We were looking for a good “shoulder-season” fare for a long weekend away from the hot, humid, noisy and gridlocked city. Also, for a place neither of us had been to before. So, like Monopoly players, without much forethought, we landed on Portland, Maine, less than an hour away on a Jet Blue flight. We assumed it would be less packed with visitors than in summer.
Wrong! After booking our flights we discovered it was almost impossible to find a hotel room. September, it turns out, is wedding month in Portland. Also, huge cruise ships disgorge passengers almost every day and foodies up and down the East Coast head to Portland which – who knew? – is a magnet for serious restaurants and serious eaters. In short, until about Christmas or before the snows of winter arrive, the joint is jumping. Happily, however, through booking.com, we found a hotel, Hampton Inn, perfectly located near the waterfront and, better yet, around the corner from most of the best restaurants in the city. It exceeded our expectations (with an ample buffet breakfast, friendly staff and adjacent Brew Pub), as did Portland itself.
Lobster is to Maine as Broadway is to New York – one of the main (no pun intended) reasons to go. We began to fantasize about lobster rolls and steamed lobster, and vowed to compare and contrast as many as we could. We began immediately.
The minute we dropped our bags, our first stop was a hip eatery, steps from our hotel, Eventide Oyster Company, famous for its brown-butter lobster rolls. We didn’t even look at the menu. We’d been dreaming about this dish since we first read about it. Though it took a while to arrive (a hallmark of eating in Portland), we perched on stools at the seafood bar, indulged in a glass of wine, and devoured our lobster rolls – deliciously buttery pieces of minced lobster — nestled in a Chinese bun. A remarkably good combination though the lobster portion was on the minimalist side. The drink and roll came to $27.
Downtown Portland — with its renovated Old Port and Arts Districts – is a city built by and for its major industry – tourism. Everything is within walking distance. You do not need a car. There are interesting art galleries and clothing stores, boutiques of every variety and a bustling waterfront. There are dozens of boat tours – to watch whales and/or visit coastal villages and islands — on steamers, ferries, and sailboats. There are brewery, distillery, railroad, food and walking tours. And for those who simply enjoy walking the streets of a new city, as we do, Portland is a fascinating maze of streets and neighborhoods. It has preserved much of the 19th history and architecture that survived the Great Fire of 1866, retained some of its cobblestone avenues and most of its parkland. The result is an artsy-foodie town with a youthful spirit, and enough cultural activities to provide a bit of gravitas. (The first Friday of the month is Art Walk, when all the galleries are open and conviviality reigns.)
There is its Fine Art Museum, Longfellow House, 19th century mansions and historic Munjoy Hill, with a soaring Marine Observatory and landscaped park – Eastern Promenade — with sweeping views of the water and bay.
Each day was divided into eating lobster and then figuring out in which direction to go to walk off our meal.
We waited an hour for our second lobster roll at the highly touted Dry Dock Restaurant & Tavernlocated on Commercial Street, which runs parallel to the water and is the heart of Old Portland’s waterfront. It was a mayo-drenched version – the portion far more generous than our first – and we loved every morsel. That day’s market price for each Lobster Roll with tax was $19.44. Worth every penny. But it still left us ready, willing and able for a lobster dinner.
By New York standards, the streets of Portland are not crowded but we decided it’s because everyone is packed into the best-known seafood restaurants in the city. Between a no-reservation dinner policy for two, and an hour plus wait at every place recommended, we finally opted for Scales, a less well known branch of a family of top restaurants in the city, beautiful situated on a Commercial Street wharf. We began with an appetizer of bluefish pate (excellent), and opted for a breadcrumb and butter laden whole lobster instead of a standard steamed lobster. It was a mistake. Though delicious, half the inside of our beast was mysteriously absent, something our absent-minded waiter (he forgot our Brussels Sprouts and was nowhere to be seen when we needed salt and pepper and a moist towelette) failed to tell us as we debated between a plain steamed lobster or this specialty. Dinner with a glass of wine came to about $60. Somehow, we were disappointed.
We rented a car for one day to drive up Route 1, along the coast. We stopped at a Farmer’s Market in the charming town of Bath, where everyone seemed to know one another and we were the only tourists in town.
The day was brisk and the landscape beautiful. But our true goal was to stop at a shack, Red’s Eats, in Wiscasset, Maine, about 40 minutes north of Portland, purportedly home of the best lobster roll in Maine.
It’s right on Route 1 and there is no missing it: a line is always curled around the modest looking eatery and tiny outside deck. After standing on that line for an hour (par for the course, since everything in this family run restaurant is assembled by hand), and getting to know the life stories of our neighbors, we can report that the lobster roll at “Red’s Eats” is nothing short of spectacular. It’s the Platonic Ideal of a Lobster Roll, basically an entire shelled lobster crammed into and overflowing a white-bread frankfurter roll with the best salty Maine butter as a dipping sauce. Heaven. It was so delicious and we were so stuffed that we actually couldn’t imagine eating another morsel of lobster again. (I was also so ravenous that I forgot to take a picture, so you’ll have to see it for yourself.) Our non-lobster vow lasted about 24 hours.
On our last evening in Portland – after placing our names on two waiting lists – and enjoying a magnificent sunset, we wangled our way onto two bar seats at DeMillo’s, a huge, garishly lit seafood emporium on Long wharf off Commercial Street. We staved off hunger with drinks and steamed clams. An hour later we were admitted into the sanctorum, a lovely dining room where I finally got what I came for, a fresh, off-the-boat, one and a half pound steamed lobster ($35.). It was delicious though not life changing.
I won’t bore you with our non lobster meals, except for one: on our first day in Portland, we made our way, at the ungodly hour of 4:30 in the afternoon, to Portland’s dining mecca, Fore Street, listed as one of the country’s Top 50 restaurants. A dinner-only, year-round establishment, reservations must be made months in advance, but a third of its tables are reserved for walk-ins, like us, who sign-in at five, enjoy a drink at the bar and, if they are lucky, snag a table in the dining room, which begins serving at 5:30. We were lucky.
The open-kitchen restaurant is quiet, elegant, in a wood and brick way, and the food extraordinary. We opted for a Tomato Tart each ($15), shared a chilled and smoked Seafood Tasting Platter ($26) and a Simmered Atlantic Hake Filet Wood Oven Roasted Stew with sugar kelp, halibut broth, potatoes, duck fat seared cabbage and hokurei turnips. It was nothing short of sublime, reminiscent of the layers of exploding tastes that I first encountered decades ago at Paul Bocuse. ($28.) Fore Street should not be missed.
We arrived in Portland midday on a Thursday, and departed early Monday morning with five lobster meals under our belts. Not bad. Maybe a personal best. If I had to do it all again – and I look forward to doing it all again next summer – I’d head straight to Red’s Eats in Wiscasset. Hands down, the best. Maybe even life changing.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag