St. Paddy's in Portland
A night of Irish storytelling and some salty chips are featured in our monthly guide to enjoying life in the Pine Tree State.
March is, of course, the perfect time to celebrate your Irish heritage, but Seanachie Night at Bull Feeney's (375 Fore
St., 207-773-7210, www.bullfeeneys.com) in Portland keeps the celebration going all year long, every third Monday of the month, from 7 to 9 p.m. Modeled on the saloon founded by Irishman John A. Feeney (father of the famed director John Ford) in 1878, Bull Feeney's Irish Pub hosts this authentic gathering, which features traditional storytelling and music from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England, such as Castlebay's Fred Gosbee and Julia Lane (pictured below). If you can't make it to the readings, you can always grab a Guinness or sample a tumbler of Irish whiskey. A special St. Patrick's day reading will take place on Wednesday, March 12. Be sure to call ahead for the most up-to-date information.
SNACKS FROM THE SEA
Though it might still be a bit frigid for a swim in the Maine ocean (unless you belong to the local polar bear club, and if you do, what's wrong with you?), it's certainly not too early to swallow a little of the ocean. Linette and Shep Erhart have been harvesting sea vegetables (wild ocean plants or marine algae) in Hog Bay in Franklin since 1971. A small business back then, Maine Coast Sea Vegetables (207-565-2907, www.seaveg.com) now processes more than a hundred thousand pounds of the sea-salty snacks annually. The company offers six organically certified varieties of marine plants: alaria, dulse, kelp, laver, sea lettuce, and bladderwrack. Hand-harvested directly from their beds at low tides, dried at low temperatures by sun, wood, or forced hot air and packed without further processing in their facility in Franklin, these ocean treats are great, local sources of flavor, texture, and nutrition. If you're not the type to "dive in," try the Sea Chips, organic tortilla corn chips flavored with dulse, kelp, garlic, and onion powders.
THE PERFECT PLATTER
Now is a good time to bring a little bit of spring - that's right, we're almost there, at least technically speaking - inside with unique platters designed to combine flowers and food in a completely new way. Potter Mark Kuzio of Belfast has invented Ikebana Ware (22 Durham St., 207-338-8372, www.ikebanaware.com), a combination of a one-of-a-kind handcrafted serving dish and a metal pin frog. With a small cup that holds water and the pin frog, these platters keep the flowers fresh and showcase Kuzio's innovative style. Given the scarcity of fresh flowers in Maine at this time of year, Kuzio's design is ideal for featuring just a few stems rather than filling a vase with those flowers from Florida. Surround the flora with cheese, tapas, pastries, or even stones or shells for a truly unique and Maine-made centerpiece.
Photo Credit: Courtesy Ikebana Ware
By Kathleen Fleury
Open just a few months, Empire Dine and Dance (575 Congress St., 207-879-8988, www.portlandempire.com) is the new it spot in the Portland nightlife scene, playing host to a myriad of eclectic performers and serving up classy pub fare, killer cocktails, and lots of microbrews (good luck finding a Bud Light here). With a bar and restaurant downstairs and a performance space and bar upstairs, Empire is aiming to become the city's new live music haven and upscale watering hole. Does it succeed? Pay a late night visit and see for yourself.
For a slightly more dramatic take on the chick-lit genre there's Bride Island (Plume Press, New York; paperback; 288 pages; $14), the debut novel from Alexandra Enders, who has also written for Elle, Food & Wine, and Martha Stewart Living. Once a depressed alcoholic, Polly Birdswell made the difficult choice to leave her daughter behind and head north to a small town on the coast of Maine to be close to her family's beloved retreat on Bride Island. Now, six years later, she's sober and stable and wants her daughter back. But when Bride Island's future is threatened, Polly must also fight to preserve her connection to the land she so deeply treasures.
More Than a Pub
McKay's Public House in Bar Harbor offers ample reasons to cozy up in the winter.
