Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The Boothbay Harbor region launched its first Restaurant Week Wednesday night with a big party featuring lobster, lobster and more lobster.
The 2012 Claw Down, sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce, featured the 1st annual Chefs’ “Lobster Bite” Competition, in which local chefs were challenged to come up with a creative bite with lobster as the star.
Tickets to the sold-out event, held at the Boothbay Harbor Opera House, were just $35. About 200 people filled the opera house, wandering from table to table with a glass of wine, sampling bites from different restaurants and voting on their favorites for a “People’s Choice” award.
I was lucky enough to be one of three judges for the more formal competition. And, “judging” by the quality and creativity of entries we sampled last night, I’d urge you to check out some of these restaurants in the next week if you find yourself in the Boothbay Harbor area.
Restaurant Week begins Saturday and runs through Sept. 28. Chefs are offering specials that include appetizer, entree and dessert for $24.95. For a list of participating restaurants and a peek at the menus they’re offering, go to the chamber’s website.
Back to the lobster bites. Take my advice: If anyone ever asks you to judge a contest featuring nothing but lobster dishes, say yes.
My fellow judges were Kelly Patrick Farrin, a chef at Primo restaurant in Rockland and 2010 Maine Lobster Chef of the Year, and Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council. That's Kelly on the left, and Dane on the right.
We were charged with tasting all 17 dishes in about an hour, and we had to score each one using three criteria: uniqueness, creativity and taste.
The most important category was, of course, taste, and one of our challenges was making sure that the chef had made lobster the star of the bite. We tried plenty of dishes that we would gladly order off a menu, but if we couldn’t taste the lobster, or if the seasoning overwhelmed the lobster meat, we had to deduct points.
So, here are the entries, in no particular order except that I’ll begin with the two winners. Except where noted, this is exactly how the dish appeared in front of me, and I took the photo. Plowing through 17 dishes in an hour was a challenge, however, and so I missed photographing a couple of them while I was scoring other dishes or consulting with Kelly and Dane. Many, many thanks to food photographer Ted Axelrod for filling in the gaps. I’ve credited his photos where I’ve used them.
First, the judge’s choice. There were three or four dishes that, in our mind, rose to the top, and some of them were only a point or two apart. But there could only be one winner, and for us it was thte Polenta & Truffle Lobster Bite from Micah Jones, executive chef at the Brown’s Wharf Inn. This was lobster served over a sun-dried tomato and polenta cake, finished with lobster sauce and truffle oil.
I’m not usually big fan of truffle oil, but what made this dish stand out was the fact that you could taste every ingredient, and yet the lobster didn’t get lost. It all came together beautifully.
Here's Chef Micah Jones picking up his award:
The People’s Choice winner was one of the judges’ favorites, too. At first, I wasn’t that impressed by the candied tarragon that came with chef Fiona Dunlap’s petite corn cake topped with native corn puree, Maine lobster and butter sauce. It just tasted like sugar to me. But then we took a bite of the whole thing, and suddenly the sweetness made sense, and we marveled at the unexpected crunch that came with the taste of lobster. We looked at each other like little kids who had just put pop rocks in their mouths for the first time.
This photo is of the table where Dunlap, who works for the The Newagen Seaside Inn & Restaurant’s table, was serving the public. I chose this photo because you can better see what the candied tarragon looks like.
Here's Chef Fiona Dunlap picking up her award:
The chef from The Thistle Inn made Maine lobster with crispy blueberry cornbread and blueberry chipotle syrup. This was the taste of Maine in a single bite. I was still thinking about this dish several courses later.
Tasting the Maine poached lobster jicama salad with citrus dressing and chili oil, made by the chef at The Tugboat Inn, I kept saying “I would order this in a restaurant.” I know that sounds stupid, but I guess what I really meant was “I want this again tomorrow.” Seriously, if this isn’t already on the menu at The Tugboat Inn, it should be. I loved the heat from the chili oil.
