Down East 2013 ©
In the summertime Boothbay Harbor has no shortage of eateries: ice-cream shacks and coffee houses, family-style restaurants where every diner seems to be wearing a lobster bib, festive dockside bars serving nachos and margaritas by the pitcher.
But finding the restaurant that specializes in fine dining takes a bit more work. You have to hunt to find 93 Townsend, for example. Yes, the name is the address, but Townsend is a one-way street, headed north out of the village's downtown, and with parking places being so hard to come by in July, you might find yourself leaving the car blocks away. It's worth the walk.
Inside 93 Townsend's weathered shingle exterior, your eyes take a minute to adjust: candles top high tables, modern pendant lamps hang over the bar, and two small TVs broadcast the Red Sox. In the adjacent dining room, spider plants hang over tables covered with white tablecloths. You might think the worn slate-blue carpet and tile entry could use some freshening up but, then again, a cottage-style sign hanging above the door reminds you, "Enjoy Live Relax." This is Boothbay Harbor. Part of the charm here is that people don't obsess about flooring.
93 Townsend's owners are Luanne and Bill Clifford, a husband and wife team who embody their restaurant's match of unpretentious, local tradition and off-the-wall inventiveness. Luanne is the local. Her great aunt, Irene Peters, ran a popular eatery in Boothbay Harbor in the fifties and sixties. And her entire family helped operate the Lobstermen's Co-op, where Luanne took her first job cooking lobsters and clams on the pier. When Luanne met Bill in 2002 - the modern way, through match.com - she had her own business, the Daily Catch, a casual seafood and take-out joint.
E-mailing from New Hampshire, Bill took the initiative in igniting the romance: "According to match.com, we are a 100 percent match. I'm not sure what that means in reality, but it seems uncommon." Indeed it was. Later that same year, Luanne and Bill were married, and he joined her in the kitchen at the Daily Catch. "Running a restaurant in such a seasonal area, Luanne and I felt the need to offer many expected dishes that visitors would connect with," says Bill. "We had a full kids menu. We had lunch. We were always open. Our portions were huge."
As a chef, Bill felt frustrated. A graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America who had worked at some of the country's premier restaurants from Boston's East Coast Grill to Miami's Blue Door, he wanted to explore his inventiveness in the kitchen. So the Cliffords decided to make a change.
In 2006 they opened 93 Townsend. Completely remodeled and serving dinner only, the new restaurant eschewed the Frialator approach so common to the resort town. Rather, explains Bill, "We have been able to scale back the scope of what we do to make it more unique. That is a big thrill for me personally."
The approach is one Bill learned from Chris Schlesinger, a chef he worked for at the East Coast Grill: "I caught on to his fascination with opposite matches, high-end ingredients prepared in stripped down, homestyle ways." Consider Bill's inside-out crab cakes. The dish features cool mounds of fresh Maine crabmeat not hidden under fried breading, but rather set atop crispy baguette toast and dressed in Luanne's family's buttermilk tartar sauce (the recipe of which Luanne gladly rattles off like the Pledge of Allegiance). Or begin more simply with a dozen local Damariscotta River oysters served sashimi style, with pickled ginger, soy, and wasabi. This light fare can be woenjoyed on the outdoor patio, where you can indulge under the glow of lanterns, or at the handcrafted mahogany bar (built by Luanne's father), where the bartender might suggest one of seven Maine beers on tap or a specialty mixed drink like the Maine's Own Martini with Maine blueberries, a splash of blueberry liqueur, and Cold River Vodka to go with your meal.
In general the entr`es are as creative as the starters, just more decadent. One of the appetizers, the 93 Grilled Cheese Sandwich, melds lobster and sliced apples with mascarpone, cheddar, and swiss cheeses. And it's big enough to serve as dinner. For another entr`e of the crustacean kind, sample the patron favorite truffled lobster macaroni and cheese. Not into fish? The dry-rubbed rib eye, which comes fresh from the farm and specialty butcher shop of Fulton Curtis, of Curtis Custom Meats in Warren, is one of many satisfying non-seafood options.
Desserts tend toward the traditional, but again with a twist. You'll find comfort sweets such as roasted bananas foster cream pie for two, which you have to order ahead, and the 93 strawberry shortcake. But don't expect a biscuit. The chef prefers flaky cream puffs instead.
Maine comfort food with an upscale twist - that's the philosophy here. "We're doing a modern approach to coastal cooking," says Luanne. And after a couple of days in Boothbay Harbor eating fried clams and haddock sandwiches, isn't that just what you want?
93 Townsend, located at 93 Townsend Avenue, Boothbay Harbor, is open year-round for dinner Tuesday - Saturday, 5 - 10 p.m. Appetizers $6-$17, entr`es $17-$24, desserts $5-$9. Full bar. Handicap accessible. 207-633-0777. www.93townsend.com