Virtuoso Life July 2018 Beyond Lobster: A Gourmet Maine Road Trip

Beyond Lobster: A Gourmet Maine Road Trip

McLoons Lobster Shack.
McLoons Lobster Shack.
Photo by Greta Rybus
On a gourmet Maine road trip, your tank is always half full.

Ask a group of Mainers to define Midcoast, and you’ll get different answers. “As soon as you get north of Freeport and you feel like you’re no longer close to Portland,” says one. “Personally, around Brunswick to Belfast or Searsport,” says another. Although the exact poles vary from local to local, Midcoast Maine exists somewhere north of Portland and south of Bangor – as well as in the imaginations of those who have never been to Maine but imagine what Maine might be: wooded islands, red barns and regatta-ready harbors, lakes hidden like sapphires in fragrant pine forests, and lobster, of course. But in this central part of the state you’ll also find brilliant Thai food, crusty Montreal-style bagels, and pop-up pizzerias from Tuscan nomads. So steer off I-95 and onto coastal Route 1: The back way adds more than an hour to the drive, but you’ll need the extra time to eat.

This road trip begins in Portland, which, as the aforementioned locals have established, is not technically Midcoast. But most Midcoast visitors inevitably take in the state’s largest city and its electric food scene.

“Luck and timing” have something to do with it, says Maine food writer Anestes Fotiades of Portland’s vibrant restaurant community. “But on a more practical level, the bounty of the ocean and Maine’s farms are right there.” Couple that with the generational impact of the mid-twentieth-century back-to-the-land movement and the more recent migration of chefs from other big cities, and you’ve got a recipe for regional culinary excellence.

If you plan just one dinner in Portland, you can’t go wrong with the daily specials at Drifters Wife, a restaurant and natural-wine bar run by Brooklyn transplants, or with the aromatic chicken pho and toasted pandan pound cake at Cong Tu Bot. Otherwise, kick off the day with a cup of campfire-y wood-roasted coffee from Speckled Ax and hit the road.

Cong Tu Bot chef Vien Dobui.
Cong Tu Bot chef Vien Dobui.
Photo by Greta Rybus
Your first stop is about half an hour north, at the Purple House, a wood-fired bakery in the quiet village of North Yarmouth. Krista Kern Desjarlais, a chef well known to Mainers from her former restaurant, Bresca, is the queen of this berry-colored cottage. Her brick oven turns out superior za’atar and maple-sugared MontreĢal-style bagels. Bathed in sunlight, the communal dining table begs you to stay for a strawberry tart, but the longest uninterrupted stretch of road lies ahead – 75 miles. Destination: lobster.

The route to McLoons Lobster Shack leads through towns such as Bath and Damariscotta and across no less than ten bridges – some, long concrete straightaways like the one skimming the cobalt surface of the Sheepscot River; others, tiny storybook things you’d expect trolls to live under. Everywhere, you get the sense that this place was reclaimed from water. You’ll find McLoons on Spruce Head Island: “a true lobstering island,” says Bree Douty, whose family owns the shack and the wharf that supplies it with sweet cold-water crustaceans. “Many of the island’s houses are home to people who live here year-round, including lobstermen.”

The Doutys’ cherry-red shack with a walk-up window sits right beside the water, and the views are so quintessential Maine postcard – boats swaying in the navy bay, framed by tall, spiky evergreens – you half expect a skywriter to fly by spelling out “Wish You Were Here!” Savor a lobster roll, a top-split bun overflowing with succulent “TKC” (tail, knuckle, claw meat) and glossed with melted butter, at one of the picnic tables. Drink in the views a final time and resume course.
McLoons Lobster Shack’s star attraction.
McLoons Lobster Shack’s star attraction.
Photo by Greta Rybus
Follow State Route 73 north about 15 minutes to Primo, Melissa Kelly’s legendary restaurant and farm in Rockland. Stroll among the gooseberry bushes, quince trees, and pepper patches until Kelly opens the doors at 5 pm, then head upstairs for a couple of oysters, a wedge of Maine cheese, and house cider at the copper-topped bar, where some seats are always reserved for walk-ins.
Free-ranging at Primo.
Free-ranging at Primo.
Photo by Greta Rybus
Rockport follows Rockland, then comes Camden, the picturesque and popular harbor town that’s home to Long Grain, a storefront restaurant with mismatched chairs, wood tables, and some of the best Southeast Asian cooking in America. Enjoy chef Ravin Nakjaroen’s herbaceous Vietnamese salad and fluffy fried rice threaded with Maine crab while locals breeze in and out, nonchalantly scooping up take-out orders.
Long Grain’s pad kee mao.
Long Grain’s pad kee mao.
Photo by Greta Rybus
If you happen to visit Midcoast on a Friday, there’s another great dinner option available only that night. Cross through Camden to the next town, Lincolnville. Here the road slopes down to Lincolnville Beach, a narrow crescent of sand and scrub framed by opposing lobster pounds. Hook a hard left on Beach Road, which curls inland to Rose Lowell’s Dolce Vita Farm & Bakery, where she makes outstanding pizzas topped with farm-grown ingredients in a wood-fired oven named Arabella until 7 pm.
Fresh pizza from Dolce Vita.
Fresh pizza from Dolce Vita.
Photo by Greta Rybus
Head back to Route 1 and check the specials sign outside 29-year-old Chez Michel: If raspberry or blueberry pie is spelled out in marquee letters, grab a slice to go for dessert and take it down to the scruffy shore. Lincolnville Beach is far from the prettiest in Midcoast Maine, but the dark, seaweed-wreathed sand is soft, and the water is just as inviting as any cove. Locals throw a bonfire here every December to mark the start of the holiday season, but even at the height of summer, the air is crisp and fire-appropriate as the sun goes down on a perfect day on Midcoast Maine.

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