Belfast and Up North to Down East

Belfast, Maine

This tree, on a residential lawn, greets you as you head into downtown Belfast:

Virginia may be for lovers, but Maine is for cookie lovers. I haven’t had a bad cookie since I entered the state, and, sure enough, the ones at Weaver’s Bakery (101 Main Street, Belfast, Maine; 207-338-3540), an otherwise unexceptional-seeming luncheonette, were charming, unaffected, and irresistible.

I’m accustomed to big-city cookies, which, like big-city muffins, come in on the big truck. Even if they’re baked in-store, they’re nearly always made from that same cynical industrial batter.

But the SYSCO trucks seem not to make it up this far. This forces cookie bakers to actually bake cookies. While the cookies at Weaver may lack artistry, they are honest. And in a cookie, honesty is all that counts. All cookies ask is that you be non-evil in their preparation.

Doesn’t this photo (if you click to larger view) make you sigh?

Across from Weaver’s is Chase’s Daily (96 Main Street, Belfast, Maine; 207-338-0555).

This is a neo-hippie market/bakery/restaurant/coffeehouse.

You can best grok the vibe via close examination of one of their napkins:

You don’t see napkins like this in New York City.

Per last night’s podcast, I’d been craving simplicity and heathfulness, so Chase’s Daily seemed a gift from heaven. I ordered the dullest, most earth-motherest thing on the menu: curried parsnip soup.

Well, I got my wish. This is food as nutrition. I probed for subtleties but tasted only … parsnips. I’d like to send one of those New American Cuisine believers in “using good ingredients and getting out of the way” to a place like this—where people really walk that walk. Cookies may benefit from being left alone to be cookies, but they’re unique. Parsnips, like most things, need help. Artifice is required to transform them into deliciousness.

By contrast, the fried-egg sandwich (with breadcrumbs, sautéed greens, and Grafton cheddar on grilled semolina bread) was also guileless, but value was injected via cannily chosen ingredients and stupefyingly perfect balance. The result: an unpretentious wonder I’ll forever crave:

Pastries were ambivalent. The bakers have more pretension than the cooks, so this stuff doesn’t know whether it wants to be voluptuous or ascetic. I tasted a bunch of these things, and none were memorable.

Scoops & Crepes (35 Main Street, Belfast, Maine; 207-338-3350) is a relaxed trippy café with counter service and an old upright piano. It’s open all winter.

The blueberry ice cream was extraordinary, redolent with mobs of intensely flavored wild blueberries. Not very sweet, this was obviously a blueberry lover’s ice cream made by blueberry lovers, with skill and love.

For lunch I hit Just Barb (24 Main Street, Stockton Springs, Maine; 207-567-3886), which makes peppery, soulful fish (haddock) chowder, though you have to really bear down to appreciate the subtle flavors. I’m finding that as I go north, flavors, like Mainers themselves, express themselves more recalcitrantly. You must slow down, look deep, and be patient.

Just Barb’s also makes great strawberry shortcake, even out of season. It’s all about the biscuits, and they’ve mastered them. The big problem, here and everywhere, is Cool Whip. Cool Whip is to New England what instant mashed potatoes are to the South. New Englanders love pie, cobbler, and shortbread—all of which involve whipped cream—as much as southerners love mashed potatoes. So why does seemingly everyone serve Cool Whip?

From Stockton Springs it was a long, long drive up to Machias, near the Canadian border. I’m finally Down East—a wry Maine term that actually refers to Up North. The foliage has been breathtaking all the way from Connecticut, but I’ve refrained from compulsively shooting photos of trees. Since things seem to be coming to a peak, color-wise, I offer just this one representative shot, taken in a minuscule settlement in an unthinkably remote forest at the very top of Maine:

Helen’s Restaurant (28 East Main Street [Route 1], Machias, Maine; 207-255-8423) is right on the coast, nearly as far up as you can go without being policed by guys in red coats.

