This is the day when food writers round up their favorite dishes of the past year.
While I always have some recommendations, that exercise feels a little tired. Plus, chances are that something I ordered eight months ago is no longer on the menu.
This year, I am instead offering suggestions for “food experiences” worth seeking out in 2015. Rather than focus on a single dish, I’ll suggest different ways to sample the Maine food landscape. Some are classic tastes or restaurants you need to try in order to be a card-carrying Mainer. Others put Maine food in context, geographically or otherwise.
CATCH UP ON MAINE CLASSICS
When you’re talking food with friends, are you embarrassed to admit you’ve never been to Red’s in Wiscassett for one of their classic lobster rolls? Time to get in on the conversation. Here’s a goal for you in the new year: Make a list of can’t-miss Maine classics, and start checking them off. These ideas can get you started:
• Pie at Moody’s Diner in Waldoboro. I recommend the coconut cream.
• If you go to Moody’s, kill two birds with one stone by taking a left onto Route 220 (it’s right by the diner) and stopping at Morse’s Sauerkraut, a Maine institution that has been fermenting cabbage since 1918. The European deli is a good source for meats and cheeses, German spaetzle, mustards, pickled fish and much more.
• I get it. Some classics are harder to experience than others because the lines out the door are always so long, especially in summer when New Yorkers and Bostonians flood Portland, panting for Maine oysters from Eventide or fries from Duckfat. Take advantage of the slow winter months to (finally) try the wood oven-roasted mussels at Fore Street or a lobster from The Lobster Shack.
• If you think Duckfat fries are too young to be called a Maine classic, try them in the restaurant’s upscale version of poutine. Later, pick up some Mailhot’s creton (a spiced pork spread) at the store and you’ll be able to talk knowledgeably about French Canadian favorites.
• This summer, make your way out to New Gloucester for Hodgman’s frozen custard. The stand opens on Mother’s Day. This custard shack has been in business for nearly 70 years and makes custard the old-fashioned way, by hand with fresh ingredients and without commercial mixes.
• If you ever expect to find yourself in an argument over where to get the best hot dog in Maine, you’ll want to be familiar with these three spots: First, Flo’s, which has been in Cape Neddick since 1959 and has the longest waits. The line flows smoothly, but on a slow day, the wait can be up to 30 minutes. If you hate waits, despite the deliciously hot and juicy dogs, move on to one of my other two choices.
Wasses in Rockland has existed in its current form since the 1970s and serves natural-casing dogs grilled in peanut oil, which gives it richer flavor than ordinary steaming does. In August, Wasses made Urban Daddy’s list of “The Most Important Hot Dogs in America.”
Simone’s in Lewiston opened in 1908 and serves genuine (bright red) red hots with a natural casing and a great snap. Simone’s claim to fame is that Jerry Mathers (aka “The Beav”) once ate there, but last summer you’d have been more likely to find politicians trolling for votes.
• If you can’t afford a lot of fine dining, that’s OK. Pick one special place to visit, and then if you’re able to get to another later in the year, it’s all gravy. My suggestion: Try a pork dish from Primo in Rockland, where chef/proprietor Melissa Kelly uses the heritage pigs she raises on the restaurant’s farm. To avoid crowds, go in the fall. Kelly is the only chef who has ever won the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Northeast award twice (first at Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in Old Chatham, New York, then at Primo), so rest assured anything she prepares for you will be worth the drive.
TAKE A ROAD TRIP
Sure, Portland has the hottest restaurant scene in Maine. But young chefs are making their mark in other communities, too, and the dining options are enviable.
Among them is Kittery, an easy 50 miles from Portland without the parking hassles of a larger city. At lunch time, try a made-to-order sandwich at Beach Pea Baking, grab a lobster roll or chowder at Robert’s Maine Grill, or order the fish tacos at Loco Coco Tacos (try saying that three times fast).
For dinner, check out Black Birch, where you can start with not-your-mama’s deviled eggs (with fillings like foie gras and truffle or chipotle and cocoa) and move on to pork schnitzel or brick chicken. Anju Noodle Bar and Anneke Jans are also good choices. And Tulsi serves some of the best Indian food in Maine.
Or head north. In August, I wrote about Vasquez Mexican Takeout in Milbridge. I’d heard about the place from travel writer Hilary Nangle of the mainetravelmaven.com blog, who is always looking for excuses to go there and bring home burritos. How good can they be, I thought. Yes, they are that good. Milbridge is about a four-hour drive from Portland. Go during blueberry season, and you’ll have two good reasons to make the trek.
