The Jewel Coast in Maine
Wandering up the coast of Maine from Portland to Camden is like stepping back in time. Small villages stand still from ages of the past—roadside organic stands, natural food stores on every corner, meat markets with only the freshest local meats and handwritten signs on the side of the road directing drive by traffic to pull in for $5.99 live lobsters. A locavore’s dream … and a daily reality for many Mainers.
When talking to the famed Chef Sam Talbot, of Bravo’s “Top Chef” and author of the Sweet Life and the upcoming book 100% Real, he explained this is simply a way of life for Mainers. Sam, a New Yorker, has opened the quaint farm-to-fork restaurant Pig + Poet in the historic Whitehall lodge in Camden. Sam is passionate about fresh ingredients, saying “Everything we use as ingredients are a skateboard ride away.” This is not easy in Maine, where over 90% of the land is covered in forest and 100% experience harsh winters. That forces people to hunker down, preserving food. Local, fresh food is a age-old survival mechanism, not a trendy urban hipster movement.
Chain restaurants are rare in the coastal cities of Maine, while mom-and-pop restaurants, shacks and food trucks can be found in every little town, island village and city. This region, known as the Jewel Coast, has drawn some of the best freshly prepared food in the state and is home to a handful of James Beard Award winners and nominated chefs. Bobby Flay of the Food Network, and even “The Chew,” love this region. During our stay we visited several places that have been touched by the hands of the above famous foodies and we laid our heads where history, art and Maine life will impress you. It did us.
Pig + Poet
Chef Sam Talbot
This intimately farmer-chic restaurant, located in the beautifully historic Whitehall lodge, draws you in immediately from the decor to the smell of the sea. One of famed Chef Sam Talbot’s babies, this hits all of his sweet spots. His love of locally sourced and thoughtful food is showcased on his menu, which is seasonally designed. Chef Talbot is passionate about keeping the ingredients as real as possible. As we dined on lamb bacon la plancha, Chef Talbot casually strolled over to our table to sit and chat with us. Chef Talbot is known to wander from table to table, and is seen regularly making special dishes that may tease your senses. His favorite dish on the menu by far is the buttermilk fried chicken with duck fat roasted potatoes and kale chips. On that particular day, his staff enjoyed a dinner he had to bring out to us to try—fresh mussels with vegetable confit (fit for a king). Of course, we washed down that delicious dish with his favorite cocktail of raw cucumber juice, gin, agave and basil. Not only is this restaurant open for lunch and dinner, you stay at the lodge built around 1901, and the built-in breakfast is like nothing we have seen. It might make you need to wear yoga pants for the day.
Chef Melissa Kelly
Primo is not only an award-winning restaurant run by a two-time James Beard Award–winning Chef Melissa Kelly, it’s a 4.5-acre working farm. Chef Kelly creates brilliant cutting-edge fresh dishes that change daily with sometimes 80% of the food coming from her farm. The restaurant sits at the bottom of a hill; the hill above is her farm, filled with chemical-free rotating crops such as nettles, asparagus, roasting vegetables, and of course she has apple trees inside the areas where the pigs roam and the roosters’ crow. Her menu is impressively delicious. Cornmeal pancakes with braised lamb ropa veija are a staple starter, to fortify you while drooling over which Maine dishes to devour. From the pan-seared local scallops to the pork saltimbocca, you can get a small taste of the culture and roads Chef Kelly has traveled—and we must say, she has traveled well. She allowed us to indulge in her famous house-made cannoli stuffed with fresh ricotta and rolled in crushed pistachios and Amarena cherries … that dessert alone is a reason to make a reservation at Primo. Take a tour of the farm, grab some vino and make an evening of the ultimate cuisine.
Chef Brian Hill
Located on a breathtaking harbor, Rockport depicts what visitors come from afar to photograph. The harbor is full of lobster boats and sailboats, all glistening at sunset amid the rich colors of the season, the smell of salt and the tranquility of calm water. Shepherd’s Pie is the creation of Chef Brian Hill, a favorite of Bobby Flay and featured in an episode of his “Throwdown with Bobby Flay.” Shepherd’s Pie, named for the historic Shepherd Company building, does indeed serve shepherd’s pie, but they are known for their seasonal menu that gives a radical twist to coastal rustic dishes. Local roasted corn with bonito flakes gives the appearance of being alive, waving back and forth much like sea kelp in the ocean. The flakes add a dark, deep and salty flavor. Scallops braised to perfection over a bed of kelp, tarragon and crispy capers melt in your mouth, sending you into a blissful food coma. Also, don’t forget a butterflied grilled pork sausage over two crisp chickpea polenta cakes enhanced with a kalamata-tomato sauce. Seasonal pickles add a hint of a crunchy giardiniera-style relish, that’s crunchy, spicy and on the edge of insanity with the vinegar and pepper sauce. There is no wonder why this restaurant with no sign, hidden on a tiny harbor, was a nominee for James Beard’s Best New Restaurant.
