Michael Michalski is a serious student of the state’s lobster shacks. For decades, he has been squirreling away ephemera from casual seafood joints across Maine, in anticipation that someday, they’d come in handy. “Every time I would go to one of those places,” he said, “I would pick up a menu and save it to help me remember what they offer.”

He first put his memorabilia to use in California, where he helped his former business partner, Russell Deutsch, start Old Port Lobster Shack, a chain of three, fast-casual restaurants in Northern California. His original plan was for the team to open a fourth on Fore Street in Portland. But when their relationship “dissolved,” as Michalski put it, he decided to go it alone.

And why not? He already had a space: an 1,800-square-foot plaza-style storefront at 425 Fore St., occupied for nearly 15 years by his wife’s clothing-and-lifestyle boutique, Helene M. Maybe more to the point, the couple never canceled their lease. “Yes, it was empty and we were still paying rent since 2014,” he said.

This winter, Michalski installed a full kitchen, including lobster tanks, as well as a dining area designed to make customers feel as if they were eating aboard a powerboat. To that end, he put in ceramic flooring that resembles weathered ship timbers, bench seating padded with rectangular yacht cushions (held in place with dock cleats), and a curvy, mahogany bar. Focus on those items alone, and the effect is exactly as intended. But other details – clunky metal chairs and a water-stained drop ceiling, in particular – cheapen the décor and make it feel like a restaurant in a strip-mall.

On a sunny day, however, you may never catch sight of any of the interior design choices; Maine Lobster Shack has patio seating that’s so inviting, I overheard two parties choose their afternoon meal based on little more than the option to sit outdoors. “Here! We’re eating right here, and I’m going to drink a beer and eat a lobster roll in the sun,” one woman declared to her sweat-dampened companion.

I followed her lead, taking a seat at an uncomfortable, bar-height two-top, and placing an order for a Maine lobster roll ($19.95) of my own. Truth be told, it was my second in just a few days. I tasted the first during a dinnertime visit and was hoping this sandwich would be an improvement over that first waterlogged, practically unseasoned lobster roll. And it was – marginally. I could taste a little of the mayonnaise, and as in the first sandwich, the buttery, toasted bun that Michalski imports from San Francisco was springy and a little sweet. But this time, there were two unwelcome hitchhikers in the lobster meat: shards of shell and khaki streaks of tomalley.

Certainly, execution problems happen sometimes, especially in new kitchens where the volume of Old Port tourist business can come as quite a surprise. But in a restaurant whose most important sandwich is made with pre-purchased, picked lobster meat, there’s no excuse.

The lobster roll suffered from execution problems.

The kitchen staff, overseen by kitchen manager/head chef Clarence Morris (formerly of Cracker Barrel in South Portland), struggle with other dishes as well. Some are less central to what Michalski calls the “shacky” menu, like Shack Macaroni and Cheese ($8) which is runny, with stodgy noodles and a sauce that is bland because of the quantity of half-and-half used to loosen it up before service. Or the Shack Louie salad ($10), a pile of unmixed ingredients – a hard-boiled egg, a few cherry tomatoes, a clump of avocado slices – plopped down atop a bed of romaine hearts and served with a savory riff on Thousand Island dressing.

Yet others try to replicate shack classics. Fried foods, in particular, need a few tweaks. The seafood baskets aren’t all they should be, owing to gritty breading that is almost entirely coarse cornmeal and doesn’t adhere to ingredients like Ipswich Maritime’s seawater-purged clam strips ($9).

On the whole, pre-frozen sides also underwhelm: French fries ($4) are batter-coated and extraordinarily crispy, but slightly bitter, while onion rings ($4) are encased in so much breading, they might as well be hush puppies.

A view into the kitchen from the dining room, which is decked out in a nautical theme, including a floor resembling weathered ship timbers.

By quite some distance, the best pre-prepared menu item at Maine Lobster Shack is its pie ($8), made by Two Fat Cats Bakery. On my first visit, my guests and I devoured a generous slice of the cherry, brought to us by a server who announced that she was excited to bring it to us, because cutting into the pie meant she would “get a chance to taste cherry pie for the first time.” All newbie pie-eaters should be so lucky.

Earlier, that same server steered us in an unexpected direction, urging us to try the grilled chicken sandwich ($12). As it turned out, the grilled, brined-and-butterflied breast was my favorite of everything I ate at Maine Lobster Shack across two visits. A little smoky, a little peppery, it came as a total surprise to everyone at my table. Had it been served on a more flavorful, less industrial-tasting ciabatta roll, it would have been even better.

And that’s the knock on Maine Lobster Shack: It looks – and tastes – corporate, with little personality of its own. Chalk that up to how seriously Michalski took the academic work of “combining the sea shack menus across this state and bringing them together under one umbrella.” What results is a menu that seems to represent a filtered, algorithmically smoothed interpretation of what casual, coastal dining in Maine is all about; it is the mean, median and mode of all the seafood shacks in the state. Is it any wonder that the results are so unerringly middling?

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. Contact him at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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