A menu of the state’s best cupcakes, pretzels, fried fish, Eritrean food, and lacto-fermented sauerkraut.
Photograph by Mark Fleming
Suppose you were having a dinner party and went searching for the “best cheese spread in Maine.” Where would you begin? You might try Google, but no series of computer algorithms can convey the creamy goodness of Trempherbe Cheeses of Ogunquit, with its sublime chutney and spice blends. What if you were looking for the “best dining adventure”? You might spend hours on Yelp! before learning that Nebo Lodge, arguably the fanciest island restaurant in Maine, offers a romantic round-trip boat launch to North Haven — by moonlight, no less. We tend to think we are living in the Age of Search (as Yahoo might put it), but we are still very much creatures of the Age of Recommend. When it comes to putting our money where our mouth is, we all want advice from someone we know and trust. That’s how Down East approaches our annual “Best of Maine” issue each year. After fifty-eight years, we understand how much faith you put in us. That’s why we’ve vetted every item on this list, and even asked many of the Down East staffers who work in other parts of our building to sign their names to their favorites. These are our choices — and being proud Mainers, we are ready to stand by them. You might not always agree. But at least you know who to argue with. You can’t do that with Google.
Cupcakes Ice It! Bakery
305 U.S. Rte. 1, Yarmouth 207-847-3305
You can decorate your cake and eat it, too. At Ice It!, cupcakes are an interactive affair. The creation of chef Alan Fried and his wife, stained glass designer Sharon Kuhrt, Ice It! encourages customers to personalize their cupcakes and mini-cakes (about three-inches in diameter) with the brightly colored sugars and sprinkles in the magnetized pots that dot the wall. It’s fun, and, better still, the rich and dense cupcakes surpass any we’ve ever tried, even those of Greenwich Village’s famed Magnolia Bakery. Popular flavors include gluten-free lemon, coconut (and its cream-filled variation, coconut almond surprise), carrot, and the positively wicked milky way, which is filled with chocolate fluff and caramel and topped with chocolate buttercream frosting and a drizzle of chocolate ganache.
Soft Pretzels Rooster Brother
29 Main St., Ellsworth 800-866-0054; roosterbrother.com
Rooster Brother owner George Elias has always been fond of the pretzels sold by sidewalk vendors in New York, but he felt he could make something even better. He has. Rooster Brother’s soft pretzels are based on an old traditional recipe that Elias spent hours perfecting. As warm and yeasty as fresh-baked bread with a firm brown crust, they make not only a satisfying breakfast or snack but also a great companion to a bowl of soup or plate of spaghetti. We favor the savory Gruyere variety, but purists will like the classic. The pretzels require two days of kneading and raising and are baked fresh Tuesday to Friday mornings. The batches are small, so, if you want a bagful, call two days ahead.
Bloody Mary Hot Suppa
703 Congress St., Portland 207-871-5005; hotsuppa.com
We can’t pay a visit to Hot Suppa without ordering the Cajun Bloody Mary. Indeed, this super spicy and complex version of the tomato juice-and-vodka cocktail sometimes is the whole point of a visit to Hot Suppa; we just claim hunger as an excuse. Served on the rocks and garnished with pickled okra, dilly beans, and a green olive, the Cajun Bloody Mary contains fresh lime and lemon juices, pickled okra juice, whole-grain mustard, two kinds of Tabasco, and a secret ingredient that Alec Sabina, who owns Hot Suppa with his brotherm Moses, won’t divulge. Much to our surprise, there is no horseradish. We love this cocktail equally well sans vodka for breakfast with an order of Hot Suppa’s fried green tomatoes Benedict.
Eritrean Food Asmara
51 Oak St., Portland 207-253-5122
Dinner at Asmara is an ultra social affair when you order one of the shared platters, which is the tastiest and most fun way to experience chef and owner Asmeret Teklu’s Eritrean food. A selection of tender meat and vegetarian stews, long-simmered collards and kale, and a cool lettuce and tomato salad are arranged atop two large injera, the moist, slightly spongy sourdough flat bread that is the national dish of both Eritrea and Ethiopia. In place of utensils, more injera is served on the side for scooping up the stews, which are redolent of cayenne, cumin, coriander, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. The restaurant is small, cozy, and simply furnished with Eritrean crafts, and Teklu often works solo, greeting, cooking, and serving guests. Fine dining it’s not, but Asmara delivers one of the most interesting, flavorful, and inexpensive meals to be had in Portland.
Veggie Burger Geaghan’s Pub
570 Main St., Bangor 207-945-3730; geaghanspub.com
Tired of restaurants treating vegetarian entrees as an afterthought, Andy Geaghan, an ovo-lacto-pescatarian (that means he eats eggs, dairy products, and wild fish along with plant foods) set out to create a veggie burger that would appeal to everyone, carnivores included. After experimenting with several different recipes, he came up with a hearty black bean patty bound by oatmeal, moistened with egg and olive oil, and studded with corn kernels for some sweet crunch. The burger’s earthy, slightly smoky flavor comes from chili powder and paprika; cayenne pepper gives it a hint of a bite. It is served with a smear of roasted red pepper mayo on a house-made bun. Geaghan knew he’d succeeded in his quest to please most palates when one diner ordered the burger topped with bacon.
Beer Tasting Room Marshall Wharf Brewing Co.
