Feasting on Maine’s bounty with a Chicago chef
What would you do for great lobster?
For me, the answer includes two flights, a winding five-hour drive along Maine’s rocky coast, crossing a couple of stunning bridges, traversing a narrow causeway and ambling through idyllic country roads while passing rivers, bays and countless seafood shacks.
I traveled to this northeast corner of the country because of Ryan McCaskey, a Chicago chef I’ve gotten to know over the years while writing about the city’s food scene. We bonded over a mutual love of the Grateful Dead.
McCaskey, owner of Acadia restaurant in the South Loop, invited some friends and colleagues to Deer Isle, a place dear to his heart, for a festive lobster bake earlier this year on the banks of Penobscot Bay.
Deer Isle is not the tony tourist magnet of Bar Harbor (about an hour away) near Acadia National Park, a popular playground for leaf-peepers in the fall. The park, which turned 100 this summer, happens to be the inspiration for McCaskey’s two-Michelin-starred restaurant more than 1,200 miles away.
The tiny island is home to a robust lobstering community where crustacean cages are piled in front of house after house (wholesale lobster sales from the port town of Stonington hit $60 million last year). It’s the kind of place where everyone knows one another, where people have lived, fished or spent part of their summer for generations.
When McCaskey was an 8-year-old kid in the Chicago suburbs, he, his sister and his parents started vacationing on the isle at Goose Cove Lodge, now Goose Cove Resort (www.goosecovelodge.com).
Over the years, McCaskey befriended some locals, spent time hiking and kayaking around the island, and eventually landed a job cooking at Goose Cove, where he canoodled with celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and John Malkovich. This is where he had his first real kitchen experience, working alongside James Beard Award-winning chef Rob Evans, who now owns the gourmet sandwich shop Duckfat down the coast in Portland.
“This is my youth,” McCaskey said, while gazing at Penobscot Bay. “I grew up here more than Chicago. My parents would say, ‘Be back for dinner’ and left me on my own. I made friends with a lot of locals right away and got to explore on my own and explore me as a person.”
Getting to Deer Isle from Chicago takes a little time and effort, but that’s part of the adventure. It’s easiest to fly into Portland and rent a car. Spend at least a day in Maine’s largest city, and explore its bustling food scene, stopping at wonderful restaurants like Central Provisions (www.central-provisions.com) for always-changing, seasonal shared plates; Eventide Oyster Co. (www.eventideoysterco.com) for a melt-in-your-mouth brown-butter lobster roll on a steamed Asian-style bun, washed down with a celery gimlet; and the New England-meets-Asian fare at The Honey Paw (www.thehoneypaw.com) for lobster wontons dressed in chili oil, black vinegar and peanuts.
Spend the night at the boutique Press Hotel, a 110-room property inside the former Portland Press Herald offices and printing plant (rates start at $189 in November, www.thepresshotel.com). Wake up with a green detox smoothie at the hotel’s restaurant before grabbing a cup of joe at Tandem Coffee and Bakery (www.tandemcoffee.com) and a pulled pork egg sandwich at the nearby Hot Suppa (www.hotsuppa.com). Take a stroll through the Portland Museum of Art to check out its extensive Winslow Homer collection before hitting the road.
On your drive up from Portland, you’ll want to hug the coast along U.S. Route 1. It’s not the most direct route, but the extra time is worth it for the eye-popping scenery and interesting places to visit along the way.
Stop first in Wiscasset, a town settled in 1663 along the Sheepscot River. You’ll find quaint shops, historic houses and seafood shacks. If you’re looking for a lobster roll, skip the line at Red’s Eats and wander across the street to the less-hyped but still-delicious Sprague’s. From there, pop into Forgotten Recipes’ little shack across the pier to sample and pick up homemade jams, jellies and mustards. Back in the car, drive toward Camden, a seaside town that’s everything you picture about New England — charming shops, Victorian homes and a bay filled with sailboats. Continue up Route 1, and pass through the antique haven of Searsport before making your way over the towering Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge onto the island.
These days, Goose Cove Resort is in need of a little love. Rustic cabins (starting at $150 in the fall) dot the property, which includes the Cockatoo Portuguese Restaurant. Something that needs no improvement, however, is the sandy, rocky beach overlooking the bay — the perfect backdrop for our sunset lobster bake, where other Michelin-starred chefs, such as George Mendes (New York’s Aldea) and Phillip Foss (Chicago’s EL Ideas) as well as sommelier Scott Tyree (formerly of Chicago’s Sepia) joined in the fun.
In the days leading up to the party, McCaskey was busy visiting his purveyor friends. A stop at legendary organic Four Season Farm, where Eliot Coleman set the tone in 1968 for sustainable farming, yielded an abundance of produce. McCaskey then swung by Yellow Birch Farm to pick up lettuces and fresh goat cheese.
We met with one of the main seafood purveyors in the area, fifth-generation Deer Islander Sue Buxton, who supplied beautiful, fresh-caught lobster. Buxton sells scallops, halibut, oysters, mussels and more to 30 top restaurants around the country, including Acadia, which flies in fresh seafood three times a week for its tasting menu.
McCaskey’s last stop was to see Tina Gray, the area’s famed Crab Lady, to get hand-pulled peekytoe crab. Tyree and I ventured north to the nearby Blue Hill Wine Shop for a dozen bottles of pale pink French rosé before walking next door to the Fish Net to eat some rolls piled high with sweet, tender crabmeat. One last trip back into Stonington, where McCaskey has a vacation home of his own, turned up locally roasted pour-over coffee at 44 North Coffee (www.44northcoffee.com) for that extra caffeine jolt needed to help set up the lobster bake.
With the sun descending over Penobscot Bay, a crew dug a hole on the beach to build the fire. The lobsters were unpacked and prepared. Jason Prah, Acadia’s general manager, crafted a batch of strawberry-mint-thyme bourbon cocktails using local produce. Bagaduce and Long Cove oysters got shucked. Halibut steamed inside foil. Grilled bread was spread with peekytoe crab and garlic butter. Corn on the cob caramelized over the open flame.
Everyone, including McCaskey’s parents and their friends, gathered around to raise a glass to this beautiful bounty, in homage to the hardworking men and women who fish, farm, grow and gather the area’s impressive pantry.
As the sun set and a bonfire was built, you could almost hear a collective sigh as everyone found a spot on the beach underneath a blanket of stars.
“I like stepping out of our bubble in the city to have people experience what I have up there,” McCaskey said later, back home in Chicago. “It’s nice and healing for the soul. It kind of resets you somehow. It was great to have everyone experience that, even for a moment. Now people understand what I’ve been preaching all these years.”
Ari Bendersky is a freelance writer.