Maine Lobster Festival Seafood Cooking Contest 2014: A Photostory

This year marked the 67th annual Maine Lobster Festival. If you’ve never been to the festival, it is exactly what you’re picturing. Thousands of people gather next to the ocean to consume thousands upon thousands of pounds of freshly cooked lobster. For four days each year, Rockland is heaven on Earth for those of us that get giddy at the thought of strapping on a plastic bib, ripping apart our food with our hands and consuming enough butter to give Julie Child a heart attack.

Each year, the Seafood Cooking Competition is a major part of the festival. This year, five competitors went head to head to vie for the title. There was lobster fried rice, fresh lobster pasta and plenty of smack talk. The lucky winner brought home some cold hard cash, a gift certificate to Fiore, an adorable plaque and a copy of Malcolm and Jillian’s book, “Eating in Maine.

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Curried Shrimp in Spicy Coconut Tomato Sauce

It is a triumph particular to the busy home cook to have everything on hand to make a delicious lunch, especially on a rainy day at the end of June, when everyone is a little stir-crazy-cranky. We’re cooped up without a car. Some of us are teething. One of us would like a nap, and it isn’t the one-year old, who only wants to watch the Feist 1-2-3-4 Sesame Street video over and over, ad nauseum.

In the freezer I had shrimp, and in the pantry onion and garlic and a can of tomato, and in the spice cupboard all the little jars I needed for this Indian-inspired curry dish. Coconut milk would have been nice, but in its absence, I used shredded coconut which dissolved into the sauce, imparting a gentle coconut aroma.

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Bengali Fish Curry with Red Lentil Dal

I’m bored. Bored with what I’ve been eating and doing and watching and reading and even with my same tired old boring usual thoughts. Oh, me. Oh, life.  I know that it’s tacky to admit to being bored, when there are so many interesting things in this world. And most of the time, everything is beautiful and interesting. But I must inject new flavor and sound and scenes into my everyday life immediately. Which is why I am going to learn to play guitar this year. And why I am trying to get to the gym more frequently. And why I went to the movies ALL BY MYSELF! yesterday. And plan to take Violet to the Farnsworth and Rock City and the library more afternoons. And walk on warmer mornings. It’s why I made this fish curry. We all fall into food ruts/routines, making the same three things over and over (and over) again. I needed to cook something entirely different. I’d say this qualifies. Bengali fish curry is fun! I’m not even bored any more. Well, maybe still a little…

I learned a lot researching and executing this dish. One is that when working with turmeric, wear gloves or wash hands frequently. My fingertips are stained an ugly, nicotine yellow, which no amount of scrubbing will undo. Should you Magic Erase your fingernails? I might try. Second lesson: Cod is delicious. I always buy haddock, but this wild cod was firm and lovely, and stood up to the sauce and my flipping it around in the pan too much. Third thing: Don’t flip your cod so much, even if you think it can take it. Fourth, the baby will eat your dinner if you don’t watch out. She is hungry. So very hungry, even after her own dinner of black beans, beets, bananas, cheese, and clementines. Finally, a note about mustard oil. I couldn’t find any, as, apparently, it isn’t widely sold for consumption in the US, due to possible toxicity. I whirled some mustard seeds around in canola oil, then strained, to try to infuse it. I think you can safely skip that step. Even without the authentic element of mustard oil, this is a flavorful and pretty fish dish from East India.

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Seared Scallop BLT with Candied Maple Bacon

I don’t have an anecdote about bacon-wrapped scallops. I do have a bacon-wrapped shrimp anecdote, so I am going to tell that and then shoehorn scallops in at the end. Have you ever tried to shoehorn a scallop? Not as easy as one might think.

I did recently enjoy some fried scallops at Bill’s Seafood at the singing bridge in Westbrook, Connecticut. They were sweet, plump, and buttery and even though Bill’s is by no means the best fish restaurant on the CT shoreline between Old Saybrook and Guilford, it is one my my favorite places because of the usual suspects of boozers at the bar, the boaters on the deck in the summer, and the band that has played every Friday night since I was sixteen and would sneak in to try to get served alcohol with my friends, and, come to think, probably long before.

Old couples get up and dance among the tables and it’s wonderful. From April through October, you can sit outside and feed French fries to seagulls, and in winter it’s extremely warm and cozy inside, and good to feel you’re near the water, even if it’s too cold to eat outdoors. It’s a most familiar place I miss whenever I’m away. I met my high school friends there when we were all home for Christmas, and it felt like time had stopped, for a minute. If you’re ever in Westbrook or Clinton, go there, you’ll see what I mean.

So it seems I have enough of a scallop story. Forget the shrimp. Let’s get on with the food.

This is just so genius. One of those why-didn’t-we-think-of-it-ourselves creations. If you serve these to your friends at a party, they will find you sexy and insightful. You could certainly simplify the recipe by using Hellmann’s (Best Foods) mayonnaise, a product we fully endorse, and not glazing your bacon in honey mustard maple glaze. But why would you NOT glaze your bacon in honey mustard maple glaze?! It’s a total winner and you probably have all of these condiments/pantry staples on hand already.

