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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.”)
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.”
Coke and peanuts has been a southern treat for decades. RC Cola was used for this snack in a bottle too. As strange as it sounds, this combination of salty and sweet is really good.
Take a few swigs of coke to make room for a good amount of peanuts. You can add more as you drink. The idea is to have a mouthful of coke, including some nuts to chew. Don’t add too many nuts, or the coke will foam all over the place.
For the optimum experience, use coke in bottles made with cane sugar.
Debbie M says the book White Trash Cooking has a recipe for Coke and peanuts called “The Quick Pick Me Up” and a diet version that calls for Tab and dry-roasted peanuts!
The hot pot at Zone 88 is beloved by all. One of the big draws is the variety of broths available, like duck with beer, or spicy rabbit. david kaplan particularly likes the black chicken broth, full of herbs but also other surprises, like dates and wolf berries. Ruth Lafler puts the place on her “recommend” and “go back” lists–the spicing is hot, but also layered and complex. Dip tasty things like fatty beef and little eels into the bubbling broth, and also try tasty Sichuan dishes–like the Chengdu chicken, little nuggets of chicken, dry fried with a salty crust and literally buried in dried red chile pods.
Lunch runs about $25 per person, including drinks, tax, and tip.
Zone 88 [Portola]
2428 San Bruno Ave., between Silver and Silliman, San Francisco
jhleung loves the Hainan chicken rice at ABC Bakery in Chinatown. For $6.50, you get delicious flavored rice, a quarter free-range “yellow fur” chicken, and soup. Skip the miserable wonton noodle soup, but try the Hainan chicken rice–you may be back for more, like, the next day.
Another excellent find: the salt water chicken (yeem-shui in Cantonese, yen-swei in Mandarin) at Porridge King, located in the 99 Ranch mall in Daly City. “This is my favorite chicken in the entire Bay Area,” says jhleung, who admits he has eaten it every Thursday night for the past twelve weeks in a row. The salt water chicken is delicately poached and served at room temperature, and has a highly desirable, slightly gelatinous texture. It’s not free range, but it’s tender, tasty, and ever so slightly pink at the bone.
ABC Bakery Cafe [Chinatown]
650 Jackson St., San Francisco
in 99 Ranch Mall
250 Skyline Plaza, Daly City
Damis in Greenpoint makes pierogi, bigos, and all the Polish standards, and for all we know they could be stellar. But a waiter steered Monkey Man Jake toward the trout instead. Smart waiter. Dusted in flour, quick fried in butter and lemon, dressed with lemon-dill sauce, this is one outstanding plate of fish. It comes with dill mashed potatoes and perfectly cooked vegetables, and goes down great with a bottle of Zywiec beer.
“Unlike most stick-to-your-ribs Polish food,” Jake adds, “this was light, subtle, and melt-in-your-mouth tender. I don’t know how I’m going to order anything else.”
Damis Polish American Cuisine [Greenpoint]
831 Manhattan Ave., between Noble and Calyer Sts., Brooklyn
Greenwich Village fixture Ennio and Michael gets scant attention from chowhounds, but it has a loyal retinue of regulars, and dkstar1 can see why. It’s a dependable spot for satisfying Northern Italian chow, fairly priced–better than much of the competition in a neighborhood rich with Italian options.
If lasagne is among the daily specials, get it. It’s a traditional version, made with hearty meat sauce, and it’s delicious. Pastas generally seem to be a smart order. The signature rigatoni alla Ennio–with chopped sausage, onion, peas, and mushrooms in creamy pink sauce–is tasty, well cooked, and amply portioned–not in Babbo’s league, but at $16.50 not nearly as expensive, dkstar1 notes.
Also good: spiedini alla Romana (mozzarella breaded and covered in anchovy-caper sauce), baked asparagus with a crisp Parmesan crust, mussels in red wine-garlic sauce enlivened by chiles, and, for dessert, huge fresh cannoli. Meat courses are popular but variable. Rack of lamb with rosemary (at $29.75, the priciest entree) was a healthy serving of six ribs, but slightly overcooked and served with lackluster potatoes. Service is gracious, discreet, and unpretentious.
Ennio and Michael Restaurant [Greenwich Village]
539 LaGuardia Pl., between W. 3rd and Bleecker Sts., Manhattan
The menu at Sunnyside’s Yeti straddles an imaginary border between Japan and Nepal–and so far more hounds are lining up on the Nepalese side. It’s not that the Japanese food is bad. Miso soup is lovely and bright-tasting, loaded with seaweed and fresh tofu. Sushi is serviceable, and a generous helping of shredded sashimi distinguishes the otherwise ordinary Yeti Salad.
But what really steals the show is the Nepalese stuff: intense garlic-buckwheat leaf soup, tasty momos (dumplings) with lively hot sauces, and other Himalayan dishes. “I find some surprising and delicious food here,” says Monkey Man Jake, who loves the well-balanced thalis–varied, ever-changing combinations of small bites presented in a bento-like box. A jerky-like beef appetizer is exotically intriguing but only for diehard jerky fans, cautions melon. At lunchtime, an appealing buffet offers five or six hot dishes plus steamed bread, cooked greens, and a fresh-looking iceberg and radish salad.
Beyond the chow, service is uncommonly pleasant, the mood festive and warm. “It is one of the coziest, sweetest little restaurants I have been to in a long while!” melon writes.
Yeti, open since spring, isn’t the first restaurant in the area where Himalayan cooks have put their stamp on a Japanese menu. Yamakaze, just four blocks away, added Tibetan specialties to its lineup of sushi and noodles earlier this year–and makes much better momos, says tracyk.
Yeti Japanese and Nepalese Restaurant [Sunnyside]
43-16 Queens Blvd., between 43rd and 44th Sts., Sunnyside, Queens
Yamakaze Restaurant [Sunnyside]
39-11 Queens Blvd., between 39th St. and 39th Pl., Sunnyside, Queens
The promiscuous lover of beef should try a seven-way, and there’s no better place in OC than Pagolac, says elmomonster.
Beef seven ways is a Vietnamese classic meal, and not as overwhelming as it might sound–most of the courses are pretty light.
1. You start with bo nhung dam, a shabu shabu-like dish of thinly sliced tenderloin that you swish in a simmering vinegared broth and then wrap up with herbs in rice paper.
2. Bo la lot are stubby meat stogies that pack a wallop of beefy, spicy flavor. The la lot wrapper tastes kind of like a cross between grape leaf and nori, with a peppery bite.
3. Bo sate (you may have noticed by now that “bo” means beef) is supremely tender pieces of grilled tenderloin, rolled up with slivers of ginger at the center. Like a great steak, but no cutting involved.
4. Steamed spheres of ground beef packed with mushrooms, peas, and bean thread noodles are known as bo cha dum. They’re crumbly-soft and pleasantly fatty–good with shrimp chips.
5. The best meatballs elmomonster has ever had are the bo nuong mo chai, beef sausage balls seasoned with a touch of five-spice and wrapped in caul fat so they baste themselves while broiling. Result: smoky scrumptiousness.
6. As you near the end, a salad is most welcome: bo bit tet. This time the sliced tenderloin comes sluiced with tart Italian dressing over a bed of refreshing butter lettuce.
7. The last course is chao bo, a clear soup of rice, minced beef, scallions, ginger, and star pasta–yep, just like that in Campbell’s Chicken ‘n Stars soup.
Seven courses of beef (bo bay mon) is $13.99 per person.
Pagolac Restaurant [Little Saigon]
14580 Brookhurst St., Westminster