2 Pinchy Ln., Belfast 207-338-1707; marshallwharf.com
Marshall Wharf’s delectable brews are available on draft at a number of restaurants from Kittery to Orono, but the brewery’s tasting room, with seventeen draft lines, and its neighboring restaurant, Three Tides, are hands down the coolest place in Maine to drink beer. Three Tides’ rustic patio, furnished with salvaged seating, fire pit, and a bocce court, is perched on the shore where the Passagassawakeag River empties into Belfast Bay. Head brewer Dan McGovern continually develops new quaffs, but our current favorite is Illegal Ale-ien, a light kölsch-wheat beer brewed with organic blue agave nectar. Some brews are available to take home in sixty-four-ounce reusable glass growlers.
Sandwich to Go North Creek Farm
24 Sebasco Rd., Phippsburg 207-389-1341; northcreekfarm.org
Next time you’re heading to Popham Beach, pick up a picnic lunch at North Creek, a nineteenth-century saltwater farm about twelve miles south of Bath. The paninis, served on Borealis bread, elevate the humble sandwich to a gourmet treat. Among the offerings: the Bev (tuna, artichokes, tapenade, and Gruyere), the Surfer (smoked turkey, Spruce Mountain wild blueberry chutney, arugula, and Gruyere), and, our favorite, smoked salmon, cream cheese, roasted red onions, and fresh dill. Allow time to stop and smell the roses — North Creek’s nursery boasts some rare and fragrant varieties.
Dining Adventure Nebo Lodge Boat Trip
Nebo Lodge, 11 Mullins Ln., North Haven 207-867-2007; nebolodge.com
Dining at Nebo Lodge presents a bit of a challenge. The one hundred-year-old inn, which was revived by Congresswoman Chellie Pingree in 2006, sits on the bucolic island of North Haven thirteen miles offshore, and the last ferry of the day leaves for the mainland well before dinner. John Morin of Equinox Island Transit to the rescue! In a partnership with the inn, Morin offers round-trips between Rockland and North Haven on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. The journey on Morin’s oversized lobsterboat (twenty dollars per person, not including dinner) is half the fun. Departing Rockland at 4 p.m., passengers typically see lots of wildlife, like porpoises and harbor seals on their eighty-minute journey. After a splendid meal prepared by chef Amanda Hallowell (or just one of the inventive cocktails prepared by her husband, Josh Amato), there is usually time for a stroll around the village before the boat returns to Rockland as the sun sets on Penobscot Bay. Make reservations for both boat and dinner by calling Nebo Lodge.
We confess a weakness for Trempherbe’s garlic and herb spread, which we enjoy on crackers, raw veggies, and as a substitute for mayonnaise on sandwiches (try it with roast beef). Truth is, though, we haven’t found a Trempherbe flavor (there are ten) that we don’t like. From the horseradish cheddar to the chutney and spice to the pesto sun-dried tomato, these tangy, creamy spreads are tasty, versatile, and, dare we say, addictive.
Personal Best Thirty Acre Farm Sauerkraut
Thirty Acre Farm, 419 North Hunts Meadow, Whitefield 207-549-5384; thirtyacrefarm.com
“Thirty Acre Farm sauerkraut is wild! It’s raw, lacto-fermented, vinegar- and sugar-free, and 100 percent certified organic — it would be hard to find a more pure product. Open with caution, however, as this sauerkraut is trying to get out. It will bubble merrily, and may even make a minor mess. One might ask, is that safe? The answer is a resounding yes. The bubbles mean its beneficial bacteria is alive and well, making it very good for you, and a sparkly tart treat!
“It’s good cooked with sausage and beer, but our favorite way to eat it is straight out of the jar.”
— Lawrence Hollins, Down East account executive
Personal Best Graffam Bros. Fried Haddock Basket
Graffam Bros. Seafood Shack, 211 Union St., Rockport 207-236-8391; lobsterstogo.com
“It’s a hot sticky July. The two kids are sand- and sea-weary. My eldest asks, ‘What’s for lunch?’ Good question. My wife and I are beat. When suddenly up ahead Graffam Bros. seafood shack appears like a mirage in a dusty parking lot. We order, grab one of the colorful tables, wait in the cooling dusk. And it’s worth the wait. It’s the best flippin’ fish and chips I’ve had since I was growing up in Wales. The fish is crispy, fresh; the fries don’t go limp with vinegar and melt in my mouth. The children are so quiet, you can hear the mosquitoes buzzing. Satiated, we watch the cars on Union Street drift by and listen to gulls cry from Rockport Harbor. Then my eldest asks, ‘What’s for dessert?’ ”
— Allister Timms, Down East copy editor
Five Great Doughnuts
1. Bacon Cheddar, The Holy Donut, 194 Park Ave., Portland; 207-874-7774;theholydonutmaine.com. The Pomegranate is a close second. Or maybe it’s the Sweet Potato Ginger. Or the Grapefruit Glaze. Or . . .
2. Blueberry, Willow Bake Shoppe, 1084 Commercial St., Rockport; 207-596-0564. Originally located on Willow Street in Rockland, this shop has been serving its beloved doughnuts since 1949.
3. Double Chocolate, Frosty’s Donut & Coffee Shop, 54 Maine St., Brunswick; 207-729-4258. Brunswick’s iconic doughnut shop recently changed hands, but lucky for us, the recipes are the same. The intense double chocolate rivals a cup of Joe as a wake-you-up.
4. Honey-Glazed, Amish Farm and Store, 368 Thorndike Rd., Unity. These fresh-raised doughnuts get their crispy fried edges and light, fluffy interiors from real lard. No wonder they sell out almost immediately.
5. Apple Cider, Thompson’s Orchard, 276 Gloucester Hill Rd., New Gloucester; 207-926-4738;thompsonsorchard.com. Made with fresh-pressed apple cider, these doughnuts are only available in the fall, making them a treasure indeed.