Joseph’s By the Sea has been on my list for most of the year, but plans got delayed, summer slipped quickly into autumn, and now it is undeniably winter. That noted, there is magic in Maine’s off-season too. Gray skies replace blue, cold surf turns frigid, and an introspective spirit prompts us to reflect on Maine’s (food) culture of extremes.
Old Orchard Beach is a town of extremes, and while I love the frenetic energy of the summer boardwalk, the tattoos, the short-shorts and the wafting scent of sunscreen and pizza grease, I also appreciate the town’s winter sensibilities.
Driving to West Grand Avenue at 6:30 p.m. on an already obsidian Friday and passing the shuttered pier, the skeletal and eerie carnival midway rides, and the single pizza vendor greeting the lone walk-up customer, the experience felt otherworldly and disjointed, like a spooky locals-only secret.
As if on cue, there is Joseph’s By the Sea. In peak season, I imagine Joseph’s parking lot filled to the limits with vacationers wanting sit-down seafood with an ocean view or brides and moms-to-be hosting celebrations. In the off-season, Joseph’s is a place to go where nobody might think to look.
My friend and I sat at one of three occupied tables, and although a little conspicuous at first, we settled ourselves nicely for the experience. Eavesdropping on the couple near us, we overheard a distraught “I never meant for this to happen,” and decided that phrase has just one meaning. In the off-season, Joseph’s is the kind of place to go when you must deliver those words.
The sound of the surf resonated from just past the dune grass, and, if the days were longer, I could have watched that surf from the floor-to-ceiling windows that line Joseph’s dining rooms.
The dining space itself is cavernous but separated into distinct and manageable sections. While the main dining area’s decor is butter-toned and adorned with beach hotel-style ephemera (think brass-framed watercolors), there is also a very modern bar with electric blue walls, as well as another ultra-chic section outfitted in retro chrome-accented tables and an impressive stone wall.
I imagined breakfast at those kitchen-style tables, and made a mental note to return some weekend morning for what I suspect is an exquisite morning view.
In addition to a restaurant, Joseph’s is a reception space and banquet hall. The dinner tables, set in white, offer spotless and heavily weighted cutlery. The bread basket napkin is folded artfully, and one of the two varieties of perfectly scooped butter balls is an olive compound that I could have eaten like pudding. Plenty of free parking, a welcoming staff, flickering shaded table lamps and, when gauged on a banquet hall standard, tasty food.
What does “banquet hall standard” mean? I mean that the while the menu reads like literature, complete with accent aigu aplenty, the delivery feels like dishes that are meant to serve (and please) a crowd. At least, this was my experience at Joseph’s.
We skipped the pasta maison ($24) with “Maine shrimp, scallops, salmon, mussels and sun-dried tomatoes over angel hair pasta with garlic, herbs and cream” — but doesn’t it sound lovely? Same for Acadian stew ($24) with a “seafood, andouille sausage and chicken in a spicy tomato broth.”
The roast black angus sirloin ($22) was cooked pink as requested and laid in an attractive deck of thin slices with portobello mushrooms and hearty stout au jus. The seared scallops ($27) were also tasty with flecks of bacon, apple pieces and the tang of seasonal cider. As with any group-focused serving, the plate was dressed with the textbook portion of wild rice, julienned carrots and a parsley garnish.
The lobster potato pancake ($12) arrived on a pool of chipotle creme fraiche, and because I love potato pancakes and lobster, the concept of large pieces of lobster stuffed, whoopie pie-style, between two thin, fried potato pancakes seemed sound. It was tasty. The lobster was ample, the potato pancake crispy, and the dish exactly as described.
As was the semolina-crusted calamari ($9), where ample portions of perfectly-cooked calamari were coated in a semolina flour to give the squid a unique, if somewhat mealy, texture.
The Caesar salad ($8) had crisp-fresh lettuce and large shavings of Parmesan with thick, briny white anchovy filets. If I was served any of these dishes at a wedding reception, I would feel lucky.
None of these menu items were bad at all, but neither were they designed for distinction. Again, the menu was lovely to read, but the delivery seemed to lack a certain passion.
Of particular interest, though, is the list of hot espresso beverages, each deliciously vintage. (I half-expected to see Harvey’s Bristol Cream.) I appreciated the seasonal appeal of the graham cracker coffee — Frangelico and amaretto mixed with coffee and garnished with whipped cream and cinnamon ($8.50), and cafe a la Borgia ($8) that combined apricot brandy and espresso with a twist of lemon.
My choice, the Dark Angel ($8), mixed amaretto and espresso, whipped cream and slivered almonds. On a cold and blustery night, what a lovely warm-up.
For dessert, I chose the chocolate truffee, billed as a rich chocolate pate with raspberry puree. The idea of chocolate pate was somewhat unsettling, but the dessert was just that — an unusual pate texture with a cloying raspberry syrup drizzle. Worth a try for sure, but too sweet for my palate.
Would I put Joseph’s By the Sea at the top of my must-dine list on the basis of the food alone? Maybe not. But as part of a broader off-season adventure? Or for a seasonal warm-up espresso liqueur drinks? Or possibly for breakfast in that funky retro space? Absolutely, and without hesitation.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: In researching this review, the author discovered a Facebook posting by Joseph’s By the Sea, dated after the restaurant visit, that indicates it will be closing for the season on Dec. 23.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer.