These days, sitting at a dinner table in New York City directly facing oncoming traffic is a bit like climbing out of a rollercoaster in mid loop-de-loop. In order to survive you need a severe case of cabin-fever, a high tolerance for risk, a great relationship with your bladder, a healthy appetite…and a face-mask of course.
As I savor my chorizo-crusted cod while the sanitation truck idles right beside me churning garbage from the upper-east side, or as I splash Negroni all over my chin when the M101 bus suddenly blasts an impatient horn at a stopped SUV, I begin to wonder whether motorists from out-of-town are even aware that what used to be a turning lane – is now a dining room. While this respite from apartment cooking is certainly welcome, it’s merely a matter of time before the headlines read: “Three casualties as Range Rover ruins birthday dinner”, or “Texting driver rams couple during dessert”.
It certainly has been disheartening to witness one staple institution after the next throwing in the napkin as a consequence of the lockdown. But then I find myself inspired by the resilience and determination of others who are trying to keep their wood-ovens burning despite all the new safety rules and regulations.
If I had to score how well restaurants are maintaining COVID safety measures? I’d give them a solid “D” for “it Depends”. Some have QR code menu’s with contactless bill-pay and sterilized, pre-packaged silverware, while others still clutch sticky, plastic menus under sweaty armpits, or hold your glass with an ungloved hand for water refills. But despite the chorus of complaints that most restaurateurs are still not able to eke out a living with sidewalk dining, others have won the jackpot as they can now exploit the motherlode of self-promotion and appetite persuasion by giving passers-by delectable temptations with some of their freshest, most desirable offerings in real time. Yes, even I have stopped and admired a dish of steaming Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe and promptly planted my rear-end into the nearest available seat.
Other advantages of dining in the parking lane include the diminishment of those irritatingly hoity-toity dress-codes like “business casual” or “cocktail attire” for the ever-so democratic “no mask – no service!” And obscure, hole-in-the-wall establishments are holes-in-the-wall no more, as their tables have crept up and down our sidewalks faster than rats on the subway. Half of me is thrilled for these entrepreneurs who can now accommodate exponentially more diners per sitting than in pre-COVID times, but my heart goes out to their micro kitchens bursting at the seams, trying to satisfy quadruple the appetites.
Scaffolding, formerly the ubiquitous feature along Manhattan’s streets, has been upstaged by a strange outcrop of little outdoor “areas” that defy description. Are they tents? Are they shacks, cabanas, marquees, food caves, sukkah’s? Regardless, there are no two alike. Some are merely umbrella-covered matchstick frames with a handful of morosely overwatered begonias. And if they have more elbow room, others have ensconced attractive hedging to keep diners apart. But every time I find myself sandwiched between those ridiculous plexiglass screens, I can’t help feeling like a hungry puppy in a pet shop window.
Even scaffolding-fronted bistros have made the best of their visual impediment by transforming their sidewalks into Disney-esque, theme park sensations. When clustered together on pedestrian-only cross-streets amid jazz bands and buskers, these shacks have somehow fashioned a uniquely warm and astonishingly festive ambiance which has become the newest nightlife attraction in a city formerly famous for not sleeping. Think: Oktoberfest – meets Chilli-cookout – meets travelling circus – meets Christmas market.
As temperatures begin to plummet, many lightweight structures are getting overnight makeovers with sturdier materials including roofing, rain gutters and solid side-paneling (heat lamps are on the way) – quickly transforming them into enclosed “rooms” which will undoubtably beg the question: “Is this still considered “outdoor dining” or have we merely transplanted the restaurant’s interiors onto the sidewalk?” (If Governor Cuomo want’s my opinion on the matter, he knows where to find me.)
As we edge closer to the former normality of indoor dining, I have mixed feelings about whether folks will show up and risk infection or whether they might continue to dine al fresco even if the new dress-code includes coat, scalf, gloves…and face-mask.
