North America Dispatch #50: Midcoast Maine in Pain (and Big Score in Damariscotta)
Lincoln County, Maine
Heading northward, I stopped at the legendary Red’s Eats (Main and Water streets, Wiscasset, Maine; 207-882-6128). They’re a landmark for lobster rolls, though opinion seems extraordinarily divided. A sizable number of Mainers seem to feel that Red’s makes an undistinguished lobster roll that’s been highly overrated by clueless tourists.
The photo below shows Red’s laughably tiny size, but also the supremacy of its location, location, location. This tiny shack occupies the central visual field of all drivers headed over the Sheepscot River bridge on Route 1 (you can just barely see the on-ramp in the photo)—which is to say: all coastal traffic headed northward.
I tried a lobster roll, and I don’t fathom the controversy. I can’t find a thing to complain about, and frankly can’t imagine any reason why anyone would ever want any other lobster roll. The Red’s lobster roll amounts to this: huge unbroken chunks of lobster meat expertly picked out of the shell, cooked to a T, sweet as can be, on carefully grilled bread. Nothing else. That’s it. If you don’t like this, you just don’t like lobster.
This is what it’s like to eat a perfect lobster (actually, it’s two lobsters’ worth of meat) whose shell has magically vanished. It is the epitome of everything crustacean:
The sole downside is that the unfamiliar ease of confronting two buck-naked lobsters tempts one into taking huge bites, which require mighty chewing. This can lead to the false impression that the lobster isn’t optimally tender. It is. You’re just wolfing down larger morsels than nature had intended.
Red’s “homemade” lemonade, however, is a sham. It tastes like lemon Tang. I don’t hear Mainers complaining about this.
Right after lunch, I had a slightly heated phone conversation with Maine native Pat Hammond over the propriety of Red’s lobster rolls. Listen in on this podcast: MP3.
A gaggle of restaurants and shops cluster around Red’s, hoping to glom tourism juju. Across the street, Sarah’s (US Route 1, Wiscasset, Maine; 207-882-7504) makes really good home-baked-tasting peanut butter cookies:
They pass the paper bag test:
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Later, I trekked way out of my way to Shaw’s Fish and Lobster Wharf (129 State Route 32, Pemaquid Peninsula, Maine; 207-677-2200), hearing there was great food and a fun bar with cool bartenders, but things were shutting down for winter, and only the dull upstairs cafeteria was open.
But I enjoyed walking around the pier and taking moody photos. While it was still quite warm, I could feel the season about to change.
I couldn’t possibly eat another lobster roll, though I’ve heard Shaw’s are good, so I opted instead for lobster stew, which was subtle and pristine.
The stew was chock full of tasty lobster chunks. But I feel spoiled by Red’s, which left me with the staunch conviction that there’s nothing one can do to lobster to make it better than just plain lobster. Hey, I sound like a New Englander!
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I was hoping to have dinner at the remote Anchor Inn (Anchor Inn Road, Round Pond, Maine; 207-529-5584)—or at least a dinnerish gesture, given that I’m extremely full, having scarfed the entire lobster roll at Red’s earlier today. I’m starting to worry about myself; I’ve been losing my food-writer discipline and consuming more than my usual mere bite or two. This has landed me near the pain point, and that’s not a good place to be.
I’d heard Anchor Inn is idyllic and serves great desserts, but they were closed for the season, so I headed to the Damariscotta River Grill (155 Main Street, Damariscotta, Maine; 207-563-2992), owned by the same people. This place is situated closer to civilization, in the charming town of Damariscotta, and it’s open year-round.
What a sweet, no-nonsense, romantic restaurant! I realize those adjectives don’t really go together, but I’ve never seen a place like this before. Well, that’s not true. Canyon Grill, from report #25, was similar. The vibe is upscale but not pretentious. You don’t feel your status buttons eagerly pushed to assure you that you’re getting value for the premium charged. Prices are justified by quality and care rather than smoke and mirrors.
And they’re not trying to offer a taste of big-city restaurant glamour to the provinces. Just as Canyon Grill is a world-class restaurant that firmly belongs on that mountain in Georgia, so does the Damariscotta River Grill fit the picture here in salty Damariscotta. But it’s really elegant and really good.
I was forced to conclude this from mere dribs and drabs. Determined to experience the restaurant without actually eating anything of substance, I ordered a half-dozen raw oysters, a glass of apple cider, and bread pudding. But I was able to coast a little, thanks to a revelational bread basket.
What on earth was that sophisticated, amazing bread basket doing out here in the boonies? It included apparently housemade breadsticks and great fluffy Italian peasant bread (some of the best I’ve ever had … soft but chewy, with beautifully crunchy crust), and came with top-drawer olive oil for dipping. I’ve rarely seen this level of quality in top Manhattan spots!
The cider wasn’t just great and fresh; it was interesting. Someone had shown artistry in blending the apple varieties.
The oysters—local Pemaquids—were sublime. Even the best oyster bars in big cities are only an echo of oysters such as these: I wanted to sing to my mollusks, pet them, thank them for what they did for me:
Bread pudding was stately and thoughtful without being presumptuous or precious. It wasn’t just slammingly delicious. It had class.
Perfect oysters, perfect dessert, perfect bread, perfect breadsticks, perfect olive oil, perfect ambiance, perfect service (friendly, genuine, professional). Oh, how I wish I could have eaten a full meal here. I’ll return first chance I get.
It was late by the time I got to Moody’s Diner (Route 1, Waldoboro, Maine; 207-832-7785), and I thought I’d down a bite or two of their famed walnut pie. I finished most of the (wondrous) slice …
... and then worked myself into a lather out in the parking lot. Brace yourself for a delirious meltdown of a podcast: MP3.