In Maine, Lobster Heaven
Sure, the oceanic panorama from the Maine cliff house was spectacular, and yeah, visiting our friends was delightful, and of course the Nubble Lighthouse, just down the beach, was charming, and blah, blah, blah.
What was really on my mind during a trip to the southern coast of Maine was lobster.
It's not that I'm a lobster freak who chows these tasty crustaceans indiscriminately. Quite the opposite. The only time I indulge is on the New England coast, where lobsters are at their most succulent. Then it's Katy bar the door.
Our initial forays to local restaurants were satisfactory, but we found lobster heaven at an off-the-beaten-track creek at a little-advertised, poorly marked restaurant, the Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier in Kittery Point.
After winding down Route 103 past homes alternately attractive and unsightly, we turned onto Chauncey Creek Road and pulled up to a group of parking attendants (locals had complained that diners were parking on their lawns). We trod down a series of ramps to a picturesque pier on a still waterway. To the left was the barn-red shack that is the lobster pound, where creek water is piped into tanks that hold the day's catch--lobsters from 1 1/4 to four pounds, awaiting the trip to the boiler.
Ahead were brightly painted picnic tables, some under cover, some under open sky. We took a fire-engine red table next to the water and beneath a tent. A Boston whaler neared the tent, docked, and a family, including their black dog, stepped onto the pier for a meal.
The Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier is a no-frills affair. Diners bring their own side dishes, alcoholic beverages and table decor. Neighboring picnic tables were dressed with tablecloths, a vase with flowers, candles. Some brought paper plates, more elegant than the cardboard trays the lobsters are served on.
"Some people come down with lace tablecloths, candelabras, they bring their crystal," says Ron Spinney, great-nephew of Herb Witham, who founded the restaurant in 1948, and co-owner with his wife, Jean. "We keep it simple. If you want it fancy, you can do it."
The Pier did provide real cloth napkins, but you'll probably want to take extra paper towels anyway--lobsters are messy. It also supplies nutcrackers for working the claws and plastic picks for digging out those stubborn morsels.
The Pier's lobsters are prepared only one way: boiled in sea water. No doctoring them with sauces or stuffing them with crab. There is no need to. Ours were rich, sweet and packed with roe. We also had steamed shrimp and mussels in wine and minced garlic, which were grit-free and tasty. The clam chowder was creamy but not overly viscous, with plenty of flavorful clams. We were too stuffed to try the steamed clams or one of the most popular offerings, the lobster roll, which is lobster meat on a bun with mayonnaise or dressing. "It's lazy man's lobster," says Spinney. "We sell 5,000 or 6,000 per season."
There's a bit of a ritual to ordering. After securing a table, note the number on the front, then go to the lobster pound to pick out your lobsters, place your order and report your table number. The fellow taking our order removed the rubber claw restraint from one of our lobsters and enticed it to clutch the ticket with its freed claw. "That's how the cooks keep them separate in the kitchen," Spinney says.
The management's only request is that customers don't tote the food and drinks it sells, such as potato chips, cole slaw, potato salad, soft drinks, juice and water. Although one employee bakes fresh blueberry and apple pies, Spinney says to feel free to bring a favorite dessert.
To reach the Pier, take I-95 north to Exit 2; go around the Kittery traffic circle until you come to Route 236 south, which runs into Route 103. Follow the road 4.5 miles, take a right on Chauncey Creek Road. The restaurant is open Mother's Day to Columbus Day, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. before Labor Day, to 7 p.m. after; in October, it closes weekdays. In September, the price of lobster drops from $9.99 per pound to $6.99 for a 1 1/4-pound lobster and $7.99 for 1 1/2 pounds--but expect the soft-shell kind. Info: 207-439-1030.