Sunday, September 13, 2009

Nantucket: Straight Wharf

AFter a long and tiring day of exploring the island, including a bike ride of well over 20 miles, we were ready for another delicious dinner. I had made, well in advance, a reservation at Straight Wharf restaurant which is one of the oldest fine restaurants in Nantucket. Having never eaten there in my early, somewhat impecunious visits, I was worried that maybe it was resting on its laurels or reputation, but I needn't have worried as we had a fine dinner there.

While relatively unprepossessing from the outside, the restaurant has a great setting overlooking a back corner of the harbor and the inside is warm and welcoming, with much dark wood in evidence set off by large windows. There was a large crowd at the entrance seeking admittance but we were welcoming and whisked promptly off to a choice table on a semi-enclosed deck overlooking the water (our choice).

Dinner was delicious. I started with a special of bonito while Michael had watermelon-based gazpacho. If I remember right, the bonito was raw and it was sweet and fresh like the best sushi. Even Michael, not one for much raw fish, savored it. For my main course, I could not pass up the dayboat scallops that Nantucket is known for, which were perfectly matched with corn, chanterelles and bacon just muted enough not to overwhelm the scallops. Michael had the wood-grilled chicken which if memory serves, he said was the best chicken he had ever had. For dessert we shared a pain perdu which I suspect Michael chose mostly because it came with peanut butter ice cream. Of course there was no chocolate involved which made it automatically second-rate in my opinion, but if you discount that it was terrific.

Straight Wharf is an expensive restaurant and the wines are very expensive. I don't remember what we was something from the cheaper end of the menu, still stingingly expensive and not memorable. I do concede, however, the logistical issues of getting wine onto the island must add some amount of complication and expense.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Nantucket: Town

It had been a long day of traveling. We had left Bar Harbor, not without regret, at 8:30 in the morning on another beautiful sunny day, after another tasty breakfast at Cafe This Way (where we sat again at the Wonder Woman table...maybe it's reserved for gay people?). It was hard to guess how long the drive to Hyannis would take given the need to drive through the middle of Boston and fight Cape traffic. During the drive the clouds thickened and a drizzle started and it rained more or less consistently from Portsmouth south. But in the event, traffic was not too bad and even allowing for a brief shopping stop in Freeport, and a unplanned and worrisome detour through a very obscure part of Hyannis, caused by my ill-conceived decision (contrary to Michael's advice) to follow the GPS rather than the clearly posted signs...despite all of this, I say, we found ourselves parked and at the ferry terminal in time to catch the 3:15 ferry to Nantucket, which was well ahead of what I had dared to hope for.

We got on the ferry just as the skies really opened up and the downpour began. Fortunately an hour later when we arrived in Nantucket, it had diminished to just an occasional drizzle. Even with a considerable amount of luggage left in the car in Hyannis, we still struggled to transport our four pieces of luggage and two bicycles to the inn near the harbor, but after a few tense moments (and two stops to ask directions) we finally made it.

After settling into the inn, fending off the helpful but overly chatty receptionist, and cramming our assorted gear into our pleasant but compact room, we set off on an exploration of town. I had deliberately, and uncharacteristically, failed to make dinner reservations for that night because I wasn't sure exactly when we would arrive or how tired we would be. We had a delightful walk around town...Michael was as entranced as I had hoped he would be...but we had trouble settling on a place to eat. Well, what to do? What we normally do, which is go have a drink while we contemplated the situation.

We found ourselves just east of Main Street and fell into a stylish and attractive looking place called Town. The bar, and bartender, were welcoming and we settled ourselves happily on a stool for closer examination.

Being hot and thirsty, I started with a quick beer, followed by a ginger martini, which served as our initially, and ultimately costly, introduction to a ginger liqueur called Domaine de Canton. Michael was tempted by, I think, an Asian pear mojito but quickly switched to the ginger martini for the second round.

We were having such a good time that we decided to stay for dinner; a great deal of this was due to the friendly and welcoming presence of bartender Graeme Fleming, a Scot who came to Nantucket 19 years ago and never left. The menu at Town is heavily Indian-inspired. Well, mostly. We started with a couple of tiny "truffled sliders" which were just as good as they sounded...outstanding in fact. I could have made a meal of them, but it would have taken about a dozen. Following most of Graeme's recommendations, I started with an appetizer portion of Weeping Tiger Shrimp (with coconut milk and chilies) and followed with a lamb vindaloo...very tasty, but not nearly as spicy as a true Indian vindaloo, which was probably just as well under the circumstances. Think well seasoned lamb stew and you have the picture. Michael had a nice green mango salad to start and a dish combining soba noodles, broth, and braised short ribs. All delicious. With it Michael had a Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, no surprise, while I had what I think was a Blue Pirate Pinot Noir (after rejecting a Hangtown as too thin...or maybe it was the notes are very sketchy as Graeme was extremely generous about keeping our wine glasses topped up plus treating us to a bit of a taste of Domaine de Canton as a digestif).

