Monday, April 23, 2007

This One's for Pinchy

“You may not have lived much under the sea—”
("I haven’t,” said Alice)—
"and perhaps you were never even introduced to a lobster—"
(Alice began to say, “I once tasted—” but checked herself hastily, and said, “No, never”)
“—so you can have no idea what a delightful thing a Lobster-Quadrille is!”

Curiouser and curiouser blog synchronicity is flowing across my screens lately. I had no intent to focus on seafood post after post, but why not go with the tide? If everyone else is mentioning the high cost of lobster, the least I can do is jump off that bridge, too.

Whether it's an
unseasonably cold ocean this spring, fewer lobster boats on the water, poor planning on part of the Canadians, or voracious European Christians wrapping up Holy Week, we're in the middle of market shortage of Homarus americanus, and any of these vicious aquatic jerks hitting the steamer are doing so at record prices.

And didn't we find this out the hard way: traveling Down East for a long weekend in America's Vacationland...

Armed with a copies of
Fodor's Maine Coast, 1st Edition and Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks & Markets on the Coast, a perhaps ill-considered disregard for the ubiquitous phrase "Market Price", and a willingness to pester locals for their opinions, we grazed up and down the southern coast of Maine, from Kittery to Woolwich, and man, did we eat and drink.

The Highlights
The Love Shack

Everything you've read about
Bob's Clam Hut in Kittery being one of the best fried clam joints in the world is pretty much true. Overflowing platters of tender batter fried whole quahog bellys with crisp sides of thin-sliced onion rings and fries and a refreshing (unsweetened!) coleslaw. The full menu ranges across just about everything a seafood lover with a blind spot for cholesterol could want, but I went with the Stern's rule of thumb about going with a place's strength and had "The Lillian", recommended by Lillian, ordered from Lillian, at "Lillian's Window."
Here's Lillian!
This is what I got: Whole bellies in a buttermilk batter, half fries, half rings, two buttered rolls for on-the-fly clam rolls, and slaw.
Traveling Companion went with the regular clam dinner of whole bellies in traditional batter and fries, with roll and slaw.Everything was prepared and served by an outstandingly friendly and competent staff. Growing up in an area that also had a seasonal tourist surge, I've had plenty experience on both sides of the menu and I have to admit it was pure casual dining pleasure at Bob's. It's hard to recall the last time I've seen restaurant staff so openly enthusiastic about being at work:

I'm looking directly at you, foul-tempered
and self-professed food-despoiler,
Crossgates Pizzeria Uno's Hostess!

Word on the Street

We figured that anyplace recommended by two travel/dining guides, three bartenders, and hotel clerk probably had something going for it, and sure enough they were right.
Street and Co. is an upscale seafood bistro with a Mediterranean accent in Portland's Old Port area, in the middle of a cobblestone pedestrian walkway that connects a number of other bars and restaurants occupying converted industrial space, and is just a block or so from the docks. An open kitchen about the same size as one of the two smallish dining areas (approx 40 seats apiece) gave ample opportunity to leer at dishes being served while we were waiting for our reserved table, about 10 minutes. A steady parade of sizzling skillets were served directly from stove top to copper-topped dining tables and a delight for anyone amenable to being in media res. The menu generated a lot of scrutiny at our table and any ascetic impulse on our part was quickly kicked back out to the cobblestones as we started with an amuse bouce of Stilton-stuffed dates and a tuna carpaccio. Finding out that the rotating "morning's catch" had already been sold out, we decided on an indulgent dish of seared scallops in a Pernod and cream sauce and an extravagantly hearty Caldeirada De Peixe, or Portuguese seafood stew, with succulent tender squid in the starring role.

Accompanying throughout was a bottle (OK... two) of
2005 Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc.

Rock Lobster!

"That all sounds great, and I mean great" I hear you saying, "but where's this damn expensive lobster we've been reading about?"

Keep your shorts on... I'm getting there. Since the "refer to the guidebooks and then pester the locals" technique was working so well to this point, it seemed like a good idea to keep going with it, and after some ringing endorsements from Bev at the L.L.Bean Hunting & Fishing Store, we ended up in Woolwich at The Taste of Maine Friendly staff, lots of kitsch and collectables on the walls... don't skip the uranium(!) doped glassware in the lobby, a nice appetizer of Finnan Haddie, a smoked haddock in white cream sauce, served with toast points, and a bowl of lobster stew, but let's cut to the chase: Maine Shore Dinner!
  • 1 1/4lb. Steamed Lobster
  • 1 Doz. Steamed Clams
  • 1/2 Doz. Steamed Shrimp
  • Corn on the Cob
  • Strawberry Shortcake
(not the strawberry shortcake, though.)

And those dreaded words...
Market Price.

So what's the cost to crack into one of the unlucky few tasty bugs that didn't have the good sense to stay in bed down in the colder parts of the deep, away from traps? With fixings? About $50.00... beer not included. Pretty damn steep, even considering the fun of eating out of a bucket, seated on the bay.
But when in Maine...

We get smarter (sort of)

So what do you do when you want the lobster but not the sticker shock? Go for the roll, baby!

The lobstah roll!
Seems like most places still had a fixed price on this shore standard, and whether you went Maine-style (cold with mayonnaise) or Connecticut (warm with butter) they were still a reasonable $12-$14, usually with fries. So that's the way we went at Warren's Lobster House, on the banks of the Piscataqua River, in Kittery. We also opted for the "Seacoast's Finest Salad Bar"... a bit of hyperbole, but worth it as an add-on. The surprise winner was Warren's Portuguese style mussels (Fresh P.E.I. mussels steamed in white wine & butter with linguica sausage, onions, peppers & fresh garlic), a savory bowl of bivalve goodness, no skimping on the butter:

But what about the beer?

Shipyard Export
ruled the weekend... widely available and companionable to most of the seafoods. And no late night shopping at the L.L. Bean flagship store would be complete without first carbing up at the Freeport branch of Gritty McDuffs.

One True World!

A quick lunch-stop at Miyako Japanese Cuisine in Freeport for some sashimi and
Sapporo lead to an unsurprising discovery: yet another sushi joint stocked by the Secret Masters of All Things Seafood: True World Foods!

You can't escape


and now... The Lobster Quadrille

"Will you walk a little faster?" said a whiting to a snail.
There's a porpoise close behind us, and he's treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle - will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?
You can really have no notion how delightful it will be
When they take us up and throw us, with the lobsters, out to sea!"
But the snail replied "Too far, too far!" and gave a look askance -
Said he thanked the whiting kindly, but he would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, would not join the dance.
Would not, could not, would not, could not, could not join the dance.
What matters it how far we go?" his scaly friend replied.
There is another shore, you know, upon the other side.
The further off from England the nearer is to France -
Then turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance.
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?"

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, 1865