Wet Smack Maine Oysters at SoPo Seafood. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

In more than seven years writing this column, I have invited hundreds of people to eat with me. Frequently, our tour of a restaurant’s menu leaves leftovers for my friends: quarts of hummus, nearly intact pizzas, cookies, just to name a few of the items that have populated Dine Out Maine doggie bags. But until this week, not a single guest had returned home with something permanent to install in their home.

Yet there we were, seated under a patio umbrella in the late afternoon sunlight on Ocean Street in South Portland, slurping our way through more than a dozen of SoPo Seafood’s just-shucked Maine oysters ($2.50 apiece), when we got to the sweet and surprisingly meaty Wet Smacks. “Just so you know,” my guest, a marine biologist and recent first-time homeowner, announced, “I’m bringing these shells home with me to use as handles for my cabinets.”

It made perfect sense to me. Maine Ocean Farms tumbles these Freeport-farmed oysters to buff them to a translucent, eggshell gloss, until they resemble something you might find at a seaside souvenir shop – a little boutique named Shells ‘N Such or Cap’n Connie’s Treasure Chest. And really, why wouldn’t you claim the empties as a memento of a thoroughly enjoyable meal?

None of this is to shame the other, unpolished oysters on ice for us that day, among which I especially enjoyed the deep-cupped Brine Stones from Brunswick and extra-briny Blaney Points from Cumberland. A scant dribble of SoPo’s lime-juice mignonette gave both of these saline-forward oysters a zesty spark that even I, a lover of naked, undressed oysters, loved.

Weirder still is that my favorite oyster arrived extravagantly topped. The Marshall, an OOTD (Oyster of the Day) featuring a dollop of crème fraiche, a spoonful of Hackleback caviar and a few drops of gin layered over a Nauti Pearl oyster from Yarmouth’s Nauti Sisters Sea Farm ($7 apiece), crackled with juniper and cucumber as it settled into a buttery equilibrium on my tongue.

The menus-of-the-day format represents co-owners Lucas Myers, Matt Brown and Joshua Edgcombe’s intent as much as it allows them to offset the difficulties of selling foods with supply and quality that fluctuate frequently.


Oyster of the Day, watermelon mignonette with mint and white sturgeon caviar at SoPo Seafood. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Myers, SoPo’s director of operations explained: “We have to adjust sometimes because of what’s available and what’s not,” he said. “But a lot of the things we do to adjust are also fun, like The Marshall reminds us of an old friend, an English guy named Darren Marshall. He worked at Gillette Stadium, and he’d ask us to come help him shuck oysters in exchange for Patriots tickets – that’s the origin of the name. Or watermelon and mint in the mignonette, that’s just summer to us. Sometimes, we just play it by ear.”

Much of that improvisation falls to head chef Ryan Smith (formerly of The Well in Cape Elizabeth), who is better known as “the No. 1 prep cook around,” according to Myers. That’s no knock on Smith’s culinary skills. Prep is by quite some distance the most important part of the kitchen’s function at the raw bar.

SoPo rice bowl with halibut at SoPo Seafood. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Take, for example, the vegetables that form the foundation of rice bowls ($16) and the house salad ($10). Torn butter lettuce, slippery edamame, house-pickled cucumbers and carrot strips, and bay-leaf-and-peppercorn-braised radishes are all ready to go when a customer chooses a protein like steamed lobster, tempeh or a fillet of the grilled fish of the day. It’s a credit to Smith that the plant-based portion of these dishes are as good as the fresh seafood itself.

For indecisive types, Smith offers a “Spoons” section of the menu where single-bite, amuse-bouche-style snacks live. Some are raw, like salmon tartare ($4) and tuna crudo ($6), and others feature local smoked fish, like a neat, one-inch slice of homemade-tzatziki-topped American unagi draped with a magenta pickled onion ($7).

