I’m a bit of a snob when it comes to shellfish. I don’t get the fascination with steamed crabs, preferring at least a mouthful of meat to emerge from the shell intact; and I prefer drawn butter to Old Bay.
Lobster has always been the key to my August in Maine—from toddler days playing with the empty claw (my father taught me to clean out the fat one carefully, so you can work the pincers puppet-like by pulling on a piece of cartilage) to dockside feasts with a good Sancerre.
So last summer, when I spent the better part of a week sampling the best cuisine from Maine’s current lineup of chefs, I was initially dismayed (and eventually intrigued) by the absence of my favorite crustacean.
Our first stop at the Kennebunkport Festival—an annual celebration of food, wine and art—was dinner at the sometime home of Cindy and Jeff Clarke, who own a liquor distribution company as well as homes in Florida and New Hampshire. The chef for the night was Montreal-born Pierre Gignac, whose Ocean restaurant at the nearby Cape Arundel Inn is known for its stunning views of the Atlantic and the nearby Bush family compound, as well as its menu of updated French classics.
My companion David and I were staying at the Cape Arundel, a luxurious re-appropriated summer “cottage” (the shingled kind with 12 bedrooms and a wrap-around porch) perched atop a rocky cliff. We’d occasionally peek through the blinds at the Bush estate, noting the comings and goings of black SUVs. It turns out, Papa Herbert Walker would celebrate his 90th birthday the week after our visit by skydiving onto a grassy knoll near his Maine retreat.
The main course at the Clarkes’ house was tender lamb, retaining just a hint of the earthy grasses it had fed on, with vinaigrette made from local ramps. There were also fat seared scallops with turnip puree and morel mushrooms, and glasses filled with PlumpJack Cabernet Reserve, which Cindy generously secreted from the household’s private wine closet.
The Kennebunkport Festival is an annual event that showcases a side of Maine that might surprise you—especially if you’re picturing lobster pots on piers, moose-crossing roads riddled with frost heaves and crusty proprietors of country stores asserting, “You cahn’t get they-ah from hee-ah.”
Nope. This is the Maine of superstar chefs and sorrel salads, micro-brewed beer and caramelized milk cake with rhubarb and iced goat milk for dessert. Yes, the latter was a dessert at the event Wood Fired Maine, held in a barn appointed with tables bearing abundant arrangements of meadow flowers and shimmering glasses for multiple pairings.
The backdrop was the Wells Reserve, a former farm set up in a trust for estuarine research. We wandered the grounds at sunset before dinner, sipping sparkling wine and amber ale from Portland’s Bissell Brothers Brewing Co., listening to standards sung by local crooner Lisa Mills. Dinner was, as promised, inspired by cooking on wood, from a creamy burrata with wood-fired cherries and teaberry foam to grilled little neck clams with stinging nettle pesto and spring onions. Melissa Kelly, a two-time James Beard Award winner for best chef in the Northeast, prepared Maine rabbit, grilled of course, with creamy potatoes and fresh herbs.
If the festival sounds like it hops all over like a not yet wood-fired bunny, it does. Close to 4,000—a mix of locals and folks from “away”—converge on the well-heeled coastal town of Kennebunkport for the week. The Sunday-to-Saturday schedule (this year, June 7-13) is a mix of smallish guest chef dinners like the Clarkes’, music events, art openings and stylish after parties. Tickets can be pricy—the Clarke dinner was $150 per person, while Wood Fired Maine was $250—but the whole experience is a gastro-tourist’s fantasy.
David, who hadn’t previously spent much time in Maine, was won over. “When you think of Maine food you think of blueberries and lobster, but there’s so much more,” he said after I pressured him for a good quote.
We returned in August—my preferred month for vacations in Maine—and rented a tiny cottage in Bayside in Midcoast Maine. Bayside is a collection of miniature Victorian-style houses built on the footprints of former platform tents from an early-20th-century summer community. Our sleepy village was a perfect launching point for more culinary adventures.
We tried hard to balance the eating with a modicum of exercise. One day we paddled kayaks the four miles up the coast to Belfast, where we, well, pigged out on pulled pork and brisket at Pig Out BBQ. Another day, we followed a hike in Camden Hills State Park with lunch at the Salt Water Farm in Rockport, a town once known for lime mining and shipbuilding. The spare, light-filled restaurant serves fresh food from its nearby farm and affiliated cooking school.
Though small, Rockport has enough to see and do for a solid day trip. Its working harbor is surrounded by walking trails, and its main drag, Central Street, has a restored opera house with an incredible summer series by the Bay Chamber Concerts.
On another evening, we had dinner at Shepherd’s Pie, also on Central Street, and stopped in at the Ralston Gallery, where coastal photographer Peter Ralston shares wall space with his childhood buddy Jamie Wyeth, Andrew’s son. David admired a
giclée print of a Wyeth painting called “The Wake”—a seagull flying above a wave straight at the viewer.
We’d wisely made a reservation at Melissa Kelly’s Primo restaurant in Rockland a few weeks before our trip. The afternoon of the appointed day was gray and threatened rain, so we decided to visit the Farnsworth Art Museum before dinner. The museum is known for its Maine subjects by such artists as Winslow Homer, Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz and three generations of Wyeths. We saw the seagull print again in the gift shop while I searched for a print of an Andrew Wyeth painting of a girl wearing red boots that I’d seen hanging in the museum. Alas, no luck. But our Primo meal brought its own serendipity.
Soon after we sat down, a group of diners was shown to the five-top next to us. We recognized the mop of gray hair from a photo we’d seen just an hour before at the Farnsworth. If there’s a celebrity sighting to be coveted in Maine, surely Jamie Wyeth fits the bill. We tucked into our amazing meal—which included, by the way, a flavorful stuffed squab and tender, gamey duck, but no lobster—knowing that we were in just the right place. Maine’s slogan, “the way life should be,” seemed apt.
The 2015 Kennebunkport Festival will be held June 7-13 in and around the coastal town. In the last decade, Maine has become increasingly known for its culinary scene, with many, like Fore Street (forestreet.biz) in Portland and Primo (primorestaurant.com) in Rockland, receiving national nods.
The Festival’s offerings include an array of art openings. If your travels in Maine take you farther up the coast, consider stops at the Portland Museum of Art (noteworthy 19th-century European paintings along with American art). The Bowdoin College
Museum of Art (bowdoin.edu) in Brunswick is also worth a visit, and while you’re there, dine at Frontier (explorefrontier.com) in a renovated mill. Farther up the coast is the Farnsworth (farnsworthmuseum.org), where you can see works by three generations of Wyeths.
We hiked in Camden Hills State Park, and rented kayaks from Ducktrap (ducktrapkayak.com) in Lincolnville. Charming Bayside, where we stayed, is about a half-hour drive from Rockport and 45 minutes from Rockland. (Stop at Swans Island Yarn studio and showroom on the way—swansislandcompany.com.) In Belfast (10 minutes by car, longer by kayak), dine at Pig Out BBQ, or The Gothic (matthewkenneycuisine.com), named “best restaurant in Maine” by Eater in 2013. Better yet, buy some farm-raised lamb at the famous Belfast Food Co-op (belfast.coop) and cook it at your cottage—most of Bayside’s rentals are equipped with outdoor grills.