EASTPORT, ME – A lobster claw the size of a Hot Wheels car is staring me in the face, taunting. It’s perched above a traditional lobster roll, the sandwich that is to Maine what the hot dog is to Chicago. I’m sitting at a blue picnic table, just a few yards from the pristine blue waters of Quoddy Bay, at the locally beloved Quoddy Bay Lobster Shack. I’ve ordered both a jumbo (containing a half pound of lobster meat) as well as a regular roll (four ounces); one is lightly dressed with mayo while the other is barely brushed with butter, just before serving. Each one is tucked into a New England hot dog bun, featuring nifty flat sides, allowing cooks to thinly butter each side before even browning on a flat top griddle. Joining the overstuffed sandwich in my paper boat: a pickle wedge and a small container of creamy coleslaw. Needless to say, the naturally sweet meat, succulent and chewy, needs very little accompanyment. I could eat it with my hands, frankly.
As great as these rolls were, the best part was seeing all of the crustaceans coming in from the local fishing boats. A couple of burly guys handed us a few to hold and take pictures with, and each one barely fit into my hands. With claws firmly rubber banded shut, there was no fear of getting nipped, but you couldn’t help think that within a few hours, someone committed enough to get off of the highway, wind their way through the craggy shores and pine trees of Eastern Maine and steer their car down a steep gravel road almost into the Bay, would be rewarded with one of the state’s finest examples of lobster nirvana.
We spent the last week of summer running up (and then down) the coast of Maine, starting in Portland, then shooting up to New Brunswick, Canada, before heading back through Eastport, Freeport and a few other places. Officially, I was on assignment for The Chicago Tribune’s Travel Section (doing a story on lobster rolls, naturally), but we also had a few other notable eating experiences that I wanted to share with you. If you want to hear my report from Canada that aired on Public Radio International’s “The World,” click here.
Once you cross the border into Canada, the town of St. Andrews-by-the-Sea is just a 25-minute drive. We stayed at the majestic Algonquin, a resort from the 1860s that recently underwent a massive, $45 million renovation. Unfortunately, there were some fairly significant service and kitchen issues – clearly, they opened in a hurry earlier this summer and still need to find their footing – but the local attractions, like whale watching and kayaking, are well worth the hassle of getting that far north. Two meals that really stood out for us included a dinner at The Rossmount Inn, which has a gorgeous view from their front porch, like something out of a Napa Valley ad. Among the dishes we had at dinner, sautéed lobster with homemade gnocchi proved to be the winner. Same goes for Savour, inside the impressive Kingsbrae Gardens. The grounds reminded me of Chicago’s Botanic Garden, in that they were loaded with original sculptures and contained hundreds of flowers and herbs. They even host artists-in-residence; the day were there, a wooden chainsaw carver was the featured attraction. Chef Alex Haun is a staunch supporter of local produce; so much so, he took me out one morning to go foraging for chanterelles and lobster mushrooms (so named, by the way, because of their color, not their flavor). Then he whips out a portable burner, brushes off some of the chanterelles, and tosses them in a pan with some butter, garlic, cream and fine herbs; the bread was superfluous. That night, some of those mushrooms showed up in a foamy, savory cappuccino broth.
The next day, on our way out of town, we hit The Clam Digger, a tiny joint on the outskirts of town for more lobster rolls. They were pretty good, but the best was yet to come.
As I mentioned earlier, Quoddy Bay was a highlight during the week. Friendly people (well actually, everyone in Maine is so damn Canadian-friendly) and ample portions are offered at very fair prices. Most lobster rolls in Maine averaged $15. But here’s the problem with lobster roll hunting in Maine: the coast is just too damn long. After getting off the highway shortly after crossing the border back into the U.S., the town of Eastport isn’t exactly easy to get to. You still have to navigate some winding roads as you head to the easternmost point in the U.S. Believe me, the drive is worth it, but if you plan to stop at towns along the way as you slowly meander to Portland, it’s going to be an all-day endeavor.
