In an alternate universe, restaurateur Michael Landgarten could have taken my job. As an art-history major at Bowdoin College in the late ’70s, Landgarten picked up an unusual pastime: rating and ranking the quality of dishes at seafood shacks in Maine. “I thought I would become an academic, but meanwhile I had this hobby of never eating in the school cafeteria,” he said. “I ate at fried seafood places and rated them all on everything from their sandwiches to their chocolate shakes. I had a real passion for it. It was like the fried seafood version of Zagat’s.”

Instead of turning to food writing as a profession, Landgarten decided to parlay his experience into running a restaurant. In 1986, he purchased Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, and over the next few decades, proceeded to open more businesses: Robert’s Maine Grill (sold in 2016) and Lil’s Café (both in Kittery), a winter-only Bob’s kiosk at Sugarloaf, and this July, the Portland outpost of Bob’s Clam Hut. If you’ve visited any of them, you know one thing for certain: Landgarten never lost his flair for narrative, especially when it comes to stories about people.

Each of his restaurants is animated by a sunny, sometimes magical nostalgia for important characters from the Bob’s Clam Hut’s universe, and the Portland location is no exception. Its menu offers combination seafood baskets dubbed “Bob & Betty” in memory of original owner Bob Kraft and his wife. Every order of fried belly clams ($20.95-$38.95) can be prepared either “Bob’s style” (simply dusted with all-purpose and corn flours) or “Lillian’s style” (double-dredged in egg, evaporated milk and flour, and planted with a toothpick flag bearing the likeness of legendary server Lillian Mangos). And, in a Dadaist twist, on the “Fun Pages” set out to keep kids occupied, a pen-and-ink sketch of Bob Kraft’s disembodied head is nestled into the open mouth of a clam. Don’t worry, though – his smile indicates that he’s perfectly content to be there.

It’s hard not to wonder what Bob, who died in 2003, would made of the Portland branch of his little shack. At the very least, he probably would have recognized it as his own. The two spaces echo one another, albeit in inexact counterpoint: Portland has whitewashed brick and light-stained shiplap where Kittery has painted shingles and navy canvas awnings. Yet both feature essentially the same menu, except up north, local draft beers have slipped in to replace Kittery’s extensive ice cream program – a wise move for a restaurant on the edge of red-hot Washington Avenue and its focus on nightlife.

That is not to say that you can’t find ice cream at the Portland Bob’s. It’s there, just not as a dessert. Instead, it takes the form of shakes the kitchen whizzes up from a hefty nine ounces of Rococo ice cream brought in from Wells. My guests and I shared a whoopie pie milkshake ($5.95) and fell in love with the yielding crumbs of fudgy cake suspended in the sweet-cream (not vanilla) base.

Normally after a meal at a seafood shack, dessert is the last thing on my mind, but Bob’s generally manages to keep its fried foods light. The credit goes to batters and dredges that are cooked until they are barely crisped and brown, and to almost compulsively frequent changes of frying oil.


Together, those factors elevate dishes like Lillian’s-style belly clams (my favorite, thanks to its barely cooked interior and shatteringly crunchy crust), and the nuggets of breaded haddock in the fried fish tacos ($5.95), made even better by a few forkfuls of bracing, serrano-spiced taco slaw ($2.95).

Landgarten was inspired to put tacos on his menu after a visit to Jose Andres’s Washington, D.C. restaurant Oyamel, where flavors of smoky paprika aioli, pickled red onions and lime juice seemed like they’d be an ideal match for seafood. His haddock version proves his instinct was a good one. It is juicy and fresh, like a tiny nibble of summertime, no matter when you order it. The oyster version ($5.95), on the other hand, is a bit rubbery, thanks (or maybe no thanks) to shucked oysters left too long in hot oil.

My Pickled O-Ring Burger ($7.95) was similarly slightly overdone – just enough for the lean organic beef patty to get a little tight and crumbly. I could tell something was off as I ate, because no juices percolated into my Martin’s potato roll. Still, there’s a lot to love about this burger, especially the kicky tang and crunch of a pickled onion, deep-fried like a treat from a county fair.

And while green salads ($8.95) are nothing to write home about, even with solid homemade dressings like a tart-and-savory buttermilk ranch or a mustardy red wine vinaigrette, their reliance on leaf lettuce, scallions and fresh cherry tomatoes classifies them as a step above anything you’d have a right to expect at a seafood shack in October.

But what really makes Bob’s a welcome addition to the city is – no surprise – its clam dishes. Start with a bowl of traditional Maine clam chowder that the kitchen still prepares from Bob Kraft’s 1956-era recipe. It looks loose, but stick your spoon in and you’ll discover a traffic jam of cubed Pineland Farms potatoes and fresh minced clams. A sneaky dash of Worcestershire sauce in the broth brings out minerality in the clam meat and adds complexity.

When you’ve finished that, move on to any of belly clam dishes. Sure, you could stick to a remarkably tender clam strip roll ($15.95) and not be disappointed, but the goal here is complete satisfaction – you’re in a fried seafood shack, after all. So head right for the Clams 2 Ways ($24.95), a generous basket that lets you pit Lillian’s puffed, crispy version of fried whole-bellies against Bob’s, which is a shade or two more caramel in color, with a fuller salinity. The two preparations differ by just a couple of ingredients and an extra minute in oil, but the difference in taste is striking.


Eat them side-by-side, and it becomes clear what Michael Landgarten means when he talks about the “chef’s level of care” around sourcing, storage and preparation that he picked up from Rebecca Charles, another restaurateur (Pearl Oyster Bar, Pearl Kennebunk Beach) who built her reputation by serving simple food prepared superbly. Ask him about what makes his clams special, and Landgarten doesn’t hesitate. With a writer’s precision, he lays it out in five words: “The nakedness of the ingredients,” he says. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of two 2018 Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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