I get a lot of urges at L.L. Bean’s Freeport store, most of which I try not to act on. There’s climbing into the trout pond, of course. Years ago, there was the temptation to throttle my toddler, once I’d located him hiding in some far-flung corner. And always, there is the desire to acquire whatever the du jour spin on the classic Bean boot may be, although at present I am holding out for a to-the-thigh, shearling-lined, dinosaur-skin version. In sexy red.
But consuming soup du jour in the House of Leon has never been an impulse. I’m not there to linger, I’m there to make highly practical purchases that feed into Maine’s economy, while looking down my nose at tourists even as they also feed into Maine’s economy. The main pleasure center triggered by Bean’s is something in my cerebral nostalgia core. It’s a complicated shopping experience; one doesn’t eat there so much as one is eaten by the place.
I’d never even noticed the 1912 Cafe (named for the date of the store’s founding), even though it is sandwiched between hunting & fishing and camping and I must have walked by it dozens of times, since the implausibly but not irritatingly perky counter man assured me it has been there for a couple of years (and before that, was upstairs). But a friend who lives in Freeport recommended the 1912 Cafe as a good place for a quick bite, and based purely on the “you must be kidding” factor, off I went.
These aren’t exactly cheap eats. I blew almost my entire $10 budget on an oven-baked sandwich for $8.99. The Black Watch features all-natural pastrami, Pineland Farms baby Swiss, caramelized onions and stoneground Dijon mustard on European rye. It came on one of those old-fashioned pieces of chunky china, adorned with a couple of slices of seriously fresh pickles and white onions, the kind of pickles I’d feel proud of myself for making.
I settled in with a book – another first for me at Bean’s – where usually I read only labels and my phone – at one of the eight camp-style wood tables. There’s counter space for six as well, which would have allowed me an even closer look at the archery sets, but it was already weird enough to be eating at Bean’s.
The sandwich was excellent, even if there was a nagging sense that this was a reuben that had lost something along the way and taken on some peculiar plaid identity. The flavorful caramelized onions were a good substitute, even if I question going without sauerkraut in Maine, when there is Morse’s to be had.
On the other hand, 1912 Cafe’s decision to skip the Thousand Island and instead load the lean meat with mustard made the whole thing feel fresher and vaguely more healthy. The missing side of chips was sensible, just like the shoes.
The seafood “artisan” soup of the day was lobster bisque, for $5.99 a cup and $7.99 a bowl (the two non-seafood options, which also rotate daily, are $3.99 for a cup, $5.99 a bowl). I’m crazy for bisque, so I got a cup even though lunch would now cost close to what I’d spend on a pair of Bean’s excellent kids’ long underwear and would be much less durable. But I’d recently returned a pair of threadbare Smartwool socks – they had been riding around in my purse for two years after I’d deemed them of poor quality – and been magically handed a $20 gift card, so I could justify. Let’s never forget why we love Bean’s.
The soup had a coarser texture than is ideal for a bisque, probably from being cooked in bulk and sitting around. I like more of an undertone of booze – like sherry or sauternes – in a bisque, but this was tasty and contained enough good lobster meat to almost qualify as a thick stew. I liked it.
Despite what my selections suggest, the menu is wrap-happy. The Royal Coachman wrap features Ducktrap smoked salmon, English cucumbers (no American?), red onions, marinated artichoke hearts, goat cheese, greens and lemon basil pesto dressing. That sounds good, unless you, like me, are hoping the wrap sandwich will go the way of the equally ill-advised wrap skirt. The latter blows open at all the wrong times, the former has a tendency to taste like a gummy, cold burrito.
But based on my first culinary experience at the 1912 Cafe, I might, maybe, just give one of their wraps a chance sometime. Stop me though, if I start inching toward the Nordic sweater I so lusted for in junior high. Now, as then, it only looks good on boys and men.
Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at: