Friday, May 07, 2010

Maine Line: Puttering Around the Old Port

Call me a stick-in-the-mud or an old poop or just plain boring, but my idea of a great trip is to hang out in one place and get to know it really well. So if you're a 25 cities in 15 days kind of person, we'd best not plan any vacations together. Fortunately Dave has a similar temperament, and as long as there a few pubs to visit, he's happy.

So on our recent trip to Portland, Maine, we spent most of our time checking out the Old Port district, formerly full of brick warehouses, seamen's bars and the rougher aspects of a working port. Starting in the 70s, like our own Pearl district, the area was revitalized and became a tourist destination and cultural hub, and now it's home to microroasters, microbreweries and local bakeries along with shops carrying crafts and knickknacks.

Sebago Brewing.

As you might expect, we indulged in several local brews, including those from Shipyard, Sebago and Gritty McDuff's, founded in 1988 and calling itself Maine's original brewpub. The beers we tried were all well-made and similar in style to the brews found here, though not as hop-centric, and a Northwesterner would be hard-pressed not to feel right at home with any of them.

Coffee by Design.

Coffee in this often cold and definitely maritime climate is a necessity of life and, like here, that need for a buzz as well as an interest in supporting local talent has spawned a surge in local roasteries. One fortuitously near our hotel, called Coffee by Design, was a regular morning stop before whatever jaunt we had planned for the day. With their ethics right out front in phrases like "passionate, local, humane, responsible and sustainable," they also tout their "Maine values." And that was just fine with us.


Next door was another regular stop, Two Fat Cats Bakery. Not only well-regarded by the locals, this tiny bakery has earned kudos from Bon Appetit and Food & Wine. Me, I just liked their raspberry almond bread with my coffee, though we had to leave before I could try a Whoopie Pie.

One of my favorite finds, though, was Micucci Grocery (right) located in a charming brick building with a great sign but with a tiny door and almost no windows, not exactly a friendly face on the street. It was closed for the weekend, but was open on Monday when we walked by, so I insisted on going in even though it looked like a wholesale, not-to-the-public kind of place. Filled with imported, predominantly Italian foods like pastas, olives and wine, it reminded me of Corti Brothers in Sacramento.

After a quick walk-through I was almost ready to leave when I noticed several customers ignoring the shelves and walking up some stairs into a back room. Following them, we came into an odd windowless room with a pass-through window filled with trays of Italian pastries freshly made in the bakery on the other side of the opening. Gorgeous and flaky, these were old-world Italian pastries at their best, and included Girelle, Sfogliatelle, Luna and rosemary focaccia.

And not only that, people apparently knew, despite the lack of signage, that there were plate-sized squares of homemade pizza to be had, because several teenage boys came in and picked up the huge squares for lunch. At $4.50 each, the puffy slices looked (and smelled) like the real deal.

The bar at RíRá.

And not to cram too much into one post, but the other discovery was an Irish pub (a chain, actually) called RíRá smack-dab on the waterfront that had the usual Irish beer selections (Guinness, Murphy's, etc.) and a decent selection of local microbrews.

Now this is fish (with…um…chips?).

Plus the food was terrific, with a moist and meltingly tender Reuben and one of the biggest servings of fish I've ever seen on a plate of fish'n'chips. Seriously, it was easily enough for two people and would have competed with the best we have here. The fish was haddock, a ubiquitous item on almost every menu we saw in town, and one I hadn't had before. It's soft and mild but with big flakes like halibut.

So if you're headed to the area, I'd heartily recommend staying, or at least devoting some time, to the area. Then walk up Munjoy Hill to Congress Street and take in the view (and some more incredible ethnic hole-in-the-wall groceries). If only we'd had more time!

Details: Shipyard Brewing, 86 Newbury St., Portland, ME; 207-761-0807.
Sebago Brewing, 164 Middle St.; 207-775-2337.
Gritty McDuff's, 396 Fore St., 207-772-2739.
Coffee By Design, 67 India St.,207-780-6767.
Two Fat Cats Bakery, 47 India St., 207-347-5144.
Micucci Grocery, 45 India St., 207-775-1854.
RíRá Irish Pub, 72 Commercial St., 207-761-4446.

Check out the other installments in the series: The (Other) Portland, Dinner and a Show, Breakfast and Lunch, Loosening Up, Shackin' It and Fore Star.


Loo said...

Oh man. Haddock. Always Haddock. A nice fish but your right -- ubiquitous. That brings ME back to my days as an Easterner. A survey of the clam chowder styles is always interesting too. My grandmother was from Maine and her recipe is brothy and light, not heavy and gloppy. Each region has their own take. And when my Mom was growing up in Ipswich, lobsters were poor mans food -- it was literally "groan, lobsters again??" Thanks for bringing back all my New England memories!

Kathleen Bauer said...

Growing up Dave always had the choice of lobster or salmon for his birthday dinner, and he'd choose salmon. Hard to believe!