By Brooke Dojny
In winter, Bar Harbor folds in on itself. Gone are the day-trippers and cruise-shippers. The tee-shirt shops - along with at least half the other businesses - are closed and shuttered, putting the town into what feels like suspended animation. But a local pulse beats strong, and McKay's Public House offers a haven and meeting place for the eclectic mix of local lawyers, artists, park employees, carpenters, and hospital workers who live in Bar Harbor year-round. [for the rest of this story, to read a review of The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline, and to get away to the scenic Seboomook, see the March 2008 issue of Down East]Brian Smith is your genial publican. Energetic, enthusiastic, and hard-working, this Bates graduate and his wife settled in Bar Harbor in 2002 to raise their young family. She has five generations worth of roots in town. Brian, who had worked in New York and Portland in the restaurant biz, decided he wanted to open his own place. "I really enjoy several aspects of this business," he says. "I love food, I really like people, and I like being an entrepreneur. I'm also dedicated to working with local (especially organic) farmers and suppliers, and I enjoy developing relationships with these guys."
The couple found an elegant - but very run-down - Victorian house that had been built by the McKay family in 1896, moved it down the street and back from the road in order to create a front garden seating area, completely refurbished it in tasteful but simple period style, and opened their doors in June of 2003. "Local gossip has it that McKay was a rum runner during Prohibition," says Smith. "So it seems appropriate that his home is now a public house and restaurant, doesn't it?"
On a recent visit, chill wind gusts propel us from our car. Inside, everything is warm - we receive a warm greeting from the hostess, pass a warm, crackling fireplace in the first dining room, and take a stool at the friendly, sociable bar, which is fitted with a warmly glowing L-shaped copper top. There's a full bar with premium liquors, about a dozen ales on tap, and several well-chosen wines by the glass. We settle on a glass of the day's featured ale from Ridgeway Brewing Company and a Carmenere Pinot Noir from Argentina. A couple of patrons are supping on soup and pub food at the bar.
I'm a total sucker for pub fare in the winter, and if you choose to go that route, the menu offers all the great comfort food classics, including bangers and mash (Irish sausages on a bed of mashed potatoes), shepherd's pie, fish and chips, meatloaf, a classic Reuben sandwich, or the McKay's burger - grilled local prime ground beef topped with swiss and Sunset Acres bacon. A couple of vegetarian options - a Portobello sandwich, for instance, or tofu stir fry - are always available. And a great go-with is McKay's special salad, made with Cashel blue cheese and fresh pear over field greens, or a spinach salad with toasted walnuts and bacon.
But McKay's is not just about pub grub. Chefs Jeff Fletcher and Austin Humphrey also run a full appetizer and entree menu with rotating specials. Typical winter appetizers might be seared super-fresh local scallops with a Dijon mustard and chive sauce, lamb brochettes with mint and cucumber crA¨me fraiche, or shallow-fried crab cakes. My crab cakes, chock-full of sweet local crabmeat, were delicious, though I found the Bloody Mary sauce a little thin and acidic. "We're always tweaking the menu," says Brian, "either seasonally or by whim." So on your next visit you might well find other options, including a different saucing on your crab cakes.
McKay's dinner entrees are imaginative, well-prepared, made with high-quality ingredients, but are blessedly unfussy and free of pretense. Smith says their seafood risotto - a m`lange of local scallops and shrimp in lemon and truffle-scented Arborio rice - is by far their most popular dish. Herb roasted organic chicken with a cranberry glaze is another favorite, as is a marinated bistro steak finished with Marsala mushroom sauce. The Bordeaux-braised short ribs are a real winner - toothsomely tender meat that has been slow cooked with wine and aromatic herbs, served over fabulous Canadian bacon and cheddar smashed potatoes. There's always a special seafood main course - tuna or grilled salmon - and at least one vegetarian choice.
You really must save room for one of pastry chef Emily Damon's simply wonderful desserts - a sweet little apple galette with Calvados caramel, a whimsical root beer float with a warm chocolate chip cookie, or the rich but light cheesecake drizzled with honey coconut sauce. Here again, the kitchen produces exactly what it needs to without over-reaching.
