I have a lifelong history with The Slipway in Thomaston. Okay, so it wasn’t always with “The Slipway.” For many years, it was the “Harbor View Restaurant,” located smack on the St. George River, and in the 1980s, it was the go-to restaurant for anyone living in the area. My earliest memories there include, in equal measure: A handheld ring-toss game to keep kids occupied while they sat patiently with their parents, a hot fudge brownie sundae served in an enormous brandy snifter that I had to stand up to eat, and my dad drinking frightening amounts of gin and tonics. These vague impressions make up some of my first memories of what it meant to be “out to dinner.” They’re mostly good memories, but certainly not appropriate to base a review on; the original Harbor View went through a series of owners over the next several decades, all bringing wildly varying levels of quality and cooking to the space. A modern review of The Slipway should stand all on its own, without being clouded by impressions of what came before. I’ll do my best, but understand that I am operating from a base of fond memories.
The Harbor View finally closed its doors in 2009, in a fog of mediocre seafood and the squashed remnants of fried mozzarella sticks ground into the restaurant’s indoor/outdoor carpeting. The future of the restaurant was uncertain, until current owner Scott Yakovenko stepped forward and purchased the property. Yakovenko, who trained in fine dining in both New York and the Virgin Islands before moving to Tenants Harbor, spent years running both Cod End and the famed “Dip Net” in Port Clyde. Both restaurants served world-class steamed and fried seafood in two of the most picturesque Maine environments imaginable. After Yakovenko’s unceremonious ousting from the Dip Net in Port Clyde, a funky, dockside restaurant Yakovenko ran for eight years, before falling victim to Linda Bean’s empire-building, he searched for a new property where he could continue serving the kind of fresh, locally-caught, rustically-prepared seafood so dear to him. After extensive renovations, including a redesigned kitchen and the addition of a wet bar at the end of the 120-foot dock, Yakovenko reopened the former Harbor View in 2011 as “The Slipway,” an extension and evolution of his work in St. George.
Jillian: There may not be a better place to experience a Summer evening in Maine than The Slipway. Sitting at picnic benches over the water on a covered wooden deck that terminates in a bar, sea birds flying overhead, solo kayakers paddling in to the dock below, a plastic cup of white wine in hand, as incredible seafood is served all around. I recommend heading there just before sunset, ordering the fried oysters and something sparkling, and breathing in salty air; this, in my opinion, is the secret to happiness.
We visited The Slipway twice this month, each time sitting out on the dock in the warm August air, underneath huge tents strung with lights, listening to a three-piece band play lively jazz music. The huge communal picnic tables outside were full each time, with crowds of tourists sharing tables with locals, all happily munching baskets of fried seafood and drinking plastic cups of wine and beer. The menu features a mix of more casual, fried fare served in cardboard baskets, with more formal pasta and steak preparations. The Slipway uses as many fresh local ingredients as they can find; the majority of the seafood comes from Port Clyde Fresh Catch, and Warren’s School House Farm and Beth’s Farm Market provide the fruit and vegetables. Chicken and beef comes from nearby Warren, as well, from Maine-ly Poultry and Curtis Custom Meats, respectively.
Twin salad starters didn’t disappoint, one featuring a scoop of sweet Maine crab for $14.50, and another with two fish cakes and a lemon pepper aioli for $12.50. The seafood was fresh and sweet, served on a bed of interesting mixed greens including yellow beets, radishes, and raw string beans.
Jillian: As interested as I was in the gorgeous three-tiered chilled seafood platter and enormous portion of one of the best things on Earth, linguine with clams, I went with the Lobster Bisque ($9.50), for myriad reasons. Until I am very old, shrunken, hunched, gray and wrinkled, when I am out to dinner I’ll feel like a greedy kid trying to have it all. I love to order lots of little plates to share. Appetizers forever! The first time we went to The Slipway was at the tail end of a seafood feasting weekend with friends from out of town. The only thing I had not had was lobster bisque. I felt good about my order here, until it showed up. I have to say I was a little, I don’t know, saddened when I saw the color of the soup. Rust-murky is not one of my top five hues for food to have. But the flavor was surprisingly lovely, velvety and deep, without being heavy. Abundant pieces of lobster, rich broth, herbs and crusty bread – there is nothing more I want from a bisque.
