Down East Vacation: Chocolate and Lobster in Maine
|Fore Street's dessert menu|
If the first thing that comes to mind when you're walking around the Old Port in Portland, Maine, is a chocolate egg cream, you should probably get on the next JetBlue flight back to New York, head straight to the Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain, and then make an appointment with a psychoanalyst. The first thing that should come to mind when you're walking around Portland is a lobster roll. A lobster roll is really just lobster meat tossed one way or another in mayo and seasoning, and since everything here is fresh off the lobster boats it's impossible to go wrong--but if you need a recommendation, I was perfectly satisfied at the slightly upmarket Old Port Sea Grill on Commercial Street, Anthony Bourdain approves of the gritty J's Oyster, and Serious Eats keeps a catalogue of the best lobster rolls in the area. After you've had your first lobster roll, if you're homesick or nostalgic for a chocolate egg cream, take the ten minute drive over the Casco Bay Bridge to South Portland, where you'll find Marguerite Swoboda in her four-month-old chocolate shop on Cottage Road. Sweet Marguerites is a Maine family business--a former investment banker, Marguerite (Meg) enrolled in culinary school at Southern Maine Community College in 2001, with the help of her engineer/IT-manager husband Bill (who can fix any piece of equipment, including a 35-year-old tempering machine) started a home-based chocolate wholesale business in 2006, won a shiny Sofi Award at the Fancy Food Show in New York in 2010 while placing her fleur de sel caramels with Maine sea salt (along with subtle sweet potato caramels and about ten other confections) in small shops everywhere from Breckenridge, CO, to Fort Lauderdale, FL, and then decided to open this place (the only spot in the neighborhood with good coffee and free wifi), which will soon be managed be her freshly-minted college-graduate daughter, Anna. But one member of the family, Meg's son Jeff, spent some time working for April Bloomfield (of the Spotted Pig, Breslin Bar and Dining Room, and John Dory Oyster Bar) in New York, and he was the one who came back with a taste for chocolate egg creams. They're now on the menu at Sweet Marguerites every day--and the family discovered that the secret to a good egg cream (as simple to make as a lobster roll--just seltzer, milk, and chocolate syrup) is to save the El Rey and Cocoa Barry couvertures for the confections and rely on good old fashioned Fox's U-Bet chocolate-flavor syrup.
Before setting out from New York last Wednesday, I asked around for southeastern Maine travel tips. One friend told me that "Fore Street is supposed to be straightforward but excellent Maine cuisine." This was perfect for my dad, who is celebrating his 70th birthday and reminiscing about his days at Camp Tall Timbers on Lake Casco. We had rich buttery foie gras on a bed of mustard seeds, New England hake and sea bass baked in cast iron pans in a wood oven, and local berries along with a selection of chocolates made in house (like Meg at Sweet Marguerites, the pastry chef here uses El Rey couvertures, and the best of the lot was the simple ganache truffle made thai-basil-steeped cream). Portland is a bit different from the ramshackle port town my dad remembers from the 1950s and 60s, and there are now dozens of restaurants that draw on local fish and produce for their artisan menus that are as good and as pricy as those in San Francisco or New York. (Another revered--and uber-contemporary--spot is Hugo's, where Meg's son Jeff works in the kitchen.)
Advice from another friend, echoed by the local paper, was "Main Maine advice is eat Lobster!" We did that yesterday by driving from our friends Arthur and Louise Glickman's farm near Waterville to Young's Lobster Pound in Belfast. Belfast (which has a Woodstocky posh hippie vibe) was once named one of the "Coolest Small Towns in America" by Budget Travel magazine, which is fun. But it's even more fun to tear into a bright red lobster with your bare hands (you'll need a cracker and a pick, too--bring your own) and drench the wonderful, sweet, succulent pieces of meat in melted butter before placing them immediately in your mouth. In my lifetime, Arthur and Louise have been dried flower arrangers, maple syrupers, and overseers of the legacy of the late photographer Joe Dankowski. Today, they're farmers and foodies, so we came back from Belfast with loot from a shop called Eat More Cheese and covered the table with our post-lobster-dinner plate of robiola, morbier, and "ewephoria," Meg's caramels, the leftovers from Fore Street, and a box of cherry- and berry-infused bon bons from Chocolate Arts in Vancouver (where Arthur and Louise's son finds ESL teachers for overseas schools and overseas posts for North American ESL teachers). Arthur went to high school with my dad in Brooklyn, but I doubt that his first thought when he relocated to Maine in 1973 was of a chocolate egg cream. Now that he knows that Meg Swoboda makes them, though, he might have one next time he's in South Portland.