Sunday, July 02, 2006
Here's a roundup of restaurants, diners, etc., on Mount Desert Island and environs I have visited in recent years. Dates are of last visit. I'll add and update with future visits to MDI and Downeast Maine.
I’ve yet to visit a lobster pound restaurant in Mount Desert or anywhere in Hancock or Washington counties that didn’t do a great job cooking crustaceans. Just steam them so many minutes per pound and you’ve got a perfect seaside meal. Same goes for the clams (soft belly clams, the true clam, not the quahog pretender).
So, as for the debate of who does a better job, Beal’s in Southwest Harbor or Thurston’s in Bernard (on Bass Harbor), the quality of the food is not an issue. Both use fresh-hauled, minimally impounded lobsters. Both know how to cook them. Both charge about the same price.
What does make the difference is ambiance, and here Thurston’s is the clear winner. Beal’s seems hemmed in and does not offer a wide view of its harbor. Thurston’s dining area is at the end of the wharf with an expansive view of the harbor. Another edge for Thurston’s is that you can order the steamed seafood and all other offerings (dessert, burgers and hot dogs, etc.) at the same window. At Beal’s you have to walk halfway up the wharf. (2005)
Head of the Harbor in Southwest has an interesting location, but when I saw the prices for clams (I eat more pounds of clams during a week on MDI than lobster by a 4:1 ratio) my penurious personality got the best of me and I drove to Beal’s instead. (2003)
Keep in mind that the prices can be just a tad less expensive at the pounds in Trenton just before you cross the bridge onto MDI. I've found that Lunt's in particular is quite reliable. (2003)
DOWNEAST HOUSE OF DOGS, Southwest Harbor
Opened a few seasons back in a former soft ice cream stand near Seawall DHOD now occupies the former space of the Deacon Seat in Southwest Harbor. Based on how the Deacon Seat had declined in recent years, this is a welcome change. An awesome selection of dogs. One wonders how they can possibly maintain such a variety of stock. A freezer must help. I opted for the Best quarter-pounder; their menu identifies it as a NYC dog, but that's another case of the Big Apple trying to tap the barrel known as NJ: Best comes from Newark. I've never seen a Best quarter pounder before -- I'm used to the 5/pound served by Syd's, which, after tasting the quarter pounder, I prefer. Nonetheless this establishment is very welcome. (2005)
SEAFOOD KETCH, Bass Harbor
This staple seafooder on the southernmost part of MDI (Probably a 35-45 minute drive from Bar Harbor) offers reliable, tasty and fairly priced fare. When you want basic fried or broiled fish or seafood, come here. (2003)
RUPUNUNI, Bar Harbor
Another new stop for me last fall where I indulged in Maine's Spinney Creek Oysters. a burger, and a Dogfish Head IPA. The oysters were fresh and perfectly shucked, not a single drop of liquor spilled in the shucking or in delivering the plate to me. The burger was above average, and the IPA, well, I'm a sucker for IPA and this is one of the best of the breed. The overall menu is pretty wide ranging, with something for everyone. Not a destination restaurant, but a good place to enjoy well-cooked meals and a great beer selection. (2005)
HAVANA, Bar Harbor
Mike Boland and his wife, Deidre are the restaurant conglamateurs of Bar Harbor. While Mike runs Rupununi (including expediting in the kitchen during peak hours), Deidre manages Havana, which has higher culinary aspirations and prices more in line with George's than Rupununi. Again, I went for a meal of appetizers: a thick, spicy tomato soup with goat-cheese encrusted crouton, a scallop with more ingredients than I can remember, also well-seasoned, and, the hit of the evening to me, mushroom spring rolls served with a delicate sauce. The soup and scallops were intensively seasoned, and if the kitchen has a fault, it is this; the natural goodness of the prime ingredient is challenged by both the intensity of the seasoning and the use of too many accompaniments to a dish. I'm not against spice and heat, but particularly with the scallop dish (which arrived a tad overcooked) the seasoning and variety of flavors nearly overwhelmed the native flavor. A little restraint would actually take Havana up a notch. (2005)
EPI'S, Bar Harbor
Freshly made Italian-style sandwiches. Maybe not like a South Philly hoagie or a Ninth Avenue sub, but filling and good. Great to take along on hikes (hold the mayo). (2003)
LITTLE NOTCH BAKERY & PIZZERIA, Southwest Harbor
Great Italian style breads (of the rustic variety) and very, very, very good pizza and hot sandwiches. The retail restaurant is on the main drag, the actual bakery out near the wharf, though you can buy the bread at a number of stores in the area. (2005)
RIVERSIDE CAFÉ, Ellsworth
Last August, before we even hit MDI, we stopped in Ellsworth for lunch at the Riverside Café. You may have known it as “Dick’s” when it was located at State & Main; for at least a few years, it’s been up Main Street closer to the Grand and across the street from Maidee’s. It’s a great place for breakfast or lunch, but be prepared to wait during the peak summer season, unless there is room at the counter. She Who Must Be Obeyed (SWMBO) highly recommends the excellent bacon to accompany your eggs in the morning (or at lunch). Homemade onion rings were generous, sweet and took up just the right amount of grease. I thought the clam chowder was too thick and had a higher potato/clam ratio than necessary. The fried haddock (I had it as a sandwich, but it’s also available as a platter) was excellent: very lightly battered, perfectly deep-fried with no trace of residual oil. (2003)
JORDON POND HOUSE, Acadia National Park