Elevating our destination options beyond the kitchen and dining room have been tricky this summer. But fortunately for mask-wearing, rule-abiding, socially vacant New Yorkers, Maine has become a silver lining on the Corona horizon. If not just for the adorable New England homes clad in white narrow siding and steep steepled churches amid emerald jungles of spruce, maple and pine, nor the freckles of islands polka-dotting the coastline, the Maine food scene is a sizable draw to the northeastern most state – the largest of which includes the ever-popular lobster dinner pilgrimage from all around the globe.
Judging by the multitudes of cottage industries you travel past along US route 1, it becomes apparent that Mainers are very serious about what they chew on, regardless of what else you might find on the same plate. “Lobster rolls & Ice-cream”, shrieked one roadside sign. Then another. And another. “Salt-water taffy & Steamer clams” was perhaps less frequent, as was “Maine Blueberries & fresh Haddock” or “Antiques and Blueberry scones”. But “Furniture & Fudge” has to be my all-time favorite!
Thanks to COVID: restaurants, bistros, coffee shops and bakeries have all retooled the way they dispense their eats and treats to loyal locals or clued-in out-of-towners. Distanced dine-in, wait-listed dine-out, on-line ordering, drive-by pick-up, and reheat-at-home vary from one establishment to the next, but the quality and variety are pretty darn remarkable.
My dining recommendations stretch northwards from low-Maine (ha!) to Bar Harbor and a bunch of kitchens in between.
Perhaps the most elegant spot in all its silver-service-candelabra-white-linen-live-pianist glory is the 46 year-old White Barn Inn Restaurant. These days, the only farm animals in this magnificently renovated former barn are either peppercorn-crusted or crispy skin sauteed. The multi-option 4-course set menu is contemporary, flavor-forward with hints of nostalgia and an emphasis on an elevated dining experience that never lets you forget where you are.
Absolute standouts have to be the citrusy-fruity-fresh Halibut crudo with watermelon, plums, mint and yuzu koshu, and the decadent Lobster bisque doused with a shot of espresso crème fraiche, and of course an incredibly tender and phenomenally umami Beef tenderloin with Foie Gras Crust. Being a sucker for fruit courses, I was also smitten with their Raspberry sorbet spiked with rhubarb and black peppercorns.
Perhaps the healthiest start to your day in this charming hamlet is a fresh acai bowl or an open-faced sandwich from Fiafia. This buzzy corner coffee shop makes everything from scratch with the freshest of ingredients. Their version of an Avocado toast includes a tomato pesto with runaway crispy gorbanzo beans, and the legendary Bananarama almond-butter and banana toast with coconut chips is beyond sublime.
As we were focused on orchestrating our own private “lobster-fest”, we stood in line at the famous Clam Shack for a hearty, crisp and meaty lobster roll served between the puffy cheeks of a butter-toasted burger bun (versus the standard northern slit along a hotdog roll). Antoni Porovski from “Queer Eye” recently named it the best Lobster Roll in the nation, but as scrumptious as it might be, I had many more ahead of me before rendering a verdict quite so promptly.
Not sure what it is about this sleepy portside town, but Portland is home to some of the most memorable meals of my (most recent) life. If you haven’t already put your name on the waiting list at Eventide, you’ll probably never get a table.
They modestly call it a “reimagined classic Oyster Bar”, but their James Beard award winning kitchen skills stretch far beyond shucking. Sure, the oysters are sublime but the accoutrements are what got my sails up. Instead of hot sauce (yawn) or mignonette (snore), these guys make ice slushies out of Tabasco. And Kimchi. And red onion. And horseradish. I mean…come on.
Their brown butter tossed Lobster Roll in a bao bun is so insanely tasty that it has its own trademark forgoodnesssakes. I snagged the recipe for their delectable New England Clam chowder, which includes salt pork for an extra layer of smokiness.
Another informal outdoor favorite is Duckfat. The long lines of expectation for their 7-of-a-kind Paninis (from duck to brisket) don’t disappoint. Even the daily special Maine lobster with fresh claw-and-knuckle meat, house-cultured cream, cotilla cheese, smoked corn and lime, crushed between hot, grooved ciabatta slices is a transcendent hit. But the real reason these guys had to build a special staging area just for the waiting list, is their crispy Belgian fries with 5 spiked mayo dipping sauces.