LEARN TO COOK
Last summer, while on an assignment, I had the pleasure of sitting in on one of Annemarie Ahearn’s cooking classes at Salt Water Farm in Lincolnville, and I vowed to return on my own time.
Ahearn’s classes are held in a barn, which has a rustic farmhouse feel even though it’s filled with modern conveniences. Under the ceiling beams is a long communal table with Windsor chairs where students share meals after a class. The kitchen has a deep farmhouse sink and a huge wood-fired oven made of stone, built by Pat Manley, the Washington mason who has built wood-fired ovens for restaurants around the state. A stone patio outside has a full outdoor kitchen and fire pit.
Ahearn teaches the classes with help from a couple of apprentices. The heart of the school is the three-day, $525 workshop where students learn basics such as knife skills and the difference between the broccoli crown and the stalk. The students shake cream in Mason jars until it turns to butter. They learn about traditional New England dishes such as finnan haddie, try their hand at making a classic chowder and take field trips to seafood suppliers. The cooking school also offers individual classes.
“I have the firm belief that people actually know how to cook instinctually,” Ahearn told me when I visited. “They’re just so used to following recipes and watching culinary talents on television do it that they feel like if they don’t do it that way, then they’re not doing it right. I make a point of making mistakes in the class so we can fix them, so I can show people that they can absolutely do this at home. That’s the goal. It’s not about fancy techniques and magic cooking. It’s about real cooking that is totally translatable. It’s about trying to get people more comfortable in their own kitchen.”
RETHINK ‘MADE IN MAINE’
Admit it. When you hear the words “Made in Maine,” you think blueberry jam.
Over the past year, I have discovered it means so much more. Since April, I have been writing for our new Sunday Source section about eating and living sustainably in Maine; our “Homegrown” feature takes a closer look at Maine-made products. It’s not always food, but it often is, given Maine’s large artisan food community. Every week or two, I go on a hunt for new items to feature. Try it yourself: Next time you go into a local store, search for any kind of Maine-made items. You’ll be shocked at the number and variety that aren’t boring jams or just another hot sauce.
In the short time I’ve been hunting, I’ve found interesting teas, cranberry and apple ketchups and cocktail and soda syrups in flavors such as lavender and cherry-lime. I’ve even found some not-so-boring jam.
OK, I can’t resist naming a few things that you really should try. These are by no means the only standout dishes I’ve had this year, or at any other time. They’re just a few that have stuck in my head.
• Yes, Timber is one of the more expensive restaurants in Portland. But its filet mignon ($41) with Bernaise sauce is worth the splurge. My friend ordered the bourbon-marinated steak tips, but after sampling my juicy, medium-rare steak, which was cooked perfectly, she kept saying she had “filet envy.” Keep it simple and order the steak with one side or one appetizer, as one side can easily feed two people. Instead of wine, try a Sazerac from the bar with your meal.
• If you find yourself at Fore Street in the spring and island lamb is on the menu, order it. Trust me.
• One of my pet peeves lately has been consistency. Or rather, lack of consistency. So what a pleasure it is to go to Central Provisions, where every small plate is knocked out of the park. Even Bon Appétit has noticed, naming Central Provisions one of the “Hot Ten” new restaurants in America for 2014.
• The lamb shank entree at Piccolo is one of those memorable dishes you’ll still be thinking about months later.
• I appreciate Holy Donuts and understand why it has a strong following in Portland. But if you haven’t yet made it across the bridge to Little Bigs in South Portland, you’re missing out. The Boston cream pie doughnut filled with almond cream gets me every time.
• I first heard about Five Islands Lobster Co. about 20 years ago, from our former police reporter. The first time I visited, I thought I was lost and trespassing on private property. It was a cool, foggy day. There was just one shack on the wharf where a guy was throwing lobsters into a steamer. There were, maybe, one or two other customers. Heaven on earth.
Today things have changed. In addition to the steamer shack, a grill serves lobster rolls, seafood baskets and onion rings so good they fought the lobster roll for my attention. A third building serves as an ice cream shack that sells Annabelle’s ice cream, a brand from New Hampshire. Over the summer I went birdwatching at Reid State Park with my sister and brother-in-law, then we stopped by Five Islands for lunch. One or two picnic tables have morphed into probably a dozen, and it was clear many of the clientele were “from away.” But the lobster rolls were still terrific, and the view on a sunny summer day stunning.
• I go to Standard Baking for croissants, morning buns, baguettes – all classics Portlanders have come to love. Next time you’re there, though, try a raspberry or apricot galette. The way they crumble in your mouth is an addictive sensation, and the sweet jam is just the right amount of sweet. Were these really made by a human being?