Summer in the City : Part 3 : Portland Maine

 
With my home under construction this summer, I have not been able to travel as much as I’d like.  Last week I had to pick up my son from camp in Portland Maine and decided to take advantage of the opportunity to rent an apartment for the week prior, and work from a different city instead of my mother’s kitchen table which has been my temporary office for the past few months.  There are advantages and disadvantages to working from home.  Being able to move my office to varied locations is certainly a wonderful perk. 
 
I started early from home and was prepared for my six hour drive.  Unfortunately I didn’t realize the extent of the traffic from Connecticut to Maine which is only exacerbated on the first day of August as it is the day that the monthly rentals turnover.  By 3pm I had barely crawled into New Hampshire with only one quick bathroom break and a growling stomach.  As I came upon the exit for Portsmouth, NH I saw the completely stopped traffic heading to the Maine border and decided I’d had enough.  I took the exit and went on a mission to find some food.  I wanted to sit outside since it was a beautiful day and wound up at Martingale Wharf on Bow Street.  Though they didn’t have any seating available outside, their bar was open to the outside and looked like a good place to hang my hat while the traffic subsided.  I ordered a salad with grilled chicken and a light beer and hung out for an hour or two chatting with some other tourists and the bartenders.  After walking around a bit, I grabbed a coffee to go and hit the road.  Traffic gone by now, I arrived in Portland within two hours.
 
My apartment was quite nice but was a third floor walkup so by the time I had unloaded my car, I had gotten enough exercise to make up for the car sitting I had done all day.  After getting myself organized and unpacked, I headed to Trader Joe’s and Hannaford’s to pick up some necessities including a frozen pack of Chicken Tikka Masala (how great is Trader Joe’s?) for dinner that evening.  I was too tired to go hunt down a restaurant. 
 
It was a wonderful week with near perfect weather.  I spent Sunday biking around Portland with a group to visit five lighthouses, and took Monday off to visit Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park where I hiked the carriage roads.  I walked the Back Cove Trail every morning before starting my work day which is a 3.5 mile walking trail around a beautiful cove.  I walked into the port area every evening either for dinner or just to have a glass of wine if I planned to cook dinner in.  I even managed to catch up to a work colleague from Boston for a business lunch in Kittery, MA with a stop in Kennebunkport on the way back.  Of course the week consisted of some wonderful food and here are some of the culinary & other highlights.
 

Within Portland

Summer Feet Cycling – 5 Lighthouse Bicycle tour

I found this company on Trip Advisor and booked in advance.  This was such a well-organized and fun way to get to know the city.  The lighthouses were very interesting and something that I’m fascinated by as I’m not sure how much longer many will be in existence.  Our guides, Norman and Mike, were friendly & knowledgeable and made the day a lot of fun.  Summer Feet also does tours in Canada and Europe and I would definitely book another bicycle tour with them in the future.
 
 

Bite into Maine – Fort Williams Park

One of the stops along the bike tour was Fort Williams Park where we ate our tour provided lunch which was touted to be “the best lobster roll”.  I can’t say that I’ve had very many to compare.  In fact I’ve only had one other lobster roll in Boston and I didn’t like it.  I’m not really a fan of lobster anyway, but the roll in Boston had way too much mayonnaise and not much flavor.  But I didn’t want to leave Maine without giving this local staple another chance.  I chose the Picnic Roll which was a butter-toasted frankfurter roll, spread with a bit of cole slaw at the bottom and then piled high with fresh steamed lobster.  A drizzle of melted butter topped the whole mound.  All I can say is that this was the best lobster roll I’ve ever had – the lobster was sweet and perfectly cooked, the cole slaw added a nice crunch, the roll itself was buttery and crispy and how could you possibly go wrong with melted butter?  I didn’t dare try another that week and so it will hold the status as “the best” for me.  They also have options with mayo or wasabi mayo or just butter.  The line of people waiting to get one is likely a good indication of its ranking in the lobster roll wars.
 

 

 

Standard Baking Company – Commercial Street

All I have to say is awesome Molasses cookies!!  The bike tour served them for our dessert after the lobster roll and I loved them so much that I went and bought more to take home.  I rarely eat cookies but these are soft and chewy and spicy and perfect with an afternoon cup of tea.  The Bakery also has amazing breads, tarts and croissants which my son had later in the week after I picked him up.
 

Vena’s Fizz House – Soda shop with Mocktails & Cocktails – Fore Street

I spent a few hours one afternoon working from here as they had wifi available for me.  What was great was that I could drink non-alcoholic beverages and eat some small bites while I was working and then switch to the most special gin & tonic I’ve ever had after 6pm.  While I sat I chatted with other visitors and tourists which is always a lot of fun and a great learning experience.  I also had some great conversations with Steven, who co-owns and operates Vena’s with his wife.  A former school teacher who was a victim of budget cuts, he now specializes in mixing cocktails and mocktails using the 150+ types of bitters, shrubs and syrups he stocks and sells from the front store.  The mocktail I had was called a Kundalini-tini made with Raspberry shrub (normally made with a raspberry syrup but since I wanted something not too sweet, it was switched to a shrub), blood orange, ginger & ghost chili bitter.  It was refreshing and tart with just a hint of heat at the end from the ghost chili.  A shrub, by the way is equal parts vinegar, fruit juice and sugar whereas a syrup would not have vinegar.  To make a gin & tonic, Steven uses Back River Gin from Maine which can only be purchased in that state, elderflower tonic syrup, lavender/hibiscus bitters, lime juice and a bit of seltzer.  This really brings out the true taste of the gin and the tonic rather than the overly sweet taste one gets from commercial tonic waters.  The other flavors only enhance the experience of this wonderful summer cocktail.

 
Note: If you go across the street to Sweetgrass Distillery, you can do a tasting of Back River Gin along with some other spirits including a fine sipping vermouth which makes a killer martini when combined with the gin.  The vermouth has just a hint of cardamom flavor which I found very unique. 
 

Emelitsa – Congress St – Upscale Greek Cuisine

I almost did not eat here due to the snubbed service I witnessed (see note at end) when I walked in to make my reservation.  I’m glad I opted to overlook the typical New England aloofness from wait staff and enjoyed a really delicious meal here.  I ordered their lamb sliders, some whipped goat cheese with grilled pita and an asparagus salad.  To accompany I had a crisp glass of Moschofilero. I’ve had a few friends traveling to Greece this summer and seeing their photos on Facebook had me reminiscing of my own travels there, but mostly just craving the amazing food of the Greek Isles.  This restaurant came as close as it could to transport me for a few hours.  The actual service was a bit better and the owner, who stopped by all the tables, is very friendly.  He even thought I was Greek.
 

 

 

MJ’s Wine Bar – Free Street

This is a great place to go hang out after work for happy hour or even later in the evening to just relax.  They have a nice selection of wines by the glass along with cheese plates and other small bites.  Many evenings they have live music and host wine tastings.  It’s clearly a friendly neighborhood wine bar as I noticed many of the patrons appeared to know each other and the owner.  This was the only place in Portland I went to more than once….but then again it IS a wine bar.
 

Sebago Brewery & Pub – Fore Street 

We stopped here for an afternoon snack and drinks because we had just walked out of Central Provisions where the service was non-existent and we were left waiting for over 15 minutes with no attention, menus or even a smile.  I wanted to sit outside and have someone friendly take care of me for a change and Sebago was just the right place.  Our server was great and very personable.  I ordered a flight of four beers to try while my son had an Arnold Palmer which has now become his drink of choice.  We also ordered beer battered halibut bites and a lobster & brie flatbread.  I wasn’t so sure about the flatbread but it was quite good.  We had the energy we needed to go explore more of the city for the rest of the day.

