The Pickled Herring
- By: Wayne Curtis
Gary Craig is in his new restaurant, sitting at a table near a tall window with a view across the street to Passamaquoddy Bay and, beyond that, Campobello Island in Canada. “If we had done a marketing analysis and feasibility study and presented that to a bank, they’d have said, ‘Are you nuts?’ ” he tells me.
I have done neither marketing nor feasibility studies. But I have sampled from Craig’s sophisticated menu, sipped from his superb cocktail list, and snooped around the airy, open space that has been beautifully carved out of a venerable Masonic Lodge. And I ask: “Are you nuts?”
Craig laughs. He’s good-natured that way.
And you’d have to be both good-natured and supremely confident to pull this off. Last August he opened the Pickled Herring, an uncommonly well-run restaurant with an uncommonly creative menu — in Eastport! — where fine dining has long started (and ended) with baked stuffed haddock.
Craig, who turned forty this year, was born in this outpost city and grew up in various coastal communities — including in a lighthouse in Gloucester, Massachusetts. (His dad was in the Coast Guard). More recently, he worked in the hospitality industry and lived in Alaska with his wife, Amanda, a pharmacist. During a stretch when he was laid up with a knee injury, he had time to focus on his future. That future, he decided, involved opening a restaurant.
So they moved back to Eastport in 2004 (his dad had since retired there), and he found the perfect space for a restaurant in a landmark 1887 Masonic Lodge, which anchored a corner of Harborfront Street. Over the years it had served as a grocery store (the maple flooring is deeply worn where customers cashed out), and a Mexican restaurant.
Craig spent two years renovating the building, doing most of the carpentry himself — which included adding an open kitchen with a wood-fired grill, painting the cast iron columns that hold up the sixteen-inch-square beams, and installing a large stained glass window in the bar. The result is a lovingly mismatched pastiche of materials, eras, and styles that projects authenticity and warmth.
During the renovations, Craig and his wife developed the menu — one that didn’t include any fried foods (in Eastport!). “We didn’t want to be another place making meals by thawing and unpacking boxes,” Craig says. He uses organic greens and natural chicken, and makes his own dough daily. He’d like to do more with locally sourced foods, but laments that the local food revolution hasn’t made major inroads — yet — in Washington County.
To start, a delectable and rustic focaccia arrives at the table, and then we’re offered an unexpected selection of adult beverages: seven Maine beers on tap, a wine list that displays some ambition (and a few bottles priced upwards of seventy-five dollars . . . in Eastport!), plus a well-crafted cocktail list featuring a delicious ginger margarita and an “FDR Martini” — based on that served by the president to Joseph Stalin.
Among the entrees are a variety of delicious pizzas, which tend to take on a shape of their own choosing — mine looked like the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. (“We try to make them round,” Craig says. “But there are plenty of round pizzas in the world.”) I dig into a unique and memorable lobster alfredo pizza ($16), which has become a signature selection, attracting repeat diners who won’t allow it to slip off the menu.
Among the dessert standouts is the angel food cake ($5) — one scarcely related to the bland, Styrofoam-like air-bricks found in grocery stores. Craig dredges his cake in confectioners’ sugar and tosses it briefly on an oak-fired wood grill, lending it a bit of crunch, then tops it with a dense chocolate whipped cream. It tastes like a campfire marshmallow gone to university.
Since it opened, the Pickled Herring has attracted satisfied regulars from throughout the region, including across the way in Canada. It seems there’s been pent-up demand for food with higher aspirations far Down East, evidenced by the fact that the Herring is usually hopping on Friday and Saturday nights. Reservations are encouraged. Yes, reservations. In Eastport.
The Pickled Herring, 32 Water St. 207-853-2323. Open Wednesdays to Saturdays 5-9 p.m. and Sundays 1-5 p.m. Closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Open seven days a week in the summer. www.thepickledherring.com
- By: Wayne Curtis