I will say Freeport is worth a stop. Not just to ogle the outdoorsy Valhalla that is L.L. Bean World Headquarters, but also to stop over at Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster. Located in South Freeport Harbor, they’ve been catching and selling lobsters the past 46 years. Their rolls begin with lobster that’s first boiled, then professional “pickers” come in to separate the meat from the shells. A bit of mayo, some salt and pepper, and they’re done. Three-and-a-half ounces of barely-dressed meat is stuffed into the buttered-and-griddled Sunbeam buns that have a thin layer of green leaf lettuce at the bottom for added color and crunch. Divine.
In Portland, Eventide is the kind of restaurant that requires a stop, even if you’re not staying very long. Avec in Chicago; Gjelina in Venice Beach; The Spotted Pig in New York City. You just know that every time you’re going to visit one of these places, you’re going to chow like a champion, and Eventide is no different. It starts as soon as you enter, with the enormous bar housing a granite slab jammed with regional oysters. Start with anything your server tells you eats from Maine, fuck the mignonette/cocktail sauce and just give them a short squeeze of lemon. Then move your way through the menu, with its nuoc cham here and kimchi there; tasting each of their rolls/buns shouldn’t be too hard, since they’re a bit more modest in size. Their signature lobster roll, doused in a bit of brown butter and served in a puffy, split-top Asian bun is not to be missed. It’s not pure Maine tradition, of course, but that’s just the point. We didn’t have one dud (and believe me, we crushed the menu) and we were kicking ourselves the next night, after having a seriously disappointing meal at the way over-hyped Central Provisions, for not having the balls to go back to Eventide a second night and eat the rest of the menu.
One morning, we got on the Lucky Catch charter from the Old Port (tourist) area. The 90 minute or so ride heads out into the main harbor, while owner/captain Tom Martin and his amazing crew share stories about the lobster business. Guests don rubber fishing aprons and gloves, adding herring bait to a number of lobster traps. As Martin pulls up to one of his buouys and hoists the traps up to the side of the boat, he and his staff unload the lobsters, measuring each one to make sure it’s large enough to keep; one of the reasons the local industry is so successful and the waters are so plentiful, is that responsible fishermen continue to police themselves and make sure the population isn’t prematurely depleted. Guests can buy the lobsters right off the boat for $5, then, in a smart arrangement with the Portland Lobster Co. right next door, you can bring your live crustacean in and have them cook it for you – whole – along with corn, potatoes and slaw for $9.95. Eat it overlooking the dock and get an Allagash White on tap for a real Maine lunch.
For pure tradition, you can’t beat the Lobster Shack at Two Lights, located about 10 minutes south of Portland, in Cape Elizabeth. This is the ideal East Coast shack experience I had been dreaming of: located almost directly on the water, 1960s wood paneling, a brief menu, heavy on whole lobsters, fried clams and lobster rolls (also kick-ass clam chowder) and a bunch of teenagers running around the kitchen, handling fryers and stuffing lobster rolls. We sat on one of the dozen or so red picnic tables out in front, devouring our rolls – barely dressed, topped with a dollop of mayo on one end, a pickle on the other; the entire top layer barely dusted in paprika – and just stared endlessly into the dark blue abyss of the Atlantic, smelling the salty sea air, thinking how in the hell were we going to polish off that giant whoopee pie still sitting on the table.
184 Adolphus St., St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, New Brunswick
4599 Route 127, St. Andrews, New Brunswick
4468 Rt 127, St. Andrews, New Brunswick
Savour (open Thurs., Fri. and Sat.)
220 King St., St. Andrews, New Brunswick
Harraseeket Lunch and Lobster
36 Main St, South Freeport, ME
The Lobster Shack at Two Lights
225 Two Lights Rd, Cape Elizabeth, ME
Quoddy Bay Lobster
7 Sea St., Eastport, ME
Eventide Oyster Co.
86 Middle St., Portland, ME
170 Commercial St., Portland, ME
Portland Lobster Co.
180 Commercial St., Portland, ME