"We're a little off the tourist track here," says Brian Smith, "and lots of other [Mount Desert] islanders find us in the summer by sneaking in around the back way into town." I'm planning on joining them. BROOKE DOJNY
McKay's is located at 231 Main Street in Bar Harbor. Dinner is served seven days a week starting at 4:30 p.m. Pub fare $8-$11; appetizers $5-$10; entrees $15-$20; desserts $7-$9. Full bar. Wheelchair accessible. 207 288-2002. www.mckayspublichouse.com
In the Soup
A novel brings chick lit to Mount Desert Island.
By Elizabeth Hand
Those of us of a certain age may remember the dustmote of pleasure derived from watching reruns of Murder, She Wrote, specifically in hopes of catching sight of one of the palm trees that could be glimpsed swaying near the beach at the fictional Maine harbor town of Cabot Cove.
Alas, no such howlers emerge in The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow, New York, New York; hardcover; 274 pages; $24.95), an amiably earnest but lackluster comic romance that suffers from formulaic plotting and by-the-book characterization that sucks all the fizz from what should be a bubbling narrative - flat Andr` sparkling wine rather than Veuve Clicquot.
Writers of this sort of book rightly bristle at the term "chick lit," much as other genre writers glower at "sci-fi." Still, the glass slipper (or pleather mule) fits. Angela Russo is the youngish (thirty-three) protagonist trapped in a desultory job (NYC event planner) with a mean female boss who fires her after a Really Big Event goes off the rails - the petulant fire eater hired by Angela exhales upon a table topiary, with the usual results, and Angela failed to arrange for Towering Inferno insurance. Getting fired cute replaces meeting cute in The Way Life Should Be, since Angela hooks up with the guy who distracted her from her job in the old-fashioned way, via an online dating site.
"The next thing I know it's five fifteen and . . . I'm still talking to MaineCatch - aka Richard Saunders - about everything and nothing. The members of my family have become characters in a sitcom - the old-country Italian grandmother, the accountant father and his cat-loving wife, the free-spirited mother, the estranged yuppie brother. In this TV-Land universe I'm a spunky career gal who had a revelation one day that she was working too hard and maybe it was time to take up and smell the sea salt."
Angela's interest in Richard, and his home state, is spurred by a photo of a weathered cottage torn from a magazine that might well be the one you are reading right now. "The image has become totemic, as unreal a place as Middle Earth," Angela muses. "Just looking at it soothes me, the way sound machines of waves or rain can calm your nerves."
Or put your teeth on edge. Maine has long been a never-never land in paintings and literature and film and TV: it's the Great Good Place Americans like to imagine can heal them, through the rigors of the wilderness or the simple comfort of a woodstove. The reality, of course, is far more complicated, and it is to Christina Baker Kline's credit that she avoids many of the clich`s of Maine in print.
There's a refreshing dearth of crusty fishermen and cantankerous natives (though I wondered, how could Angela be in love with fairytale Maine and never have heard of Mount Desert Island?). Most of the folks Angela meets when she impulsively moves to the Maine coast are from away, and Rich, the love interest who brings her to Mount Desert, doesn't live in that hobbity shingle cottage but a shoddy new townhouse with beige vinyl siding. Unfortunately, while Kline eschews most of the stock-Maine reaction shots, she seems to have found her narrative and characters at Marden's, in the Used Contemporary Fiction section.
Will Mr. MaineCatch turn out to be Mr. ThrowHimBack? Will Angela get a new Best Gay Pal? Resurrect a failing business? Find a new life for herself? Call upon her Italian grandmother's culinary knowledge and provide actual recipes in the text? Move into a real Maine cottage? Make lifelong friends, heal rifts within her family, accept the possibility of new love for herself after helping others find it, learn a family secret and, also GET A DOG?