The same is true for the mayonnaise, which you can feel free to season any way you like, but I love the way its smoky spice complements the sweetness of the bacon and bitter bite of arugula. Just add the oil slowly, and whisk continuously and it won’t break, probably. As for the scallops, buy the largest, most beautiful sea scallops you can find. You will be temped to eat them when you pluck them from the pan, all brown and buttery. But, wait, if you can. Or buy extra scallops. Yes, do that. You won’t regret it.

And the tomatoes – well, I found a box of tomatoes branded “Backyard Farms Cocktail Tomatoes” available at our grocery store, which are New England grown and manage to be pretty delicious for January tomatoes. They are sweet and even smell like tomatoes. And they happened to be the perfect size for this project. Cherry tomatoes, I’m sure, will also work well. Serve with crusty bread, a salad, and a Belgian white beer.

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The Slipway

The Slipway Restaurant on UrbanspoonI 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.

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Yukon Gold Potatoes with Crème Fraîche and Lobster Roe

Do you eat the roe? Typically I do not, when enjoying lobster, munch on its eggs, nor do I suck the legs, drink claw liquid or dismantle the body cavity. And I definitely don’t touch the tomalley. Apparently, combining tomalley and roe is considered a lobster paste, or paté, which is a briny delicacy I may consider trying in the future, now that I know I like the roe. At least, in this capacity, it was awesome. It lent the light essence of lobster to this sumptuous canape. I used Yukon Gold potatoes because they are creamy and roast nicely. But use your favorite. Potatoes are such an important crop here in Maine, and of course, supporting lobstermen is a delicious moral imperative right now. I vow to be more adventurous going forward, and dive headfirst into the less obvious aspects of our beloved crustacean. This dish is a perfect party hors d’oeuvre – easy, decadent, and satisfying in taste and textures. Enjoy Maine’s land and sea appetizer when you next want a simple, indulgent supper.

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Duo’s Takeout

Duo's TakeoutThe section of north Main Street in Rockland between the Dunkin’ Donuts and the McDonald’s isn’t exactly a world-renowned culinary hotspot. It’s an area of town that has seen plenty of businesses come and go, attracting the kind of hardscrabble retail endeavors that never seem to last long. The strip is now mostly a string of vacant or perpetually “for rent” commercial properties, with faded and torn-down signs reminding passing motorists of the gas station, the pizza place, the mattress store, the hubcap guy, that used to be there. Set back from the road at the intersection of Main and James streets, in a parking lot that is just starting to be given over to weeds poking through the asphalt, a lone food trailer is doing a brisk seasonal business, a bright spot of activity in the otherwise bleak series of empty parking lots facing Lermond Cove.

Duo’s seafood and burger takeout shack was started four seasons ago, by founders Isaac Brower and Steven Ford, at the ripe old age of seventeen. It’s a Summer job teens and twentysomethings (not to mention many people twice their age) dream of: they make their own hours, slinging burgers and haddock sandwiches to tourists and locals alike.

“Steven and I started the business,” Brower (now 21 years old) explains, “but he went away for college, and so we brought Cooper [Fitzgerald] on in his place.”

The duo first had the idea for the takeout restaurant five years ago. All they were missing was a concession trailer. At first, they thought about approaching a bank for a small business loan to purchase the equipment they needed. “We really didn’t like the idea of paying interest to the bank for a loan, though,” says Brower, “So we borrowed the money to buy the truck from my dad. We made a deal: instead of paying interest on the loan, we take the interest we would have paid the bank, and donate it to charity. We commit to donating at least $500 every Summer.” The rest of the money earned each season goes right back into school; a dollar bill-stuffed tip jar on the counter reads “College Books Fund.”

Duo's Takeout

After doing a little research on the food truck (and by “research,” I mean, “looking at their Facebook page“), I learned that several customers suggested asking for the “secret menu” when ordering. My request sent Brower and Fitzgerald into fits of laughter. “Yeah, we have a secret menu,” Fitzgerald explained, “but seriously, who told you about that?” Apparently, the whole notion of a “secret menu” began as a bit of a joke, shared only among Isaac and Cooper’s friends; they seemed surprised to hear that it was becoming public knowledge.

“I guess we’re gonna have to come up with some more secret menu items,” Fitzgerald said.

The concept is simple: The secret menu item costs seven bucks, and all Isaac and Cooper will tell you before you commit to ordering is what kind of main ingredient the item is based on. After learning that today’s secret menu ingredient was simply “beef,” I happily agreed, braced for what was to come.

Duo's Takeout

Jillian tried Duo’s haddock sandwich ($7.50), made with fresh fish purchased from Jess’s Market in Rockland, a specialty local seafood shop which also supplies the likes of nearby restaurants Primo and Francine Bistro. We were impressed by the huge haddock filet, perfectly fried until golden brown in light, crispy Panko breadcrumbs, and topped with a single leaf of Romaine on a griddled roll. The sandwich was also dressed with Fitzgerald’s ratcheted-up twist on classic mayo-and-relish tartar sauce, adding whole mustard seed, minced onion, and a little garlic powder to the mix. It’s the kind of thoughtful detail that’s a nice touch in any restaurant, but especially surprising to see coming from such young cooks. The onion rings ($2.50) were treated with the same care; thickly cut rings of sweet onion are here drenched in a crisp beer batter and fried until crispy, without getting heavy or greasy.

