To say that having a baby in 2012 changed our dining out habits would be a bit of an understatement. It annihilated those habits. It’s been a sacrifice that has gone largely unnoticed, until I look back over our ten favorite restaurant bites from 2011. In those pre-baby days, we were averaging a dinner out at least once a week, if not more. This year, we were lucky to get out once a month, and the style of dining changed quite a bit. 2012 saw us visiting many more casual eateries, restaurants where either a baby wouldn’t be an inconvenience to other diners, or places where we could try a restaurant’s cooking at lunchtime, rather than naptime.
That’s not to say we didn’t find plenty of amazing restaurants serving inspiring food, from Portland to Sargentville, and everyplace in between. Here are the ten best things we sampled in restaurants across Maine in 2012.
1. Chef’s Omakase for Two at Suzuki’s
We haven’t even reviewed the restaurant that served us our single best meal out from 2012. We will, not to worry. We just want to be sure to treat anything we say publicly about Suzuki’s in Rockland with the same care chef/owner Keiko Suzuki Steinberger gives to her stunning presentations of locally-caught sushi and sashimi. A bit of an oddity in the sushi chef world (historically, most have been men), Keiko turns out an artful array of seafood arranged with a precision that we have been hard-pressed to find elsewhere, served by a staff whose knowledge of the subject borders on the pathological. It’s the kind of place where we check our preconceptions about what we “like” and “dislike” at the door, and let Keiko serve us whatever she wants to, as she does with the “Omakase” selections. These suppers have completely changed our opinions on eel (turns out, they don’t just chase Coors Light cans when you throw one into the quarry), as well as on the oysters dug locally in Cushing, and the mackrel caught right in Rockland harbor. I have eaten round after round of the fresh offerings at Suzuki’s until I am more fish than man, and I can’t wait to do it again. It is quite simply some of the best sushi I have ever eaten, by a rather wide margin.
2. “Spicy night Market Soup” at Long Grain
The “Spicy Night Market Noodle Soup” from Long Grain in Camden just may be my new perfect food. A rice noodle soup flavored with chunks of pork, ground sausage, and chopped peanuts, the first flavor to register in your brain is a bright sweetness, followed by a spicy jump-punch to the back of the head that builds cumulatively with each bite. The soup is garnished with crispy fried pork rinds that immediately become bloated and fat with the pungent broth as you work your my way through the bowl.
3. Fried Oysters at The Slipway
After nearly a decade behind the fryers at the Dip Net, Scott Yakovenko has done what was seemingly impossible, turning Thomaston’s decrepit but picturesque “Harbor View” into one of the finest new seasonal restaurants in the region. All of the fried seafood baskets at The Slipway are cooked in peanut oil, which is drained and filtered several times each day. The fried oyster appetizer ($8.50) is consistently the star of the show. The crisp, golden coating lightly covers the oysters, which practically explode with the briny essence of the ocean with each bite. Swabbed lightly in the accompanying bright beet juice-stained ginger shallot dipping sauce, the crunchy oysters taste like pure summertime. Order one, and then immediately order another.
4. Cheese Slice at Roma Pizza
I’m going to come out and say it. Roma Pizza could have been a contender for one of the best pizza slices in Portland. Owner Luca Pizzuti, blessed with a name more suited to the pizza business than any I have ever heard, shoehorned his enormous personality into a tiny shop off of Exchange Street in Portland, expanding his successful slice business in Old Orchard Beach. Luca’s plain cheese slice was a thing of understated beauty. The crust was paper-thin in the middle, with crispy blackening from the bottom of the oven on the underside, which tapered up to a fat roll of dough around the outside edge that managed to be both crusty and chewy at the same time, with plenty of snap and big airy pockets spread throughout. The tomato sauce was extremely fresh and light, with just the right amount of acidity remaining in the chunks of tomato hiding under a refreshingly light-handed application of salty, blistered mozzarella. Unfortunately, the pizza at Roma Pizza may have been just too good to be true, as the restaurant closed its doors in the Fall of 2012.
5. Split Mussels and Clams at Cod End Seafood
Growing up in Tenants Harbor, I admit a bit of a personal bias toward Cod End Seafood, backdrop to many of my fondest childhood memories. You can’t find fault with their split order of clams and mussels at lunchtime, though, served with both plain and garlic-infused clarified butter. The clams are meaty and sweet, without a hint of mud, and the mussels are perfectly plump, briney vehicles for repeated dunks in garlic butter. There’s no more perfectly picturesque place to slow down and watch the sun set over the harbor, the ocean lapping against the hulls of the numerous fishing boats moored there.