Operated by the company which holds the franchise for food and shops within Acadia National Park, the Jordon Pond House, while offering okay but overpriced food for lunch and dinner, is essential for afternoon "tea and popovers". The setting, with a view of The Bubbles up the pond, is delicious, the popovers hot and eggy. Reservations are a must for tea (and even then you'll probably wait 10 or 15 minutes). (2005)
BAR HARBOR INN, Bar Harbor
If you enjoy a Sunday buffet brunch with spectacular views, head to the Bar Harbor Inn. The food is mostly what you expect for a Sunday buffet brunch – carving station, omelets and Belgian waffles to order, pastas, salads, breakfast meats – with a moderate emphasis on seafood. How many places offer Finan Haddie on a buffet table, or at all? Decent smoked salmon. The bagels were pre-sliced and divided into eighths, so it would be impossible to make a sandwich, but in this instance I considered that a plus, because it helped to prevent me from overindulging in carbohydrates. Also a nice selection smoked mussels, shrimp and scallops. What was missed from previous years, however, were the crepes with strawberry sauce. (2003)
Until last October I hadn't been to XYZ since it moved from the waterfront at Manset to the new location off Rt. 102A. A delightful room, with many of the same posters/art on the wall and old favorites on the menu. And they still make killer margaritas. A few years back Janet took lengua off the menu, apparently because of supplier issues. Well, they're back but in an entirely different form: instead of braised and served hot as an entree, it's now an appetizer choices served "pickled" in a vinaigrette. Absolutely fabulous! The acidity was in great balance to the paté-like richness of the tongue. I made a meal of appetizers and also enjoyed the tamales (can you say delicate and tamale in the same sentence? These were and, oddly enough, quite nice) and the queso fundido. And the lime bombe pie for the desert. (2005)
THRUMCAP, Bar Harbor
I had enjoyed Porcupine Grill on Cottage Street in Bar Harbor in the 1990s, but a number of years ago the owner changed the menu and renamed the establishment Thrumcap. Three years ago I tried but, but I haven't been back. Although the quality of ingredients was good, the food imaginatively prepared (perhaps too imaginatively) and well executed, and the required prix fixe good value, this restaurant had a single serious problem: presumtiousness. We were told repeatedly how good every dish was and why, and how we should eat it. The implied message: “We know what’s trendy and good, and you don’t.” When a dining companion orderd a steak, she wasn't told the chef would prepare it rare or given a chance to order it to her preference. This same presumtiousness was most telling in the wine list. I have difficulty understanding how a restaurant that prides itself on wine and prominently displays Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence” certificates (that’s another story) does not offer a single riesling. It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but there is no finer all-around wine for food than riesling. Yes, the Alsatian pinot gris offered instead was quite nice, but it wasn’t riesling! When I asked a functionary in the front room (he may have been the owner, or perhaps just a barkeep – by my measure, if not his, he was no wine steward) his explanation was that they used to offer a riesling, but he doesn’t like German rieslings so he removed it from the list. This alone demonstrates the true value of Wine Spectator’s “Award of Excellence”. (A few other wine observations. Each dish on the menu comes with one or two wine recommendations, yet some of them do not appear on the wine list. Hard to know if they have them or not. In one instance, when they replaced the requested chardonnay without checking.) Again, it’s not that any of the dishes or wines were bad or even mediocre. All were good, some excellent. It’s just that the place has an irredeemable attitude problem. (2003)
GEORGE’S, Bar Harbor
In three decades of visiting MDI, I have yet to find another restaurant that offers the combination of food, service, and gracious surroundings of George’s. It remains my favorite destination dining room on the island. I was concerned a few years ago when I learned George had retired and sold his establishment after some 20+ years of operation. But subsequent visits demonstrate although there have been natural and evolutionary changes, the high standards (as well as a few of George’s standard dishes) remain in place. (2005)
BURNING TREE, Otter Creek
A seafood/vegetarian outpost, which many swear by. Not me. (2001)
CHASE'S, Winter Harbor
Across Frenchman's Bay from Bar Harbor (you can drive or take a passenger ferry) is this diner-like restaurant in beautiful downtown Winter Harbor. Incredible fish stews and chowders. Excellent fried clams. Non-Bar Harbor prices. (2005)
FISHERMAN'S INN, Winter Harbor
A classic fish house owned by the former chef at the Bar Harbor Inn. The fried belly clams were crisp with a light coating (cornmeal, I suspect), perfectly fried and utterly sweet. Each table gets house-made foccacia, which didn't impress me until I tasted the dipping sauce: your basic EVO vinaigrette punctuated with lots and lots of garlic, countered by just a little parsley. I ate the whole thing, and not a drop of dipping sauce remained. (2005)
MAMA BOY BISTRO, Winter Harbor
This is the third restaurant in the Boland empire, across Frenchman Bay from Bar Harbor where Rupununi and Havana are located. They acquired it from a previous owner who was financed by his mother; the previous owner was upfront about his financing, hence the name. Locals have avoided it because of the perception of small servings and high prices, an image the Bolands are trying to overcome.
BEECH HILL FARM, Southwest Harbor
There's an organic farm on Beech Hill Road which is a project of the College of the Atlantic: Beech Hill Farm. It's farmstand is open 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. Good stuff if you have a kitchen available and/or plan on picnicing.