July 2, 2011

Dine out Maine: Savor the spectacular view and keep it simple at Dolphin

By NANCY HEISER

Many moons ago, a friend steered me to a cafe that she claimed would soothe palate and soul. And, she said, be sure to get "chowder-muffin-coffee." She spoke this fast, as if it were one word. I complied, and I've been grateful for her advice ever since.

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The new Dolphin Marina and Restaurant in South Harpswell.

Photos by John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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Server Krysten Libby makes a delivery of crab cakes, fish chowder and a lobster roll at the new Dolphin Marina and Restaurant in South Harpswell.

DINING REVIEW

DOLPHIN MARINA AND RESTAURANT, 515 Basin Point Road,South Harpswell. 833-6000;

dolphinmarinaandrestaurant.com

***

HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, May 1 to Oct. 31; until 9 p.m. in July and August

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, Mastercard and Discover

PRICE RANGE: Appetizers, $7.95 to $13.95; rolls and sandwiches, $5.95 to $13.95; entrees, $16.95 to $25.95

VEGETARIAN: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes

KIDS: Welcome. Separate menu.

RESERVATIONS: None taken.

BAR: Full, with specialty cocktails and an international wine list of 10 whites and eight reds ($22 to $60). Six house wines by the glass, $6; half carafe, $10. Six beers on draft; five are Maine brews.

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Visit the popular Dolphin for a splendid Maine coast experience. The spacious new building thoughtfully sited on Basin Point affords spectacular views of upper Casco Bay from every table. Visitors are encouraged to explore the grounds or sit on the deck. Much, but not all, of the food lives up to the setting. Know what to order, and that is uncomplicated seafood fare. Don't miss the fish chowder served with a blueberry muffin or the lobster stew.

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.

Back then, the Dolphin Marina was a year-round eatery and chandlery on Potts Harbor in South Harpswell, housed in a modest building where you could pick up engine oil and marine rope as well as a bowl of lobster stew. Outside were -- and still are -- a boat ramp, a dock, a wharf, a pump-out station and jacked-up boats.

But then word got out. Waits got long. The marine shop departed the building to allow more takers for the celebrated chowder. The dining room was reconfigured and renovated.

The Saxton family, in business since 1966, responded again this season to the restaurant's growing popularity. Wend your way down Harpswell Neck, and you'll encounter a brand-new edifice at the end of Basin Point. The restaurant is sited differently; it's now at the farthest reach of the peninsula. A beautifully rendered, airy and light-filled building makes the most of this spit of land -- for people, not stored boats.

The dining room wall is gently curved, suggesting the wheelhouse of an ocean vessel. Mimi Saxton told me later that it mirrors the curved library walls of Adm. Robert E. Peary's house on nearby Eagle Island.

Tables that aren't a few feet away from enormous windows are set on a raised floor so that everyone gets a grand view. Blonde wood and wainscotting keep the atmosphere warm and light. The bar, in a separate room with lounge tables, is hand-turned cherry, so sleek it begs to be stroked. Join a yachtsman or a fisherman here for a cocktail. (The old place only served wine and beer.)

The menu hasn't changed, assured our waitress, after we finally turned our heads from the spectacular vistas of upper Casco Bay to order food.

Indeed, the gorgeously rich New England fish chowder was still ultra-buttery and sweetly fishy; the cream stocked with giant pieces of haddock, clams and potatoes. I defy you to find a better one anywhere.

Both sizes ($7.95 cup; $10.95 bowl) come with a large and lovely homemade blueberry muffin. Order a cup of fresh, strong coffee, and you have that winning combination my friend suggested years ago.

The mussels were also delicious, served with a strong, classic broth of butter, cooking liquid, wine and boatloads of garlic (appetizer, $12.95). The accompanying bread, however, was blah supermarket fare, which will disappoint those who want to use an excellent crust to dip into that garlicky broth.

A seafood scampi contained lobster claw meat, scallops and Maine shrimp served over angel hair pasta, with a small pool of garlic and butter sauce underneath. It was an unexciting dish that seemed tossed together. For $25.95, one expects better.

The blackboard special of pan-blackened Cajun haddock ($18.95) had the anticipated heat, but the fish lacked that moist, fall-apart flakiness. However, the four thick pieces of fish in the fried haddock basket ($11.95) aced the texture test, their coating golden and feathery, if tame. Several good shakes of vinegar and salt brought it up to speed.

A sharp celery seed housemade dressing enlivened the conventional side salad that came with the special. The basket's sweet potato fries were very thinly sliced and crispy, almost like chips. I like thicker, with soft middles, but that's just me.

The scallop basket ($15.95 for a choice of broiled or fried) stood out. Sea scallops were broiled without adulteration to a lightly browned finish. Cole slaw, served in a plastic cup, blended red and green cabbage in a light dressing with another celery seed boost.

(Continued on page 2)

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