Sunday, December 8, 2013
But the moist fried scallops and fish are worthy goals on a snowy night, when this establishment is performing a service to a seacoast beset by winter.
The Seafood Center's reputation was built by previous owner Dennis George, who started the business in 1981 with a few picnic tables when it was a wholesale seafood supplier. He sold the restaurant in July 2007 to Christian Kohler and Teresa Andreoli, spending weeks alongside Kohler in the kitchen to ensure continued high quality.
''Looking at the back of a restaurant shows you a lot. He had nothing to hide. We've kept that same philosophy,'' Kohler said. ''He even comes back now to help out. He's always been a right-hand person I can rely on for questions.''
Vinyl tablecloths with nautical designs of ship's wheels, lanterns and flags in various shades of blue cover the ranks of tables in the big room, surrounded by red vinyl-upholstered metal chairs. Pine-paneled walls and blue-and-white linoleum floors complete the utilitarian decor. The overhead fluorescent lights are coming in for a workout in the dark of the year, when the carefree late light of summertime has been relentlessly withdrawn. But even harsh lighting dispels the gloom.
The good cheer of the staff lifts the mood of the place too. When asked if there was wine or beer, we heard the joking reply, ''We're keeping it all for ourselves.'' No alcohol is served, and you cannot bring your own to the dining room, because the business doesn't carry the proper insurance.
Orders are placed at the counter. Servers wipe the tables down but, after a gizmo lights up to announce your order is ready, you find the hot water in the drinks dispenser for tea, or fix a soda with the press of a paper cup on a lever.
Small bits of chopped soft-shell clams and lots of cubed potatoes in the clam chowder ($3.65) came in a thin broth, perfectly redolent of clams and needing only a little salt and pepper.
Squeeze bottles of tartar sauce (on the sweet side and tangy with relish), barbecue sauce, malt vinegar, cocktail sauce with horseradish and ketchup are provided with your order. A chewy, white roll with a packet of butter accompanies the dinners.
Caesar salad ($3.95) came topped by too many dry-as-dust croutons, but once they were swept away, a heap of fresh romaine was ready to wear the peppery, thick and cheesy dressing served on the side.
The seafood platter ($26.50 including coleslaw and french fries, baked potato or rice), holds a large piece of fried haddock that is moist and steaming, small Maine shrimp, and lots of clams, some bursting with a little juice when bitten into.
Best of all were the scallops, which were moist and tender after a brief bath in the fryer. The fresh, chopped cabbage and bits of carrot in the moist coleslaw are crunchy. The fries were fine. Sweet potato fries, also on the menu, might be better.
Smelts ($6.50 for a small dinner; $8.50 for a large one), served year-round, are a frozen product from Maine Shellfish.
Fried chicken ($7.95 for a small dinner; $10.25 for a large one) was composed of small, skinless pieces of dry chicken meat without much flavor.
I guess all the chicken skin goes to New York City, where at the end of the year I ate crunchy and rich fried chicken skin, called greebenes, in the 2nd Avenue Deli, full of the right stuff missing from this version. But perhaps northern customers prefer them this way, and Kohler said the chicken breast meat is fresh.
Sides look appealing, from hand-cut onion rings and deep-fried mushrooms and any of the seafood, served in half a pint, pint and quart portions.
Fried seafood rolls and sandwiches are also served. For those who prefer, haddock and scallops are also served baked. The fish fry, made with pollock, is only $7.95.
''You can ask a lot of fishermen and they'll tell you they're very good fish. It's not a bottom fisher,'' Kohler said. He said he'd tasted haddock and pollock side by side and couldn't taste the difference, although haddock is whiter.
Dessert isn't offered on the winter menu, but in late spring, a separate building will open to serve house-made ice cream. Suggestions for flavors are welcome.
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.