The answers to the above will only be a surprise if the questions themselves are. Kline has a knack for amusing dialogue, and her recipes sound swell. But recipes and banter are the stuff of cooking shows, not novels, and the novel's soapy language and emoticon sentimentality make its characters seem more like residents of Second Life than MDI.
This is a shame, as Kline's affection for Maine seems heartfelt. Maybe she will give us a sequel, and we can see how Angela fares after a few winters and (even more trying) summers dealing with tourists and blackflies and ice dams, looming McMansions and SUV gridlock and punitive heating costs - you know, the way life here really is.
The byway from Greenville to Jackman makes for a wonderful winter weekend.
By Andrew Vietze
It's rather amazing that it took so long for the state to officially designate Indian Hill as scenic. The famous overlook in Greenville is as beautiful as Maine scenes come, and it's been a favorite of visitors to this country since forever. Finally last August the state decided to include it as part of the newly created Seboomook Scenic Byway, forty-nine miles of roads that trace Moosehead Lake's western shore before swinging west with the Moose River toward Jackman.
Start right on Indian Hill in Greenville and, if you can tear yourself away from the view, pop into the Indian Hill Trading Post (Rte. 15, 800-675-4487, www.indianhill.com) for some last-minute supplies. In this 35,000 square-foot shop you can buy everything from snowboards to organic snacks to maps of the terrain you'll be traveling. Then move on to downtown Greenville, where you can get a delicious fifty-cent chocolate-chip cookie at the Hard Drive Caf`, the little eatery inside Northwoods Outfitters (Rte. 15, 207-695-3288, www.maineoutfitter.com). Here you can check your e-mail (six dollars an hour) or grab a snack and pick up a pair of snowshoes (fifteen dollars a day). And the options for snowshoe excursions are almost endless, journeying through some of the wildest - yet accessible - country in the North Woods. One good option is the state's Little Moose Unit of the Maine Public Reserve Lands system, 13,500 acres of woods and ponds just north of Greenville. Or head up the road several miles, and make a left onto North Roadfor Big Squaw Mountain (Rte. 15, Greenville, 207-695-1000, www.bigsquawmountain.com), a ski area - at least on the weekends. With particleboard bathrooms and grilled-cheese sandwiches, the lodge here is no Sugarloaf or Sunday River, but it's all about the skiing right? The lift tickets are just twenty-five dollars, and the views are worth the ride.
If you want to spend more than a day in Greenville you'll have a hard time finding a nicer place to stay than the Blair Hill Inn (351 Lily Bay Rd., 207-695-0224, www.blairhill.com). Technically off of the Seboomook Scenic Highway (just a few miles), this old manse was renovated by Ruth and Dan McLaughlin and is a true luxury retreat with great views to boot.
Stop at Rockwood village to ogle the Rockwood Community Church, a log chapel built in the 1940s. See if you can find a place to park at the Kineo Dock parking area amid the dozens of snow-mobile trailers, and check out the to-die-for vista of Mount Kineo. Push on toward Jackman and enjoy the peek-a-boo looks of Brassua Lake. This is another great opportunity to stop the car for a walk out on to the ice, using caution and care, of course.
When you arrive in Jackman, stop at Bishop's Store (Main St., 207-668-3411, www.bishopsstore.com) for light sustenance. If you're hungry, you'll find passable pizza there. But if you really need to nosh, have a burger at Mama Bear's Den (420 Main St., 207-668-4222), with its wooden booths, birch coat rack, and friendly waitress.
Plan your visit right and you'll find yourself in the middle of the Northeast Championships Sled Dog Race (jackmanmaine.org/maine-dog-sled-races), this year taking place on March 7, 8, and 9. Both Greenville and Jackman are filled all winter with sled dogs - you know those guys and gals who don winter body armor and ride snowmobiles all over the North Woods. But during the first weekend of March they'll be replaced by their canine counterparts in a prestigious mushing race with a three-thousand-dollar purse. ANDREW VIETZED