Lobster Dinner

When one goes to New England, one must engage in typical New England behavior such as devouring enormous amounts of lobster and forgetting how to pronounce the letter “r” at the end of words such as chowder (chowdah) and bar (bah.) It’s truly a cultural experience. Although we have yet to indulge in lobster rolls (waiting for our side trip to Maine,) we perpetuated the tradition of a family lobster boil. It didn’t hurt that lobster (lobstah) currently stands at $4.99/lb which is UP one dollar from last week!

My husband and I volunteered to pick up the lobsters from one of the multitude of lobster retailers along the bay. We were directed to Captain Joe’s by my father-in-law. This is after we stopped to stock our cooler with ice and get cash from the ATM because the lobster shop was cash only, of course.

It was nice to have some sort of direction because there were tons of viable options along the bay, including a place that lured people in with the alluring scent of a smoker–a respectable side business. When we pulled into Joe’s, there were empty lobster pots stacked around the parking lot. Can’t get much more authentic than that.

We walked up to the garage-like building that butted the harbor.

Unassuming, right? And I didn’t even notice the Porta-Potty until I posted the picture. How appetizing. The structure had openings at both ends and you could see where the lobster boats unloaded right into Captain Joe’s garage. We walked towards the back of the room, wondering if we were doing the right thing. You don’t want to look like an outsider or tourist at a place like this. At the very back, right hand side of the room, sat about a dozen lobster tanks and two men occupying themselves with something, obviously lobster-related. I was trying to fit in and all so I didn’t blatantly take a picture of the set up, although I did take a quick shot of the “price list.”

It’s hard to read, but I kid you not when I say that the lobster were $4.99/lb. That’s right, kids. They were cheaper than steaks and even some fancy, Whole Foods chicken breasts. Lobstah!?!

OK, I lied. Apparently I took one quick picture of the lobster containers. This ain’t fancy, folks. The lobsters were divided by size and stored in these long containers.

Here is a view from the dock where they “receive” the lobster–I literally stood in the edge of the dock.

Because I’ve been trying to write this post for about a month now, I’m not going to get into the lengthy argument, ahem, conversation we had about the preparation of the lobster. I will say two things, however, There were a few strong opinions and one too many cooks in the kitchen. My husband’s aunt had recently read an article in Yankee Magazine with a different technique of cooking lobster. They advocated steaming them in a couple inches of very salty water instead of boiling them.  The recipe came from Bertha Nunan, owner of the Nunan’s Lobster Hut in Kennebunkport, Maine and my husband’s aunt was very emphatic that we try it. Bertha Nunan believes that boiling the lobster leaves the crustacean too soggy, while steaming it allows for the perfect consistency. As a former vegetarian who has a terrifying lobster slaughtering experience, I wasn’t a fan of steaming them. I was a fan of the quick and dirty boil–we’d put those little suckers out of their misery in a snap–but realized that there were two many opinions and retired to the deck with a book in hand.

A few minutes (and lots of talking, pots clanging and timers beeping) later, my father-in-law emerged with this:

The Nunan method was a success! The lobster was perfectly cooked and the heavily salted water imparted just a hint of ocean flavor to the meaty lobsters. We pounced on them with dishes of butter by our sides and this beautiful tomato salad compliments of my sister-in-law. We had corn too, but I was too busy with my lobster to grab a photo.

Lobster Rolls Galore

One of my very favorite things about New England is LOBSTER. In fact, my husband and I rarely eat shellfish–lobster, in particular, is made solely on New Year’s Eve each year. Whenever we go to New England, however, we both do our best to eat as much lobster as possible. During our most recent visit, it was a few days into the trip until we were able to fulfill our lobster fix with a lobster steam (not boil) dinner at his aunt’s house (to be blogged about one of these days.) It was not until we got to Maine that we were able to dive headfirst into our lobster eating bonanza.

