Sunday, July 30, 2006

Restaurant Review: The Maine Chowder & Steak House

Last night, SWMBO¹ and I supped at the Maine Chowder House in Belfast, Maine. It's under new ownership, with a new “chef” and I was curious as to the changes. I've visited this restaurant off and on since I was a small child. It overlooks picturesque Penobscot Bay from atop a hillside next to US Route 1 just beyond Perry's Nut House. I remember quite clearly rolling down that hill with my brothers while my grandmother looked on in horror at our behavior (heheheh) some forty five years ago.

Anyway, it'd been a while since I'd last visited. We chose the hottest day of Summer 2006 to visit. Official temperature at the Bangor International Airport (where all the troop flights come in to clear customs from overseas) yesterday was 87°F. while it was 82°F. down the coast in Rockland. We were midway; split the difference and it was probably 85°F. outside.

Inside, it wasn't. It was closer to 100° and for reasons known only to the wait staff, the windows were closed. Now, most of the time on the coast it doesn't get over 80° so air conditioning isn't a high priority. But there was only one small window unit in the office attempting to provide coolth to a 3000 s.f. dining room. The kitchen must have been Stygian. I know the table next to ours was most pleased when I got up and opened the windows.

Service was prompt (it was 7:45 PM, so the rush was well past) and the young man was attentive, keeping my wife supplied with her cold beverage of choice.. For an appetizer I had fried calamari while the better half opted for fried onions. Both were in a flour-based tempura batter that was fresh, light, flaky and seasoned very lightly. Somehow, set-ups of napkins and utensils were forgotten in the rush to get us seated after the party of eight ahead of us had been ensconced in their own corner of the room, so I can truly say they were “finger licking good” without stepping on KFC's territory.

Both of us were too hot to appreciate salads, so we went straight for our entrees. My wife had chosen deep fried Maine shrimp, homemade french fries and coleslaw, all good, but the fries could have been held in ice water a while longer to truly crisp them and the slaw was a bit on the bland side. Meanwhile, I'd ordered a “Portuguese Fisherman's Kielbiesse Stew” which was essentially a bouillabaisse with kielbasa in a roma tomato and kale base containing clams, mussels, scallops, calamari, white fish (haddock and pollack), a smidgen of lobster and crab in a rich broth fortified with cognac and sauterne.

Frankly, the “stew” was delightful in flavor, but the actual cooking method employed left something to be desired. Cook had some problem with insufficient heat on the stove, or the shellfish had (recently) passed from the heat, or s/he had had a bit too much cognac. Rather than allowing the clams and mussels to open on their own, it appears from the amount of broken bits of shells in the dish that our souschef felt it was necessary to mash the daylights out of them with a large mallet. Two hadn't opened at all (one each, cherrystone (!) clam (not an indigenous variety) and mussel, to be exact). I reiterate it was most tasty and very filling, there were no repercussions from the apparently moribund shellfish and I heartily recommend ordering same, just not late on a Saturday night on the hottest day of the year.

Dinner for two with no alcohol nor dessert (we were too full) with tax and tip was just over $70. Not so high as to give someone from Southern New England, New York or Jersey pause, but substantial for a native Mainer. Half the cost is in the view and it is truly unsurpassed. I'd give them a warm middle-of-the-road recommendation, without being too enthusiastic. You can find better food and better views, just not in one location. They have a ways to go to bring themselves back to the consistently good food of the past. But you can't beat the view with a stick...

The web site is displaying menus from yesteryear and I didn't pay close enough attention to see if the hours are the same. The image on the homepage bears no relationship to the view as the lighthouse depicted is outside Portland, almost a hundred miles away!

¹ SWMBO – She Who Must Be Obeyed

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