Portland: The Maine Event
Text & photos by Marla Norman
Driving from Boston into Maine, we stop, open all the car windows and inhale the scent of dense pine forests and salty coastal waters — exhilarating and soothing all in the same breath. Pastures filled with wildflowers and trim cottages make for picture-perfect landscapes, the same scenery that inspired artists Winslow Homer, Andrew Wyeth and H. W. Longfellow.
Michel and I are feeling pretty creative and poetic ourselves. But mostly, as we approach Kennebunkport, we’re thinking about LOBSTER!!! Spotting the sign for Mabel’s Lobster Claw, we pull over immediately. One of the original Maine Lobster Shacks, Mabel’s has been serving seafood and freshly-baked pies since the 1950s. Inside, the bustling little cafe is homey and casual; old photographs line the walls.
We order crab cakes, a whole lobster with prawns, fries, coleslaw — and dive in! The crab cakes are meaty and perfectly seasoned. The lobster is succulent and sweetly briny. My eyes are rolling back in my head. It’s impossible to imagine a better start to the trip.
Later, when our waitress asks if we’d like dessert, we hesitate for two seconds, (Ok! Maybe ½ of 1 second) then succumb to the pies, both Blueberry and Raspberry. After all, we’re on vacation….
Known as “The Forest City,” Portland lives up to it’s monicker. Enormous groves of trees surround the city and numerous parks dot the boulevards. The city itself is relatively small, with a population under 75,000. But as we drive in, traffic is heavy and throngs of visitors are lined up along the East End restaurants, shops and hotels. Tourism is big here and the region’s excellent seafood is a major part of the draw.
Our B&B is on the opposite side of town. Blissfully tucked away from all the tourists on the city’s east side, the West End Inn sits within an historic neighborhood of gracious old Victorian homes. The inn’s reception area has been beautifully restored and an impressive art collection is on display. Then, a welcoming surprise: a scrumptious Chocolate Torte sits on a corner table, ready for famished guests….or even guests who may have already indulged.
A STORIED PAST
Portland’s first permanent settlement began in 1632, when it was incorporated as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Much of this original development was destroyed however, by the French and their Native American allies in 1676. Residents rebuilt and the town survived until 1775, when the British Navy burnt the city to the ground, a prelude to the eventual American Revolution.
Undaunted, these tough-minded New Englanders rebuilt once again. Today, the oldest surviving home in Portland dates back to 1785. The property originally belonged to General Peleg Wadsworth, a distinguished officer during the American Revolutionary War. Wadsworth was also a Congressman and close friend of George Washington. Now he’s primarily remembered as the grandfather of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
General Wadsworth left his daughter Zilpah the family home. There, she and her husband, Stephen Longfellow, raised eight children, including their son Henry. The Longfellow House & Gardens is now a National Historic Landmark, open to the public. Many of the family’s original furnishings as well as Longfellow’s piano, writing desk and “gentleman’s traveling lap desk” are still on view.
It’s raining the day we visit. The dim light and flickering shadows make it easy to imagine the young writer, scribbling his famous verse by a fire…..
A hurry of hoofs in a village-street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed that flies fearless and fleet:
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat. (Paul Revere’s Ride)
In 1836, Longfellow accepted a position at Harvard to teach modern languages and soon after began publishing his poetry, eventually becoming one of the most recognized writers of his day in both the US and Europe.
From the Longfellow House, we leave the 1700s and move into the 19th century — when vastly improved transportation made Portland a wealthy economic hub as well as a popular summer destination. Train lines, including the Grand Trunk Railroad, used Portland as a central station, while steamboats, operating along the Atlantic coast, utilized the city ports.
Successful entrepreneurs built second homes in Portland to take advantage of cooler seasonal temperatures. One of the most impressive of these summer homes is the Ruggles Morse Mansion or Victoria Mansion as it’s now known. Built between 1858 and 1860, this lavish home boasts ornate marble mantelpieces, a freestanding mahogany staircase and numerous stained glass windows, including a magnificent 6-foot by 25-foot stained-glass skylight. Many of the walls are covered in elaborate frescoes featuring trompe l’oeil. A Turkish smoking room is particularly jaw-dropping.