We started in Kennebunkport at the The Clam Shack, a complete tourist trap at the entrance to the small town of Kennebunkport (made popular by our dear friends, the Bushes.) It sits right before the bridge that welcomes you to town.

And you’ll almost always encounter a line–expect a decent wait during lunch hours.

We waited in line for a few minutes behind a surprisingly large number of foreign tourists. While most of the conversations surrounding us centered on what folks were going to order, we knew what we were getting without any conversation. When we got to the window, I quickly ordered two lobster rolls and clam strips. I felt like any regular at Tony Luke’s ordering a cheesesteak whiz wit. Unfortunately, I got knocked off my high horse when he asked me if I wanted butter or mayo on my lobster rolls. Butter or mayo? I dunno. Just make them taste good. I settled on butter because, well, it’s butter.

A poor shot of the menu. They have sandwiches too, and even some chicken–although who orders chicken from the Clam Shack?

After waiting about 10 minutes, our number was called and I picked up our food while my husband staked out our bench. There was a warning sign posted–“The seagulls love our food as much as you do. Please be careful.”

We took our seats on a picnic bench overlooking the water.

We eagerly tore into our lobster rolls first, but not without admiring the chunks of claw and tail meat loaded onto the hamburger-style bun. Unlike the traditional split-top hot dog roll that carries most lobster rolls, the ones at the clam shack were a little more sandwich-like.

How cute is that claw hanging over the side?! I couldn’t resist and grabbed a quick bite before taking a close up shot.

That’s what I’m talking about!

The clam strips are my personal favorite. Nice meaty chunks of clam breaded and fried. Honestly, I think my true affinity is for the tartar sauce. The clam strips aren’t half bad though.

Look how big and meaty they are! The Clam Shack was also giving out coupons to their ice cream shop that day, but mine must have disappeared (which is probably a good thing after all those clam strips.)

I learned something interesting during this meal. My epicurean dog, Jewels, does not care for lobster. I gave her a small piece that she tried and spit out. Because it had been in her mouth and on the ground, I tossed it into the water. As soon as the lobster bit broke the surface of the water, a striper that had to be at least 3 feet long attacked the tasty morsel and just as quickly retreated. Our neighbors (some people who had the bright idea to share our small bench with us…) were impressed and the four of us spent the next few minutes throwing in (a little more) food–not lobster–and watching 3 large fish lurking below. When we went kayaking in the same waters the next day, I was petrified that I was going to run into one of those big guys. Not my finest moment.

The next day we went looking for a dog-friendly lunch spot in the area. A shop owner suggested a few places in Cape Porpoise, a short drive from the area. My husband had biked to Cape Porpoise the previous day and agreed that it would be a great place to have lunch and sightsee. We drove past the Bush Compound which is a surprisingly magnetic attraction, regardless of one’s political inclinations, about ten minutes to another working harbor, Cape Porpoise. The Cape Pier Chowder House is an unremarkable building at the end of a scattered parking lot.  There is some signage on your way in, but it is actually facing the water so you do not see the House until you are on top of it.

A line is never a bad thing. It speaks to the popularity of the place which usually, but not always, correlates with the quality. DiNic’s Roast Pork in the Reading Terminal is a good example, while Pat’s and Geno’s are not.

The place had an interesting set up. It was completely open on one side and all of the seats were outside. The only things that took place inside were the ordering, condiment collection and preparation of food. It was neat to watch the woman (all women, by the way!) weighing and preparing the lobsters to order. ou can’t get much fresher than that!I didn’t get to snap a picture because I was, quite honestly,  a bit intimated by these hard working women. YBecause it was a little more off the beaten path than the Clam Shack, lobster rolls were a few dollars cheaper (having an affinity for lobster can certainly add up!) Instead of saving money, we decided to take the opportunity to order even more. A few minutes after putting in our order, this was brought to our table.