Just like Philadelphia’s two rival Philly Cheesesteak shops (Geno’s and Pat’s), Portland has two rival bakeries flanking either end of town. The Standard Bakery in a former dockland warehouse on the east end and Tandem Coffee, a former gas station in the west.
Both serve fresh, daily & delicious croissants, scones, breads and treats to a steady stream of loyal locals who seem quite willing to stand in line from the dawn’s early light.
But if you can’t decide between a slice of cake or a donut, why not try them both…together. Holy Donuts infuse their flavors well beneath the frosting. Whether it’s Dark chocolate glazed or Maple bacon or Sweet potato, these might look like donuts – but they taste like cake. And adding to the curiosity factor, it’s the local mashed potatoes that gives them their unique melt-in-the-mouth texture. (So, does that mean that 1 donut = 1 serving of vegetables?)
The best lobster roll in Portland is a mere hop and a skip to the south in luscious Cape Elizabeth at Two Lights Lobster, and for those who can’t decide between butter or mayo, you get both. Oh, and the 270 degree Atlantic ocean view is an added bonus.
Fore Street is the swankiest and most renown establishment in the city, partly because it gave birth to Portland’s newfound foodie scene, but thanks also to the multi-sensory, high-drama pageant. As your eyes adjust to the candle-lit, high ceilinged, warehouse space, the smell of the wood oven and open rotisserie permeates as a perfect underscore to an endless parade of chefs and waiters shuttling one delectable locally farm-raised dish after the next.
Blueberry salad with kale and duck confit in a mint honey vinaigrette, Wood oven roasted rope-cultured mussels in a magnificent garlic and almond butter with dry vermouth, a succulent Hangar steak spiked with chimichurri, or a ridiculously wondrous Pork loin, hand-rubbed with who knows what are just a fraction of the culinary avalanche.
The best and freshest lobsters (with the longest lines, naturally) can be found at Five Islands Lobster Co. (Amusing sidebar: we declined their offer of “crackers”, assuming these to be of the crispy, Saltine variety – only to realize that we were out of options to pry open our steaming dinner. I might as well have worn a “Clueless” cap all day.)
About a half song’s drive south of Camden, you might overshoot an unremarkable doll’s house, which is home the most authentic farm-to-table Italian restaurant in the state. Uber-popular Primo is a multi-decade, self-sustaining operation that is part farm, part kitchen, part greenhouse, but total phenomenon. “Simplicity, seasonality and freshness” are chef Melissa Kelly’s maxims for delivering home-made breads, pastas, hand-raised pork, chicken, vegetables and locally sourced seafood. To the “spectacular” list I would add their Ricotta & wild nettle cavatelli, tossed with wild mushrooms, grilled sherried chicken, snap peans and greens, and the Pork Saltimbocca, luxuriously layered with garden spinach and prosciutto over a roasted garlic mash in a heavenly mushroom Madeira jus. And if you can make some room, the sensationally crisp, tart and utterly dreamy cherry and rhubarb Crostata is the perfect finale.
Natalie’s hoity-toity, high-drama décoris pleasantly offset by the attentive and attractive wait staff who bring Camden’s most romantic dining-room all the way down to harbor level. Chef Chris Long’s ultimate antidote to crustacean yearning is a 5-course Lobster tasting menu from rolled to broiled. Other highlights include Seared local scallops over forbidden black rice and summer beans and the amazingly crispy Local halibut with chickpea, basil and zucchini.
Fierce favorite Long Grain (currently serving take-out only) can turn any hotel room into a Pan-Asian cornucopia with their outrageously delicious Vietnamese spicy wings and much-adored Maine crab fried rice.
The rest of this area’s blogworthy bistros proliferate neighboring towns and Hamlets along US route 1, with Chase’s Daily in nearby Belfast being the torchbearer for their bushels of picked-this-morning, hand-raised produce and a small menu of delectable vegan dishes.
Their Cold cucumber soup with buttermilk, dill and cilantro, or the Enchiladas with farm greens, potato, cheddar and cortija, smothered in salsa verde and pickled onions are more than worth the 35 minute drive.
