A surf & turf burger? “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should,” we thought, eyeballing an eatery that offered a lobster-topped beef patty in Portland’s Old Port district. Although we gave that one a pass, there’s no shortage of worthy eats in this Maine city. Portland lures foodies with a mix that includes dining all-stars like Central Provisions, Fore Street, Eventide Oyster Co., Standard Baking Co., and two rival gelato shops (both really good). A New Yorker told us that the best pizza he’s ever had was in Portland, at Slab Sicilian Street Food. Five semifinalists in the 2018 James Beard Awards are based in Portland — not bad for a city of 65,000. As much as we enjoy Portland’s restaurants, we’ve never given much thought to how that food landed on our plates — until now.
“The Maine food system has an incredibly rich narrative,” thanks to its fishing grounds and farmlands, says Bryce Hach of Falmouth, who cofounded Maine Food for Thought Tours with his wife, Sarah. Their tours, launched in June, aim to tell the story about Maine’s bounty of food, its origin, its journey, and the societal and environmental factors behind it. Admittedly, that sounds as dry as cornmeal, but it’s really not. On a recent three-hour tour guided by Bryce Hach, we enjoyed the mix of food facts, chef meet-and-greets, and tasty eats, sampled at six of the city’s most interesting restaurants.
Participants in our tour included folks from New York, Chicago, Houston, and a mother-daughter-and-daughter’s-boyfriend trio from Ohio — plus a couple of Mainers, and us. “There are so many good restaurants to try here, we were kind of overwhelmed,” one guest admitted. “Going on this tour will tick lots of boxes on our list, and — it’s lunch!” Some of the places we visited are open for dinner only, but opened early to host the food tour; others have a waiting list for dinner, so getting a seat on a Saturday — even for a smallish plate — was a coup.
“Maine has built a real brand around authenticity and traceability — we’ve got Mom and Pop shops that haven’t tried to scale but offer quality,” Hach said. The state has “a great network of incredible restaurants [whose chefs] go out of their way to provide good, sustainable food.” We were about to meet six of them.
Our first stop was at Union in The Press Hotel. This airy restaurant, with an emphasis on local purveyors, is helmed by Josh Berry, the Maine Restaurant Association’s 2017 Chef of the Year. Berry haunts nearby farmers’ markets, and we tasted one result: his seafood chowder, a take on the Thai soup Tom Kha Gai. Berry substituted Maine clams and Casco Bay fish for chicken, along with local potatoes and herbs. It was unique and delicious. “You know a place is locally-sourced when its clam chowder recipe changes with the harvest,” tour participant Paul Kelley said as he polished off a bowlful.
Then we walked to EVO Kitchen + Bar, where Chef Matt Ginn melds Mediterranean techniques with Maine-sourced ingredients to create a Middle Eastern-inspired menu that’s especially strong on the veggie side. “About 90 percent of their summer menu is grown here,” Hach told us, as we dug into a dish of Maine potatoes in yogurt with turmeric, cumin, and a sliced Aleppo pepper (fruity with moderate spice).
While the state is famous for its blueberries (and harvests over 100 million pounds of them annually), Maine’s number one crop is the potato. Potatoes are grown in Aroostook County in the northern part of the state, where kids get time off school to help with the harvest, the guide explained. “The counties producing blueberries and potatoes are struggling economically, but create an incredible amount of Maine’s food,” Hach noted, launching a discussion about food insecurity, and what some local restaurateurs are doing to help. For example, Solo Italiano, one of the stops on the tour, donates a dollar to local food charities for every serving of featured entrées sold.
In spite of the challenges of farming in Maine, with its rocky, acidic soil and short growing season, “Young farmers are coming into our state 25 times faster than the national average,” Hach said. “We are also seeing a rise of immigrants, who are increasingly shaping Maine’s food scene.” Immigrants own 25 percent of Portland’s restaurants, he added.
Later, we looked at the fishing side of things on a visit to Scales, located on Portland’s waterfront. We met Chef Frederic Eliot, who deemed the Gulf of Maine — right outside the door — “cold, clean, and oxygen rich, the perfect marine habitat.” Although seafood consumption in the United States has risen 23 percent since 1990, over 90 percent of what we consume is imported. “There are two solutions to that: sustainable catching and aquaculture,” Hach said, as steaming bowls of mussels were delivered to the table. The mussels were rope-grown and hand-harvested on Bang Island, 10 miles away, on rafts from wild seeds. The result is a fat mussel (the largest we’ve ever seen) with sweet meat in a thin, delicate shell. These mussels sell out every day at Scales.
Aquaculture is a growing industry in Maine, Hach explained, and “globally, aquaculture has surpassed wild catch.” We ate every last bivalve — “No mussel left behind!” a participant quipped — and sopped up the broth of cream, dill, Raye’s mustard, cider, and compound butter with bread from Standard Baking Co. Even the non-mussel fans braved a taste.
We’ll leave the rest of the tour under wraps, in case you decide to take it. (You should.) We will mention that the tasting includes an award-winning pesto with local basil, a dessert created by a James Beard Award nominee, and — of course — lobster. Because, what would a Portland food tour be without it? And, of course, some lobster lore. “As part of the mating ritual, females spray male lobsters with a pheromone-laced urine,” Hach said as we nibbled. “I’m not sure it’s been made into a Nicholas Sparks movie!”
We left the Maine Food for Thought Tour with our bellies full and our heads spinning — not a bad takeaway from an afternoon in Portland. But we still wanted gelato.
Maine Food for Thought tours run through Nov. 17, Tues.-Sat. Three hours, six restaurants, $72 per person. www.mainefoodforthought.com.