March 16, 2010

Spurwink Country Kitchen a delicious throwback

— SCARBOROUGH — For years I have searched Maine for the restaurants that would make sense of the past. Surely Maine's inexpensive restaurants once served good food, or no customers would have flocked inside.

click image to enlarge

Doug Jones/staff photographer: Friday, June 6, 2008: Dr. Carl Murphy and Nancy Lord lunch at Uncle Don's Spurwink Kitchen on Spurwink Rd. in Cape Elizabeth.

Since I couldn't figure out how to travel back in time to taste pie in diners before the delivery trucks took over, I have wandered into inexpensive places up and down the state in hopes that some isolated spot still remained that kept to the old ways.

I think I've found one at Uncle Don's Spurwink Country Kitchen, owned by Don Drew since April 2007.

Lightly coated fresh fried clams and oysters were excellent, and if the pie and raspberry crisp were a little starchy for my taste, both were enjoyable.

''We make everything here,'' said Stanis Moody-Roberts, my excellent server on a first visit, exuberant from his recent graduation at Cape Elizabeth High School. About 35 local people are on this business' payroll, working part-time.

The staff was attentive and helpful, filling water glasses they spotted empty for other server's tables and making sure everything was right -- including ''Uncle Don'' himself, who said hello to customers during both my visits.

Although he calls himself retired, this 67-year-old entrepreneur cooks the food seven days a week with the help of other line chefs. Drew also owns the Cricket Corner Shop in Raymond. He graduated from Maine Vocational Technical Institute (now Southern Maine Community College) in 1962, and owned the West Custogo Inn in Yarmouth until 1985.

Dinner always starts with cellophane-wrapped crackers and a creamy cheese spread made with butter, dill, garlic, chives and parsley, perfect with a drink of wine or beer from a short list. Geary's Pale Ale ($4.50) is a reliably good choice. A glass of Trinity Oaks Pinot Noir ($6) -- all the other wine options are called ''Sycamore Lane'' -- held mediocre wine.

Small, tender baking-powder biscuits are served with dinner, tempting with a smear of the Cabot butter.

Big pieces of romaine in a light, lemony dressing and lots of grated hard cheese make the Caesar ($7.95) good. Specials include appetizers and soups and give variety to the comfortable list of standards like chowder, lobster stew and clam cakes.

But my real focus was fried clams ($19.95) because it's another touchstone of a Maine summer, and I craved good ones. The lightly coated, fat little soft-shell clams were the best I've had this year juicy and tender except for the chewy-in-a-good way siphon.

Fried oysters from one night's special menu were lightly coated and quickly cooked, tender and wonderful. The homemade tartar sauce is made with mayonnaise, coarse green relish, dill and fresh cracked pepper.

''We use the best non-trans-fat oil that you can buy -- I pay $48 for a 5-gallon container. The fat doesn't take on any other flavors. You can actually eat our fried food and not feel guilty,'' Drew said.

The list of vegetables is another charmer, with pickled beets, coleslaw, steamed beets, turnips, mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, potato salad and boiled potatoes some of the changing possibilities, all freshly prepared. Carrots and turnip are cooked together with brown sugar and butter for another choice.

Cubed turnips served alone, really rutabaga, were a little waterlogged when I tasted them but nevertheless full of their signature metallic tang, a favorite flavor of mine.

Another night I tried the outstanding melange of zucchini, summer squash and tomato seasoned with dried oregano. The potato salad is also good, lightly dressed and savory-sweet.

A plate of black beans and rice with corn and tomato sits on the friendly menu with its pot roast and a roast turkey dinner ($12.95) with stuffing, gravy and cranberry sauce. Baked haddock ($14.95) and baked scallops ($19.95) share the list of seafood with Maine lobster pie ($24.95). Liver and onions is available every night.

This neighborhood institution is priced right for a casual night out. It has sat in its parking lot overlooking an inlet since 1955, with a narrow field of grass in back.

The inside is paneled in pine and hung with small, slightly askew paintings of the sea. Shiny, honey-colored pine tables, set with scalloped white paper placemats and a little bouquet of carnations, are both up to date and immemorial. Shelves in the dining rooms are stocked with flatware rolled up with paper napkins and green tape and other supplies, ready for the summer crowds that have been besieging the place for generations.

A small windowed shelf shows off the day's pies near the cash register, where the lemon meringue looked especially attractive. I contentedly ate a slice of blueberry pie ($5.95) with tender, thin crust and somewhat stodgy filling. The 10-inch pies are baked by Bob Latham in the morning using frozen fruit. He was the director of the SMCC culinary arts program and is now retired.

A raspberry crisp with ice cream ($5.95), served in a parfait or Sunday glass, was too starchy for the raspberries to shine, and I could not unearth anything crisp inside it.

Drew plans to buy local strawberries when they're ready, and a Raymond woman promises fresh rhubarb for pies that should be baked and ready to serve this weekend.

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of ''Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.'' Visit English's Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.

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