And now, let me move more quickly through the rest of the dishes. This is in no way an editorial comment about their creativity or quality, just a nod to the fact that this post can’t be miles long and I still have 13 restaurants to go.
We got dishes inspired by Italian, Asian and even Irish cuisine:
The chef from Ports of Italy made a mini (ours wasn't so mini) lobster ravioli filled with Maine lobster, ricotta cheese, and a prosecco-aurora cream sauce with a hint of tomato.
McSeagull’s chef made Maine lobster pesto calzones. Photo by Ted Axelrod / Axelrod Photography.
The Under Currach Tavern made lobster colcannon: Butter sauteed leeks, Boothbay lobster and a touch of prosciutto were blended with white wine, seasonings, and three cheeses (one of them Irish cheddar). These ingredients were then mixed with the inside of a baked potato, and the potato was then re-stuffed and twice-baked to a golden brown.
The Boothbay Lobster Wharf went Jamaican. Its “Taste of the Caribbean” entry consisted of Jamaican jerk lobster on Jamaican pastry.
The chef at the Boathouse Bistro made Maine lobster spring rolls and served them with a watermelon rice vinegar dipping sauce.
A couple of entries came served in martini glasses. The World is Mine Oyster brought a Maine lobster and limoncello martini.
The chef from Robinson’s Wharf made a Maine lobster fondue: A blend of hand-picked lobster, butter, sherry, and shaved Parmesan cheese, which the restaurant said was “a truly comforting snack for our cold Maine nights.” I appreciated the fact that they didn’t overdo the sherry on this entry. It was really rich, but quite good.
There were a couple of presentations, too, where the chefs were really thinking outside the box. Check out these lobster cakes nested on a bed of roasted shiitake mushrooms, then drizzled with tarragon cream and garnished with frizzled leeks. They’re from Oliver’s at Cozy Harbor, which the chef told me had just opened in June.
It was fun seeing guests at the Claw Down walking around with these “lobster pouches” from the Boothbay Harbor Inn. They held the lobster shell like an ice cream cone and scooped out the inside with a plastic spoon, like they were eating ice cream out of the cone. The judges, on the other hand, removed the shell entirely for easier eating, and so we could cut the pouch open and see what it looked like inside. The description of the dish: Heirloom tomato roasted lobster stock, sherry, garden herbs, cream, chunks of Maine lobster and crab, wrapped in a Maine potato and goat cheese pouch and baked in a lobster shell.
The final four:
Cold-smoked Maine lobster claw crepe cornet stuffed with chive-kissed mascarpone, lump caviar, toasted pine nut brittle and crunchy pumpkin. I’d never had smoked lobster before, and it was really interesting to try. This dish came from the chef at the Fishermen’s Wharf Inn.
Photo by Ted Axelrod / Axelrod Photography
This Champagne lobster from The Rocktide Inn is made of lobster sauteed in butter and Champagne, with the slightest touch of heavy cream. Light and delicious.
The Lobster Dock made a house-smoked prime rib lobster oscar crostini topped with lobster, asparagus and a fresh tarragon brandied brie sauce. Lobster and prime rib - what more could you want?
Last, but not least, is the first dish we tried. It was a lobster and white bean chili from the Davis Island Grill.
All in all, the Claw Down had an impressive turnout in terms of both the number of participating restaurants and number of tickets sold. Portlanders, if they do this again next year, I’d recommend it. The food and company were well worth the drive.
Photo by Ted Axelrod / Axelrod Photography
Meredith Goad has harvested oysters on the Chesapeake Bay, eaten reindeer in Finland and sipped hot chai in the Himalayas. She writes the weekly Soup to Nuts column and enjoys a good cocktail.
Susan Axelrod's food writing career began in the kitchen; she owned a restaurant and catering business before turning to journalism more than a decade ago. To relax, she bakes, gardens and hikes with her husband and their two dogs. A newcomer to Portland, she is an online content producer for the Press Herald.
Susan can be contacted at 791-6310 or saxelrod [at] pressherald.com.
On Twitter: @susansaxelrod