DiningStraight from the SeaMeticulously fresh seafood is the order of the day at Suzuki's Sushi Bar in Rockland.
For a food that culinary historians date to fourteenth-century Japan, sushi made a relatively tardy appearance in Maine. Before the 1980s the local lingo for raw fish was "bait." That's changed. In recent years, Japanese restaurants across the state have begun to educate Mainers in the briny pleasures of tuna sashimi and crabmeat and cucumber sushi rolls.Of all of them, Suzuki's Sushi Bar in Rockland might just be the unlikeliest. In the town known as the Lobster Capital of the World, fresh lobster is traditionally served whole with corn on the cob and a side of slaw, but diners at the popular sushi bar are ordering up fresh cooked chunks of lobster paired with cucumber, lettuce, and avocado, all rolled together in a thin sheath of seaweed. Served with an assortment of seafood and vegetable sushi on a glass platter and decorated with a nest of shredded daikon and a pink orchid, the seafood looks more like a work of modern art than like a typical shore dinner.
Keiko Suzuki-Steinberger, who owns the sushi bar with her husband, Joe, doesn't mind breaking with tradition.
"I never made sushi in Japan, no," says Suzuki, 29, who grew up in Sendai, a city north of Tokyo. She ate plenty of sushi, though, and loved it. "They are professional sushi chefs in Japan, trained at schools. People don't make sushi at home."
Sushi chefs are typically middle-aged men, says Suzuki, with years of professional training behind them.
By contrast, she learned sushi-making on the fly. In 2000, when her cousin offered to hire her at Oh-Bento, a Japanese restaurant on the north end of Rockland, Suzuki jumped at the chance. She had just graduated from college and the last thing she wanted to do was get an office job in Tokyo and settle down. And she had been to Rockland before. In 1997, when she was a twenty-year-old college student, Suzuki attended an intensive English language course at the Penobscot School.
"My mother said I was not conformist," she says with a hearty laugh that comes easily and often. Her mother supported Suzuki's plucky sense of adventure. "Besides, she figured no way a Japanese guy would marry me."
During her three years at Oh-Bento, Suzuki tried to duplicate the taste of authentic sushi, but says her efforts fell short. After marrying Steinberger in 2002, she started to daydream about a sushi bar of her own — something small and simple, but also upbeat and modern. "Why not?" was her husband's response, so they started scouting for a suitable location.
At the same time, Suzuki ordered DVDs from the Tokyo Sushi Academy, a professional sushi school in Japan, bought books on preparing sushi rice, and threw herself into perfecting her sushi. "Yes, yes! Joe and I ate a lot of sushi while I practiced!" she says.
Fresh fish, of course, is essential. Suzuki lined up local and out-of-state suppliers — including Benny's Maine Seafood in Waldoboro and Bounty Seafood in Rockland — which could provide her with the highest quality seafood. The result is that her sushi tastes like it was swimming free minutes before being rolled into edible art.
But the real secret is the meticulous preparation of the rice, which includes letting it rest between being washed, dried, soaked, and cooked. And, she says, she never, ever uses plastic bowls or utensils.
Suzuki's attention to detail has paid off. When the restaurant opened in April 2006, locals tried her sushi and were hooked. Now she's urging them to try uni, the sea urchin roe.
"People don't want to eat it so much here," says Suzuki, of the delicacy, which is difficult to get fresh in Japan. "They say, 'What is this creature?' I say, try it. Uni is so tasty, so creamy when it is fresh."
