As if to amplify my previous blog about Anthony Bourdain, on my recent trip to Maine with son Christopher, daughter-in-law Courtney and adorable grandson Liam, we ran into his dining on vacation suggestions time and time again. We stayed at a resort- Nonantum– that was great. It is known as a Mecca for weddings; there was a wedding every night we were there. They had a wonderful, ever-revolving breakfast buffet, with a pastry chef who studied in Paris. My favorite egg entree was a Croissant Casserole with eggs, ham and a mushroom gravy on top, my favorite pastry a fresh blueberry donut. We even happened, by chance, to meet relatives of Christopher’s good friend Woody, the first night we were there. In the hotel bar, of course, where Christopher was asking where to go to get oysters.
Our first lunch at The Shop by Island Creek Oysters in Portland, Maine, totally nailed Anthony Bourdain’s philosophy of restaurants that do “two to three dishes” well. On the menu, the only options were: Fresh Seafood, Tinned Fish and Caviar. We opted for the oysters, in three varieties. This place was funky, rustic, with indoor seafood market and outdoor patio. They even had a quote from Anthony Bourdain next to where you ordered, so you know they were disciples of the late, great author of Kitchen Confidential.
We weren’t quite filled up with the oysters, so made it downtown to Gilbert’s Chowder House, known for (of course) it’s chowders, which are “award-winning”. They had Clam, Fish, Corn with Chicken and Seafood in Small, Medium or Large sizes. I got the Seafood. It was crammed with tender, sweet Maine lobster, shrimp, clams and haddock and was the best chowder I’ve ever had in my life. Christopher got to relive a memory from a Boston trip and ordered the bread bowl; he loved the Clam Chowder that came inside and said the bread, soft a pillowy, was fresh.
That night, continuing the thread, we ate at Nunan’s Lobster Hut. This restaurant was recommended to Christopher by Woody, who used to visit Kennebunkport summers and said his family always went to Nunan’s for the Boiled Lobster Dinner. Which is what we all got. The lobsters came in different sizes (I got the 1 1/4 pound), with a side of pickle chips (?) and potato chips. We invested $1.25 for a baked potato we all split, but first they served a roll with butter and I had a nice glass of chilled Pinot Gris from Oregon. The bright red lobster arrived on a metal plate, already cracked and served with melted butter and the aforementioned pickles. The down-home waitresses loved Liam and it was our favorite meal of the trip. If you go, you better like lobster and bring cash. They don’t take credit cards.
The next day for lunch we ate at a joint in-town called The Clam Shack. They are known for their (wait for it!) fried clams, but also for their Lobster Rolls, so we got both. They ask you if you want your Lobster Roll with butter or mayo or both. We chose “both” and got a button to prove it. The Fried Clams were delicious and we got a local beer to sip to go with our seafood. The lobster roll was also very good, but I was surprised that the lobster meat was cold and it was served in a hamburger bun, so you didn’t have that visual pop of color you usually get when it’s in a traditional hot dog bun, split at the top. The other problem with the hamburger bun was the lobster was more likely to fall out.
Our third day we went to Portsmith, New Hampshire, a short drive away. Courtney suggested we do what Anthony Bourdain recommended and just walk around until we found a place that was crowded with locals and eat there. It sounded like a good idea except: 1) It was a Monday and a lot of restaurants were closed and 2) We got there kind of late and were all starving. We ended up eating at Bennett’s Sandwich Shop, which also had an outpost in Kennebunkport. Courtney asked if they served soup. The girl at the register said: “We’re a sandwich shop.” People in New Hampshire aren’t the friendliest.
Bennett’s Sandwich Shop is known for their Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich, so that’s what Christopher got. He declared it “ok”, but not the best he’s had. I got the Spicy Chicken Cheesesteak, in an attempt to be healthier, but it was doused in a Siracha mayo, so it defeated the purpose and I only ate half. Courtney, however, got an Italian Sub she declared “the best Italian sub” she’d ever had in her life. So, maybe it does pay to just walk around and stumble onto a place.
Our last night we went to a restaurant right near our hotel- Mabel’s Lobster Claw– known for their Blueberry Pie. We sat outside and had a friendly server who made suggestions. Their lobster dish was a twist on the traditional as it came in little cast iron skillets, with varying seafood combination options. I got The Dutchess with scallops, shrimp and lobster in a garlic wine sauce, with a crumb topping. It was a rich, but tasty dish. We all split a piece of blueberry pie, a la mode, and it was delicious. Mabel’s is kind of an institution in Kennebunkport, having been around since 1953.
If I had to sum up Maine food in a couple words it would be: Maine Lobster, Clam Chowder, Lobster Rolls, Blueberries and Pickles. I never did figure out the pickle thing. Before we left to head back to Boston, we trekked to see a lighthouse called Goat Island. It, honestly, wasn’t very impressive (small and far away) but there was a restaurant near it, the Cape Pier Chowder House, where they served Boiled Lobster Dinners. Even though Courtney and I were a little lobstered-out, Chris was not and offered to treat us, so we ate our last Lobster Meal in Maine. These red beauties hadn’t been cracked, leaving it to us to do the dirty deed ourselves (not an easy feat while juggling a baby); we gave ours to Christopher to crack. I put on one of those ugly plastic lobster bibs over my clothes as I didn’t want to enter the airplane smelling like a giant crustacean. My fellow passengers on American Airlines, you are welcome!
Maine was as charming and picturesque as I had imagined. We were there at the tail end of Spring- with flowers blooming and temperate weather, but you could tell they were gearing up for Summer and the crowds that come with the season. Flowers were being planted, pools cleaned and there was an undercurrent of anticipation and excitement in the air. I had an absolutely wonderful time with Christopher, Courtney and Liam at this sweet stage of his life. He was a trooper and such a good baby (Gigi brag) on this trip. And what a treat to spend four days with my son and daughter-in-law. It actually made me a little sad, as I packed my bag to leave Maine for Miami because…
We may never pass this way again.
Seals and Croft
Up Next: Lobster Roll