All in all, a wonderful evening and a great introduction to the delights of Nantucket.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Maritime Cafe, Stonington, Maine

On Labor Day we decided to drive down to Blue Hill for a bit of sightseeing and antiquing. We found Blue Hill OK but most of the shops were closed (although we did spend some time in an interesting art gallery) and most of the eating options were also unavailable...those that were open didn't look too interesting. Not being in a hurry, and wanting to show Michael more of the coast, we decided to drive down to Stonington. Well, it is a longer drive than I thought (about an hour from Blue Hill) but an interesting and attractive one.

The town was beautiful and we parked right in front of a little cottage offering the best lobster rolls in Maine. Well, naturally we had to check that out and were disappointed to learn that they had actually run out of lobster meat! So we went reconnoitering, which doesn't take too long in Stonington. We considered the Fisherman's Friend, which seems to be the popular choice judging from the number of pickup trucks parked in front, but Michael found a small cafe on the other end of the short main street and we wandered down for a look.

Let's cut to the chase. It was one of the most memorable impromptu lunches we have ever had. We had a table on the end of a wooden deck jutting over Stonington Harbor, overlooking the busy commercial pier where lobstermen were coming in to unload the day's catch. Meanwhile schooners and yachts could be seen traversing Deer Island Thoroughfare and, in the distance, Merchant Row, which made me wish I had access to any sort of a sailboat.

We split an order of crabcakes as a starter. At the risk of being excommunicated as a native Marylander, they may have been the best crabcakes ever, full of sweet and flaky Maine crabmeat. We also had corn and crab chowder which was equally delicious. We then each had a lobster roll which was perfect in its unadorned simple perfection. Perfectly toasted and buttered bun with no distractions. My only regret is that I did not order the "jumbo" roll for another $4.

With our lunch we had a couple of local draft beers which were perfect. Just a perfect lunch. If you're near Stonington, don't miss it...and order the jumbo lobster roll.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Docksider for Lunch

On our first full day in Acadia, Michael and I started on a longish bike ride over the carriage trails. It was a beautiful day, perfect weather really, and we felt very privileged to be there. After riding through much of the park, we emerged near Jordan Pond House and decided to pop down to Northeast Harbor to see what was going on. (I was having some bike trouble and hoped to find a bike shop open). We looked into, and rejected the Colonel's Restaurant for reasons nonspecific but shared by both of us, and ultimately fell into the Docksider on Sea Street. This is a place I had eaten in several times while on boat is the closest restaurant to the NE Harbor marina...but of course the last such time was now well over 10 years ago. While it did seem to run a significant "touristy" risk, given the few options, we decided to take a chance.

Well, we were glad we did. We both had soup and a sandwich...clam chowder and haddock sandwich for Michael, fish chowder and crab roll for me. Soup was delicious, unthickened so therefore more milky than you would find in Boston, but full of flavor and generous with ingredients. The crab roll was outstanding, the usual bun stuffed full of sweet flaky Maine crab to which I was rapidly becoming addicted. With it I had a local beer and Michael had a local ("Old Soaker") root beer which he was wild about. Even I liked it, and I can't stand root beer. Service was prompt and friendly and the cost was reasonable.

After a brief stop to get my bike fixed, we were back on the trails, well fed and happy.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Havana: Not Quite What We Remembered

After an easy drive from Freeport to Bar Harbor, we checked in to our rental house, got settled, and did a little wandering through the crowds of Bar Harbor and food shopping at the unexciting but utilitarian supermarket. However, after our long 3 days of driving we felt like going out and celebrating our arrival in Acadia and so naturally our thoughts turned to Havana, certainly the most stylish place in Bar Harbor. We secured an 8:00 reservation and turned up a bit early to find several other parties also waiting in the crowded little bar.

Well, that was no problem, we never mind a pre-prandial cocktail (never mind the bottle of champagne we had consumed an hour before to celebrate our arrival). The wait did go on a bit longer than usual and seating was at a fact we and a few others were forced to stand rather uncomfortably in the small space, but I suppose that's the price of arriving on Labor Day weekend. The bartender, a real character with a long white beard, finally had time for us and mixed up a couple of caipirinhas which to our taste were rather uncomfortably sharp. Soon after, we were escorted (with appropriate apologies) to our table.

My notes on the meal seem to be incomplete but I do remember ordering seared scallops as an appetizer and duck leg confit with lentils as a main course. Michael's main course was a seafood stew. The scallops were fine. The confit was also good, but seemed a bit was, indeed, a duck leg (but only a leg) on a modest-sized bed of lentils with no other sausage or accompaniments. Michael's seafood stew was tasty, but we agreed it was a bit one-dimensional in flavor and also quite skimpy on the broth.