Which brings us to the jewel in Maine’s coastal crown. Bar Harbor has been an “anti-Hampton” summer escape for decades thanks to the incomparable forest, ocean and mountain vistas. But the clutter of T-shirt and tchotchke stores in the mini downtown area has kept dining options more approachable than noteworthy – with 2 big exceptions: Salt & Steel and Veranda. Thirty-something year old chef Bobby Willis a smart and focused Italian toque who fully supports his local purveyors at Salt & Steel with a bold and flavor-forward menu that includes an unforgettably tartHeirloom tomato salad contrasted with lemon ricotta, Maine blueberry-red wine-reduction and crunchy pistachios. Unlike many pastas with shellfish, he only adds a smattering of house-made garganelli to a magnificent bowl of Frenchman Bay mussels with organic bacon and Aleppo pepper.
But the knockout on the table is a dark and tangy, sweet and rich Organic Sweet Italian Sausage with lumache pasta, sunflower seed pesto and a handful of oven-dried Kalamata olives for a pinch of salt. Utterly astonishing.
Several rungs up the elegance ladder, nestled under a pergola of jasmine overlooking the last rays of dusk over Frenchman Bay is an astoundingly meticulous kitchen serving high-end dishes with local produce. While the wondrously romantic Veranda at the Balance Rock Inn takes itself fairly seriously, the food is fun enough with some standouts including a deliciously crunchy Scallop tempura and a delightfully citrusy Maine crab salad, but the Risotto with a bright green chive oil ash around the permiter is sensational.
Before we head out of town, the only other local “must do” is MDI Ice-cream. This beloved institution facing the Village green park covers the gamut of flavors, from middle-of-the-road to all the way over-the-cliff. Bay of Figs, Blackstrap banana, Brigadeiro, Coriander lemon curd, fresh basil or Girl scouts and I’m just getting started.
Right on the edge of the Acadia National Park (and probably the final shred of civilization before you enter this natural wonderland) is a quirky little garden bistro called Burning Tree. Allison Martin and Elmer Beal Jr’s seafood and plant-heavy kitchen and bakery is rather like a handful of family secrets combined with an incredible ability to make the absolute best of whatever they can get their hands on. The sensationally delicious Scallop, shrimp and crab fritters breaded with panko and served with a spicy mayo dip have ruined my heretofore love of crab cakes forever. And when I’m not dreaming of the one-of-a-kind Blueberry lavender soup, which is a simple but wicked combination of lavender-infused buttermilk and pureed blueberries, I’m probably trying to replicate their Nicoise-like House-smoked salmon salad.
And finally, if you’re looking for the absolute best and undisputed freshest live lobster or lobster roll in the area, ignore the local hangouts and head straight to Beal’s Lobster Pier in neighboring Southwest Harbor. These guys have been hauling, cooking and shipping Maine’s finest crop to restaurants and homes from around the corner to around the nation. Not only do they know what they are doing, but they’ve been doing it for nearly 100 years. And this delightful ramshackle, family-run institution offers far more than your standard lobster pot fare.
Menu highlights include the simply steamed mussels and clams – so unbelievably fresh that the ocean hasn’t had time to realize that they’re missing, and the most irritatingly more-ish Lobster bites, which are tender morsels of claw meat, crumbed and briefly fried (why did no-one think of this before?) served with lemon sriracha and ginger-soy dips. And speaking of dips, Beal’s have trademarked their amped-up dipping butters to include garlic and spicy buffalo.
Which brings us to the main event – the lobster itself. Now, folks who prefer the tighter and meatier flesh of tail-meat, request females. And those who prefer the softer, more flavorful claw meat, order males. Fine. But in order for a lobster to grow, it has to replace its wardrobe now and then for a larger size. So, if you happen to request a “shedder” at Beal’s, you’re in for the absolute all-time Rolls Royce of crustacean delights. You see, due to having taken on saltwater to fill the gap between body and shell, the lobster has unknowingly (yet most conveniently) brined its flesh, making it more tender, more flavorful and dare I say…sweeter. But you’d better eat up as the season is almost over.