We eat out. A lot. Most of our experiences putting our tastebuds in the hands of other cooks are positive ones; sometimes, those experiences are downright outstanding. From humble kitchens in the backs of trailers to high-end professional kitchens run by classically-trained chefs, from the brick sidewalks of Portland to the great untamed wilderness of Brunswick, from a humble cheeseburger to a scratch made pasta with truffle oil and sungolds, here are the ten best things we sampled in restaurants across Maine in 2011.
1. Panna Cotta at Bresca
Even if you’re prone to skipping dessert, as we are, the panna cotta at tiny Bresca will make a believer out of you. Buttermilk panna cotta, a suspension that liquefies instantly when it hits your lips, is paired with an array of sweet, bright fruit flavors, with a scoop of white pepper sorbet. It’s an endlessly surprising, satisfying dish, and the perfect finish to a meal.
2. Pasta with poached lobster, duck egg, and white truffle oil at Trattoria Athena
You might not make it back to Brunswick’s Trattoria Athena for this specific dish, a nightly special whose bright, complex flavors keep multiplying and intensifying in your mouth. The rest of the regular menu is no slouch, though, with a weekly fixed-price “family style” dinner service, and a combination of inventive Greek and Italian cuisines that make this restaurant one of our favorites this year.
3. Carnitas de Puerco at Zapoteca
This somewhat deconstructed version of a Mexican classic elevates South-of-the-Border cuisine well beyond its bottomless guacamole-roots. Shredded, locally-raised pork shoulder with tomato chile sauce, pickled red onions, avocado, and black bean, served with tortillas and a watermelon habanero margarita make for a well-rounded evening of surprisingly thoughtful twists on traditional Mexican eating.
4. Plato Montenero at Tu Casa
If you are the kind of person that feels a swell of relief when you hear Spanish being spoken, you will be completely at home at Tu Casa. Though it may not be the speediest meal in town, the wait is well worth it. The “Mountaineer’s Platter” combines a thinly-cut grilled rib eye, sliced avocado, a fried plantain,and a hard-cooked fried egg, and is served with rice and pinto beans. Combining all of these elements into a single bite makes for one of the single best forkfuls of food in town.
5. Cheeseburger at Harmon’s Lunch
You can sing the praises of your overwrought, overblown, locally-raised Wagyu-style pampered-and-massaged ground beef all you like, and I will still choose the single cheeseburger at Harmon’s Lunch every single time. These tiny two-or-three ounce steamed marvels have been made exactly the same way for over 50 years, and eating one (or five) brings an internal comfort the likes of which you haven’t felt since the last time you were in your grandmother’s house. Try one with grilled onions and the restaurant’s homemade red relish.
6. “The Slab” at Micucci’s
Think of it as “pizza” if you must, but this combination of pillowy, thick, airy dough, spread with an outrageously sweet sauce and a spiderweb of salty mozzarella cheese has inspired a devout following among the lunchtime crowd in Portland. It’s worth waiting for a fresh slice, or better still, ordering an entire tray to keep all to yourself and eat in a darkened room.
7. Lamb Keftedes at Local 188
Because you can’t spend all day drinking “Dropkick Murphy”s, the restaurant’s special blend of Jameson Irish whiskey, root beer, and Murphy’s stout, with any hope of making back out through the door in one piece, we also suggest the “Lamb Keftedes,” a ground lamb meatball with a thick, crunchy crust, served with cucumber ribbons and a cool cream sauce. It’s beer-drinking food elevated to new heights.
8. Seasonal Sweet Corn Soup at Petite Jacqueline
Jillian sums this soup up perfectly: “Imagine eating sweet ripe corn, in a field under a warm sun, now add a burst of sweet cream butter, and meld into all with your eyes closed the sensuous elements of your mind. To spoon this corn soup is to meet one’s God. No exaggeration.”
9. Fried Haddock Sandwich at Morse’s Lobster Shack
In Brunswick, along a mysterious stretch of road linking Bowdoin College to the forgotten strip malls of Cook’s Corner, Morse’s Lobster Shack is one of several 1950′s-era “drive-in” hamburger and clam shacks. Ignoring the impracticality of eating a lobster in your car for a moment, the fried haddock sandwich served at Morse’s Lobster Shack, served crisp and golden, glistening in oil, with a plastic sheet of white American cheese that will set up if you leave it too long, is one of the best examples of this Maine classic that we have ever tasted.
10. Chicken Salad Sandwich from Clayton’s Cafe
We ate plenty of sandwiches in 2011, and it took something really, really special to make our year-end wrapup. Clayton’s Cafe is making just that sandwich. It’s our ideal combination: hand-carved white meat chicken breast, tossed with mayonnaise, red grapes and big chunks of blue cheese, and served between thick slices of country white bread. Every element is perfect, and like any great sandwich, the combination becomes a thing much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s almost enough to make you move to Yarmouth.
With 365 more days of eating stretched out in front of us, we’d love to hear your suggestions about the “can’t miss” places throughout Maine that we just haven’t caught wind of. If there’s a classic eatery that is your go-to place for a meal away from home, and you haven’t seen it featured on From Away, please take a moment to let us know in the comments. As always, thanks for reading, and we’ll see you in 2012!