Duo's Takeout

As for the secret menu item? Fitzgerald revealed a 1/3 pound bacon cheeseburger, that uses two toasted grilled cheese sandwiches in place of top and bottom buns. It’s not a new idea (even family-friendly national chain Friendly’s sells a version, now), but the glee and pride with which Fitzgerald presented it proved pretty infectious. Even without the glorious excess of grilled cheese sandwich buns, this was a great grass-fed burger, with a good crust from the flattop and plenty of crispy bacon. I couldn’t finish it, but it was enough to convince me to try the food truck’s tamer cheeseburger menu offerings on my next visit.

You have to hand it to the guys at Duo’s. At 21 years old, I couldn’t even manage to get out of bed on most days, let alone run my own successful food business. Unlike a lot of people their age, partners Brower and Fitzgerald aren’t spending their summers vacantly flipping burgers for a massive chain that doesn’t care about their future, and they’re not spending their vacation time in a fog of pot smoke and Aqua Teen Hunger Force reruns. Instead, their business is thriving, due to the care and attention with which they treat their food and their customers. It’s a foundation on which they’ll build successful careers, and for now, it’s a great place to grab a burger or an inexpensive basket of fish and chips. Hurry: Duo’s closes for the season during the third week of August.

Duo’s Takeout: 734 Main Street, Rockland, ME (map); 207-975-2557

The Brass Compass Cafe

Brass Compass Cafe on UrbanspoonYou 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.

The Brass Compass CafeLynn 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.

The Brass Compass Cafe

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.

The Brass Compass Cafe

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.

The Brass Compass Cafe

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.

Bonus Video:

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:

Cod End Seafood & Marina

I have an imaginary history in Tenants Harbor, a tiny, pretty town that inspires quasi-mythic reverie in me and many others, I would guess. I almost remember jumping into the bracing sea from a swing hanging by the edge of the pier and scrambling around the rocks to poke at small crabs and other sea life. I feel like a kid, free of worries, consumed with snail shell treasures and other sensory adventures. Some of this fiction comes from memory, superimposed on this picturesque place. My first ever high school boyfriend worked at the gas dock at the marina in my hometown, so I spent every day of that Summer we dated, hanging out in my bikini and jean shorts, getting thrown into the oily water. Small boats bob in the mid-distance and the foreground is a pile of line, traps and the other odds and ends of a working harbor. Here, there is a restaurant you really should visit.

Cod End Seafood

Cod End is a fish market serving super fresh seafood. You walk through the store/seating area, around the lobster tanks, and pull the knotted door handle that takes you back outside to the Cookhouse, where you order through the window a round of the usual suspects of fried goodness and plastic cups of Geary’s cold ale on tap. In warmer weather, we have sat outside and watched the water lap against the rocky shore. But it was too cold for that this day.

Malcolm: I have an actual history with Cod End, that is very similar to what Jillian imagines growing up in Tenants Harbor to be. Located in my hometown, Cod End is a place that’s tough for me to be truly objective about, so entwined is it with memories of my childhood; my older sister spent a Summer as a teenager behind the counter there, and the place serves as the backdrop for an awful lot of these memories. Like the time I was climbing on the pilings at around eight years old, before the tide went out and I sat trapped a few feet in the air, before someone from the shop had to come out in a rowboat and rescue me. Or that time in third grade, when I jumped off the dock into the freezing water in late November, on a dare and in exchange for half of a Twix candy bar, before walking home shivering to get scolded by my parents, who just didn’t understand the importance of a free candy bar (not to mention neighborhood glory). Or in the Summer, the way my older friend Jake, who ran a grocery delivery service for the Harbor’s maritime population using his very own dinghy, would clear a path in the sheen of floating maggots that were sometimes rinsed out of the bait holds of arriving lobster boats, so that I could go swimming. It’s a place as familiar to me as anyplace in the world; it just never dawned on me to actually eat there until now.

Cod End Seafood

We were with friends visiting from out of town. Friends who needed fried fish and beautiful views. It was late June and sixty-one degrees on the peninsulas. We’d done the obligatory stroll around Marshall Point Lighthouse and sniffed the sweet salt air. We filled up glass bottles and jars with Wiley Water. We drove down to the quarry, past belted cows laying down under trees with views of the St. George River. It’s becoming a familiar tour, something to do on funny weather days with family and guests. At this point, we were all starving.

Cod End Seafood

We ordered a fried trifecta for the table: haddock, clams, and oysters, plus a small container of mussels and steamers. It was all very good, if not outstanding food, with a few excellent touches. Number one, the cole slaw. I am not usually inclined to have more than a polite bite of slaw, which I typically find either unremarkable or somewhat gross, like wet yarn. This particular little plastic cup of cabbage was perky, very finely shredded with a pepperiness I could not quite name. It complemented the fried fare nicely. I also enjoyed that two cups of drawn butter were served with the steamed bivalves, one plain and the other jammed up with lots of chopped garlic. Totally brilliant.

