Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tasty Seafood Cliche

You know the place. You see them on any American coastline from the Alaska panhandle to the northern tip of Maine. The classic, almost cliched seafood restaurant.

All have the same basic decor: dark wood paneling, model ships, nautical and fishing paraphernalia from ship tubes to nets strewn about the dining room or hung on walls and ceilings. The only way you know where are you are local touches like lobster traps in Maine, oyster tongs in New Orleans and South Carolina or something salmon-related in the Pacific northwest.

The food? Too big portions with too much butter, breading and sour cream. The taste typically ranges from decent to mediocre to awful.

Boothbay Harbor in Maine where my family went on vacation earlier this month had more than its share of such venerable establishments. We decided to try a typical exemplar called Brown's Wharf.

To be honest, our expectations were pretty low. We were tired and very hungry, still trying to shake a bad food experience in Portland a few nights before (let's just say that we violated most of Tony Boudain's rules and paid the price).

We were pleasantly surprised. The dishes were particularly well done versions of the classic seafood restaurant fare with some surprises. I especially loved this arugula salad with a blueberry vinaigrette. I'd never had Maine blueberries before, and they really are a world apart: intense flavor, sweet and fresh. They were in season. I ate very leaf.

Then it was on to the entree, which my wife also had: haddock with risotto. I feared the risotto would be too heavy, but the chef had a light touch. Delicious, but way too much food.

My daughter loved it as well. We indulged her with a kids favorite, a classic shrimp cocktail with tangy cocktail sauce.

We liked the place so much that we returned a second night. This time, they had an interesting variation, a lobster salad in a popover. Again excellent. It worked very well. The salad was tasty without too much mayonnaise and the popover was fresh and light.

So if you are in Boothbay Harbor and have a hankering for the kind seafood your grandparents loved, check out Brown's Wharf.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Kneading Local Grain

Here is a great piece in yesterday's New York Times food section about the rebirth of local grain growing in Maine and other parts of New England. Apparently, the Skowhegan area of central Maine (home to "The Beans of Egypt Maine," for those of you who remember the 1980s novel) used to be major grain-producing region. Today, it's making a comeback thanks to growing demand for locally produced and organic food.

Being an ardent bread baker, I'm intrigued. I wonder if locally grown grain really does taste different, actually does produce a superior loaf.

The story talks about the need to produce more food locally as the current centralized system of huge industrial farms is unsustainable. I'd like to believe that's so, but I'm not so sure. Of course, prices would be higher if we were produce most of our grain in New England instead of import it from the west and midwest.

But that raises another question. Would we be better off all around - health-wise, environmentally, taste and pleasure (so French, I know) - to eat more locally and pay more? Probably. Will Americans go for that? Unlikely.

As my mother, a mid-westerner who loves France and spent years in Europe, likes to say, the French live to eat, but the Americans eat to live.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tony's Dolce Vita

Tony Bourdain last week aired one of his best "No Reservations" episodes yet. The traveling chef visited Rome for the first time in his life. Explaining to the camera that he forever viewed the Eternal City through the lenses of 1960s Italian cinema, the entire episode, with the exception of some food shots, was shot in black and white.

The result was striking, some of the most visually interesting and beautiful TV I've ever seen. Tony was decked out in Italian chic, casual, stylish slacks and shirt open at the collar, his salt and pepper hair wild, yet controlled, somewhat like a Ferrari rounding a corner at 90 miles an hour. All he needed was a pair of classic black 1960s Ray-Bans and he would have been a latter day Marcello Mastroianni sampling the delights of La Dolce Vita.

And of course there was the food. It looked stupendous, everything from handmade pastas to shrimp barbecued on the beach. I wanted to get in a plane the minute the episode ended.

Tony's show keeps getting better and better. His episode earlier this season looking back 10 years to when Kitchen Confidential first came out was superb. It's a book that inspired me to get more serious about food and eating and whose dining-out rules I have found to be spot on predictors of quality and taste.

It was fascinating to watch Tony go from giddy with his new found fame and fortune to ambivalent to the point of wanting out. In those days, it looked like his future outside the kitchen, if he had one, was in writing. It turned out, somewhat unexpectedly, to be TV. Through it all, he appeared to be pretty much the same guy we saw in 2000 footage slinging steaks and ordering his kitchen brigade into battle.

It occurs to me that Tony is one of the few recent celebrities who has, at least so far, earned his fame and success, steadily improved what he does and kept his integrity intact. In a world where "The Situation" can earn $5 million a year and Kate Gosselin gets rich exploiting her children, that's no small feat.

Of course, it could all be a front. Tomorrow, we could find out that Tony has sold his soul to ADM to hype the goodness of high fructose corn syrup. Let's hope not. Media personalities who actually strive to do more than just make money, who seek to enlighten their audiences instead of pander to their prejudices and preconceived notions are as rare as gold today.

Keep up the good work Tony. I hope you're around for a long time.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Bad Seafood Restaurant Names

File this under "What Not to Name Your Seafood Restaurant." We just got back from a week in Maine where there's a seafood and/or lobster shack every 100 yards. Driving through Brunswick, Maine, I actually saw a joint called "Something's Fishy." How unappetizing. Why not just call it, "This Place Stinks of Rotting Fish"?

Ironically, the place actually gets pretty good reviews. Counter-marketing anyone?

I wish I'd grabbed a photo, but alas I was driving, and the place was in my field of vision for but a few seconds.

That wasn't the only poorly named seafood emporium we saw. How does "The Muddy Rudder" strike you? Believe it or not, it's a fine dining establishment also near Bath. It looks from its website like a fine establishment, but, really, what an odd name.

Much more on Maine eats to come.