If the popularity of Suzuki's Sushi Bar is any indication, it won't be long before the locals take the bait. -Christine Parrish
Open Tuesday through Thursday 5-9 p.m. and Friday & Saturday 5-9:30 p.m. at 419 Main Street in Rockland, Suzuki's offers appetizers (under $8), rice and noodle dishes ($9-$17), and sushi ($3-$30). Sake ($5-$80) and a variety of beer, wine, and hard liquor round out the menu. Reservations recommended. 207-596-7447.Maine MadeMagnetic Appeal
Can't remember where you put your glasses? Irritated by an ID badge that bumps against your belly all day long? Lisa Bess has the answer. The Portland theatrical designer-turned-jewelry maker has fashioned a little bauble from which you can hang your glasses or badge in style ($20, www.lisabess.com
). A strong, Teflon-coated magnet means you won't poke holes in your clothes, and Bess' quirky handmade designs utilizing slivers of Maine beach stones, twigs, tiny shells, and sprinklings of stars add a little zip to any outfit. Her images of beach chairs, birdhouses, and the starry night are particularly popular with nurses, teachers, and any women who can benefit from a bit of art added to a busy day.Quick Bites
You know cheese has hit the big time in Maine when — at last — a specialty shop devoted to all things fromage has sprung up in Cumberland County. The Cheese Iron (200 U.S. Route One, Suite 300, Scarborough; 207-883-4057; www.thecheeseiron.com
) carries more than two hundred domestic and international cheeses, along with wine, Italian deli meats, and other specialty foods. Owner Vincent Maniaci frequently invites local cheesemakers, as well as wine, coffee, and chocolate experts, in for informal talks, and he's planning to offer wine and cheese pairing classes, too.
Check out a foodie in the making at The Bowdoin Gourmet (www.bowdoingourmet.com
), a blog written by sophomore Mark McGranaghan about his dining adventures on campus. McGranaghan's well-lit photos of his frequently tasty, well-balanced meals may make you look back in horror at your own collegiate dining experience — do kids today even know the meaning of mystery meat? — but they're a fascinating window into college cuisine. -Michaela CavallaroHot TipGlobal Warming
You're not going to win any best-dressed awards when you're suited up in the Slanket. But you're likely to be too cozy to care. Gary Clegg dreamed up the fleece blanket with sleeves (thus the name) as a freshman at the University of Maine. Huddled in a sleeping bag to ward off the chill of an Orono evening, Clegg was happy as can be — until he realized that the TV remote wouldn't work from inside the bag. Rather than expose his hand to the wintry draft, he took a knife and slashed an arm hole in the bag. Add a few refinements and, voilà, the Slanket, which retails for $48.95 (www.theslanket.com
). Now if only Clegg can find a way to warm up the tip of our nose. . . .BooksThe Poet Next DoorA new biography ranks Gardiner's Edwin Arlington Robinson among major American poets.
Generations of students must remember what happened to "Miniver Cheevy," that "child of scorn" who, born into an unheroic age that denied him opportunities for knightly derring-do, sadly "coughed, . . . /And kept on drinking."
But it's unlikely that many could tell you much about his creator, Maine's own Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935), who was for many years tolerated by his family and friends as a morose, underachieving semi-misfit born into a family blessed by material success, social grace, and supreme confidence. Nevertheless, the ironically nicknamed "Win" Robinson lived to earn three Pulitzer Prizes for poetry and command the respect and friendship of some of the most eminent literary figures of his time.
But none of that seemed to matter in the immediate aftermath of Robinson's death, when the rise of the modernist poets (T.S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and others) made his plainspoken, conversational verse appear dated and trite.
Now, in a richly documented book that eclipses earlier biographies and critical studies, veteran biographer Scott Donaldson (whose previous subjects include Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and John Cheever) attempts to reargue the case for Robinson's status as a major American poet.
In Edwin Arlington Robinson: A Poet's Life (Columbia University Press, New York; hardcover; 672 pages; $34.95), Donaldson begins engagingly with a discussion of Robinson's lifelong dissatisfaction with his somewhat stuffy — he called it "highfalutin" — name, and bitter amusement over constant published references to him as "Edward Arlington Robinson." The error would be repeated even in his obituary.
Win Robinson did grow up more or less obscure, in the thriving riverside town of Gardiner, to which his father, Edward, a prosperous lumber merchant, had moved his growing family from Head Tide, north of Wiscasset, where Edwin and his siblings had been born.
Sensitive and withdrawn (and doubtless more than a bit awed by his ebullient father), Edwin developed a "deep attachment to his mother," withdrawing gratefully into the shadows cast by his extroverted older brothers: high achiever Dean and handsome charmer Herman. A talent for poetry and a stubborn commitment to the life of the mind became evident during Win's adolescence — as did the suspicions of kinfolk and neighbors that he'd never amount to anything.
But the Robinsons' star faded as Edward sank into alcoholism, Dean became irreversibly drug-addicted, and Herman — who married beautiful Emma Shepherd (very likely the only woman Edwin ever loved) — surrendered his own and the family's fortunes to repeated ruinous business decisions.
Relying heavily on Robinson's correspondence and on the memoirs of those who knew him, admired his work, and in several cases provided financial support, Donaldson creates a vivid picture of turn-of-the-century literary life, linked to the publications of Robinson's books. When Robinson's first volume, The Torrent and the Night Before, was privately published in 1896, many readers expressed admiration for the art with which commonplace subjects and unspectacular lives were captured in taut, gnomic rhythms that wedded a distinctly modern consciousness to a precocious mastery of traditional meter and rhyme. Others balked at what would throughout his career be condemned as willful obscurity and thinly veiled contempt for provincial smugness and prudishness.
Donaldson's sensitive readings remind us anew of the power and freshness of Robinson's best work: incisive portraits of "Richard Cory" and "Miniver Cheevy"; a woman trapped in a disastrous marriage ("Eros Turannos"); and, among a number of forgotten gems, valedictories to a stoical spinster ("Aunt Imogen") and a family whose modest lives are destroyed by the advance of progress ("The Mill").
Donaldson summarizes his encounter with the bard of Gardiner thus: "Reading Robinson is a moving and cathartic experience, constantly reminding us of our involvement with mankind, and of the tears in the things of this world." Amen to that. And thanks to Scott Donaldson for reacquainting us with one of our most gifted and interesting neighbors. -Bruce AllenBriefly Noted
In Small Misty Mountain: The Awanadjo Almanack (Pushcart Press, Wainscott, New York and Sedgwick, Maine; hardcover; 261 pages; $22), Rob McCall chronicles a year in the natural world of Blue Hill. Drawn from his column in the weekly Packet newspaper, the book thoughtfully covers topics as diverse as the repatriation of native bones, obsessive lawn-mowing, and the early appearance of robins in nearby woods.
Maine images are sprinkled throughout The Camera's Coast: Historic Images of Ship and Shore in New England (Historic New England, Boston; paperback; 144 pages; $29.95). The collection of old photographs, advertisements, historic documents, and other ephemera makes for a good afternoon's browsing.
Miriam Colwell, a longtime resident of Prospect Harbor, wrote Contentment Cove (Puckerbush Press, Orono; paperback; 190 pages; $15.95) in the 1950s, after Random House published her debut novel. But the second book, a gentle satire about the conflicts between longtime residents and summer visitors to a Maine fishing village, didn't find a publisher until last year. A dialogue-heavy melodrama, Contentment Cove is an entertaining glimpse into days gone by (or perhaps never were).Sweet ToothCuckoo for Cocoa
You can't go wrong with chocolates for Valentine's Day, especially if they're handmade locally rather than mass-produced and shrinkwrapped for sale in drug stores nationwide. (Not that we're naming any names.) One of Maine's many excellent chocolatiers is Mary's Candy Shop in Lewiston (238 Main St., 207-783-9824), which excels at sweet, but not too sweet, treats; the needhams, mint patties, and dark chocolate peanut clusters come particularly highly recommended. If your sweetie's not a fan of candy — perish the thought — then pick up some chocolate in liquid form. Bar Harbor Brewing Company's Cadillac Mtn. Stout (www.barharborbrewing.com
) draws raves from microbrew aficionados, who revere the flavors of chocolate, espresso, and licorice that pervade the hearty brew. Along with a cozy spot on the couch and a crackling fire in the hearth, either treat will be sure to warm your beloved's heart. And that's a sure way to wintry bliss.