I think it was “discovered” in the pre-internet days through a couple of newspaper reviews out of state (perhaps the NY times?). It was always a well-known spot, going back to the 50’s – but over the years it has become the number one lobster roll destination for tourists – much to the displeasure of some locals, as it results in notorious delays and backups on Rt. 1 during the summer. Anyway, I’ve had lobster rolls from Red’s Eats – I’ve waited in that line before. They’re good…but I never found them to be better than lots of other lobster rolls. Bear in mind that I’m not an “aficionado” about lobster rolls – they are so simple (I think that’s part of their popularity – fresh and simple), it’s hard to get too excited about a particular lobster roll. Sprague’s is right across the street. Sprague’s always has parking. You’re rarely going to wait more than 30 minutes for your lobster roll. The lobster, like Red’s, is freshly steamed. You get about the same amount of lobster meat; and you pay slightly less at Sprague’s. So, we turned left into Sprague’s, ordered our lobster rolls, grabbed a picnic table, and watched the line at Red’s as it moved at glacial speed. The rolls were great. As good as Boothbay Lobster Wharf? For me, no, but pretty darn close. I like the slightly mayo-ier (is that a word?) version at Boothbay.
But it was nice sunny day; the lobster roll and lemonade were great, and a nice finish to the weekend. We pulled on to Rt. 1 to head to the airport and said goodbye to Wiscasset. Overall, a fantastic weekend in an awesome location with friends. Thanks to Ron and Joe for sharing the weekend with me, and for not letting me spend a dime during the weekend. For the rest of you – I encourage you to visit Midcoast Maine and explore this wonderful region. There are lots of things to do, but as I’ve found, it’s a bit like going back in time to a simpler time, where families can relax and enjoy a simple ice cream on a sunny Saturday.