Jillian: For our second visit to The Slipway we ventured out alone, a blessed one hour alone, just us, and away from Violet, whom we love all day long with our whole hearts. We used to go out to dinner a lot. Like, a lot. Once a week, at least, and we did it up, complete with drinks and appetizers, bottles of wine and occasionally room for dessert. Then, we left Portland, had a baby, and for a year, we hibernated and cooked. We’re both grateful for my mother-in-law who lives nearby, so we can get back to looking at each other across a table and talking about nothing and everything. I invariably order the mussels ($11.50), sauteed here with garlic, wine, dijon, and fresh herbs. I admire what they were going for with the broth; something a little lighter and more elegant than gallons of butter and a whole head of garlic.
For four years I feigned vegetarianism, secretly eating salami at my grandparents’ house and hot dogs with my dad at Duchess. These days, I’m an open omnivore and enjoy meat in most of its forms, but maybe most especially, charcuterie. The cold, sliced, pressed and cured. The pink, red and mottled. Served with mustards or other bright condiments, crusty bread, pickles, maybe a handful of capers, I love a rustic meat and cheese board so very dearly. At The Slipway, the $10.50 charcuterie board combines speck, bresola, salami, Spanish chorizo, and pate. Elsewhere, these types of plates are getting really good, with DIY chefs doing the whole nose-to-tail thing on heritage pig parts. This wasn’t exactly that. Not bad, but nothing special, with a bit of a pre-packaged deli feeling. It’s functional, but I’d say, stick with what they’re doing best.
After nearly a decade overseeing the fryers at the Dip Net, Scott Yakovenko certainly knows fried seafood. 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. The fish and chips ($11.50) are also perfectly fried, top-quality thick chunks of fresh, flaky haddock served with crisp french fries. I wish there had been a little more fish; the portion of three small pieces of fish for eleven bucks seemed a little light. The fried calamari is also some of the best we’ve had recently, served hot, crisp, and with a lemon aioli.
The Slipway’s wine and beer list is thorough, and moderately-priced. There are several wines served by the glass (or by the plastic cup), a selection of local taps, and plenty of imported bottles. In particular, the “Slipway Sling,” a distinctive mix of Jack Daniels, lemonade, and ginger beer, makes for the perfect accompaniment for fried seafood enjoyed dockside. The service can be a little absentminded, though well-intentioned and cheery; the kind of place where the waitress may forget your drink, but the bartender will walk it over when she gets a moment. Besides, the bright smiles on everyone’s faces make a few hiccups in service difficult to get cranky about.
Jillian: Families with babies in high chairs sitting elbow-to-elbow with copious quaffing Baby Boom boaters, party lights strung around the rafters, cute but slightly flaky waitresses, live music, and genuinely fine food makes this place feel so right to me, like my past, present and future existing all at once.
The Slipway represents a remarkable dining opportunity in Midcoast Maine, where diners choose from clam hut standards prepared with an atypically expert hand, sharing menu space with inventive upgrades of classic seafood entrees. Look at the smiling faces of the seated customers as you walk from the hostess station to your table; it will be enough to convince you what a special place this is, as what seems like the entire town turns out nightly to share in a local, finely-prepared seafood feast, cooked by a local hero. The sometimes spotty history of the original Harbor View fades to just a memory, ghosts exorcised in a fine mist of peanut oil, oyster liquor, and citronella. It’s a pleasure to once again see the banks of the St. George River filled with so much life, so much light, and so much great food.
The Slipway: 24 Town Landing, Thomaston, Maine 04861; (207) 354-4155; maine-slipway.com