That’s right, folks! We had two lobster rolls, clam strips, a cup of clam chowder AND a humongous ear of buttered corn. It was delicious and fresh and everything you could possibly want a lunch to be. The tartar sauce was good too. While I give the edge to the clam strips at the Clam Shack, the Chowder House takes the cake for the lobster roll with the traditional split top bun and option for corn. Although we didn’t indulge, they also have a liquor license and an icy cold beer could have been mighty tasty with this meal.

Afterwards we took the dog to frolic in the water a bit and enjoyed the scenery.

The Kennebunk Inn-Academe

I will preface this post with the subtitle–“A Tale of Two Restaurants.”

A few years ago, I fell hard for former New York Times food editor and (then current) Gourmet Magazine editor, Ruth Reichl.  I read a number of her books, which would fall under the increasingly growing sub-category of “food memoir,” but became particularly smitten with Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise. In Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl discusses her tenure as Times restaurant critic and the costumes, meals and emotion involved in the job. The book is an easy yet interesting read, divided into chunks that centered on the restaurant she was reviewing and how that fit into her life at the time.

Two interesting side notes to this book. First, my best friend borrowed the book shortly after I finished it. She, too, enjoyed it immensely, but owned up that she had spilled red wine on my hardback copy and had gotten me a paperback replacement because that was all that was available at the bookstore. Instead of taking the new book, I opted for my increasingly tattered and now wine stained book because every tear, wrinkle and stain tells a story. The other story is a bit more serious. Five years ago, my father was in the hospital for a month with an undisclosed lung infection that necessitated a medically-induced coma. I sat faithfully by his bed each day until he shocked the medical world (true story) by turning the corner and is in impeccable shape today. Because I was so distraught by his illness, it was difficult for me to concentrate on anything serious. Instead, I spent hours reading and rereading Garlic and Sapphires, allowing Reichl’s words to take me to another place with Bob Dylan and the Band on repeat on my ipod.  I saw Ruth Reichl at a reading at the Free Library of Philadelphia a year or two ago and became emotional when I had the opportunity to meet her. It’s amazing to think how much someone can have an affect on your life without even knowing.

But I digress yet again.

In Garlic and Sapphires, Reichl is often faced with the dilemma or wrapping her head around the “meaning” of her job. Although she held a lofty position and had the opportunity to have red carpet treatment at every restaurant in the City, she wanted to be sure she was able to truly and honestly critique the restaurants for “the people.” She wanted every Tom, Dick and Harry to understand what his experience would be like should he opt to eat at Le Cirque, for example, rather than having them read about her amazing meal only to come and be treated like a (gasp) normal person or worse. To combat this concern, she had different personas that came complete with wigs and costume overhauls so that she truly got the everyman’s dining experience.

Although we did not wear costumes at The Kennebunk Inn’s Academe Brasserie in Maine, we had the unique opportunity to do something we’ve never done before–eat dinner at the same restaurant two days in a row. Let me back up a bit. My husband and I were planning a trip to New England to visit his aunt, sister and brother-in-law. We decided to take a side trip up to Kennebunkport, Maine, which is only about an hour north of Gloucester, Massachusetts. In googling “dog friendly hotels Kennebunk” (more budget friendly lodging than the ‘Port as locals call Kennebunkport) I came across The Kennebunk Inn. It turns out we stayed at The Kennebunk Inn three years ago when we were last in Maine. According to the dog-friendly website and a confirmation call to the hotel, dogs were not only allowed, but we would be able to leave her in the room if we wanted to partake in any dog-unfriendly activities in Maine. Score! Many of the supposed dog-friendly hotels will not allow you to leave your dog in the room unattended.

We got into Kennebunk mid-day on Wednesday and went immediately to Kennebunkport for a lobster roll and clam strips at the Clam Shack and a stroll around town. Stay tuned for my lobster roll post. We went back to the hotel room and I found a local pet supply store while my husband explored the area on his bike. When he returned, we took Jewels to the beach for her first experience with waves. She loved it!

