Monday, August 24, 2009

the food of maine

Where to begin regarding some of the restaurant highlights of Maine? In chronological order they were:

Duckfat - owned by the same purveyors of Hugo's, a renowned destination dining restaurant (see below). Duckfat is known for its fries cooked in duckfat. The duckfat renders the fries a deep brown color mirroring the richer, more earthy flavor. We ordered the fries with cheese curd and duck gravy (referred to as Poutine), but also tried some with truffle ketchup, which was absolutely amazing. The truffles added depth to the ketchup which simply has to be experienced firsthand. Duckfat does not take reservations, so needless to say, we had to wait for quite a while before we were seated. We also ordered their vanilla milkshake which has to be one of the richest shakes I've ever had. The vanilla ice cream was obviously home made, incorporating the freshest of vanilla beans.

Hugo's - that same evening, we had procured reservations at Hugo's. Chef Rob Evans was the winner of the 2009 James Beard Foundation for the Best Chef of the Northeast. We began the evening with Romaine Hearts, white anchovy, parmesan, caesar dressing and bottarga. The simplicity of this first course was superb due primarily to the freshness of the ingredients. The Romaine Hearts were crispy and sweet. For the second course (actually another first course choice, but we shared), we had Watermelon & Watercress Salad, with goat cheese, organic radish topped with a citrus vinaigrette. Again the excellence of this course was based upon the finest freshest ingredients. Finally, the entree was Prime Beef Rib Eye, potato- miso puree, onion jus with multiple garnishes. The portions were very small, but overall the dining experience was superb. We overheard a waiter telling a patron that some of the courses took three days preparation. It is not difficult to believe judging from some of the dishes featured on the menu.

I won't bore you with too many more details, but have to mention a couple of other highlights:

The Azure Cafe in Freeport was located in a small building in the middle of town. I had the Freeport fish and chips made of haddock that was probably among the finest I have ever experienced. The batter was light and did not overpower the fresh delicacy of the haddock. Even the fries tasted light and were not greasy at all. I also sampled their lobster roll which contained some of the sweetest lobster meat of the trip. I suspect from the cost, the lobster meat may have been harvested solely from the claws, the most tender and prime part of the lobster.

Finally, Fore Street in downtown Portland capped off the entire trip with what was the finest meal we had in Maine. You cannot pull up a menu for Fore Street on their website because it is determined by whatever ingredients they purchase that day. There are a few favorites they do offer consistently however, like their hanger steak and spit-turned chicken.

We started out with a tomato tartlet appetizer which was nothing short of amazing. The tomato was baked to sweet perfection in a flaky dough that complimented the taste and texture perfectly. We then had mussels, steamed and swimming in its own juices and butter. As with most high end restaurants in Maine, the mussels were fresh and of the highest quality. The entree was striped bass with fresh celery relish and broccoliette. The delicacy of the fish and the fresh test of the celery were again a wonderful combination of ingredients that served to enhance each other. Finally, the dessert was a warm Rainier Cherry upside down cake with caramel sauce and house made vanilla ice cream. This was a dessert I will never forget! I can still taste the warmth of the cake and the caramel sauce in my mouth just as the sweet tartness of the cherries hit my taste buds . . . Just so you are aware of its credentials, in 2002, Fore Street was named Number 16 in Gourmet Magazine's Top Fifty Restaurants in the United States. In 2004, Chef-partner Sam Hayward was named Best Chef in the Northeast by the the James Beard Foundation.

Finally, as mentioned, I had lobster in one form or another each day of our visit in Maine. Most of it was in the form of lobster rolls, one of my favorite dishes culled on our first visit to Maine. Most places were tiny shacks manned by high school students earning their summer pay, but all you really need to know to produce a fine lobster roll is how to cook fresh lobster, get the meat out of the shells, mix it with a little mayonnaise or butter and slap it onto a grilled hot dog bun (which in the Northeast is really a slice of bread folded in half). There were admittedly, small variations in the lobster roll in the different shacks, but most were superb. I don't know if this can be attributed to the fact that I only visited those shacks recommended by the guide books, but I suspect as in anything, quality control and good management make for some better shacks than others. Occasionally, I would indulge in other menu items like fried clam strips during these visits to the shacks, but honestly, I faithfully adhered to having lobster each and every day in some form or another. Perhaps given another week, I may have tired of this seafood choice, but overall, we were there for 9 entire days, and I am confident I could go for more days, perfectly content.

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