 

 

Timber Steakhouse – Exchange Street


My son’s camp had him biking from Boston to Bar Harbor in a period of three weeks.  He carried all his own gear, shopped & cooked for his own food and camped at campsites each night.  With no refrigeration options, the food was limited and for someone with a palate like my son’s I’m amazed he survived.  When I asked what he wanted to eat for dinner the day I picked him up, his first response was “Indian food” but knowing that wasn’t going to be very possible till we went home, he immediately said “steak”.  Our waiter at the Sebago Brewery Pub recommended Timber to us.  While not inexpensive, the food and service here are very good.  I had a steak tip salad while my son had the full plate of steak tips with the works and dove right in when the plate arrived.  He actually wanted a filet but it was quite a large portion at 10oz. and so the tips were a good compromise.
 

Outside Portland

Jack Russell’s Steakhouse – Bar Harbor

This is a nice little local, off the main drag, restaurant that I walked to from my hotel.  Most notable items I had were the hand cut fries (and I rarely eat fries much less finish them) and the excellent Manhattan that Michelle behind the bar made for me.
 

Robert’s Maine Grill & Bob’s Clam Hut – Kittery ME

Robert’s Maine Grill isn’t anything special and the mussels I ordered came half inedible as they had not opened but they do have a nice deck upstairs and when the weather is nice and you have good company, it’s ok to overlook the food once in a while.  My colleague’s lobster roll was apparently quite good.  If you like fried clams, go to Bob’s clam hut.  They are perfectly cooked, crispy and not greasy with lots of flavor.  I stopped there before I left Kittery (still hungry after only eating half my mussels) and got a small order upon the recommendation of a contributor on a food group I belong to on Facebook.  Thanks Rajeev!!
 

Rococo Artisan Ice Cream – Kennebunkport ME

Much like lobster and cookies, I don’t eat a lot of ice cream.  Let’s face it, the older you get, these foods go directly to the gut and so I’m careful and only indulge when it’s truly worth it.  This ice cream was truly worth it and I made it a point to do a second lap of the Back Cove Trail that evening to burn it off. I tasted all of their interesting and unique flavors and settled on half guava and half avocado/cayenne on a sugar cone.  I can’t eat ice cream in a cup.  There’s something about the messiness of it dripping down my hand in the hot sun that just signifies summer for me.  I ate this so fast that there were no drips and no time for photos.  I didn’t care for the touristy town of Kennebunkport but a detour to Rococo is definitely worth it if you are in this area.
 
Some restaurants I wanted to try in Portland but didn’t get to:  Boda Thai, Fore Street, Back Bay Grill, Duckfat, Ono and Little Tap House.
 
One note on restaurant service in Maine that I posted on Facebook is that it is generally aloof and cold.  There are some places like Vena’s, Timber and Sebago that are exceptions but for the most part I found that I needed to practically beg to be noticed.  No one smiles when you walk in, if you sit at the bar  you have to send up smoke signals to get the attention of the bartender and some places like Central Provisions are just plain rude.  They act as if they’re doing you a favor by providing what little attention they muster up.  The hostess at Emelitsa’s rudely turned away an older couple at 5pm telling them that they were booked for the evening despite many open tables.  She also told them that they didn’t serve food at the bar though when I returned for my dinner later that evening, the bar was packed with diners.  All I can say is this may be the way in New England but in comparing to the Portland on the west coast, which I frequent, I’d rather have a smile and good service any day of the week.  It was the single thing that put a slight damper on the whole week, but I still made sure I had a good time.  It was too beautiful not to.
 
I cooked two meals while I was in Portland – a fusion fried rice with chicken and vegetables and a lobster and preserved lemon fettucine for lunch the day I picked up my son.  I had carried the preserved lemon with me from a jar I recently made.  I will post these recipes for you in the coming days as both were delicious if I do say so myself.
 

 

I would really enjoy going back and spending more time in Bar Harbor and do more hiking at Acadia National Park.  

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