Portland, Maine: It's to Dine For
Sunday, August 27, 2006
The captain of the Lucky Catch lobster boat has taken us about six miles from the docks of Portland, Maine, to the state's oldest lighthouse, a national landmark commissioned by George Washington. Along the way the captain has shown us how to pull traps, sex-type lobsters, measure them and band their claws before dropping the keepers into an onboard seawater tank.
As a bonus, those who are so inclined can help him throw back the starfish and crabs that have crawled into the traps along with the more desirable lobsters.
When the 90-minute tour through picturesque Casco Bay is done, some of the passengers buy some of the catch (at the bargain price of $7 for two-pounders), then take it to a small restaurant on the dock that will boil or steam it for $9.95 -- and throw in the sides for free.
Seafood doesn't get much fresher than that. Then again, that degree of freshness is pretty much par in Portland, as I discovered this month while eating my way around the city with a friend.
The city takes pride in having one of the few remaining seafood auctions in the country. Restaurateurs move the catch directly from boats pulling up to the piers to the pots and pans in their kitchens.
And it's not just the seafood that's fresh. Portland chefs and nearby farmers have pulled together in a burgeoning food movement that saves small farms while delivering to restaurants fresh meat and produce that has been bred and grown for taste, rather than for durability during transport. It's such a point of pride that many restaurants list the names of the nearby farms where each of their ingredients is grown -- in greenhouses, when necessary, in winter.
The passion about this food movement is intense.
"This morning I picked cherries for the restaurant," says Dan Kary, who along with acclaimed chef Lee Skawinski and Kary's wife, Michelle Mazur-Kary, opened the restaurant Vignola last month.
"Those cherries weren't quite ready yesterday, and tomorrow they would have been past peak," he says. "Today was the right day to pick them, and they'll be made today into a sorbet for tonight's desserts."
That dedication to freshness has no doubt contributed to the buzz about Portland restaurants in food circles. In the past few years, the city's dining scene has been compared to that of San Francisco, and both the city's chefs and its restaurants are regularly featured in magazines like Gourmet, Saveur and Food & Wine.
Sure, the city is small by any standard except Maine's. (Portland, the state's largest city, has 64,000 residents.) But the historic buildings, lively cultural scene and gorgeous scenery draw plenty of visitors, to say nothing of those who come simply for the food. Then, of course, there are those New York ad executives and such who moved to Maine to escape to a better lifestyle -- one that is slower-paced, but includes fine dining.
I came to check out the food, but fell in love with the whole place: its friendly people, great shopping, beautiful galleries and museums, vibrant streets, and the waterfront, with its sailboats and old clippers and whale-watching cruises. The restaurants, I decided, are a wonderful thing to wrap, three times a day, around the package of a city that has undergone vast changes for the better in the past decade.