Many moons ago, a friend steered me to a cafe that she claimed would soothe palate and soul. And, she said, be sure to get “chowder-muffin-coffee.” She spoke this fast, as if it were one word. I complied, and I’ve been grateful for her advice ever since.
Back then, the Dolphin Marina was a year-round eatery and chandlery on Potts Harbor in South Harpswell, housed in a modest building where you could pick up engine oil and marine rope as well as a bowl of lobster stew. Outside were — and still are — a boat ramp, a dock, a wharf, a pump-out station and jacked-up boats.
But then word got out. Waits got long. The marine shop departed the building to allow more takers for the celebrated chowder. The dining room was reconfigured and renovated.
The Saxton family, in business since 1966, responded again this season to the restaurant’s growing popularity. Wend your way down Harpswell Neck, and you’ll encounter a brand-new edifice at the end of Basin Point. The restaurant is sited differently; it’s now at the farthest reach of the peninsula. A beautifully rendered, airy and light-filled building makes the most of this spit of land — for people, not stored boats.
The dining room wall is gently curved, suggesting the wheelhouse of an ocean vessel. Mimi Saxton told me later that it mirrors the curved library walls of Adm. Robert E. Peary’s house on nearby Eagle Island.
Tables that aren’t a few feet away from enormous windows are set on a raised floor so that everyone gets a grand view. Blonde wood and wainscotting keep the atmosphere warm and light. The bar, in a separate room with lounge tables, is hand-turned cherry, so sleek it begs to be stroked. Join a yachtsman or a fisherman here for a cocktail. (The old place only served wine and beer.)
The menu hasn’t changed, assured our waitress, after we finally turned our heads from the spectacular vistas of upper Casco Bay to order food.
Indeed, the gorgeously rich New England fish chowder was still ultra-buttery and sweetly fishy; the cream stocked with giant pieces of haddock, clams and potatoes. I defy you to find a better one anywhere.
Both sizes ($7.95 cup; $10.95 bowl) come with a large and lovely homemade blueberry muffin. Order a cup of fresh, strong coffee, and you have that winning combination my friend suggested years ago.
The mussels were also delicious, served with a strong, classic broth of butter, cooking liquid, wine and boatloads of garlic (appetizer, $12.95). The accompanying bread, however, was blah supermarket fare, which will disappoint those who want to use an excellent crust to dip into that garlicky broth.
A seafood scampi contained lobster claw meat, scallops and Maine shrimp served over angel hair pasta, with a small pool of garlic and butter sauce underneath. It was an unexciting dish that seemed tossed together. For $25.95, one expects better.
The blackboard special of pan-blackened Cajun haddock ($18.95) had the anticipated heat, but the fish lacked that moist, fall-apart flakiness. However, the four thick pieces of fish in the fried haddock basket ($11.95) aced the texture test, their coating golden and feathery, if tame. Several good shakes of vinegar and salt brought it up to speed.
A sharp celery seed housemade dressing enlivened the conventional side salad that came with the special. The basket’s sweet potato fries were very thinly sliced and crispy, almost like chips. I like thicker, with soft middles, but that’s just me.
The scallop basket ($15.95 for a choice of broiled or fried) stood out. Sea scallops were broiled without adulteration to a lightly browned finish. Cole slaw, served in a plastic cup, blended red and green cabbage in a light dressing with another celery seed boost.
The Dolphin’s homemade desserts are homey fare. A mousse made from milk chocolate and orange was mild and sweet enough for kids. A rhubarb crumble held a hearty dose of a crunchy walnut/oatmeal topping, and a wild blueberry pie came laden with fruit (all $4.95).
Paper placemats and paper-wrapped silverware, fine at the old place, strike me as a little too diner-like for a restaurant with a graceful new building. I suppose the intent is to retain the coziness of the old space, but it’s a bit of a disconnect.
These touches I do like: a path that is paved, curved and bordered with cheery plants to create a welcoming wheelchair entrance; binoculars in the lounge; an engaged owner who circulates among diners and the mostly college-age staff to make sure everything is going smoothly.
Go by car (a long, twisty and idyllic drive from Brunswick) or boat (shorter for some because it’s as the gull flies) to Dolphin Marina and Restaurant. But to have the happiest food experience, know what to order.
Repeat after me: chowder-muffin-coffee. Lobster stew. Seafood basket. In short, skip the fancy entrees and go for the simple stuff.
It’s Maine coast comfort food to remember.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer who lives near Portland. Her work has appeared in numerous publications.