Both Morse and his wife Olive were from Maine originally, but moved to New Orleans where Morse managed luxury hotels. Their Portland home was designed by architect Henry Austin, a master of the Italianate style. Considered one of the most advanced structures of the day, the house had gas lights, hot and cold running water, flush toilets and central heat.
Incredibly, the house sat abandoned, with many of the furnishings left behind for over 11 years. In 1941, the property was saved from demolition and opened as a museum. Since 1970, the Morse house has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
After wandering the palatial rooms and exploring Portland’s past, we’re ready to rejoin the 21st century — and examine a few of the city’s culinary treasures.
BEST U.S. RESTAURANT CITY
Shortly after arriving, we learn that Bon Appétit magazine selected Portland as the Restaurant City of the Year. Eager to explore this topic, we begin our own research. The results are listed below:
414 Fore Street
A recent James Beard finalist for “Best New Restaurant in the Nation,” Central Provisions cooks up an impressive variety of small plates that changes (thoroughly) every day. The prices are also impressive at first glance, but don’t hyperventilate. Just order quickly and be amazed at the quality and ingenuity.
The menu offers a number of meat choices, but we stick with seafood and sample fresh Boquerones (tasty little sardines) and Lobster Fritters with lots of crunch and lobster. An Oyster Stew with corn, peppers & carrots in a thick, creamy broth was savory and luscious. Our favorite dish was the Bread & Butter. I know, sounds crazy! But the Central Provisions version includes whipped local butter with sabayon — so good, it alone could justify the rest of the menu.
58 Pine Street
Named Portland’s “Best New Restaurant in 2017” by the Portland Press Herald, Chaval can also brag that its pastry chef, Ilma Lopez has been chosen as a “James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef” semi-finalist for the second year in a row. Lopez is co-owner of Chaval with her husband Damian Sansonetti. The couple also own Piccolo, another popular restaurant in town. Chaval specializes in Spanish and French specialties while Piccolo is Italian.
Fideos (vermicelli) is a house specialty, so we start with the pasta, this evening served with squid ink and lobster aioli. The Fideos at Chaval are flavored with stock made from lobster shells, so every bite is rich and indulgent. Next up, the Duck Rillette has just enough spice — all enhanced with Duckfat Citrus Crackers. A bowl of mussels includes chorizo, tomatoes and peppers in a Portuguese-style presentation.
The dish we fall instantly in love with is the North Spore Shrooms — thick, juicy mushrooms with chorizo, sherry vinegar and a duck egg to cap it all. Here the chorizo adds just the right spice and the egg yolk makes every bite a toothsome, sensual pleasure. Items on the menu we want to sample on a second visit: Chicken Coq au Vin, braised on the bone in red wine, and Whole Pigs’ Feet, boned out and stuffed with the cubed meat, pistachios and spices.
Given Ilma Lopez reputation for pastries, we had to try desserts. She didn’t disappoint. The Crème Brûlée was classic, sweetly crunchy, while the Churros were all chocolate decadence. Bravo Chaval!
EVENTIDE OYSTER CO.
86 Middle Street
Like so many of the East End restaurants, Eventide is jammed with diners. And the hostess, a bit overwhelmed, is a little brusque. But we find a place to stand and staff members quickly arrive to take our drink and appetizer orders. A brief wait later, we’re munching on Tuna Crudo, so fresh, it just pops and then melts in your mouth. House-made Potato Chips are nicely warm and slightly peppery.
After we’re seated, we devour a remarkable selection of Maine Oysters: John’s River, Otter Cove & Browne Point. A plate of Caso Bay Mackerel is served with black trumpet mushrooms & beets. The Chowder of the Day also includes the exquisite and almost-never-seen black trumpets — we’re in heaven! On our way out, we even hug the grumpy hostess.
68 Commercial Street
Walking through the small, rustic entrance to Scales, we’re bowled over by the cool, sophisticated space on the other side of the door. And it’s an enormous space at that. Not only that, it’s packed to the rafters.
Fortunately, we’re able to grab seats at the bar, which stretches a long, long way down the side of the restaurant. Again, the extensive choice of oysters is too tempting to pass up. We watch enthralled as our order is shucked and placed on a bed of ice, right in front of us.
