We should have stopped. We didn’t need to order the poutine and the curried mayo lobster roll and the house-made chips and the fish taco and the fried haddock. The cup of strawberry ice cream was definitely overkill. But underestimating serving size and over-indulging enthusiastically are part of any meal at Dudley’s Refresher, the new fish fry and take-out shack that opened three months ago on the town dock in Castine.
This isn’t fine food and white table cloth dining – you pick up your tray from a serving window next to the kitchen, and carry it to a picnic bench at the edge of the harbor. This is old-fashioned, high-fat, high-calorie seaside fare kicked up a notch by a passionate young chef who highlights artisanal ingredients from local farms. And while I wouldn’t necessarily describe a meal here as refreshing (I drove home in a contented state approaching catatonia), it’s definitely very good.
Dudley’s is the second restaurant opened by Michele Levesque and Michael Rossney, owners of El El Frijoles, a Mexican-style taqueria in nearby Sargentville. Dudley’s chef de cuisine, Kara van Emmerik, has worked with the owners for seven years and recently graduated from the Culinary Arts program at Eastern Maine Community College. “A huge part of our business model and the pride I take in Dudley’s is our dedication to using fresh, local ingredients,” she says. “We get our corn tortillas from Pachanga in Portland, lettuce from Horsepower Farm in Penobscot, beer for our beer batter from Strong Brewing Co. in Sedgwick. We wanted to elevate traditional coastal take-out cuisine, and show our customer base that they shouldn’t have to sacrifice quality for any setting.”
That setting, frankly, is, spectacular. You can sit at your picnic table and ogle the Training Ship State of Maine, flagship of the Maine Maritime Academy fleet, anchored a few feet away, or monitor activity on the town dock, where fishermen are loading boats and families are setting sail for Harborside and Islesboro. The remains of Fort George, the last post surrendered by the British at the close of the War of Independence, stand just a few blocks to the north. (Van Emmerik said the restaurant is named for Dudley Saltonstall, “the American leader of the fleet sent to Castine in 1779 to fight the British. He failed – apparently the guy was really an awful leader – but he meant well. We decided he deserved a second chance and named Dudley’s after him.” )
Lobster rolls ($15) are popular here, and they’re offered three ways: traditional, or with curried mayo or with a sesame and orange sauce spiked with fresh ginger. The young woman at the take-out window recommended the curry version. (“Go ahead, live dangerously. You can thank me later…”) Served in a yellow, plastic basket lined with a (fake) sheet of newsprint, the buttered roll was stuffed with intensely fresh chunks of lobster tossed in seasoned mayonnaise (or as the chef described it, mayo blended with curry paste “and some other spices I can’t tell you about”), and topped with a few sprigs of parsley. The curry was elusive at first – the taste earthy yet subtle. In a second bite, the flavors cycled: first, the richness of the lobster, then a hint of smokiness from the curry and finally the creamy finish of the whole-egg mayonnaise. A delicious surprise. “I’m a purist when it comes to lobster rolls,” a friend admitted, “but that waitress was right. This mayonnaise adds to the seafood without overpowering it.” The thick, house-made potato chips served alongside were crisp and salty and substantial – more slabs than chips. I loved them.
Several couples were ordering when we arrived at Dudley’s (the website says “we make everything here to your order. This may mean you’ll need to wait a bit if we are really busy”), and it took a few minutes before our fish taco ($8) was ready. I headed back to the shack when I heard my name, but the waitress said, “Stay where you are. It’s our fault it’s late… We’ll bring it out…” Nice. The taco – a small basket of corn tortillas (made with Maine-grown corn) topped with fried haddock, avocado crema and cabbage – was good, if a bit dry. Heaping more slaw on top helped (slivers of pickled chilies mixed in with the cabbage provided appealing bolts of flavor, and a squeeze of lime added brightness).
It may have been the sea air that convinced me to try the poutine, a generous serving of that French-Canadian classic that smothers crispy french fries in hot gravy and cheese curds. The menu said that the fries would be topped with an herb and lemon gremolata, but was it? Even if we’d been able to taste it, a citrus gremolata could never make a dent in this dish. It’s meant to stick to your ribs – or thighs. Dudley’s version does both.
The evening’s standout was the “Proper Chippy” ($14), a large piece of beer-battered haddock deep fried and served with a compulsively good pile of skin-on french fries. Castine is a long way down Route 166 from anywhere (a one-time resident told me “you drive and you drive and all you find is Castine”) but the chippy was reason enough to make the journey. The fish fillet was mild and meaty and cloaked in a crunchy, golden brown coating that crackled pleasingly with every bite. And the moisture that had gone missing in the taco? We found it here. I had to lean over the basket to keep the juicy haddock from dripping down the front of my shirt. The shards of salty, fried coating that fell to the bottom of the basket were too good to ignore – each nugget shatteringly crisp. They gave the excellent skin-on fries served with the haddock a run for their money.
The waitress at the take-out window said Dudley’s had no house-made desserts the night we visited, so the single sweet on the menu that evening was Mortons Moo ice cream from Ellsworth. It’s made one batch at a time and while the available flavors may vary, the strawberry ($3 for a small cone or cup) is particularly good.
Plenty of fish shacks offer great views and only so-so food. Dudley’s impresses with stunning surroundings, local ingredients and a few stand-out dishes. The difference really is refreshing.
James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.