Mainers often have the reputation of being as hard-shelled as their lobsters. And sure, they can be pretty particular about their way of life, and stubborn about changing their minds. But Portland, in recent years, has become quite a hipster city replete with aromatic coffee hangouts and craft beer joints, and the southeastern coast, with its abundance of shellfish and micro-season fruits and vegetables, has been inducing plenty of farm-to-table chefs to set up shop. So while cracking open a boiled lobster at a pound on a wharf and dipping the meat in drawn butter may still be one of the most enjoyable ways to consume the crustacean, not too many chefs in the Pine Tree State seem shy about serving it up in ways that might be construed as less than loyal. (As a plus, these dishes also prove a lot lighter on the patron’s dry cleaning bill.)
In fact, there’s even a competition that promotes the chef who uses the meat most innovatively. Today, Matt Ginn, the 2015 Maine Lobster Chef of the Year, features a variable five-course lobster tasting menu at his mezze restaurant Evo Kitchen + Bar in Portland. At Academe — A Maine Brasserie & Tavern in The Kennebunk Inn in Kennebunkport, co-chef and co-owner Shanna Katherine Horner O’Hea, who was the 2013 Maine Lobster Chef of the Year, made her winning dish, the “Lobster Lo’Maine,” with lo mein noodles, chilled lobster, pork belly, scallions, cilantro, sesame seeds and white miso-soy dressing, an annual staple. So while some of these inventive plates may be available all year long, others are seasonal. Take advantage while you can — or make plans to visit the following summer to see what new inspirations they’re concocting.
1. Wasabi, Chipotle or Curry Lobster Roll, Bite Into Maine
Fort Williams Park, Cape Elizabeth
Second only to boiled (or steamed) whole lobster, the lobster roll is a grand culinary classic that has startlingly few ingredients for something so darn delicious: shelled lobster served on a toasted hot dog bun. If you order it “Connecticut” style, it comes finished with drawn butter; Mainers prefer it mixed with mayonnaise and sometimes topped with a touch of chopped chives or a bit of celery for crunch. Some, however, consider anything additional a sacrilege — in which case Bite Into Maine is committing grave sins indeed with its picnic version (butter and coleslaw) and a trio of internationally flavored mayo: wasabi, chipotle and curry. Regardless of which of the six rolls you choose from this “Mainecentric Mobile Eatery” (a fancy way of saying food truck), you’ll be impressed by both the amount and quality of the lobster meat stuffed into each one.
Renowned chef-proprietor David Turin has several properties in southern Maine, and it’s a good bet that any one of them that you choose has this signature open-faced ravioli on the menu. At the Kennebunkport location, Turin often throws a handful of sweet day-boat scallops and Gulf shrimp in with the lobster over the long sheet of homemade pasta and herbed ricotta. Then he dresses the whole with a Sherry lobster cream sauce, garnishes it with some herbs and a helping of seasonal vegetables — often green beans, along with matchstick zucchini and/or summer squash and carrots. It’s like seafood Newburg meets Alfredo, and it’s seriously, unarguably rich. Too rich? Nah. But this probably isn’t the wisest choice to consume before your annual physical.
This Cape Elizabeth mainstay always offers single or twin boiled lobsters during the summer, and if you’re around for brunch service, the rich lobster eggs Benedict is worth the lecture your doctor will give you about cholesterol. But what is truly prime hunting ground is the enormous Cobb salad that features an entire shelled lobster perched atop a bed of romaine, surrounded by diced red onions, chopped tomatoes, quartered hard-boiled eggs, thick-cut bacon and crumbled blue cheese. Homemade honey mustard dressing is the ideal complement. Also on the plus side, because technically it’s a “salad,” you don’t feel too guilty about finishing up with a slice of fresh blueberry pie.
Inn by the Sea, Cape Elizabeth
Like any devoted regional chef, Executive Chef Andrew Chadwick adores his lobster. If you stay at the hotel, be sure to try the lobster frittata for breakfast, which is made with poached lobster and asparagus (and if you’re feeling really extravagant, ask about the 12-quail egg omelet with lobster tail and 24 karat gold). If you’re just visiting for dinner and you’re lucky, you’ll hit Sea Glass on a night when he’s making the lobster-corn bisque as the “daily soup inspiration,” which tastes like buttered lobster and popcorn turned into a soup. Fortunately, his lobster tacos, a trio of miniature delicacies, are on the menu for both lunch and dinner. A refreshing combination of avocado mousse, lobster meat, diced radish and a garnish of pickled cucumber, these crunchy little bites are a wonderful precursor to a gluten-free, butter-poached lobster (served with braised local greens and roots including turnips and carrots), or a light meal all on their own.
Lots of places serve lobster macaroni and cheese. It’s no longer a novelty. But not every place chooses to use homemade trumpet pasta and mix it with what looks like practically a whole lobster — you can spot two claws in every dish —that’s cracked and picked by hand. Tuscan Brick Oven Bistro, an Italian-Mainer fusion establishment owned by Freeport native chef Christopher Geer, who takes advantage of every locally produced source that he can, also combines three cheeses (aged Gouda, Fontina and Parmigiano-Reggiano), then adds pancetta and regional red ale for even more flavor. The final step that guarantees an order from almost every party? Geer takes a play from the lobster pie handbook and tops the long-handled casserole with cracker crumbs. But instead of tossing them in butter like the old-timers do, he uses truffle oil. No, you won’t be able to finish this. If you’re a local or staying in a hotel that has a microwave, we give you permission to do a discreet fist pump under the table and take home a doggy bag. (Bonus: You can have this made with gluten-free pasta!)
Portland Regency Hotel & Spa, Portland
Located in the former Armory in the Old Port, the Portland Regency’s main restaurant, Twenty Milk Street (which is the same as its address), features an archetypal lobster salad — simply the meat and mayo — that patrons can enjoy on a toasted croissant for a bit of chic in the regally appointed dining room. During the summer months, however, patrons are encouraged to take it al fresco at the shady Garden Café space located across from the front entrance. The way to order it here is reflective of the pretty environs: As a composed salad tiered with avocado that’s been accented with red onion and lime juice, and mango that’s been tossed in jalapeño and red pepper. A drizzle of basil oil gives this tropical interpretation a savory finish.
Portland International Jetport
Proving that you can’t enter or leave the region without encountering the state’s most precious ingredient next to blueberries, the Portland International Jetport is framed by two seafood eateries, including Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster Café, where you can buy carry-on live lobsters for transport back home. At the other side of the small airport, Shipyard Restaurant, the outpost of nearby Shipyard Brew Pub, offers these lobster nachos, which are laden with the typical accoutrements of tomatoes, corn, black beans jalapeños and cheese, as well as a heaping portion of sweet lobster meat. Served with salsa, sour cream, and guacamole, they can get pretty filling fairly quickly, especially if you’re accompanying them with a Sea Dog Wild Blueberry wheat ale. But at least you won’t need those generic pretzels on the plane.