Malcolm: The fried oyster and fried clam rolls were outstanding, with ample amounts of expertly-fried golden, fresh seafood nestled into butter-griddled split top hot dog rolls. The huge haddock filet shared the same excellent batter and crisp exterior, with a few handfuls of (frozen) french fries. I also really enjoyed my split order of steamers and mussels, a lunchtime portion served with both plain and garlic-infused clarified butter. The clams were meaty and sweet, without a hint of mud, and the mussels were perfectly plump, briney vehicles for repeated dunks in garlic butter.

Cod End Seafood

There’s lot to like about Cod End. Getting there on the winding woodsy roads leading back from a visit to Port Clyde is the prologue to its charms. Then descending into the parking lot and crossing your fingers that it will be open. Their season seems short: Mid June through early September, but I’ve been there and cold at both ends, so it makes sense to keep it brief and sweet. It is a little pricey, especially if you live here. But I haven’t had seafood fresher or sweeter than the stuff I ate here. In fact, I think I enjoyed the plump, light sienna colored mussels and the very clean clams that undulate obscenely from their springy black necks as you let them linger in liquid butter the most. This is my recommendation, if you end up all the way out here.

Malcolm: Locals may balk a little bit at some of the prices, but for anyone visiting the St. George peninsula, Cod End is worth a stop. They’re open well into the evening, and coupled with a cold Geary’s and a basket of fried clams, it’s hard to imagine a 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. (It’s the Lobster Shack at Two Lights conundrum: Does a lobster roll taste better when the scenery is straight out of a postcard? Yes. Yes it does.) Cod End is also a full-service fish market with reasonable prices (about $3.80/pound for softshell quarters, as of this writing), making it a fine choice for picking up a few (dozen) lobsters to bring back home.

But there’s almost no reason to end up there, which is what’s so cool about it. There are no ferris wheels, funnel cakes, or spray painted booty shorts inline skating toward the sunset. There’s no sand for spreading out your sunning towel, and it’s practically never warm enough to swim. You can kayak or paint with watercolors, go out on a puffin watch, or eat the most amazing fruits of the sea. That’s about it, from what I can tell so far. A contemplative spot for quieter tourists, who aren’t seeking thrills or the exotic. It’s simply a nice piece of America, and I feel so lucky to live a short drive away.

Today’s Sandwich: Haddock Sliders (Len’s Fish & Chips)

Today’s sandwich is the “Haddock Slider” from Len’s Fish and Chips. It features twin haddock sandwiches on butter-griddled buns with tartar sauce on the side.

Location: 17 Bow Street, Brunswick
Price:$6.99
Notes: In general, I’m not crazy about the “slidification” of sandwiches. First, it’s technically inaccurate; a “slider” isn’t a small sandwich, it’s a two ounce hamburger steamed over a bed of onions, specific to the diner culture of New Jersey (but more on that later). Little itty bitty lobster rolls, cheesesteaks, buffalo chicken, pulled pork, and grilled cheese sandwiches aren’t sliders. They’re tiny sandwiches. If you want to eat four sandwiches, that’s fine, but I think you should cop to it, and not try to mentally comfort yourself by thinking that, because you only had “sliders” for lunch, that you are on the path to any sort of physical fitness.

My ridiculously firm stance against tiny sandwiches completely falls apart, however, in the face of the haddock sliders from Len’s Fish & Chips in Brunswick. When confronted with an unfamiliar menu and some uncertainty about what to order, it’s very difficult for me to avoid defaulting to a fried haddock sandwich. Nearly everyplace in Maine serves them, and even when they’re kind of ho-hum, they’re still pretty remarkable. Crispy, golden-fried haddock, with just the right amount of firmness to its flaky flesh, with a flavor ever-so-slightly stronger than cod, with a smear of tartar sauce and maybe even some cheese on a butter-griddled bun defines summertime in Maine, for me, even more than the more widely-celebrated lobster roll.

Len's Fish & Chips

Based on the empty parking lot and dining room, as well as the restaurant’s odd location next to the Route 1 onramp, I didn’t have spectacularly high hopes about this sandwich. But when the kid behind the counter suggested I try the haddock sliders ($6.99) for the same price as the haddock sandwich, my spirits were buoyed. The only thing better than a haddock sandwich is two haddock sandwiches, and in this case, I was absolutely willing to set aside my bad attitude regarding the whole “slider” thing.

I’m so glad I did. Flipping open the Styrofoam clamshell to-go container, I was immediately delighted by my lunch: Two starchy white hamburger buns (the kind that are sold 99 cents per pack of eight), griddled lightly in butter, with two large pieces of fried haddock filet hanging over the edges of the bun, a generous side of tartar sauce, a handful of wavy chips, and a pickle spear. The haddock was cooked perfectly, firm flesh dusted with a light crumb coating, presented simply on two bare, warm, squishy buns.

At $6.99 the sandwiches made for an inexpensive, easy lunch, featuring  Maine seafood done exactly the way it should be: It’s simple, it’s well-prepared, and it’s dirt cheap. We’re going to have a great summer together.