Owls Head General Store
In 2009, Food Network said this place had the best burger in Maine, and the 7 Napkin Burger didn’t disappoint. This massive half-pound burger layered with tomatoes, thinly sliced pickles, shredded lettuce, mayo, catsup, mustard and onions leaves your face drenched, your hands dripping and you will smell of those onions all day, but the result is worth it. This two-room general store, next to the Owls Head post office, has an outdoor restroom near the Owls Heads Lighthouse, where lobster boats will pull any foodie in who wants to eat where the locals go. While there, don’t miss out on one of the Maine Root natural sodas. We recommend the blueberry.
History has been made with these lobster rolls. You’ll wait in line and you must have cash. The price for a lobster roll is written on a posted piece of paper and changes daily. Thinly sliced white bread, toasted with butter and heaped with over a pound of lobster caught and cooked that day—our roll had four claws on it—is handed to you on their signature red plates in aluminum foil with a packaged wipe for good measure. This stand is so popular you can find copies of their book, Red’s Eats: World’s Best Lobster Shack, throughout Maine, and you will find people who have been coming weekly for as long as the stand has been on the corner of this quintessential Maine harbor town.
Historic Inns of Rockland
The only way to stay in Maine for the full experience is to stay in one of their famous bed and breakfast inns. Many are historic and all of them are top-notch not only with their rooms and fun-loving innkeepers, who will keep you on your toes with laughter and enjoyment, but the food … oh, the food.
This inn was voted for having the Best Wrap Around Porch by Yankee magazine’s Best of New England, Down East magazine’s Readers Choice, Hall of Fame for multiple years by Trip Advisor, and we know why. This beautiful Victorian mansion, located in the Historic District, is beautifully landscaped and full of luxury and comfort. Innkeepers Frank Isganitis and PJ Walter, like many Maine foodies, believe in simple, fresh and good food that creates a culinary experience. Warm breads and pastries greet you, along with the aroma of fresh coffee from local Rock City Roasters. House-made waffles, gourmet eggs, French toast and the special breakfast item of the day beg you to come back for more the next morning. This is truly a home away from home with friends you have never met.
Berry Manor Inn
The Pie Moms—heard of them? They have been featured on “The Chew,” “Throwdown with Bobby Flay,” the Travel Channel and more. Pies are what this Inn is known for—always available warmed or not, à la mode or not, in your room or not—but pies are not the only attraction. Berry Manor has been named more than once as a top B&B in the United States, and this stately home of one of Rockland’s most prominent merchants is luxurious, relaxing, elegant and more. Although the husband-and-wife team, Cheryl Michaelsen and Mike LaPosta, offer up humor at breakfast with a rather larger collection of toy hamsters and wacky hats, they aren’t joking about the culinary treats they provide at breakfast, and of course, their mom’s pie recipes.
This inn across from the harbor began as a Federal Colonial residence built of gray granite, hence the name. The quaintness of the inn fills you with nostalgia, a feeling of being in a family home. At the same time the walls and tables are filled with unique works of art that will catch your eye with every turn. This 1840 house has all the modern conveniences with rooms with simple, yet contemporary, furniture and feel. Husband-and-wife innkeepers Joan and Edwin Hantz are creative thinkers and doers who put those talents to work in the gardens and famous breakfast for which the inn in known. Edwin wakes up early every morning to grind fresh coffee and fill the air with the smell of his freshly baked scones. His creative cooking extends to seafood and vegetable juices and the gourmet crêpes drenched with real Maine maple syrup and blueberries. You will be on sensory overload with the scrumptious foodie and art experience the Hantz family will provide.
Quick Destination Inn
Inn by the Sea
As the closest airport isn’t so close to the Jewel Coast, flying in and out of Portland may be the best option, with an unmistakably beautiful drive up to the coast. If you do fly in or out, or decide to stay in Portland for any time, a breathtaking place to close your eyes is the Inn by the Sea. This award-winning eco-luxury hotel gives guests a panoramic view of the ocean that will fill anyone with relaxation. The rooms are opulent, yet earthy. This beautiful inn is not only an environmental leader—being the first in Maine to bear solar panels and use biofuel—but they also collaborate with the Maine Department of Conservation to restore the endangered New England Cottontail bunnies at Crescent Beach State Park. The inn has developed an onsite program for planting indigenous plants to create a safe habitat and food for these bunnies. In addition, the inn has an onsite gardener responsible for planting edible landscape around the grounds such as artichokes, cabbage, kale, edible flowers and other items, which can be used as fresh ingredients at Sea Glass, the onsite restaurant. Chef Steve Sicinski infuses his menu with seasonality and nutritional balance. Using local produce and lobster is nothing new for Sicinski. He shares with other Maine chefs a passion to incorporate under-appreciated seafood onto the menu. His menus feature underutilized seafood such as dogfish, whiting and monkfish, in efforts to help restore the abundance of over-caught fish off the coast and introduce his guests to new flavors. The inn is pet friendly, Cottontail friendly, eco-friendly, but most of all it is good-for-you friendly. A getaway that will take your breath away and leave you filled with an experience of a lifetime.
Update September 12, 2017: Chef Andrew Chadwick is the executive chef for the fabulous restaurant. He and his sous chef, Greg Hill, came to the Inn after managing the 6 food and beverage outlets at the renowned Chatham Bars Inn on Cape Cod. Chef Andrew Chadwick also creates menus with fresh seasonal local fare and is dedicated to the underutilized seafood program as well to maintain and keep with the values of the Inn.