6. Crab Quesadilla at El El Frijoles
Want to really, truly surprise yourself? Go eat Mexican food out of a barn in the middle of Sargentville. The crabmeat in the quesadilla there is sweet, complemented by creamy cheese and a scoop of guacamole, not overwhelming, overspiced, or in any way wrong. Instead of, “let’s jam up a perfectly nice and melty tasty tortilla with crab, of all things, because, you know, it’s Maine and we had some laying around,” the Deer Isle fresh-caught crab is there because it’s beautiful and enhances the dish. If it’s on special when you visit, get it. And get it with an agua fresca. El El Frijoles is well worth the strange ride it takes to get there.
7. Fried Whole Belly Clams at Graffam Bros. Seafood Shack
Why haven’t we done a full-blown review of the Graffam Bros. Seafood Shack in Rockport? We didn’t bring our camera when we visited at the end of the Summer in 2012, expecting only to find one last passable fried seafood basket before the hammer of Winter fell. Instead, what followed as we ate lunch at the picnic tables adjoining the ‘Shack, across the street from the seafood market, was one of the finest avalanches of fried seafood we have ever had the pleasure of tasting. We expect to be spending much, much more time there in 2013.
8. 7-Napkin Burger at the Owl’s Head General Store
In 2009, Food Network Magazine named the famed “7-Napkin Burger” the very best burger in Maine. It’s a well-deserved title. The burger starts with a loosely-packed hamburger patty that must weigh at least 6-8 ounces, loosely packed and cooked to the temperature you request (an increasingly rare feature in a cheeseburger these days), with a thick, seasoned crust. The beef is set upon a huge white hamburger bun that’s soft, but sturdy enough to stand up to the toppings that follow. What pushes the burger into “Seven Napkin” territory, however, is what comes next: a liberal application of mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, onions, pickles, lettuce, and tomato. It’s a gloriously messy burger that never gets out of your control, the bun diverting the river of juices from the burger away from your chin and arms and down onto your plate. But it’s so much more that that. Wrapped up in one cheeseburger is an opportunity to catch a glimpse of what daily life in Maine’s coastal communities is like, where the already-seated customers greet the new arrivals by name, where the coffee may be a little weak, but it’s always fresh and hot, where the kitchen staff good-naturedly teases the kid that’s been working there every Summer since he was fifteen. It’s a great way to spend your lunch hour, and a brilliant place to be a part of.
9. The “Land ‘n’ Sea Burger” at Hoss & Mary’s
Oh, sure. The “Asian Kon Fusion” burger, a double cheeseburger topped with crab rangoon filling and duck sauce slaw at Hoss & Mary’s in Old Orchard Beach may get all the play. But we’re partial to the “Land ‘n’ Sea” burger, a juicy hamburger topped with a deep-fried, golden clam cake, spicy tartar sauce, lettuce, and tomato. It was so jaw-droppingly delicious, that halfway through, I put my burger down on the wooden counter to pause and catch my breath, before ducking back inside to order another of the restaurant’s insane creations.
10. “Whole Hog Sunday” at Beale Street BBQ
I don’t think I could ever choose which of the 2,000 bites of food I had last Winter at Beale Street BBQ’s special day-long event was the best. It might have been the hush puppies. Or the spicy ham and pineapple skewers. The bacon, pickled watermelon rind, and pork liver skewers. The house dill and sweet pickles. Or maybe the pickled beets. The pickled peppers. The pork liver pate. Or the maple meat sticks. The Tasso. The candied pecans. The Taleggio. The Old Quebec vintage cheddar. Or it could have been the fresh pork sausages. The biscuits and gravy. The mini bratwurst on a bun with sauerkraut. The Spanish chorizo and mushrooms with garlic butter. The grilled shrimp skewers. The kidney, pork, heart, and mushroom pie. But it was probably the pork and potato pie. Or the Pennsylvania ham loaf. Or the head cheese with more pickled beets. But it could also have been the pork cretons. The salmon rillettes. The piles of pulled pork. Or the macaroni and cheese. Or the baked beans and barbecue sauce, collard greens, or cole slaw. Or the pork ribs. Or the crispy pork belly. Whichever bite you choose as your favorite, there may be no more thorough day of eating anywhere in the Midcoast, for the completely reasonable $25 cover charge.