As we drive north on Route 295, more and more vehicles are racked with bicycles and kayaks. Licenses plates decorated with chickadees and pine cones, loons, moose, and lobster increase, too. Like kids entertaining themselves in the days before “devices” did that work, we begin counting Subarus. It’s summertime in Vacationland. We’re in Maine.
On this trip to Mount Desert Island, we decided to break up the 493-mile drive from New York City to our house in Somesville by spending one night in Portland. “The journey is the reward,” I said, quoting Steve Jobs to Fred, who wanted to drive through without stopping. I finally convinced him of the beauty of my idea by reading him reviews of the sublime wood roasted mussels in garlic almond butter at Fore Street Restaurant. He was in.
Fortunately, we were able to get in. In July and August you’re advised to book reservations one to two months in advance, but one-third of the tables are held for walk-ins. We were able to snag a table for two at 7:45, for which there had been a cancellation just moments before.
Fore Street Restaurant opened in a handsome brick industrial building one block from the Portland waterfront in 1996. By 2004 Chef Sam Hayward was named Best Chef/Northeast by the James Beard Foundation. Ironically, Hayward’s personal acclaim results from his celebration of Maine farmers, fishermen, foragers, and cheese makers through straightforward cooking approaches and preparations.
The menu at Fore Street, which changes daily, reflects this. It is organized by the general origins of the food and preparation methods—garden, raw and chilled sea food, oven roasted sea food, oven roasted and pan seared meats, chilled meats and offal on the first page of appetizers, followed by entrees and sides of pan seared sea food, wood oven roasted seafood, wood grilled meats, turnspit roasted meats, plants and fungi, vegetables. As with so many of Maine’s most exciting farm-to-fork restaurants, the originating locale of the food is also noted.
This dedication to the elemental flavors of the foods isn’t to say that the dishes are “plain.” The chilled seafood platter, for example, included cured Sockeye salmon with English pea puree and sliced Cape Cod scallops with chili oil. The roasted halibut filet from the Gulf of Maine was accented with roasted garlic scapes and a duck egg and mustard mayonnaise.
The July evening we visited temperatures were over 90 degrees in Portland. Even the street entertainers seemed to languish. I ordered a gin and tonic, the most refreshing drink I know, and began to focus on the sea food. As I studied the menu from our coppertop table, the charms of the large, wood-filled dining room begin to distract me. The waitress said, “You can imagine how lovely it is on a snowy night,” gesturing toward the large, leaded windows.
Central to the dining room is the open kitchen. The line of four cooks operates in unison, with high-pitched calls keeping the beat. With a paddle one cook removes iron-clad dishes from the large, open wood stove. Flames shoot up. Another mans the turnspit, roasting pork, chicken, and rabbit.
So thoroughly has the atmosphere of the place affected me that, suddenly, when the waitress returns, I order wood oven roasted mackerel with roasted red onion sauce and grilled hanger steak! Fred had already declared his choices of the roasted mussels and breast of Rohan duckling with pickled cherries with black pepper and juniper. Maybe this “game time decision,” as Fred said, was in anticipation of sharing the excellent 2007 Barbera our waitress would recommend.
After our entrees, we ordered a selection of artisan cheeses as we finished our wine. We concluded the meal with three sorbets and glasses of refreshing moscato d’asti, preparing ourselves for the reality of the heat outside.