Gurnet Trading Co.

Gurnet Trading CO. Lunch & Lobster on UrbanspoonWhat a cute place this is. It’s tucked into a hill, on the side of the road, on the way out of Brunswick, surrounded by water and magnificent trees. We ate on the sunken outdoor dining patio and felt the warm wind as we munched on seafood and felt hopeful about the Summer ahead. It’s just too bad the food was so mediocre. Because everything else appears so right. It ought to be right. They dive for their own scallops and dig their own clams. They buy and sell local from the icy waters of the Casco Bay. I can’t explain it. For a sunny afternoon at the very beginning of a promising season, it seemed like very little care was being applied to the preparation of this well-regarded fare.

Gurnet Trading Co is a small shack that sells raw seafood, fresh and prepared foods. It’s a nice place to stop, stretch your legs, and have a bite to eat during a Sunday drive on a Friday afternoon. You’re in Maine! The weather is fair and lovely. And everything seems so promising. There are open topped lobster tanks that fill the room with the rushing sounds of water and gives the place a nice, salty atmosphere. They sell steamers and haddock and halibut and hake and crabmeat. Which all looked super fresh. Did you know that when you buy a whole fish its eyes should be clear? That’s a quick tip from me to you.

Gurnet Trading CoThe menu features the typical fare, at very reasonable prices. We went with a fried haddock basket which includes fries ($10.95), a lobster roll ($13.50), and an order of steamers ($6.99). The haddock: four fat pieces of fish on top of frozen french fries. It looked weird. That’s professional food writer language. It looked like someone opened a box of Gordon’s fish stick fish. It looked perhaps frozen, or, at least, not homemade on the premises. I can’t say for certain, mind you, but this is my honest assessment. The fish was firm, white and flaky, as it should be. It didn’t taste off or mushy. But the batter was definitely odd. Kind of crusty. And the tartar sauce tasted yellow. You know when the tartar sauce tastes yellow? I do, because in my misspent youth I waitressed at many sketchy seafood joints on the Connecticut shoreline, and I remember wrapping up in cellophane the tartar with the skin on top, that had been sitting around in the service window all the long, hot day. Again, it didn’t taste spoiled, just, um, older. It was the Jane Seymour of condiments.

Malcolm: I don’t know if the haddock, like the fries, arrive pre-made and frozen in big boxes at the Gurnet Trading Company. We spent several minutes debating this. I do know that in the surrounding ten miles, there are many, many places that are battering and frying their own fresh haddock fillets each day, and I know that when they do, the results are much different than what is being served in the haddock basket here. The portion was generous, and the fish firm, flaky, and flavorful. But if we allow ourselves to presume that the haddock here arrived pre-breaded and frozen, let’s pause for a minute and reflect on the cynicism present in that choice for a restaurant priding itself on its fresh seafood. Using frozen, pre-breaded haddock makes so little sense, that I have to assume that it can’t actually be going on here.

Gurnet Trading Co

I ate exactly one steamed clam, but Malcolm claims they were all tasty. The one I opened was solid and easily pulled from its shell. Nicely steamed, not too rubbery, with a good dowsing of drawn butter – this is a fine choice here. Oh, and this is a perfect opportunity to mention that they sell wine and beer, which is always delightful. An order of nicely priced steamers and a beer? An excellent option, always.

Malcolm: I was delighted that Jillian was not in the mood for steamers, as it allowed me to eat the entire one pound bag by myself. They were truly outstanding clams; among the best I’ve had in quite a while. It’s a bit of a trick to race the cooling of the clams when you eat steamers outside, but on a warm day, tilting a beer and looking out over Buttermilk Cove, it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend the afternoon.

Malcolm went with the lobster roll, which looked to hold about a quarter pound of meat, chopped in small pieces and liberally mixed with mayonnaise. I declined a bite, having had a near perfect one on Sunday from the Bite Into Maine truck, but that’s another story for another day. Last summer when I was with child, I thought all the lobster had gone bad. All the lobster everywhere. It was a sad time to live in Maine. Well, I must confess that I have since developed a slight sensitivity to this most perfect crustacean. If it isn’t gorgeous, I don’t want it. And maybe that’s just a good rule for life.

Malcolm: All I’ll say about this is that it was the eighth lobster roll I have eaten in the last week. It was good, but not outstanding; ample amounts of finely shredded meat with a lot of mayo. Like so much of our meal, it was fine, but unremarkable.

I took one look at the blue plastic tray of food and knew no one was trying. It was unfortunate. And we were sorry. We really wanted to like it here. I would call it quaint, but I have been banned from using that word. Which is very difficult for me, because I find a great many things quaint. But certain people think it sounds condescending. I digress. The Gurnet Trading Co has so much going for them. Location! Location! Location! But the food felt careless, and I don’t understand why that would be. We stayed for a few minutes to soak up the sun in the Adirondack chairs and shrug our shoulders and say, “so be it”. Sometimes lunch is kind of a bummer. It happens to the best of us. There are worse things in this world, to be sure. But it made us feel sort of defeated, all the same.

