It’s been a little over a year since Nebo Lodge on North Haven Island was praised in Food & Wine magazine for Amanda Hallowell’s “audacious, incredibly delicious food.” Bon Appetit followed suit this spring, placing the nine-room inn and restaurant on its list of 10 “Best Food Lovers Hotels in America.”
Except for filling the guest rooms more regularly, all of the attention hasn’t changed things all that much, says Hallowell, who runs Nebo with the owner, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, and her daughter Hannah Pingree. (Chellie Pingree is married to S. Donald Sussman, majority share owner of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram.)
“I wanted to be prepared this year to be busier and we are,” said Hallowell. “But there’s only ever going to be that many people on North Haven. We’re not on Main Street anywhere. The boat trips take 25 people, just three times a week.”
Nebo is one of a select few places in Maine where you can dine well — very well in fact — on an island. Hallowell’s regularly changing menu might include roasted beets with goat feta, hazelnuts and mint, or roasted organic steelhead trout with celeriac and fennel puree.
At The Islesford Dock on Little Cranberry Island, chef Kirby Sholl offers an appetizer of Maine lobster and rich burrata cheese with pickled beach rose petals.
Chebeague Island Inn chef Justin Rowe serves butter-poached lobster with black forbidden rice, oyster mushrooms and white asparagus.
At Diamond’s Edge on Great Diamond Island, chef Brian Harnois offers whole roasted fish with garbanzo and stewed tomato ragu, braised kale and citrus-herb butter.
But to enjoy any of them, first you have to get there.
The Chebeague Island Inn and Diamond’s Edge Restaurant are relatively easy to reach via Casco Bay Lines ferries from Portland.
To get to Nebo Lodge or The Islesford Dock requires a bigger commitment.
The boat trips Hallowell refers to are on the Equinox, which shuttles dinner guests between Rockland and North Haven on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in July and August for $25 per person. The Maine State Ferry from Rockland doesn’t work for dinner; the last one leaves North Haven in the late afternoon.
To reach The Islesford Dock on Little Cranberry Island is even trickier. The charmingly named Beal & Bunker Mailboat is a daytime option from Northeast Harbor; if you want to go for an evening meal, you’ll have to catch the Cranberry Cove Ferry from Southwest Harbor.
The effort is worth it, according to The Islesford Dock’s many fans, including Martha Stewart, who likes to take her own boat to the restaurant and has tweeted her fondness for the peanut brittle hot fudge sundae.
While it’s certainly charming to take a boat to dinner, it’s the food and the distinctive atmosphere at each of these restaurants that makes the experience especially memorable.
FROM ISLAND FARM TO TABLE
At Nebo Lodge, the farthest out, Hallowell gets much of what she serves right from the island — not just produce and fish, but poultry, dairy products, lamb and duck as well, thanks to the Turner Farm, owned by Sussman.
“Having a really seasonal, locally sourced restaurant 12 miles out to sea is really an extra effort and that we have the food here is really unusual,” Hallowell said. “When we started (in 2007), the phrase “farm-to-table” didn’t exist — it was just what we did.”
Hallowell, who is largely self-taught and insists that she is a cook, not a chef, has put Nebo on the national map by serving simply prepared food of the highest quality, changing the menu depending on the daily harvest.
“If there’s no kale, we don’t have crispy kale (on the menu); we don’t order it from the grocery store,” she said. “This week we’re having a lot of fun with the things (the farm is) providing us — squash tempura, roasted cauliflower — at the end of the day it’s all about the produce.”
The homespun look of Nebo Lodge matches this esthetic. In the dining rooms, tables are set with colorful vintage linens, Mason jars of fresh flowers and tea lights in clam shells.
At the bar, the cocktail menu features a lavender gin and tonic, made with house-infused lavender gin, and the North Haven Oystertini — a martini with a fresh oyster instead of the traditional olive garnish.
LITTLE CRANBERRY LOYALTY
Dan Lief, who owns The Islesford Dock with his wife, Cynthia, insists that he “will buy the best food available, period.”
This includes not only Glidden Point oysters from the Damariscotta River and organic chicken from Tide Mill Farm on the Canadian border, but also that special cheese for an appetizer, in addition to the restaurant’s own large vegetable and herb garden.
“We like to know the people who are supplying us. We are very loyal,” Lief said. “We do some crazy things. Through one of our former cooks who’s out in L.A. we found the best burrata cheese and to get on the list it’s almost impossible — but we got on the list and we have it shipped from California.”
The Liefs’ loyalty extends to their employees; in their 21st year of operation, they draw kitchen and dining room staff from island families and around the world. A recent post on the restaurant’s Facebook page congratulated a former waitress for winning a Fulbright Scholarship.
“We love young people and we love working with them — it’s been a wonderful experience,” said Lief.
One of the Liefs’ sons, Jacob, is the founder and CEO of the Ubuntu Education Fund, which is dedicated to helping impoverished children in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, with health and educational support necessary to attend university and find employment.
The Liefs and their restaurant customers contribute significantly to the effort: “We raised $25,000 last year for a second pediatrician at their center,” said Lief. “For every bottle of a certain South African wine on our list sold, we donate $2 to Ubuntu. So even those who can’t afford to give a major contribution can participate. The whole Ubuntu concept is ‘what’s mine is yours.’ “
Fifteen years ago the Liefs, who had been longtime summer residents, moved permanently to Little Cranberry.
Their enthusiasm for the restaurant community they have created (which also includes a pottery studio and an art gallery) is palpable, even over the phone.
“The thing that we like most about it is that we get there about 8:30 in the morning and we leave about 11:30 at night,” said Dan, “and we know about 90 percent of the people walking through the door.”
CLOSER TO PORTLAND
Although it is far easier to access than The Islesford Dock or Nebo Lodge, Chebeague Island Inn owner Casey Prentice says that before his family’s company took over four years ago, “believe it or not, not very many people came out to the inn.”
Reachable via a leisurely ride on a Casco Bay Lines ferry from Portland or the much shorter Chebeague Transportation Company boat from Yarmouth, the circa-1880s inn, with its wrap-around porch and large lawn sweeping down to the sea, is now popular with day-trippers.
“We have a golf course, you can come out by boat. We want to be the neighborhood golf course, and the neighborhood is Casco Bay,” said Prentice. “We find a lot of people come out for just dinner and some come for the full day — it’s fun to have a destination.”
Much of the produce on the inn’s menu comes from Second Wind Farm on the island, said Prentice.
“The lobsterman lives right across the street and we get clams from the girl down the road,” he said.
In an effort to draw more visitors, Prentice recently launched a loyalty program, in which “you get a card and earn points for every dollar spent.”
Another new promotion is the Businessperson’s Lunch: a water taxi brings you out from Portland for nine holes of golf, followed by lunch on the deck; you’re returned to the city by 3 p.m.
CHANGE ON GREAT DIAMOND
Diamond’s Edge on Great Diamond Island is also popular with day-trippers, as well as families who own or rent summer homes on the bucolic island.
Housed in one of the meticulously restored, red brick buildings that were once part of Fort McKinley, the restaurant is under new management this year by the Portland Harbor Hotel.
Diamond’s Edge has a wide porch and tree-dotted lawn, where you can dine overlooking Casco Bay before heading back to Portland on the ferry.
Susan S. Axelrod can be contacted at 791-6310 or at firstname.lastname@example.org