By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2007 Gourmet Magazine
The coast of Maine and the waters that batter it are a hundred shades of gray. But in the summer, on picnic tables all along the waterfront, bright red lobsters and cups of melted butter signal the ultimate warm-weather feast, a full-bore shore dinner.
About as formal as we like to get on the seafood trail is Mabel’s Lobster Claw, a lunchroom in Kennebunkport. Paper place mats explaining how to eat a lobster decorate tables in snug wooden booths, Sherry-laced lobster Newburg heads the menu, and the lobster roll—heaped with large nuggets of meat in a fine film of mayo—is one of the region’s best.
Mabel’s is also a good place to go for a shore dinner, that top-of-the-line Down East banquet. We think of the shore dinner as a festive meal descended from Algonquin clambakes, in which clams and corn were layered in seaweed over hot stones. The modern version is built around lobster and clams.
A full shore dinner usually also includes red potatoes and corn on the cob boiled in the same salty water as the lobster, and it sometimes features fried fish, grilled sausage, deep-fried clam cakes, and baked Indian pudding or strawberry shortcake for dessert. At Mabel’s you start by spooning into creamy chowder crowded with pieces of clam and potato, then tackle a good-size lobster perched on top of a pile of steamers and accompanied by broth and butter. If fudge cake is available it can’t be ignored, but the essential dessert is peanut butter ice cream pie. At The Clam Shack, around the corner and down the street from Mabel’s, the menu is minimal and amenities do not exist. “We have no tablecloths,” says owner Steven Kingston. “But we do have good lobster.”
That’s Maine understatement if we’ve ever heard it. The lobster, boiled in seawater that surges up the Kennebunk River at high tide and is retrieved through a pipe that runs from the restaurant 70 feet down to where the channel’s current is pure and salty, packs big fresh flavor with a wicked ocean twist. Tail meat virtually erupts with juice, knuckles are brawny and succulent, claws soft with a saline halo.
The Clam Shack is best known for dishing out cardboard boats loaded with fragile fried clams (always fresh, never frozen) and lobster rolls to pedestrians at one end of the bridge between Kennebunk and Kennebunkport. The lobster rolls are loaded with all the meat from a one-pound lobster—large sections of tail, knuckle, and claw. They are served on a locally baked roll and available either drizzled with melted butter or dolloped with mayonnaise. Whole lobsters are boiled and sold from an adjoining store that is also a seafood market and bait-and-tackle shop. There are benches on a deck in back and seats facing the sidewalk in front, where fish crates serve as makeshift tables. (Town zoning forbids proper seating here.) Potatoes? Rolls? Corn? Dessert? You’re on your own. The store does sell bottles of beer and wine.
Shore dinner tastes especially right in the summer, outdoors, where sea air rouses the appetite and lobsters glisten red on picnic tables. From Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier, in Kittery, to Abel’s Lobster Pound, in Acadia National Park, picturesque opportunities to feast abound. The most dramatic of them all, especially when waves are crashing on the rocky coast, is The Lobster Shack at Two Lights, in Cape Elizabeth. A restaurant has perched here since the 1920s. The water’s-edge setting—at the entrance to Casco Bay and framed by a pair of lighthouses—is spectacular. More than a dozen picnic tables are marshaled on a flat patch of sandy land between the takeout counter and huge rocks where the ocean splashes in. When the sea is rough and the wind is gusting, a foghorn sounds nearby and a fine mist of salty air blows across your meal, causing hot lobster meat to exude puffs of aromatic steam as you crack claws, vent the tail, and unhinge the back.
Five Islands Lobster Co. is more serene. It’s at the end of the road, at a dock from which a couple of dozen lobster boats sail; picnic tables on the wooden deck overlook blue waters and five small islands tufted with pine trees. Dining at Five Islands can be a little confusing—nothing like a restaurant with waiters or even an eat-in-the-rough seafood shack. First you have to go into the red clapboard building, where a sign above the open door says “Lobsters.” There you confer with one of the ladies about the size you want—they’ll happily hoist them out of the seawater tank for inspection—and let them know whether you want clams, corn, or potatoes thrown into the net and boiled alongside. You can buy a soft drink (or bring your own wine or beer), although we had to persuade one old salt to sell us a bottle of Moxie. She promised it would be too bitter for travelers unaccustomed to the Yankee beverage, which contains gentian root and was originally marketed as a nerve tonic. Slices of blueberry cake and brownies are sold on the honor system. Leave a dollar for each one you take.
After arranging for dinner in the red building, head outside and find a picnic table or, if the 20 to 25 minutes it takes for everything to boil is too long for your hunger to wait, go next door to Five Island’s Love Nest (so named because fishermen and their paramours used to tryst there) and pick up an order of fried clams—right up there in the fried-clam pantheon with Clam Box of Ipswich (Massachusetts)—their briny marine essence encased in micro thin crust. The Love Nest menu also features lobster rolls, fish and chips, crab cakes, even hamburgers and hot dogs.
When we told Chris Johnston, who, with his wife, Jenny, bought Five Islands Lobster Co. only a few years ago, that his lobsters were the best we’d ever eaten, he credited the water, which is the deepest and coldest on the Maine coast, resulting in lobsters with meat that is firm and radiant with clean ocean flavor. Ours fairly burst out of the shell when we took a nutcracker to it, and the juices that dripped on the corn and potatoes added a saltwater glow to the whole meal.
Abel’s Lobster Pound
Chauncey Creek Lobster Pier