The weather was lovely and we decided that we would have dinner at the Inn that evening. We headed to the private courtyard and made ourselves comfortable (despite the wicked Maine mosquitoes) while waiting for our martinis. For $7.50 and $8.00 for dirty Absolut and Beefeater martinis respectively, we got a great deal. Especially considering the mini shaker that came with another half a martinis worth on the side.

The martinis were fine although I still haven’t found one that holds a candle to James or Le Virtu’s skilled bartenders. We enjoyed them while we perused the vast menu. I had already checked out the menu online and couldn’t help but be drawn to the chicken croquettes. Why? I’m not sure. However, I couldn’t peel myself away from them. I decided to be piggy and go with the chicken croquettes and the lobster pizza. When in Maine, right? My husband ordered the specials–haddock chowder and an intriguing scallop dish.

Our appetizer arrived we tore into after the deliciously moist and fresh out of the oven rolls. My croquettes were larger than expected.

The order came with three substantial croquettes surrounding a heap of crunchy romaine, cucumbers and tomatoes with ranch dressing. Where shall I even begin…The chicken was smooth and creamy, yet chunky enough to grasp the freshness of it. The cool crunch of the salad played perfectly with the warm creaminess of the croquette and I loved the light breading on the outside. Although these were phenomenal, I only ate 2/3 (well, a little less with tastes by my husband and the dog) and brought one back to the room for a midnight, Top Chef watching snack.

The Haddock chowder was creamy and flavor rich with huge chunks of Haddock. We had a fair amount of chowders on this trip and Academe’s haddock chowder stands out as one of the best–heavy on fish, light on filler.

Look at those big chunks of haddock!

Our entrees came out rather quickly afterward, although we had some interesting dialogue with both the chatty folks at the next table over and the quirky and absent-minded yet friendly and eager-to-please waitress. My lobster pizza had a nice combination of freshly picked claw and tail meat.

I would have liked to see a little more of the truffle flavor and less of the roasted tomato. In my mind, lobster warrants a white pizza and while this one did not have sauce, the chunks of roasted tomato confused my eager palate.

My husband scored big time with the scallops

The dish was complex and well thought-out. There were four nice sized diver scallops pan seared with roasted figs and tomato carpaccio topped with pancetta and a reduction of grapes from their garden. On the end of the plate sat a large goat cheese ravioli. I am not, unfortunately, a scallop eater, due to a nasty bout of food poisoning the night before the Eagles’ Super Bowl appearance, but my husband enthusiastically devoured them and gave them two thumbs up. I had a small yet satisfying bite of the ravioli which had a thin and tangy goat cheese filling.

We finished the evening with a glass of port and decided to forgo dessert although they had really interesting sounding desserts including a reverse root beer float that had vanilla soda over root beer flavored ice cream. They also allowed for moderation portions, which are smaller portions of any of the desserts for an affordable $3.50. This is my kind of place.

If you want to read an awesome review of an amazing meal, stop reading now. If you want to read the full story, please continue.

The next day we had a bit of a snafu with the dog-friendliness of the hotel. This is a food blog so we’ll leave it at that, but I will say that I am out $35 for a kayak trip that I was unable to take. Instead, I shopped with Jewels who was admired by many. After my husband returned from his solo trip, we drove out for more lobster rolls, chowder and clam strips (ah, life is good) and then returned to the hotel where I shopped and he went for a bike ride until 5pm when the beaches are open to dogs. Because we were having such a nice time, it was 7pm before we left the beach and the three of us were tired and hungry. Due to the bark nazis at the hotel and the fact that we greatly enjoyed our meal there the previous night, we decided to just return to Academe.

We got to the restaurant around 7:40. I waited in the courtyard with the dog while my husband went inside to get us seated. He came out shortly afterwards with two menus in his hand saying that the hostess had asked him to seat himself. This should have been our first warning, but we practically didn’t notice. After ten minutes had passed (and I had difficulty deciding because I wanted to hear the specials) with no server in sight, I went inside to speak with the hostess. Our conversation went as follows:

Me: I just wanted to check to see if anyone knew we were outside?

