September 16, 2012

Dine Out Maine: For food and view far above the ordinary, Robert's Maine Grill

By Nancy Heiser

My husband and I discovered Robert's Maine Grill in Kittery on Labor Day as we traveled back from Massachusetts.

click image to enlarge

The kitschy faux lighthouse out front belies the well-lit, tasteful interior of Robert’s Maine Grill on Route 1 in Kittery.

Courtesy photo

DINING REVIEW

ROBERT'S MAINE GRILL, 326 Route 1, Kittery 439-0300; robertsmainegrill.com

★★★ 1/2

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; until 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; until 8 p.m. Sunday

CREDIT CARDS: All major

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $3 to $19; dinner entrees mainly in $18 to $25 range

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

KIDS: Welcome; separate menu

RESERVATIONS: Yes

BAR: A stylish bar area with 16 stools doubles as a raw bar. The wine list includes about 30 bottles, all available by the glass; two are from Maine's Cellardoor. Ten local beers on tap, several bottles, specialty drinks and cordials.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Attracting tourists and locals, Robert's Maine Grill is a large, contemporary, casual restaurant with an emphasis on well-prepared seafood served efficiently. Don't let the faux lighthouse outside trick you into thinking it's a place of gimmicks and assembly-line fare. Robert's bustles with individuality, and rustles up made-to-order dishes that are usually tasty and occasionally exciting.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value:

★ Poor  ★★ Fair  ★★★ Good   ★★★★ Excellent  ★★★★★ Extraordinary.

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

We were looking for a place to eat along Route 1, contentedly driving in the opposite direction of backed-up tourists. But some of those drivers had the same idea -- out-of-state cars took up half the parking lot of Robert's. If you have to leave Maine, you might as well do it with one last stab at fresh seafood with a water view.

Robert's Maine Grill is not a classic order-at-the-window spot -- that's its brother restaurant, Bob's Clam Shack, something of an institution across the street -- and the restaurant's scenic view is only from the rear of the building. Retail outlets occupy the road in front.

Renovated and rebuilt by a new owner in 2006 after a fire burned down its predecessor, The Quarterback, Robert's is an updated, two-story place for good food that goes well beyond the fried seafood basket.

The tourist-friendly and distinctly Maine operation has a contemporary flair, particularly the high-ceilinged bar area. The faux lighthouse out front, all that's left of the Quarterdeck, is a kitschy eye-catcher. But inside, the setting is well-lit, tasteful and a little noisy. The many Maine-themed photographs on the walls are more arty than clich?

Complimentary crackers (from a box) served with a green pepper and pimento cream cheese spread -- a starter meant to please many palates -- set a pedestrian tone that was quickly tossed off when we tried our first dish, hot lobster sliders.

Rather than the single classic and often anemic hot dog roll as the vessel for the seafood, the kitchen substituted crumbly, warm buttermilk biscuits and kept the chunks of hot lobster pure except for butter and a dash of pepper. Oh my, did these slide well.

Three to a plate for $19, they were marvelously moist, rich and sweet. This might just be my new favorite lobster sandwich. (You can also opt for cold lobster and mayo.)

Raw oysters are big at Robert's. A separate menu lists the daily offerings with descriptions and provenance, and you can order as many or as few as you like at $3 each. Monday is two for the price of one day, and we saw many trays hauled off to partakers of that bargain.

Our fried oyster slider was a perfectly crisp and moist seafood morsel served on a brioche roll that had been slathered with lemon caper aioli. You can order these individually for $4 each, giving you the opportunity to try a bite and still have room for an entree. A delicious mug of haddock and corn chowder ($6.50) was full of fish and vegetables, with a tinge of smoky flavor.

One entree, pan-roasted cod ($21), was fresh and nicely cooked, but its underlying ragout of white beans and bacon was a little soupy. A ring of steamed littlenecks were only average and didn't enhance the dish, although I suspect that many customers enjoy having this bonus seafood on their plate.

Will someone please tell me how you get scallops as sweet as those served at Robert's? Six plump morsels, grilled golden, were decadently good, and the sauteed rainbow chard, chorizo and roasted potatoes made for a hearty and coherent medley ($24).

Other menu options include sandwiches (e.g., a crab and avocado melt), salads (roasted asparagus with goat cheese is one), fried seafood plates, lobster dinners and terra firma options such as Moxie- and bourbon-barbecued tenderloin tips.

Desserts are traditional affairs. Similar to the oyster option, the restaurant offers half-portions for only $3.50 (full for $7.50), and the small are plenty big enough. Blueberry crumble was full of fruit and flavor, and the triple chocolate cake was cool and rich, a sizable step above homestyle. But the luscious raspberry pie took home the gold. Strong decaf coffee tasted like it had spent a little time resting.

Service at Robert's is affable and efficient. Good teamwork is evident. One server is assigned to your table, but others may bring out food or fill your water glass. You pick your silverware out of a mason jar set on the table.

Overall, Robert's Maine Grill is a well-oiled operation serving fresh seafood and updated mainstream dishes that taste far better than assembly-line fare. Just don't expect an intimate, quiet and slow dinner with candlelight.

Several diners seemed to take their time at the lively bar or on the second-floor porch overlooking a tidal river. We didn't feel rushed, but we hadn't come to linger, either. We covered three courses in an hour before heading home, an easy turn back onto the highway north.

It was nice to mingle with camera-toting tourists and the locals taking advantage of "BOGO" oyster Mondays. We got on the road again, sated and pleasantly surprised by this opportune stop. It's on our must-repeat list.

Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer. She can be reached at:

nancyheiser.com

 

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