Malcolm: Eating seafood in Maine in the summertime is one of my favorite reasons to live here. It’s available in every convenience store on the side of the road, prepared simply, either steamed or deep fried, allowing the quality of the fish or shellfish itself to shine through. When it works, it’s nearly perfect, and there’s almost nothing I’d rather eat. Sometimes, though, you can feel when a restaurant is just going through the motions, has resigned itself to feeding a steady stream of tourists whatever they can pull out of the freezer for as high a price as they can command. The Gurnet Trading Company has so much going for it: an amazing location, a charming outdoor seating area, friendly service, relatively low prices, and a full-service fresh fish market. But when the guys selling fried seafood out of a trailer in front of the abandoned car wash next to the Napa Auto Parts seem to be trying harder to expertly fry gill-flappingly fresh seafood, without the benefit of scenery? That’s  ultimately who will receive my repeat business. Gurnet Trading Company isn’t bad. Not by a long shot. They just don’t seem particularly hungry.

Sumthin’ Fishy

In a parking lot off Route 201, between the Napa Auto Parts and the entrance to Tri-Sports, a tarplike plastic tent is erected every April and dismantled in the Fall. It’s one of the ways to tell it’s springtime in Topsham, the opening of Sumthin’ Fishy. When we moved here, at the tail end of last summer, we talked about stopping every day on our way home. But it was either too hot or too cold, too wet or too sunny. I don’t always feel like eating fish in a parking lot. But, then, sometimes I do. We went on a recent weekday afternoon, to prove our theory that at places like this, the makeshift, the temporary, the seasonal, the so-unscenic-it’s-actually-atmoshperic, food just somehow tastes better.

Sumthin' Fishy on UrbanspoonMalcolm: We’ve long maintained that one of the greatest things about eating in Maine in the Summertime is that the roadside stand next to a gas station is usually serving food that is just as amazing as the restaurant a few doors further down; that when astonishingly fresh, just-caught Maine seafood is the basis of the menu, the guy selling it out of his truck is usually doing as good (or better!) a job than the trained chef at the place that is wasting money on tablecloths. And chairs. And a roof.

Sumthin' Fishy

A good deal of credit goes to the owners, who have a more permanent restaurant location in Lisbon Falls, for sourcing fresh fish off the docks in Portland every morning. The man we met was manning the deep fryer and chatting up the regulars, but not too busy to make conversation with us. So, the seafood is incredibly fresh and local, and everything I had was a near-perfect example of its kind.

Malcolm: Seating may be sparse, and the scenery nonexistent (unless you have a soft spot for dusty parking lots and abandoned car washes). You’ll be surprised, though, at the incredible selection of seafood combinations, hand-cut french fries, sandwiches, and deep-fried hot dogs that can be served out of one tiny trailer, run by just two people. Prices are higher than you would expect from a makeshift roadside restaurant, and seem to be more in line with what you would expect to pay in a full service restaurant. The daily specials are amazing, though, including gigantic $4.50 shrimp rolls and discounts on whatever seafood the owner got a break on, on that particular day.

Sumthin' Fishy

We ordered the lunch special combo platter for $12.95. The scallops were some of the best I’ve had in forever, plump and springy, not chewy, mildly sweet, and almost creamy. There were at least a dozen little sweet Maine shrimp, adorable and perky as always. The haddock was firm and flaky and the whole belly clams were very tender and gooey. All of it was done in a medium batter, perfectly brown. It could have done with a juicy squeeze of lemon, but there was an ample supply of bottled at the condiment station, alongside the cocktail, ketchup, and tarter sauce.

Malcolm: I loved the batter that Sumthin’ Fishy is using on all of their fried seafood: Crisp and lightly seasoned, but thin and just crunchy enough to let the natural flavor of the fresh, succulent seafood shine through. The fries are good and plentiful; we ate for half an hour and still brought some home.

The menu looks extensive, but basically presents about seven different ways of ordering the same seafood options, plus chicken fingers, hot dogs, and hamburgers. Everything comes with french fries, which were far superior to the average crinkle-cut pre-packaged anemic-looking ones you might expect, and coleslaw, which appeared to be a small cup of shredded cabbage tossed in mayonnaise. Coleslaw is not my friend. Period.

Malcolm: After a long Winter spent waiting for the Sumthin’ Fishy truck to reappear in Topsham, we were rewarded with a huge lunch prepared with care by people who understand that the fresh taste of Maine’s bounty of seafood should be the star of every combination platter. They’re folks that are doing fried fish, clams, scallops, and shrimp exceptionally well, and with the restraint due when working with such naturally amazing ingredients. Though priced higher than one would expect while eating under a giant tarp, it’s hard to imagine a restaurant where the owners are more committed to providing the freshest seafood available, served in enormous portions by a friendly, welcoming staff. If you have business in Topsham this Spring, it’s a quick, easy, and delicious option for lunch.

Susan’s Fish & Chips

Susan's Fish & Chips on UrbanspoonEvery time we write about fried seafood or lobster rolls here on From Away, we count the minutes until someone responds with something along the lines of, “Sure, those lobster rolls at The Lobster Shack at Two Lights or at the “Bite Into Maine” cart are fine, with their ocean spray and their scenery and their sunshine, but you haven’t had good seafood until you’ve visited Susan’s Fish & Chips.”