Lobster salad in a lettuce wrap at SoPo Seafood. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Smith is also a whiz at mayonnaise-based salads. Lightly dressed, picked Maine lobster with chive, lemon, chopped celery and sea salt bundled into two-ounce lettuce cup portions ($13) make an excellent (and cheaper) way to approximate the traditional lobster roll experience without gluten.

Order the popular smoked trout toast ($7) or its larger-format cousin, the smoked trout roll ($12), and you’ll see how flaked Grindstone Neck trout, celery, red onion and lemon juice turn a Little Spruce Baking bun (or slice of bread) into South Portland’s best-kept secret. “We’ll literally have people come in for just those two dishes, maybe a glass of wine (like my personal pick, the flinty Georgian Guardians Rkatsiteli white ($7)), and they’ll sit down and announce, ‘We want four smoked trout rolls … each.’”


Despite the mayo, none of these dishes is heavy. If heft is what you’re after, there’s a butter-slicked peekytoe crab sandwich on the menu, oozing with muenster ($12). I found it a bit too salty and probably something I’d enjoy more in the winter. But on the more filling side, you won’t go wrong with an order of creamy chowder that burbles with an eye-poppingly generous quantity of chopped Maine surf clam meat ($8).

Diners at SoPo Seafood on Ocean Street. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Mostly though, SoPo Seafood’s 23-seat raw bar menu leans toward light fare that Myers refers to as “informal and healthy, good for lunch, dinner or pre-dinner.” And as much as they’d love you to pick up a menu and sketch out plans for a feast, SoPo’s owners would be just as happy if you asked for a recipe.

“Our founding mission is to support Maine’s working waterfront by trying to put as much Maine seafood on as many plates as possible,” Myers said. “So we love it if you come in to sit down, but hopefully you’re also going to say, ‘This is good, and I could do this at home,’ and then take home fish to do something similar.”

Crab cake with salad at SoPo Seafood. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

I did this myself with Jonah crab claw meat, setting out to re-create the flat, soft-set crab cakes ($17) that Smith prepares from five ounces of the same Maine crab, garlic, cubes of white bread and a little Old Bay seasoning. True to his word, Myers offered up a simple recipe by email.

SoPo Seafood makes the transition from dining to retail easy. The impeccably clean, white-walled space encourages visitors to move seamlessly between the fish market and the tidy, wood-and-leather-accented dining room.

And how fitting for a shellfish shop on Ocean Street: Those fuzzy spatial boundaries evoke salty water flowing into fresh – an intermixing that generates the brackish environment that allows oysters to thrive. I’ll take a dozen (to-go or eat-in), and depending on what’s in season, I might take the shells home with me.


RATING: ****
WHERE: 171 Ocean St., South Portland. (877) 282-7676. soposeafood.com
SERVING: Tuesday, 11 a.m.–7 p.m.; Wednesday 11 a.m.–6 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m.–7 p.m., Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.–7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Appetizers: $4-$15, Sandwiches and bowls: $6-24
NOISE LEVEL: Outboard motor
VEGETARIAN: Few dishes
BAR: Beer, wine, cocktails

BOTTOM LINE: Come to SoPo Seafood Raw Bar & Market for a dozen oysters, and you might end up going home with even more seafood for later. That’s by design, according to co-owner Lucas Myers. But there’s no hard sell here, just hard shells from the Maine lobster: steamed and picked, blended with mayonnaise and chives, and tucked into torn lettuce leaves. When you visit, order at least one salad to enjoy head chef Ryan Smith’s range of brined, braised and pickled vegetables. If the tender, barely set crab cake is available as a protein add-on, don’t hesitate. Don’t skip the oyster of the day, either, especially if it’s the Hackleback-caviar-topped Marshall. While you’re at it, order several. If raw seafood isn’t your style, aim for super-chunky surf clam chowder, fantastic smoked trout toast, or the flakey grilled fish served in a sandwich ($16) or on a rice bowl.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.

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 five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: andrewross.maine@gmail.com
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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