Helen’s scallop stew was a masterpiece of understatement. Puffy, meltingly fresh and tender scallops float happily in a thin, weak, slightly buttery milky broth, which delicately cradles them. You taste an echo of scallop in that broth—attenuated but dead-on faithful. Even the salting is disarmingly restrained. It’s not one grain past the point of just-barely-salty-enough.

I’m not sure when New England decided Westminster All Natural Oyster Crackers were the one and only oyster crackers. I’ve been served them literally everywhere, but Helen’s alone serves old-fashioned Saltines (so I shot this photo elsewhere):

Helen’s lobster roll is fully doctrinaire, containing a merely generous portion of lobster, ample mayo, and honest-to-goodness hot dog bun. Pat Hammond would be happy!

Strawberry pie was delicious, but from a dessert galaxy I’d not previously visited. Take a look at the photos. It required lots of shots from several angles at several stages of consumption:

You can mail-order their wild-blueberry pies via Helen’s website.

Machias Motor Inn, which appears to be a sparkling-clean, inexpensive, and well-maintained motor court, is right next door. What a great vacation it’d be to stay at this place and just eat three meals a day at Helen’s!

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One troubling non-food observation. I stayed in several B&Bs run by harried city folks who had moved to Maine to chill out. I noticed something terrifying about them: Without exception, all seem to have brought their harriedness with them. You can always spot the urban escapees up here—they’re the ones who are high-strung and tightly wound. I suppose the cliché is true: You can run, but you can’t hide.

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The Chow Not Eaten

These are places in Maine I passed but didn’t try, or was tipped to by friend—or friends of friends, or found on Chowhound or elsewhere. I haven’t eaten in any of these places, so none of the descriptions or opinions are mine:

Bangor: Friar’s Bake House. (Run by monks! Breakfast and lunch only.)

Belfast: Singh Thai.

Belfast: White House B&B.

Brunswick: Wild Oats Bakery in the Tontine Mall. (“A homegrown, community oriented gathering place with a huge selection of homemade goods, including fresh baked goods and bread, cakes and pastries, healthy soups and hearty sandwiches.”)

Hallowell (near Augusta): Liberal Cup. (“For fine hand-crafted brews and superior pub food.”)

Old Orchard Beach: Mary Anne’s. (“Excellent pancakes, full of locals.”)

Searsport: Rhumb. (“Good upscale place.”)

Waterville: Bolley’s. (“Awesome french fries and hot dogs.”)

Waterville: North Street Dairy Cone. (“The world’s best fresh-banana ice cream and homemade cookie dough ice cream. Grapenut is a New England specialty flavor that is also very good here. Also peanut butter or peanut butter choc chip.”)

Winslow (one town over from Waterville): Big G’s. (“A favorite breakfast and lunch destination. Creative, fresh, ENORMOUS sandwiches, home made bread and desserts. And low prices.”)

Tips from my friend Jon Kalish:

Belfast: The Wealthy Poor House (70 Church Street; 207-338-4578). (“A B&B with amazing blueberry pancakes.”)

Bethel: DiCocoa’s Market Bakery/Cafe DiCocoa (119 and 125 Main Street). (“For good coffee and wonderful lunch—including awesome spicy African peanut soup.”)

Tips from Elizabeth Bougerol, author of New England’s Favorite Seafood Shacks, whose website, by the way, is Clamlove.com:

Boothbay Harbor: “Go to the Ebb Tide on Commercial Street. You’ll know it by the striped awning. Probably the peach shortcake will be off the menu (because it’s not peach season), regrettably. No matter. The place rocks.”

Harpswell: Dolphin Chowder House: “This diner is seriously out of the way, but the fish chowder. Oh, the fish chowder. I can’t stop the tears.”

Port Clyde: The General Store: “Haddock chowder. Try it if you’re nearby.”

Wells: Maine Diner: “Ignore the gift shop. Ignore the ‘As seen on the Today Show’ banner. If you’re on Route 1 heading through, stop in and ask for Myles Henry, who owns the place with his brother. He’s a Mainer and a font of information about great Maine food. Ask him to tell you the story of the guy who used to own the place and the waitress who worked for him. Also, if you eat here: lobster pie. It’s made with tomalley.”