By Jarred Kibbey
I recently spent a week in Portland, Maine and the mid-coast area. For years I have been reading about how great the food scene up there was and finally took the plunge to go check it out. After doing some initial research, the options were overwhelming for such a seemingly small city, and being completely unfamiliar with the area, I enlisted the help of some local publications that I discovered on social media. I initially followed Eat Maine and The Maine Magazine for their extensive and regular postings on social media. I also reached out to them both via direct messages and they were incredibly helpful in planning the trip (I even met the editor of Eat Maine for breakfast!). Overall, this was a fantastic food trip.. Below is an almost exhaustive list of the places we ate and drank at in Maine.
Tandem Coffee Roasters – Tandem Coffee Roasters has an excellent pour over (unlike the Bakery which had average coffee because it was made in mass to serve quickly). They roast the coffee on site and are expanding this location to have more baked goods (similar to the Bakery, more on that below).
Speckled Ax – They advertise their wood-fired coffee which intrigued me, however, both pour-overs that I had were pretty unimpressive.
Bard Coffee – Bard had my favorite pour over of the trip. The roasters and the baristas all knocked it out of the park for me. I wish I would have had the chance for repeat visits.
Coffee By Design – CBD is considered one of Portland’s top roasters, but it was also my least favorite coffee of the trip.
Coffee on the Porch – Local roaster in Camden that supplies coffee to local businesses. We had the coffee at Owl and Turtle Bookstore and were both pleasantly surprised at the quality of the two different pour overs we had.
McLoons Lobster Shack – The is the quintessential lobster roll. Not only is the lobster incredibly fresh, but you have to drive through a working lobster yard to the end of a dirt road ending at this small red shack surrounded by picnic tables right on the water. They give the option of both butter and mayo on their lobster rolls. Do this. It is just a small amount of mayo spread on the bun, then the copious amounts of lobster piled on top with a side of butter to pour on top. This was my wife’s favorite meal. As a bonus, they also have great desserts and a charcoal grill beside the building where they cooked my little neck clams (the daily special).
Bite Into Maine – This was an excellent roll as well. BIM is a food truck located near the Portland Head Light in Forty Williams Park. They give you the option of different style rolls. We chose the Maine Roll (mayo) and the Connecticut Roll (butter). Both were good, but I preferred the butter roll. You can also sit near the water and watch the waves crash in on the rock cliffs while you eat. I didn’t intend on going here because I had always read about the long lines, but when we went to the park (for the second time because it is awesome) we saw there were only a couple people in line, so I called an audible and deviated from my food spreadsheet and I am glad that we did.
Eventide Oyster Co. – This James Beard Award winning establishment is known for their oysters and brown butter lobster rolls. Go early. Get in line. Enjoy an oyster list sourced from up and down the Maine coast, and of course get a brown butter lobster roll (or three). Side note – they also had an amazing blueberry pie on special the day we went and it was one of the best bites on the trip.
Central Provisions – This was our first stop in Maine. We went here for brunch on Sunday and it was fantastic. It doesn’t take reservations, but it is worth waiting in line. The standouts here were the raw beef salad – thin shaved beef with a spicy sriracha sauce, peanuts and cilantro – and the skillet cornbread. Being from the South, I know a thing or two about cornbread (like cornbread should be savory and not sweet). This cornbread was fantastic. It was slightly sweet, had crispy edges and had an egg and bacon crumbles on top. While I almost turned my nose up at it being sweet, it really was a fantastic dish.
Duckfat – Go here for fries. We went twice. The line can be lengthy so we got in line early for lunch before opening. The name says it all. They cook their Maine grown potatoes in Duckfat and you select the sauces you want with them (get the Thai chili mayo). They have sandwiches as well. It was so good we went back a few days later for a mid-afternoon snack. Even at 1:15, we had to wait almost an hour, but I was willing to wait for these fries.
Hugo’s – Hugo’s is one of Portland’s oldest fine dining establishments and I was really impressed with our meal. We opted for the chef’s tasting menu which consisted of approximately nine courses. Of the courses, there was only one which we didn’t find that successful, but hitting eight of the other dishes out of the park was a much higher success rate than I usually experience during tasting menus.
Miyake – I have seen Miyake on a couple different “top sushi in the country” lists so I knew I wanted to try them out. I really liked their approach to their menu. Their best value is a four-course dinner in which you select items from designated groups of dishes. My wife and I did this and between the eight dishes we chose, we really enjoyed seven of them. The one dish that we didn’t enjoy was my fault, I ordered something not knowing if I would like it – I didn’t.
Fore Street – Fore Street is one of Portland’s most talked about restaurants and has a wall full of awards to show for it. Most everything is cooked over open flame or in a wood fired oven and it is impressive to sit where you can see the flames and the meats being cooked. While it was good, there were better meals to be had around town. However, I did have an excellent ginger anise pot de crème with pistachio cookies for dessert. If you are in town for an extended stay, check it out, but if you only have a couple nights, there are more exciting places to visit.
Tandem Coffee and Bakery – This place had fantastic pastries and I was a little overwhelmed when trying to figure out what to get, so I turned it over to the staff to get me their favorite of the day and they selected pie. Pie for breakfast, why not!
Holy Donut – Donuts made from potato flour and everyone told me to go here. The first time I walked by the line was to the street, but I knew I would be back. So the next morning I made the trek back downtown to get a half dozen warm donuts. I wasn’t overly impressed and seemed to be more hype than flavor. Unfortunately, this was the only donut shop I had the opportunity to try.
Nina June – This new restaurant on the coast overlooking the harbor in Rockport was a finalist for best new restaurant in the county last year so I had to check it out. The space and view were beautiful, while the service was a little awkward, the food was great. I ordered the pork chop and instantly regretted ordering the most boring item on the menu, but it was perfectly cooked and served with a side of garlic beans that I am still thinking about and trying to figure out how to make.
Primo – The chef here has won multiple James Beard Awards. The restaurant is located in a beautiful old building on a farm where they source most of their produce and meats. When I saw the menu, I was a little bummed because it seemed kind of generic, but I could not have been more wrong about it. The food was exceptionally prepared. I got the tuna steak with foie gras and roasted Brussels and turnips. I wasn’t sure how all of those things would mesh, but it was great. The waitress steered us toward a peach and raspberry crostata for dessert and I could not believe how good such a simple dessert could taste. This place alone is worth the trip up the coast.
Long Grain – Major publications from all over the country have written about this locally sourced Thai restaurant. It can be difficult to get in, so I was dying to try it. This was the most disappointing meal on the trip. Not because it wasn’t good, just because it didn’t live up to the lofty expectations I had set. My wife had a crab fried rice which was pretty good, but my ginger chicken and local mushrooms was pretty boring.
Red Barn Baking Co. – Little bakery that is worth checking out for a mid-day snack.
The Norumbega Inn – Bed & Breakfast done right. Stone castle built in 1886. Owner/chef who taught at the Culinary Institute of America and has competed and won on Chopped serving a three-course breakfast every morning in the amazing dining room or outside on the deck. I would put the breakfast here up against any B&B breakfast in the country.
Vena’s Fizz House – The Mighty Rib said this was the one place I needed to make sure I went. It is a store that specializes in bitters and other specialty items for cocktails. They also have a bar in the back serving up specialty drinks. I am not ashamed to say that I went two days in a row.