We’ve resisted the recommendation until now, mainly because we’ve never been able to imagine a ton of overlap between the terms “Outer Forest Avenue” and “Fresh Seafood.” In spite of the numerous recommendations we received from readers, we just couldn’t imagine choosing to eat a fried clam roll while bathing in carbon monoxide exhaust and listening to trucks downshift, when Maine has so many miles of rocky coastline, lighthouses, and seaside lobster pounds scattered around where we can enjoy our favorite Summertime fare outside.

Jillian: Forest Ave is a peculiar place for a fish shack, I thought, sifting through my expectations. “I’m not sure I want to go in there,” was my first thought. “That’s not the kind of eater, the kind of person I want to be,” was the thought that immediately followed. I do want to be adventurous and open-minded though, wherever I am, especially in my own backyard.

Sandwiched between an enormous car wash and a radiator repair shop, Susan’s doesn’t exude the kind of charm that visitors from out-of-state necessarily picture, when they imagine a vacation in Maine. Built in a converted garage, Susan’s Fish & Chips blends in beautifully with the other hardscrabble businesses on Forest Avenue, if not other restaurants in town. A washed out, faded, Pepsi-branded plastic sign announces the business, and there are a few parking spaces in front of the building, the facade hand-painted with fish.

Step through the front door, and the restaurant opens up into a huge room with a bit of a warehouse vibe; a long counter and food prep area makes up the left third of the restaurant, with the rest of the space given over to a few blue-painted, somewhat sticky outdoor picnic tables. The counter is lined with fluorescent yellow and pink posterboard signs, hand-lettered in black magic marker with seasonal specialties, and the walls and steel-beamed ceiling are decorated with with old oars, a rowboat, fishing nets, and buoys. The overall effect is that of standing in the middle of a shipwreck-in-progress, presided over by a life-size stuffed monkey wearing rubber boots.

Susan’s Fish & Chips has a distinct “locals only” atmosphere, where you would expect to be treated with only the barest courtesy by the staff. Instead, the counterperson patiently waited while I read my order off the giant menu board, and delivered our order to our picnic table with a smile. A smile, and a quart-sized mason jar filled with tartar sauce.

Jillian: Susan’s is a locals-only joint, where framed puzzles forming pictures of ships, stained glass, hanging tin mermaids, and other seaworthy flotsam keeps the diner from feeling like you’re in the middle of a rush hour intersection. Sunlight filters in, hovering above the few tables and open kitchen.

We started with a “small” size portion of Susan’s “Award Winning” (the award itself is not specified) Clam Chowder ($2.99). It’s delicious, though pretty standard-issue stuff: Served in a styrofoam cup with a package of oyster crackers, featuring a cream-and-clam-stock broth that is almost too thick, that almost rounds the corner into gumminess. The chowder, served at a temperature greater than any other food I have ever encountered, is packed with clams and chunks of cubed potatoes, which I was happy to see were not overcooked and mushy. That’s no small feat when you are cooking clam chowder in the quantities being prepared at Susan’s, and at under three bucks, was a real bargain.

Jillian: I think it’s safe to say that nobody likes a watery chowder. If I wanted a fish soup that was thin and brothy, I’d move to Rhode Island. The New England clam chowder at Susan’s is way, way at the other end of the chowder spectrum. This stuff is thick, viscous and creamy. It was hot and slow like lava – delicious, briny lava. Now that I write that sentence, I realize I don’t know if lava is slow. Maybe it’s fleet and mean as it looks, or maybe, like zombies, it can go either way. Don’t take my word on any of this, and please, do your own research before venturing into volcano, or zombie territory.

So, the chowder. You can stand your spoon straight up in the cup, even before you add crackers. Crushed up oyster crackers are key in the chowder biz, at least around these parts, adding another dimension of texture to contrast and complement the cream. Susan’s gets points for perfectly cooked cubes of potato and bits of clam that in no way resemble pencil erasers. They impart great flavor, and nothing more. It was easy like Sunday afternoon, a really nice example of classic New England fare.

We also tried a fried clam strip “Dinnah” ($9.99), served with french fries and coleslaw in a cardboard basket. The clams were expertly fried, with the lightest crumb coating clinging to the outside of each strip, adding the perfect amount of crunch and texture to the sweet, briny clams. The french fries were excellent, as well, fried shoestrings that were  crispy on the outside, while staying soft and fluffy on the inside. I dipped everything in spoonful after spoonful of Susan’s tartar sauce, which was perfectly tangy and studded with plenty of sweet pickles. Susan’s serves its tartar sauce by the jarful, which I am thankful for, as it prevents me from having to sheepishly ask for more mayonnaise to slather onto my seafood.

We also ordered a basket of fried haddock, served with french fries and coleslaw for $9.99. Jillian and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on this fried seafood basket at all; I loved the huge hand-breaded haddock fillet, cooked until just barely, perfectly opaque, and coated in a light, crispy batter. She kept mentioning again and again the strong margarine flavor in the dredge, which I didn’t get quite so hung up on. It was an ideal vehicle for more of the house tartar sauce, though the fish would have been improved by a squeeze of fresh lemon.

