The best part of Joe’s Boathouse Restaurant is the view. Beyond that the food is challenging, and politely calling it basic comfort food would be a stretch. The menu hasn’t changed in years nor the décor – a happenstance collection of tables and chairs. Yet its dockside setting gets better with age as if urban renewal has kept the marina shipshape while the cuisine at Joe’s remains woefully uninspired.
Case in point, our first bite of the Cajun chicken and corn egg roll appetizer ($6.95, a house specialty) was no better than airline food, tasting as though it had been plucked from a freezer pouch and tossed into the deep fryer. The casing should have been crisp instead of soggy. And the Cajun flavors were elusive at best. But, hey, with a few drinks and an eyeful of the prevailing vista, the food becomes secondary.
The restaurant is perched on the docks of Spring Point Marina in South Portland, and owners Joe Loring and Nate Chalaby opened their doors in 1992. With stellar views of the islands, Fort Gorges, the Portland skyline and the Foreside beyond, this local haunt has been a popular destination for those who perhaps place more importance on the setting than the food.
The place looks very much like the proverbial fish shack where a first-timer might assume that this is where you go for local vibes and fresh-caught seafood. There’s certainly plenty of it on the menu, like the Atlantic grilled salmon with cous cous ($23.95) or lobster fettuccini ($26.95) in a sherry cream sauce. And the kitchen sends out big heaping portions on the plate. Some of the better dishes sampled on past visits included the Mere Point fish and chips ($22.95) served with good fries and cole slaw. The thick and creamy clam chowder ($5.95 cup, $7.50 bowl) is a respectable version, as is a classic iceberg wedge ($7.95) with gorgonzola dressing. On this recent visit I was intrigued by local Cliff Island scallops ($25.95) in a red-pepper cream sauce served over linguini. But I sometimes react badly to scallops and didn’t go for it.
With an open kitchen and a central fireplace in the main dining room, the décor is simple, even cozy. There’s a rear second dining room, which is an enclosed sun porch that has always looked unfinished. Choice seating is in the front room by the windows overlooking the outdoor waterside dining deck. But the way the room is arranged on different levels, every table has a view of the water.
Our very affable server brought us our cocktails ($7.95) and a second appetizer of Boathouse crab cakes ($12.95) that the three of us shared. Two huge crusty cakes tasted fresh with plenty of crab meat and just enough filling to keep it all together. They were served over little matchstick fried potatoes. These, however, were cold and as dry as twigs.
On the entrée list the menu offers choices from land and sea. There’s a classic filet mignon ($26.95) with goat cheese, roasted shallots in a balsamic red wine sauce and garlic mashed potatoes; smoked boneless pork ribs ($21.95) with a blueberry barbecue sauce, and a chili lime chicken ($22.95) with an avocado, black bean corn salsa and garlic mashed potatoes in addition to fish and shellfish dishes.
My guests decided to share the seafood fra diavolo ($26.95), a huge serving which the kitchen conveniently served as two separate portions. It held a kitchen sink full of the trawler’s catch: local mussels and clams, scallops, haddock and half a lobster tail in a spicy marinara sauce over linguini. My guests – husband and wife who frequently join me as tasters – started a heated debate about whether the pasta was overcooked. She said it was way overdone while her husband protested to the contrary. I stepped in for final judgment, and for the record the pasta was as soft as baby food. The stew, however, held fresh tasting fish, though the marinara was zestless.
My entrée choice was haddock Gabrielle ($24.95), a massive fillet baked with cheddar bread crumbs topped with a few shrimp and bathed in a lobster sauce that was a dead ringer for Miracle Whip. The fish, moreover, had the texture of baked shoe (previously frozen?), dry and dull. I asked our waitress if the fish were frozen, and she said it was not and came from the Portland fishmonger Free Range Fish and Lobster on Commercial Street. With it was a mixed-grain medley that included barley, wheat berries and corn. This was a grim preparation that had the overall consistency of pebbles and might have come from a pre-packaged boiler bag that restaurants use for convenience. Yet another side medley joining the fish was brightly colored vegetables, which contained, among other items, summer squash. How seasonal!
According to our waitress, desserts are not made in-house, though she thought the pecan pie offered that night might have been. Instead they hail from Sysco, the institutional food provider used by many restaurants of all stripes high and low. We chose the carrot cake ($6.95) over cheesecake and a chocolate Kahlua cake. Out came a humongous wedge as sturdy as pilings under a hailstorm of caramel squiggles. It was very sweet and any resemblance to carrot cake was accidental. This cake should have stayed on the truck.
Come summertime the waterside deck at Joe’s Boathouse is as popular as Portland Head Light. Whether dining there for brunch, lunch or dinner, stick to the basics and you’ll be able to enjoy the view so much more.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: