You only have to be in The Brass Compass Cafe for a few minutes before you start to notice signs that you are quite firmly in Bobby Flay country. Actually, to be more accurate, you’re in restaurant owner Lynn Archer country; the owner handily defeated the celebrity chef in a lobster club sandwich competition, as part of Flay’s “Throwdown” series, winning over the hometown crowd and achieving local celebrity overnight. If you weren’t aware of the epic battle between Flay and Archer before you walked into the Brass Compass, you certainly will be by the time you leave. A quick synopsis of the victory is printed on vinyl signs outside and on the menu, and large portraits of Flay adorn the walls overlooking a counter selling his cookbooks.
Jillian: The Brass Compass is a coffee shop that happens to serve clams. And they’re good – really good – fried clams. It’s one of those bric-a-brac-y neighborhoody breakfast places with sincere, smiling waitresses – women who make a living slinging eggs and chowder. They also happen to make a superlative lobster club. Their claim to fame is actually emerging victorious in the Bobby Flay Throwdown, in which the smug ginger celebrity chef goes head to head with a home/restaurant cook. Bobby Flay would trade your virginity for a passing grade on his Art History final. But I bet he makes a killer lobster salad. He used saffron to be fancy and win your favor. He still lost though.
Lynn Archer’s competition with Bobby Flay may get the most attention, but The Brass Compass is so much more than lobster club sandwiches. In the Winter, the restaurant is mostly empty, except for a few locals enjoying an inexpensive breakfast, or an early afternoon cup of clam chowder. It’s a cozy shelter from the cold, on those days where you need to get out of the house to exchange a wan smile with a stranger, to remind yourself that other people are continuing to survive in the frozen tundra. Visiting The Brass Compass in the Winter is like visiting family; you raid the fridge, you make some small talk, and you get on your way.
The atmosphere is a little different in the Summer. The restaurant is busy with Rockland’s annual Summer crowd, tables turn quickly, and the service gets a little bit more efficient. The specials board starts becoming much more lobster-centric, and the hearty comfort food fades into the background until Autumn. All the seafood on the restaurant’s menu is caught in Maine, and most of it comes from local waters. Lobster is well-represented, as are several variations on the classic fried haddock sandwich, including a triple-decker version served with bacon. Sandwiches, salads, and burgers make up the bulk of the rest of the menu, all reasonably priced and with some surprisingly creative twists on New England standards.
We started with a small order of “Fried Onion Strands” ($2.99), thin slices of Vidallia onions, breaded and deep-fried until golden brown and piled high into a tangled mass appropriate for a knife and fork. They’re crispy, salty, and perfect vehicles for ketchup. The $7.95 “Haddock Wrap,” a special of the day, featured a generous portion of fried haddock, topped with coleslaw and rolled into a flour wrap with melted American cheese. The slaw ran over everything into a crunchy, drippy mess that was a ton of fun to eat; a Filet-o-Fish on steroids. The fries were a bit of a disappointment; handcut, with appealing flecks of potato skin, and served with malt vinegar, but served limp and soggy.
Jillian: I had crab cakes, which were okay. Can I elaborate on that? Yes, I can. They were sweet and pink with crab meat, thin, not too heavily spiced or gobbed up with starchy fillers. Two savory cakes were served over a garden salad for $10.99. (But I could have chosen cole slaw and French fries for the same price.) The salad was pretty forgettable, mostly lettuce, tiny cubes of anemic tomatoes, too many red onions and a gloppy (but not bad) bleu cheese. The green peppers were bursting with astringent freshness, and were the best part of the otherwise so-so salad. Still, I felt virtuous ordering vegetables at lunch. As it turns out, when you’re no longer pregnant and you still only order hamburgers, people start giving sidelong glances toward your thighs.
And what about that enormous Lobster Club Sandwich, the “King of Clubs” that defeated Bobby Flay? It lives up to the hype. Huge chunks of lightly-dressed, sweet Maine lobster combine with crisp-fried bacon, lettuce, and tomato on three thick layers of Archer’s homemade white bread, ever-so-slightly toasted to help give the sandwich structure, while staying soft and fluffy in the middle. It’s a completely over-the-top lunch that will leave you satisfied for the rest of the day. At $21.99, it’s on the pricey side, which Archer freely admits; the sandwich uses high quality, local ingredients, and the meat from an entire pound-and-a-quarter lobster with nothing in the way of fillers. The price keeps it from entering my regular lunchtime rotation, but it’s worth every penny for visitors to the area looking for the quickest route to eating as much sweet, fresh Maine lobster as possible.
Jillian: This relaxed café on Main Street in Rockland where everyone seems to know everyone is one of the true treasures of small town life. I look forward to trying every tourist (lobster) trap and awesome restaurant in the Midcoast, but this place epitomizes the reason we settled here, and plan to stay. The Brass Compass serves comforting, comfortable, quality food at mostly reasonable prices. But it’s more than that. There’s a happiness happening here that I want to become a part of.
The goodnatured heckling from the hometown crowd makes Lynn Archer’s defeat of Bobby Flay in this “Throwdown” an awful lot of fun to watch: