Eggs benedict, with house-cured Breludin Farm ham.
A tired roadside cantina wakes up refreshed as a brunch destination.
By Will Grunewald
Photographs by Gabe Souza
I’ve had brunch at the Hoot maybe a dozen times in the past couple of years. Not once have I beat the temptation of a cider doughnut, despite announcing to my wife on several occasions that, this time, I’m really just going to save room for the main course. The doughnuts, tossed in cinnamon and sugar, are delicately crisp on the outside, soft (and often still warm) in the middle, and piled on a platter at the bar so that you can help yourself before even getting to your table. Don’t mind if I do.
Anna Poto bought the Hoot’s building, just off Route 1 in Northport, in early 2017. The previous occupant, a Mexican restaurant, had closed several years earlier. Outside, a tarp covered the leaky roof. Inside, the kitchen had framing but neither ceiling nor walls. Snow had filtered down to the dining room floor. And a workman whom Anna brought in fell through a rotted section of the floor. But Anna overhauled the place, with help from her dad, who raises cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens at nearby Breludin Farm — now supplier of all the Hoot’s meats, except bacon.
Anna had done a stint as pastry chef at 40 Paper, in Camden, then, with her cousin, ran a food truck in Belfast, Wags Wagon. At the Hoot, she cooks the brunches while her husband, Jon, runs service in the dining room. He learned the ropes of front-of-house management at Havana, in Bar Harbor, then worked at several midcoast restaurants: the Gothic, Rhumb Line, and Neighborhood.
On a sunny morning, I like to sit on the Hoot’s deck, under the ash tree that grows alongside the building. Indoors, my favorite spot is in the circular side room — it has a bright, treehouse vibe, and the table by the far window looks out onto woods and a creek. Before entrées arrive, it’s a good idea to have one of Jon’s brunch cocktails in hand. The peach bellini is sweet and refreshing. The blueberry-balsam mimosa, made with foraged balsam tips and juice from Breludin Farm wild blueberries, is dry and slightly tart, a counterbalance to, say, a hefty plate of eggs benedict with smoked ham. That ham is Anna’s favorite Breludin meat, cured and smoked at the restaurant, as tender as slow-roasted pork. The smokiness plays nicely with the tang of hollandaise.
The basic breakfast of eggs, bacon, and house potatoes (left) Mexican omelette with a cornmeal-rye waffle on the side (right).
Jon and Anna Poto, with Owen.
Poto renovated the restaurant’s interior top to bottom.
Fresh, self-serve doughnuts from the bar.
Along with breakfast classics, the Hoot’s menu mixes in some less familiar items. Zucchini-chickpea fritters — like moister, more flavorful potato pancakes — come with a creamy, lemony sauce. North African–inspired green shakshuka, a stew of chard, onions, and dill topped with basted eggs, has a belly-warming heartiness, especially with the addition of house-made lamb sausage and house-made hot sauce. Anna even turns a waffle into something novel. It arrived looking standard, topped with a dollop of butter, Maine maple syrup on the side. But the batter was made with cornmeal and rye, and the resulting waffle tasted a little like skillet cornbread. The butter, whipped with honey, lent a hint of sweetness, but not so much as to tip the dish’s balance away from savory. I’ll drench just about anything in as much maple syrup as a server will put in front of me, but so wonderful was this waffle, I applied only a judicious drizzle.
Back when Anna and her cousin were running their food truck in Belfast, they served breakfast, despite business being slow in the mornings. “Lunch did way better,” she recalls, “but both of us really liked breakfast, so we were like, ‘People can come if they want. We’ll just be here eating.’” At the Hoot, her appetite — and talent — for breakfast has found a proper home.
144 Bayside Rd., Northport. 207-338-4668.
Brunch Prices Entrées $8.50–$12.
Kitchen Staff You might notice Anna Poto cooking with a baby in a carrier on her back. Two weeks before opening in 2017, she and husband/front-of-house manager Jon found out they were expecting. Baby number two is due this summer.
Dinners In the evening, Culinary Institute of America–trained chef Nealley van Horne runs the kitchen. Friday and Saturday menus include braised lamb shank and roasted Cornish game hen. Monday nights feature rotating international cuisines.
The Lions Club used to host lobster-boil fundraisers at its gray-shingled shed at South Thomaston’s town landing, but for the past decade the group hasn’t used the place for much besides Christmas tree sales. Lately, though, hungry crowds are filling the little parking lot on the Weskeag River again. Local restaurateurs Erin and Casey Dominguez turn the shack into Tacos León (“Lion Tacos,” en inglés) on summer Tuesday evenings, selling hand-pressed corn tortillas topped with chicken, duck, pork, or veggies — and giving 20 percent of proceeds to the Lions, who put the money toward various charitable causes, including scholarships, Little League sponsorships, and free eyeglasses. The Dominguezes also run the Salty Owl cafe at nearby Knox County Regional Airport. When they started Tacos León last year, they figured it for a quiet side project, but lines grew week after week, and the husband-wife team only had an hour between closing the cafe and opening the taco stand. Now, to cope, they take Tuesdays and Wednesdays off from the cafe. “It felt like a Tacos Impossible reality TV show,” Erin jokes. “But we’re super excited about our second season.”
Tuesdays through September, 4–8 p.m. Across the street from ’Keag Store (4 Elm St., South Thomaston).
By Will Grunewald Photographed by Michael D. Wilson
Is your lobster looking a little glazed over? Does it suddenly seem tired all the time? Is its favorite movie The Big Lebowski? Then it might have come from Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound, where owner Charlotte Gill has been experimenting with ways to help her crustaceans feel no pain. Her favorite method? Getting them high.
ON CHARLOTTE GILL’S FIRST DAY of first grade at Southwest Harbor’s Pemetic Elementary, on Maine’s much-touristed Mount Desert Island, Mrs. Dodge instructed the students to place hands over hearts for the Pledge of Allegiance. But Gill, who had just moved to Maine, wasn’t used to the r-dropping accent. She heard hand over hat, and though she wasn’t wearing a hat, she raised her right hand and held it flat above her head. Her new classmates burst out laughing. “That’s sort of how school went for me,” Gill says, “I was a bit of a fish out of water.”
The summer after second grade, she decided to make some money. She sold drawings to neighbors for a dime apiece and picked raspberries behind her family’s home on Clark Point Road to sell at the Claremont Hotel. “Every week, I’d add up my earnings, go across the street to the pier, and buy as many lobsters and crabs as I could,” she recalls. “Then, I’d very proudly walk them down to the end of the pier — the lobstermen standing there watching probably thought this was pretty amusing — and I’d drop them back into the harbor.”
Now, some 40 years later, Gill owns Charlotte’s Legendary Lobster Pound. In 2011, she took over a dilapidated former ice cream stand, a few miles beyond downtown Southwest Harbor, on the way to Acadia National Park’s Seawall Campground. As a kid, she used to go there for scoops and to play in the adjacent field. Once she started selling lobster rolls there — regular size and foot-long — she decked out the midcentury shack in a jumble of red and white and stocked it with hula-hoops, squirt guns, and wiffle-ball equipment, plus stick horses and real pet goats. The yoga mats stacked out back are for picnicking or for yoga. “I tell people that if you could view this place from outer space, it would just glow with positive energy,” she says. “People are happy here.”
Except that Gill hasn’t always been happy there. Recently, she texted me a quote from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov:
“Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last. Imagine that you are doing this but that it is essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature . . . in order to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me. Tell me the truth.”
Was the edifice of her livelihood, Gill wondered, founded on the unavenged tears of hundreds of thousands of lobsters? “At heart, I’m an animal lover,” she told me the first time I met her. “I know it sounds hugely hypocritical, but I’ve really struggled with that ever since starting this place.”
“I TELL PEOPLE THAT IF YOU COULD VIEW THIS PLACE FROM OUTER SPACE, IT WOULD JUST GLOW WITH POSITIVE ENERGY. PEOPLE ARE HAPPY HERE.”
Her crisis of conscience actually goes back even farther. In 2010, she was leasing Bar Harbor Lobster Pound, on the other side of the island, when the man she was dating died of heart failure, at age 47. “The next day, I had to go and cook lobsters, and I sat there with them for the longest time, having the greatest difficulty putting them in the pot,” she says. “But I had the order, and I put them in. Right away, I had an overwhelming feeling that I’d just done something terrible, so I lifted the lid. I saw what was happening, all the thrashing. It would have been worse at that point to take them out.”
At Charlotte’s Legendary, she started a buy-and-release program — anyone could purchase live lobsters at cost if they wanted to return them to the ocean. But the whole business kept bothering her, and one night last year, she prayed on it: “Hey universe or God or whoever, what can I do to make this better? I don’t want to turn this into a lemonade stand, but I will if that’s what you want.”
She woke up in the wee hours of the following morning with a plan: she’d try to get lobsters high.
THE MOUNT DESERT ISLANDER, a local weekly, was first to report on what Gill calls her “high-end lobster” project. The story landed in mid-September, and a few days later, Gill saw a headline online about a Maine lobster pound sedating lobsters with cannabis. Her first, mistaken reaction was, “Whoa! I didn’t realize someone else is doing this too.” Soon, major news outlets from around the world were calling. “It was so nonstop, we had to take our phone off the hook,” she says. “I thought it would last a couple of days, but it went on for a solid two weeks.”
By that point, Gill had only dosed one lobster, an average-size guy with a damaged claw whom she named Roscoe. The setup for the procedure was simple: She took an airtight plastic container and poked a hole in the lid, through which she could insert a straw. Next, she filled the container partway with seawater, put Roscoe inside, and snapped the lid shut. She packed a glass lobster-claw pipe (from a Bar Harbor souvenir shop), and then she and several staff and friends took turns blowing hits through the straw. “Basically,” she says, “it’s a lobster bong.”
A couple of minutes later, they popped off the lid and found a thoroughly zonked lobster. Gill kept him in the tank for another few weeks before releasing him, “for his contributions to science.”
A Nashville country duo memorialized Roscoe in a song set to the tune of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Puns — “baked, then boiled,” “into the pot,” “some herb before the butter” — proliferated across the internet. But while the har-har clickbait novelty of the experiment clearly drove much of the public fascination, genuine concern about how we treat lobsters has ebbed and flowed over time, and Roscoe’s big moment coincides with a high-water mark of distress.
“IT SOUNDS SILLY, BUT I REALLY PRAYED ON THAT, AND THE EXPERIENCE WAS SO PROFOUND. A LOBSTER ON CANNABIS IS COMPLETELY LIGHTS-OUT.”
Last December, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released undercover video from inside the Maine Fair Trade Lobster processing plant in Gouldsboro, showing workers dismembering lobsters that remained alive throughout the process. (PETA made similar claims, after releasing footage, against Sea Hag Seafood in Tenants Harbor and Linda Bean’s Maine Lobster in Rockland in recent years. Both of those facilities are now closed.) The group also rebooted a high-visibility ad campaign in the Portland and Bangor airports to discourage people from eating lobster — “I’m ME, Not MEAT,” the posters proclaimed. Meanwhile, in landlocked, reluctant-to-take-sides Switzerland, the national government made headlines last year for banning the boiling of live lobsters without stunning them first.
Of course, whether or not lobsters care what we do to them is an open question. A recent Popular Science headline neatly summed up the situation: “No one knows if lobsters feel pain, which makes boiling them alive rather complicated.” Humans can’t even gauge one another’s pain without a subjective report — hence those smiley-to-frowny pain scales in doctor’s offices. Some animals have nervous systems similar to ours, and it’s reasonable to assume they experience pain much as we do. But lobster nervous systems are something else entirely, made up of a small brain threaded to nerve clusters along the length of the body.
Before I met Charlotte Gill, I’d eaten lobster all sorts of ways, from classic (in a roll, in bisque) to inadvisable (on pizza, in ice cream). And yet, I had never cooked one myself. At the fish market nearest where I live, in Camden, I found the staff doesn’t ask you to pick which lobster you want, and knowing what I was going to do to that lobster, it was nice to forfeit some agency. At home, I laid the bag flat on the floor, but the 1½-pound bug stayed pinned to a back corner, its tail pressed upward, like how a scorpion carries its stinger. If I were to anthropomorphize, I’d say it looked scared.
When the water hit a full boil, I shook it out onto the counter as gently as I could. It curled its tail underneath itself and scooted backward. One of its antennas was broken off near the base. As I grabbed it by its midsection and lifted it toward the steaming pot, it spread its claws and legs, but I dropped it in headfirst. Its tail spasmed three or four times. Its legs twitched. After a minute or two, it was still. I thought the process might have unsettled me more than it did. I’m not eager to repeat it.
“I KNOW THERE’S A LOT OUT THERE ABOUT HOW LOBSTERS DON’T FEEL PAIN,” Gill told me one morning before opening, watching her lobsters skitter over one another in the tank. “But I can testify, from the thousands I’ve cooked, that they definitely feel pain.” She’s seen them try to hold on to the edge of the pot on the way in, try to scramble back out, beat their tails in a manner that seems frantic, and sometimes even jettison their claws, a fight-or-flight response.
Ethicists sometimes evoke what’s known as the “precautionary principle” — basically the notion that it’s better to be safe than sorry, but with a fancy name so that policy-making types can bandy it about. Back in the 1970s, for instance, when people were only pretty sure that carbon dioxide was warming the planet, it might have been smart to err on the side of caution and try to limit emissions, rather than waiting and seeing. Applied to things we eat, the principle suggests that if we don’t know whether an animal can experience pain, we should assume it can.
“LOOK AT WHAT IS ALLOWED IN OUR FOOD. ARSENIC IS ALLOWED. MERCURY IS ALLOWED. BUT YOU WANT TO PUT A PLANT IN THERE, AND ALL OF A SUDDEN YOU HAVE A PROBLEM.”
But the federal Humane Slaughter Act — which requires that animals be “rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective” before butchering — applies only to cows, pigs, and other large four-legged livestock. Maine’s rules are essentially the same.
Gill isn’t alone in thinking that lobsters deserve at least a similar degree of courtesy. Some chefs will stab a lobster between the eyes, trying to hit its tiny brain and quickly incapacitate it. A British company makes a device called the Crustastun, a supposedly humane stainless-steel electrocution box that retails for about $4,000. Gill simply figured pot might do the trick.
By the time she decided to experiment on Roscoe, she says she was a “firm believer in the benefits of cannabis, CBD, any holistic cure we can have to keep our systems balanced,” but she hadn’t always been. She grew up with parents strictly opposed to any use of illicit drugs, and she generally steered clear of her more chemically adventurous peers. “Cannabis was really demonized,” she says, “and I believed all that stuff.”
In high school, she tried weed twice — “doing my rebellious thing” — but didn’t enjoy it. Then, about 10 years ago, she tried it again, and this time, she says, it was life-changing. She had dealt with depression and anxiety for much of her adult life, and she found that cannabis helped assuage it in a way that prescribed medications didn’t. Pretty soon, she was growing her own weed and using it on the regular.
Pot seemed to work for Roscoe too. Gus Young fishes out of Seal Cove and supplies Gill with most of her lobsters. Last summer, every time he dropped off his catch, he noticed the same lobster hanging out unbanded in her tank. “In all of my years of fishing, any time there’s a lobster with no bands on it, it will attack,” he told me one afternoon at the pound. “This one? No aggression. I’d ask Charlotte if she wanted me to put bands on it, and she’d just say nope. Then, when I heard what she was doing with cannabis, I was like, ‘Oh man, that lobster was stoned!’”
“STONED” MIGHT NOT QUITE BE THE RIGHT WORD.
Before dosing Roscoe, Gill had read a 2006 study in the peer-reviewed Journal of Evolutionary Biology. The study looked at whether various invertebrates — including southern rock lobsters, evolutionary cousins to Maine’s American lobsters — possess the same cannabinoid receptors as humans and other vertebrates. Those receptors are what THC, the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, acts on. Without them, smoking a joint would only make you cough.
The study measured how much THC could bind with a sample of freshly harvested brain tissue. In the lobster’s case, a moderate amount of binding indicated that cannabinoid receptors could be there. Once Roscoe had toked up, Gill posted the study on the Charlotte’s Legendary website as scientific justification for her experiment.
I read the study earlier this year and understood very little of it, so I reached out to one of the authors, John McPartland, a doctor who teaches cannabis science at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. He seemed excited to learn that his research was being put toward the cause of animal welfare. “Anything you can do to ease the pain in boiled lobsters sounds good to me,” he wrote in an email. “If cannabis . . . seem[s] to help, go for it!”
“I KNOW YOU LOVE CREATURES, BUT BABE, THIS IS A LOBSTER POUND. WHAT ARE YOU..
Jean Abbott retired from Spencer’s Ice Cream this year after showing new owner Jack Watkins the ropes, although she still stops by to check on him.
A passing of the cone at Spencer’s Ice Cream in Bradley.
By Joel Crabtree
Photographs by Michael D. Wilson
Spencer’s Ice Cream opened in 1933 in tiny Bradley, just east of Old Town. With its handwritten menu and black-and-white photo of founder Norman Spencer on the wall, it feels like a real mom-and-pop joint. But owner Jack Watkins is neither mom nor pop. The 19-year-old bought the parlor last spring while wrapping his senior year at Brewer High (find his prom and graduation photos on the shop’s Facebook page). “When I bought this place, I had no idea how to make anything,” he admits. Luckily, 71-year-old Jean Abbott, who’d been churning at Spencer’s for years, taught him. Now, Watkins is selling pints locally, adding a fleet of catering trucks, and collaborating on new flavors like blueberry doughnut, with Elaine’s Basket Cafe, in Milo, and whoopie pie, with Bangor’s Bangin’ Whoopie.
More Down East readers voted in our annual Readers’ Choice poll than ever before, dishing on all their Maine favorites — from oysters to orchards and hotels to harbors. As always, we have a few picks of our own. How did your favorites do?
By Willy Blackmore • Bridget M. Burns • Jen DeRose • Jesse Ellison • Will Grunewald • Brian Kevin • Sarah Stebbins • Jennifer Van Allen • Virginia M. Wright
HISTORIC LODGINGThe Francis747 Congress St., Portland. 207-772-7485.
B&B or hotel? As an old-house junkie, I’m drawn to the former. As an introvert, I want room service. The Francis, which opened in Portland’s West End in late 2017, deftly splits the difference. With 15 rooms and carved woodwork, tiled fireplaces, and stained-glass windows galore, the 1881 former merchant’s home marries the charm of a historic B&B with the amenities — and blessed anonymity! — of a boutique hotel. Cross the street for breakfast at Tandem Coffee + Bakery, or call or text the front desk to have it brought up. You can stay in for dinner at Flood’s, the brasserie-ish new restaurant from the co-owner of Biddeford’s Palace Diner. If you snack (or imbibe) in your room, note that nearly every item in the bar, beer to beef jerky to bottled water, is Maine-made (and so’s the art on the walls). — S.S.
Sebasco Harbor Resort still has shuffleboard.
Phippsburg’s venerable Sebasco Harbor Resort (29 Kenyon Rd.; 877-960-2480) has a Dirty Dancing vibe, the kind of waterfront haven where parents let kids roam while lounging by the same pool their parents (and maybe grandparents) once lounged by. Celebrating 90 years, the place feels fresh as ever, from guest rooms in the 1945 ersatz lighthouse to candlepin bowling lanes in the retro rec center. — B.K.
KIDDIE PLAY PLACE (AND GROWN-UP WORK SPACE)Roots Café20 School St., Westbrook. 207-854-8733.
For stay-at-home working parents (like me), a comfy coffee shop with drop-in childcare is the Holy Grail. Westbrook’s Roots Café has all the lattes and pastries and Edison bulbs of a Starbucks (plus sandwiches and salads), but it’s run by nondenominational Green Tree Ministries, which offers its patrons’ kiddos up to 90 minutes of free supervised playtime (with a reservation — walk-ins get an hour, as available) at its adjacent Seedlings Play Place. Little ones 8 weeks to 6 years are welcome, and the group doesn’t proselytize. I can attest that the childcare is trustworthy, the cold brew is smooth, and even heathens are welcome. — B.B.
The Freeport Historical Society’s 140-acre property is a great spot for budding outdoor adventurers, offering an out-there feel just around the corner from the outlets. A wide, wooded path leads a half-mile from the trailhead to a yawning meadow with an apple orchard, a big cedar that kids love to clamber on, and an abandoned 1800 saltbox farmhouse overlooking mudflats and egrets in the Harraseeket estuary. Intrepid kids can explore less-beaten paths weaving through the woods. The best part: you can find yourself alone on a Sunday afternoon. — J.V.A.
NEW TOURAcadia by Sea$42 adults, $14–$27 children. 1 West St., Bar Harbor. 207-288-2386.
Courtesy of Bar Harbor Whale Watch
Starting sometime in the next few years, visitors in peak season will need reservations to drive Acadia National Park’s most popular routes. The Acadia by Sea tour is a welcome alternative to park roads, a three-hour sightseeing voyage on a sleek catamaran, the Acadia Explorer, operated by Bar Harbor Whale Watch. The 149-passenger, custom-built boat cruises by Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Otter Cliff, then crosses Frenchman Bay to take in the jagged shoreline of less-frequented Schoodic Peninsula, with rangers aboard to explain the park’s human and natural history. You can still drive without a reservation this year, but the view of Acadia’s peaks from the bay warrants ditching the car. — W.G.
I skied a full day this spring on Penobscot River Trails’ 15-mile network, along a quiet and wildlife-rich stretch of the East Branch of the Penobscot, during which I encountered one other skier and for which I paid nada. Reportedly, the philanthropic Butler Conservation Fund spent $5 million developing the privately owned preserve, just south of Katahdin Woods and Waters, opening to skiers this past winter (and offering free loaner skis and boots). This summer, the preserve welcomes hikers and bikers, with no entrance fee. Rest stops at two trailside “huts” come with knockout views of the national monument’s wooded peaks and of nearby, mile-high Katahdin. — B.K.
READERS’ CHOICEBig love for Boothbay and a zillionth win for PWM
It was midwinter the first time I wore one of Wildwood Oyster Co.’s chunky statement necklaces, made from marine dock line and leather, and suddenly I was thinking about beach-wave hair and seaside lobster bakes. Designer Becky McKinnell stays busy working on her nautical-chic collection (she also has a line of hobo-style leather totes), but when she’s not stitching or splicing, she and her husband and 7-year-old daughter tend to their Casco Bay oyster farm. Find her necklaces and bags at boutiques like Portland and Biddeford’s Suger. — J.D.
Lightweight outdoor-gear manufacturer Flowfold has had a big year, launching a co-branded line of bags and boots with L.L.Bean and opening a new 3,000-square-foot headquarters in Gorham. Amid all the growth, it’s worth pausing to note that the 9-year-old company’s original product line — minimalist wallets made from recycled sailcloth — still rules. The material looks sharp, holds up to abuse, and is thin enough not to leave a big old lump in your butt (or it’ll fit in a front pocket). My favorite wallet and a new Maine classic. — B.K.
I follow hundreds of architecture and design handles on Instagram, and Northern Vernacular is among those that reliably cause my thumb to freeze mid-scroll. Architectural historian (and Portlander) Julie Senk posts crisp, skillfully cropped pics — of a prim brick Federal in Bath, perhaps, or magnificently ornate Second Empire in Richmond — along with well-researched design and history lessons. The historic coordinator for the Maine Department of Transportation (and a contributor to our sister mag, Maine Homes by Down East), Senk spends her free time road-tripping with her husband and Nikon Coolpix A900, unearthing off-the-beaten-path beauties that keep her 8,300 fans..
A Bangor restaurant steeped in Maine political lore rides again.
By Joel Crabtree
Photographs by Michael D. Wilson
Rosemary and Robert Baldacci married in 1951 and had eight children. John grew up to serve as a state senator, U.S. congressman, and Maine’s 73rd governor. Joe became a Bangor city councilman and mayor. Peter is a longtime Penobscot County commissioner. Paul skipped politics for the original family business: food.
In 1933, the siblings’ grandparents had opened the Baltimore Restaurant, in Bangor. Today, we’d call it classic red-sauce Italian, but at the time, pizza was exotic. Rosemary and Robert eventually inherited the operation and, in 1975, relocated nearer the Bangor Mall, rebranding as Momma Baldacci’s. As the family’s political profile grew, so too did the profiles of its patrons — John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Ted Kennedy all stopped in for a bite over the years.
Paul was the third-generation Baldacci to run the place, until he died in 2006, at age 48, from an undiagnosed heart condition. His son, Paul Jr., took over at just 21, but the responsibility of running the restaurant soon overwhelmed him. Two years later, Momma Baldacci’s closed.
Paul Jr. didn’t leave the family’s cooking ways behind, though. He left town for Boston and studied at Le Cordon Bleu. Then, he cooked at several popular Portland restaurants, including Duckfat and Noble Barbecue. In the back of his mind, he knew he wanted to bring back Momma Baldacci’s, and last year he took the leap, reincarnating the Queen City’s original Italian joint as a food truck.
Momma Baldacci’s Italian Street Food made its first appearance last fall, at Orono Brewing Company, 10 minutes up the road from the old restaurant’s location. The menu changes often, but on any given day, Paul Jr. sticks to Italian-style comfort food with creative flourishes: meatball sub with brown-butter garlic bread, smoked-sausage risotto, Fruity Pebbles cannoli.
He’s basing the truck to the south, in Westbrook, but he’ll be driving Momma Baldacci’s up and down I-95 this summer, working events in the Portland and Bangor areas. He hopes the truck becomes an institution, like its namesake brick-and-mortar. “I have a year-old son now, and we have a growing family,” he says. “I have nephews and nieces, and it’ll be really cool to see them be a part of this, in the way we were as kids growing up.”
This summer, find Momma Baldacci’s in downtown Westbrook, at Portland’s Definitive Brewing Company on Wednesdays, and at Westbrook’s Maine Savings Pavilion and Bangor’s Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion during concerts. Visit facebook.com/mommabaldacci for updates on the truck’s whereabouts.
ABOVE: Wedge salad with tasso (Cajun smoked pork), shrimp gumbo, hanger steak with dressed greens and creole mustard aioli, Jambalaya fried rice, Chilled brussels sprouts (obscured) with cider vinegar, jalapeño, and sassafras, and farro salad with shrimp, pecans, green tomatoes, and rhubarb; Off the cocktail menu, a Sweet Tea Pain and a daiquiri; Server Jess Grimes, sous chef Dillon Newcomb, chef-owner Evan Richardson, and front-of-house manager Laura Shaw.
In Portland, a New Orleans native cooks up his hometown’s oh-so-good comfort food.
By Michaela Cavallaro
Photography by Greta Rybus
Sometimes, going out to eat should feel easy, like having dinner at a friend’s house. That’s the vibe at Eaux, a New Orleans–inspired spot tucked between an Indian restaurant and a lingerie shop on Portland’s upper Exchange Street. Eaux doesn’t take reservations, but a friend and I showed up early on a recent weekday and had our pick of the 14 tables in the narrow dining room. The young servers dressed casually, in jeans, T-shirts, baseball caps — whatever they might wear were they not working.
“It’s pretty chill,” says Evan Richardson, the 27-year-old chef and New Orleans native who owns Eaux (pronounced like oh — French for “waters”). “The space is like a shotgun house from when I was growing up. We just put on a little hip-hop, keep the wood grain showing, and keep it relaxed.”
That attitude extends to Richardson’s dishes, which toe a line between chefy and homey: chicken and waffles topped with crisp apple slices and drizzled in Louisiana cane syrup, jambalaya garnished with pickled trinity (the onions, celery, and bell peppers that anchor Cajun cooking), and gumbo that overflows with chicken, tender Baja shrimp, homemade andouille sausage, mussels, and, on the night I visited, flaky haddock. The gumbo’s glossy, brown, roux-based sauce is just spicy enough to balance out a sweet Chicoree & Cream cocktail, which combines house-made cream soda and chicory liqueur.
On my most recent visit, the succinct menu comprised seven snacks, seven entrées, and a single dessert. At $26, that heaping portion of gumbo was the priciest item. Most entrées clocked in under $20, relative bargains on a Portland dining scene that has no shortage of other great restaurants, many of which will put a much bigger dent in your wallet.
90 Exchange St., Portland. 207-835-0283.
Price Range Starters $5–$12, entrées $14–$30.
Meals on Wheels Before Evan Richardson moved into his brick-and-mortar space last year, he was serving up New Orleans–style eats from a food cart. You can still catch him — and the cart — at Austin Street Brewery most Mondays.
Lunch and Brunch
At lunch, sandwiches anchor the menu — po’boys, pimento grilled cheese, root-beer–braised pulled pork. Sunday brunch features eggs Benedict with Louisiana tasso ham, plus pancakes with pecan butter and rum syrup.
A couple at the next table, who’d earlier hung out at the bar while waiting for friends, raved about one of their cocktails, the Sweet Tea Pain. Made with sweetened iced tea and Hennessy cognac, it’s thirst quenching and dangerously easy drinking. I haven’t spent much time in the South, but give me a rocking chair on a porch, a cool breeze, and a Sweet Tea Pain, and I suspect I’d acclimate pretty quickly.
All the faster if I were additionally fortified by Eaux’s pimento-cheese toast, a thick slice of house-made boule topped with what Richardson modestly calls a “simple pimento.” He combines roasted-garlic aioli, pureed pimento peppers, smoked Gouda (instead of the more traditional cheddar), and Crystal hot sauce (Richardson prefers it to Louisiana’s more famous hot sauce, Tabasco), then tops it with purple daikon radishes and herbs. “We’re cooking the food and flavors I grew up eating,” he says. “It’s not necessarily orthodox, but it’s an honest depiction of New Orleans flavors.”
When it came time for dessert, our server claimed that the solitary menu item was so good that the kitchen didn’t need to offer anything else. Richardson’s riff on bananas Foster, a New Orleans classic, sees sweet, sticky buttered-rum sauce spooned over a sautéed cross section of banana atop a thick slice of banana bread that’s warm and just slightly crunchy from the griddle. Bits of candied pecan and sea salt are scattered on top, and the whole thing is accompanied by a mound of Hennessy whipped cream.
We scraped the plate clean, leaving nary a crumb. “Hit the spot?” our server asked, then answered her own question. “It always does.”
A Naples chef invented spaghetti alla puttanesca in the 1950s, so the story goes, to satisfy a ravenous late-night crowd, heaping together what few ingredients he had on hand: garlic, capers, olives, anchovies. Improbably, it tasted great. Mainers have a knack for make-do culinary resourcefulness too — see boiled dinners and bean suppers. Puttanesca isn’t from here, but it sure fits in.
1 pound uncooked spaghetti
28 ounces canned whole San Marzano tomatoes
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 head garlic, cloves roughly chopped
6 anchovy filets, minced
2 tablespoons capers
¼ teaspoon red-pepper flakes
1 cup mixed olives, pitted and crushed
1 cup red wine
10 sprigs parsley, roughly chopped
4 sprigs oregano, roughly chopped
½ teaspoon lemon zest
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Fill a large pot with water and add about 2 tablespoons of kosher salt per gallon of water. Bring to a boil. Pour tomatoes into a bowl. With your hands, break tomatoes into small pieces. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil to a large sauté pan and place over medium heat. Add garlic and a pinch of salt. Sauté until garlic softens, 4 to 5 minutes. Add anchovies and cook for 2 minutes. Add capers, red-pepper flakes, and olives and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring to prevent sticking. Deglaze the pan with red wine. Turn up the heat to let the alcohol burn off, about 3 minutes. After wine has reduced by half, add tomatoes and turn the heat down to medium-low. Simmer for 20 minutes, adding parsley, oregano, and lemon zest once sauce has reduced somewhat. Salt and pepper to taste. When the water has come to a boil, add pasta. Wait 30 seconds, then stir. Wait another 30 seconds and stir again (this should suffice to keep pasta from clumping). When pasta is al dente, use tongs to move it to the sauté pan, twirling into the sauce. Continue cooking for a minute or two in the sauce. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil.
Maine’s Modernist Pantry helps democratize avant-garde cooking.
By Will Grunewald
Photographs by Derek Bissonnette
One of Janie Wang’s favorite ingredients is meat glue. It sounds gross, she knows, but it’s just an enzyme, transglutaminase, and it comes in handy for bacon-wrapped scallops. “Once you glue them, it’s like one solid piece,” she says. “Pretty neat.”
Wang was working at a charter school in New York City in the early aughts when her husband, Chris Anderson, took an interest in such modernist techniques. But Anderson, a software developer by day and passionate home cook by night, was frustrated that the esoteric ingredients he needed often only came in bulk.
So, in 2011, the couple moved to Maine and, in Anderson’s parents’ York basement, started Modernist Pantry, selling cutting-edge ingredients in small quantities. It turned out plenty of other culinarians wanted non-industrial quantities of methylcellulose and sodium alginate. Soon, Wang and Anderson bought a house in Eliot and moved operations into the 800-square-foot detached garage. Two years ago, they built a 12,000-square-foot facility 2 miles down the road.
Grapefruit “flavor pearls” mimic caviar.
Powder #1 lends the color and flavor of curing to chicken-liver pâté.
Food-as-art started in hifalutin restaurants. Now, modernist techniques are everywhere. “People are still making foams,” Wang says, “but foam isn’t the highlight anymore — it’s just a garnish.” Consider, she says, Portland’s Central Provisions, a Modernist Pantry customer. “Chris [Gould] is an amazing chef doing a lot of fancy cooking, but you don’t look at it and think, ‘This is molecular gastronomy.’ You know, it’s just excellent food.”
Cilantro foam on a crab, avocado, and mango tower uses Foam Magic powder.
Most Modernist Pantry customers are pros, although some are amateurs who saw something cool on Chopped. “There’s a lot more awareness of these strange ingredients and techniques,” Wang says, “but there isn’t a lot out there to help people understand how to use them.” To that end, Wang and Anderson hired Scott Guerin, a former Le Cordon Bleu instructor, to run their test kitchen, where he comes up with recipes for the company blog — tzatziki fluid gel with homemade pita, bruschetta with balsamic flavor pearls — and hosts WTF (short for We Transform Food), a weekly web series demonstrating various ingredient applications.
When Modernist Pantry was getting started, a savvy cadre of chefs knew what they wanted and how to use it. “What we’ve seen change over the years,” Wang says, “is that now people will come and say, ‘Hey, I heard about locust bean gum. How do I use it?’”
A few years ago, Katherine Slevin took a break from her job at Portland’s Standard Baking Co. to volunteer at a refugee camp in Greece. That experience moved her to help immigrants at home too. She says the idea to start C. Love, a cookies-only bakery with a philanthropic flavor, came to her in prayer. Twenty-one percent of proceeds go to local charities that support immigrants (because 21 is her favorite number), and last year, Slevin led a six-week “baking exchange program” for women from around the world. As for her cookies — from goat’s-milk-caramel shortbreads to meltingly tender chocolate chippers — the layers of flavors will stop you in your tracks. “During eight-hour croissant shifts at the Standard,” Slevin recalls, “I’d write recipe ideas for C. Love on a paper towel and stuff them in my pocket.” Now, she sells her sweet, buttery lineup online — for pick-up or delivery — and at a handful of Portland markets and coffee shops. “I’m obviously proud of the cookies,” she says, “but I care most about the mission.”