Somehow the idea of more wine just didn't get us excited so we opted for a couple of cocktails to go with dinner...some sort of Caribbean-themed martini which I remember as being rather tangy. Perhaps the same bartender had a bit of a heavy hand with the lime juice for both sets of cocktails.

In any case, we left Havana feeling a bit disappointed in the meal compared to our experience in 2005. On the bright side, we did manage to secure a spot at their farm dinner for two nights later, which turned out to be a highlight of our trip.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Fore Street

Our much needed vacation started with a drive to Freeport, Maine and a few productive hours in the outlet shops before we headed back to Portland for our much awaited dinner at Fore Street, perhaps our favorite restaurant in the US (or certainly in the top 5). Calling two weeks in advance, we could only get a reservation at 6 pm and that was before the recent NY Times and Bon Appetit articles heralding Portland as a great restaurant city.

In any case, 6:00 or not, we walked in to the restaurant with great anticipation and were greeted as usual very cordially and shown quickly to a fine table near the back overlooking the room and with a view of the harbor as well. Our personable and very professional server brought us menus and we set out to usual we had a very difficult time limiting ourselves to just one appetizer and main per person, so in this case we didn't.

To begin with Michael chose a simple salad of lettuce with pears and blue cheese, while I could not, as usual, resist the seared foie gras. In this case however it was delivered with two more or less equally sized little lobes of foie (about the size of your little finger, or mine anyhow) which made it ideal for sharing. Just a perfect couple of mouthfuls of rich goodness, while the salad was a light and fresh opener..not anything you couldn't make yourself at home given access to the right ingredients, but perfectly executed nonetheless.

As a shared third appetizer, we had the roasted tomato tart with goat cheese, which was wonderful...roasted tomatoes have such a rich and fulfilling flavor and seem very consistently satisfying, especially in this year of disappointing tomatoes.

To accompany the early courses, our server enthusiastically approved of my choice of a Trimbach Reserve Pinot Gris 2004, commenting that it was one of her favorite food wines. Michael could tell by my face after the first taste that it was not quite what I was in fact a bit more austere and less rich than I had expected or that we have experienced with many other Alsatian Pinots Gris. More like an Oregonian one, in fact, or maybe the Oregon ones are a better imitation of Trimbach.

In any case, the wine grew on us and it was indeed a very good foil for the food, not terribly assertive in its own right but a very low-key and complementary addition to the meal.

Having now taken off the initial hunger pangs, we eagerly awaited the arrival of our main courses. Michael had ordered the roast chicken, as he seems often to do, while I had opted for a special consisting of a roast leg of pork combined with shredded pork shoulder. Both were excellent, not terribly complex but very good. I compared the pork favorably to the similar version we had had at Sorellina in Boston over the Michael said this was "very porky" but he meant that in a good was full of taste and flavor without being excessively gamy or assertive. It just tasted the way it should, which I suppose is a good summation of the food at Fore Street.

Dessert was magnificent. Michael had a selection of sorbets while I had a kind of chocolate terrine that was simply of the richest, most chocolate-suffused desserts I have ever had. If it were possible to experience chocolate overload (which of course is not possible) this dish would have triggered it.

We left the restaurant very satisfied and very happy to be starting our holiday in Maine. As always, we did not feel that the food was the most innovative or most interesting that we have ever had, but the combination of impeccable ingredients, careful and unfussy preparation, professional service, and a warm, welcoming, and lively atmosphere made us recall why we try to eat at Fore Street whenever we pass through Portland.

Lobster Rolls at Harraseeket

It gives you an idea of our yen for lobster rolls when I say that upon entering Maine, we drove straight to Harraseeket Lobster for lunch without stopping anywhere else, not even to unpack the car. Well, we were also driven by was well after one and we were mindful of our looming 6 pm dinner reservation at Fore Street.

Well, the lobster rolls did not disappoint, although by the end of our trip in Maine, having consumed some superior ones, we would not make a detour back to South Freeport. They were tasty, and the mix of meat and mayo was good. The strip of lettuce underneath did not add much to the equation, and compared to rolls further down east, these might be considered a little skimpy (and a little expensive). But I suppose that must be expected in the tourist mecca of Freeport. As usual the whoopie pie was sublime and addictive...the kind of thing that you tell yourself you will only have a bite of, and are then surprised to find it is all gone.

If Freeport is as far as you are going in Maine, I certainly would not hesitate to stop here. But if it is for you, as it was for us, only a brief detour on the way much further east, I would probably hold out for something a little further off the beaten path and a little better value. More to follow on this.