Jillian: I get it; I get this place now. If we found it on our way down south, if we turned off the highway and drove through town, away from the fast food chains of crowns and arches, if this was a lunch stop on a cross country road trip, we’d love it here, and reminisce about its folksy flavor, fresh food, friendly people, and handmade signage all afternoon, already nostalgic for the time gone by.

Overall, if you don’t live or work nearby, it’s easy to imagine overlooking Susan’s Fish & Chips. Unless you have some sort of pressing gasoline or windshield-repair business to attend to, there’s doesn’t seem any reason to battle through Forest Avenue’s absurd levels of late-afternoon traffic to eat seafood in an old warehouse. Sure, it’s a little grimy, with about as much ambiance as you’d find if you decided to eat a seafood dinner in the back of a bus station. Where Susan’s surprises, however, is in its expertly-fried seafood and chowder which has no reason to be as fresh and expertly prepared as it is, served at a price point that seems like a holdover from the 1980s. I’ve paid easily twice as much for a fried clam or haddock dinner at other, perhaps more scenic establishments, and been much, much less pleased with the overall experience than I was with the food served at Susan’s Fish & Chips.

Today, Portland area food bloggers are providing coverage of the various clam chowder options available in town. You can check out the chowder our fellow bloggers are belting here, here, here, and here.

Only The Lonely: J’s Valentine

J's Oyster on UrbanspoonAlone, again. Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and you’ve destroyed another fledgling relationship with your neediness, your jealousy, your poor judgement and lack of underpants during a night of drinking with his coworkers, or your unnerving penchant for dressing up your dog in period costumes. You suck. In another scenario, that childish bastard has cheated on you, dumped you via text or Twitter, or gone out for milk and never returned. You changed your status from “it’s complicated” to “single.”  Men suck. In a third hackneyed scenario, you are alone by choice, mostly feeling like a badass single lady and reveling in not shaving your legs, watching every episode of Downton Abbey without interruption, and getting ever bolder venturing to the basement by yourself. You go, girl.

You know Valentine’s Day is going to happen whether you like it or not. Mostly you’ve made your peace with the phony holiday. You consider its origins in sylvan Roman orgies and snicker at the teddy bears and paper hearts that oversaccharine what was once a most debauched occasion. In this spirit you decide you go out on the town alone in Portland. All your girlfriends are out with men who don’t deserve them.Your guy friends have flown to Las Vegas for a four day bender at the Spearmint Rhino. Even your dog has a date with the dachshund in 4A. What are you going to do and where are you going to go when every single soul is coupled up shooting stars into one another’s eyes with soppy love leaking through their sweaters like a wet, red stain? You, my friend, are going to J’s.

J’s Oyster is seedy, salty, grimy, noisy, and perfect. There is nothing romantic about it. It’s not a place to hold hands, make plans or declarations of boundless, heedless love. It’s Romantic with a capitol R, if you want to wear an oatmeal-colored Irish sweater and drink whiskey and look out to sea thinking of The Second Coming of Yeats. This is my prescription. Walk in and around the bar to the dark back corner. Order your liquor neat. Eat a dozen oysters without ceremony or decorum, ’cause let’s face it, oysters aren’t sexy. Order a cup of haddock chowder. It is always soul satisfying. Then, have the decades-deep waitress bring you a lobster. The reddest they’ve got. The one that was angry going into the pot. Twist off its claws and tail with abandon. Because you don’t care who sees you, because really, no one is looking. Slosh some of the liquid around. Get it on your sweater. Get up to your elbows in butter and the green goo from within. Demand mussels with lots of doughy rolls for dunking up the garlic broth. And finally, just to really grind down your solitude and fill your belly, ask for a big bucket of gritty steamers.

All of this will likely cost you half what it would anywhere else in the city. The preparation is basic, but seafood this fresh requires little more. You won’t be the drunkest person there. You won’t be the only one who is lonely, raw, and bitterly sad, whose heart aches and who has lost it all and expects to lose it all again. You go to J’s not because you have no hope, but because you have too much. Love hurts. Life hurts. J’s is there to help. It heals all, with its elixers of the cask and the sea. They do not take reservations. This Valentine’s Day, stay home if you are superficially bitter. If you are childish and annoyed, if you are going to heckle the happy lovers and invoke the phrase “Hallmark Holiday,” stay home and read your Nicholas Sparks novel. Stay home and eat your fro-yo. Stay home and stalk ex-boyfriends online, write vitriolic blog posts about how their loss is your gain and how they will never find another girl like you. But if you want to be a bit cooler than that and have a hell of a meal in the process, put on your boots and walk the plank to J’s. Tell them love sent you.

Today, Portland area food bloggers are collaborating on alternative ideas for Valentine’s Day celebrations that don’t involve the usual prix fixe dinners, champagne toasts, or chocolate dipped strawberries. You can see what our fellow bloggers suggest here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Photo: Flickr/Openg