Next up, Maine Clam Chowder, one of the best I’ve ever had in my life! Seared Tuna with toasted sesame aioli and pickled mustard seeds is sweet and spicy in perfect proportions. Baked Haddock with morel mushrooms, fingerling potatoes, leeks and fumet cream left us speechless.
Back Bay Grill
65 Portland Street
One of the most established restaurants in Portland, The Back Bay Grill, is polished and genteel. Now celebrating its 30th year, the property has a huge local following. Situated in the residential West End of Portland, the Back Bay is a world away, literally and figuratively, from the ultra-contemporary spots on the East End. Chef Larry Matthews describes his menu as “more haute than hipster.”
We begin with Bang Island Mussels in bacon dashi broth, Seared Scallops with chanterelle mushrooms and farfalle, along with an Heirloom Tomato Salad that included a velvety Vermont chèvre & prosciutto. For main courses, we ordered Monk Fish, with lobster & Ricotta Agnolotti and Grilled Rack of Lamb with Swiss chard — both superb.
The Back Bay Grill has been the recipient of the “Wine Spectator Award of Excellence” every year since 1998. The property cellars over 400 wines and a number of hard to find liqueurs. Michel is thrilled to spot a rare bottle of Crème Yvette, a liqueur made from violets and grape eau-de-vie. The taste is slightly honeyed with vanilla and, as you’d expect, distinctly flowery violet aromas and flavors. An unforgettable finish to a great meal.
After working our way through Portland’s restaurant scene, we’re still wondering how this small town can dish out so much great food. We don’t have the answer as yet. Clearly we’ll need to schedule another trip to continue our research.
In the meantime, we’ll serve up a few oysters at home and savor our Portland memories. Culinary Ambition provides inspiration and helpful instructions. Their Gratined Oyster “Party” is almost as good as being back on the Bay!
To visit Portland without paying homage to the region’s distinguished artists is unthinkable. The Portland Museum of Art is Maine’s largest public art institution. Renowned arthictevct I.M. Pei was one of the designers. The collection includes notable works by many European masters, from Monet, Matisse and Renoir to Picasso. But, of course, the star here is Winslow Homer, who made Maine his home for a number of years. On rotation at the museum are 16 of his paintings, including his masterpiece Weatherbeaten, and more than 400 of his illustrations. The museum also manages Homer’s former studio in nearby Prouts Neck.
Regarded as one of the greatest American artists of the 19th century, Homer was largely self-taught and began his career as a commercial illustrator. Originally born in Boston, Homer’s fascination with the rugged New England coast inspired much of his best work.
Works by other iconic New England artists are here as well: Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper and Marsden Hartley. Seeing the famous landscapes juxtaposed to the spectacular New England scenery we’ve been admiring since we arrived in Portland is thrilling. We leave the museum with our senses sharpened and new appreciation for the region.
Undoubtedly, the most recognizable image in Portland is the Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth. The beloved lighthouse has been the subject of any number of great paintings and is undoubtedly photographed thousands of times on a weekly basis. As you can see, we also found the cape irresistible.
The Portland Head Light sits at the entrance of the primary channel into Portland Harbor. The oldest lighthouse in Maine, the structure was completed in 1791, originally commissioned by none other than George Washington himself. Now, of course, the light house is automated; its aerobeacon is visible some 28 miles out. The Keeper’s House is a museum housing memorabilia and a room-by-room chronology of local history.
Cape Elizabeth includes three coastal parks: Fort Williams Park, Two Lights State Park and Crescent Beach State Park. Another 560 acres is under a land trust and also open to the public. Needless to say the scenery is magnificent. As we stroll along the coastal paths, the murmur of the surf, tangy breezes and sapphire-colored water leave us breathless. We click away with our iPhones to try to capture the visual beauty of the place and hope we can remember the sounds, feel and tastes.
Away from the coast, picnickers are comfortably ensconced on grassy beds. Food trucks selling lobster and crab sandwiches are parked in shady knolls, with long lines of hungry fans waiting patiently to order. The scent of fried fish and buttery lobster is overpowering.
Without saying a word, Michel and I both dash for the closest line. After all, this vacation isn’t over just yet………