Her: Um. Probably not. I’ll tell them

Me: **A little confused** OK, thanks

I went back outside and we waited another 5-7 minutes. I got up again, much to my husband’s chagrin. I tracked down the hostess and tried again.

Me: I was just wondering if anyone was going to come outside

Her: Oh, no one has given you anything?

Me: No

Her: No water, no nothing?

Me: No, and I am staying here at the Inn and I ate here last night and right now I’m pretty unhappy.

Her: OK, I’ll have someone come right out.

I turned around on my heels, absolutely furious at this point. It took another 3-5 minutes for a waitress to come out, followed by the hostess hurrying to fill our water glasses. The waitress sat down and I expected to hear wholehearted apologies from both of them. Instead we got hurried apologies and a recitation of the specials, while our waitress got a comfortable seat.  We ordered our drinks which came out slowly and put in our food order.

I am a bit ashamed to say that I did another thing that I have never done before. Not only did we eat at the same restaurant two nights in a row, but I also ordered the same thing–chicken croquettes. They were so darn good the night before that I decided to have them again. I also ordered the other pizza I had been eying the previous night–shaved beef with mashed potatoes. Interesting. My husband went with the iceberg salad and the surf and turf.

While we were waiting, waiting, waiting for our appetizers (and our waitress disappeared time and time again) we heard the kitchen banter through the screen connecting the kitchen to the outdoors. I enjoyed hearing the orders being fired and the working chatter of the kitchen. I did not enjoy hearing out waitress ask about rolls only to hear her response–“oh shit.” Shortly thereafter she brought out our appetizers with no silverware. When I asked for rolls she said “we’re working on that” and returned with some lukewarm crusty bread that may have otherwise been good, but was no replacement for the luscious rolls. Apparently they had run out.

Luckily, the croquettes were just as good as the night before. Yes, I took another picture.

You’ll notice that the picture quality is not quite as good. This is was getting progressively darker during this long, long meal. My husband got the simple yet refreshing iceberg salad. He was hoping for a wedge, but this was probably our fault for not reading the menu carefully enough.  The salad was tasty and refreshing with all the crunch that iceberg offers. Besides, there was a healthy sprinkling of bacon on top, so he couldn’t really complain.

Our entrees were good, yet didn’t quite reach the first night’s success. I enjoyed the interesting flavors of my pizza–beef, mashed potatoes and a vanilla port reduction, although I didn’t love the pizza itself. This is my fault for ordering pizza two nights in a row–oh yeah, and for ordering pizza in Maine period. It was still an interesting dish and made for some tasty late night, Jersey Shore watching snacking.

The surf and turf was interesting. The beef was extremely tender–no detectable chewiness whatsoever–and was cooked perfectly. The lobster corn croquette, on the other hand, was overpowered by vanilla while there was not nearly enough lobster. We had both been eying the dish since the previous night, so I’m glad he ordered it. It was just underwhelming.

Although we were planning on getting desserts, the mosquitoes were killing us and we could not bear to sit outside for another moment after the interminable meal. It took me 15 minutes to even get the bill and pay while my husband retreated to our room with the dog. When I got the bill, I noticed that we were charged full price for everything. I do not own a restaurant and thus would never tell someone how to run their business, but I will say this–unhappy customers should be appeased in some manner. I felt as if the apologies we were given were fruitless and nothing more than lip service. I would have asked to speak to the owner(s) had I not known that they are both chefs. Last time I had a poor experience at a restaurant, they bent over backwards to apologize and make up for the errors that I will certainly be returning. The next day the hostess (who was also working the front desk) apologized and told me that they were overwhelmed with diners that evening. Well, after they’re on the Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate” for their lobster pot pie, I hope they’re ready, because this ain’t gonna cut it. The Academe Brasserie is an excellent example of a place that has tons of potential but needs some fine tuning in the front of the house to counter the interesting and just plain fun things that are going on in the kitchen. Best of luck to them and here’s hoping it’s just growing pains.