The Perfect BalancePier 77 in Cape Porpoise offers the right mix of food, views, and value.
Everything is an omen when you're dining out. Or maybe it isn't; I'm just superstitious enough to make a big deal out of how the first little moments go when I walk into a restaurant. Does the hostess make eye contact? Do they have my reservation? Is there room to wait at the bar while our table is readied? The entire evening can pivot on whether I get two olives in my martini or three.
So it is that I'm on high alert during the opening minutes of a visit to Pier 77, a popular waterfront place in Cape Porpoise. The hostess has made eye contact, they have our reservation, and we're being seated at seven-thirty sharp. So far, so good.The restaurant is suffused with the rich light of a late-summer sunset, and just as we sit down the sunset seems to hit a crescendo; golden-bronze light cascades around us like a made-to-order moment direct from Hollywood, washing through the room, turning the white walls orange, and making everyone look ten years younger. As omens go, it's not a bad performance. This just might be a pretty good night.
Owners Kate and Pete Morency had a similar experience the first time they walked into the space, back in the winter of 2003. They'd been in the restaurant business for decades in San Francisco, but Pete's sister, Jaye, who lives in York Harbor, had been tempting them for years with restaurants for sale in Maine. A place called Seascapes, situated on a working pier in Cape Porpoise, about four miles from Kennebunkport's Dock Square, was for sale, and Jaye was pushing it hard. "This one you really have to see," she told them.
They flew out in January, took a look around the airy, light-filled space, and fell for it. "Pete was from Boston, and his father and sister lived down in York, but I was from San Francisco and had no desire to move to Maine," Kate recalls, with a little laugh. "But the space was so nice, and the views were so beautiful. I'm not the kind of person to say it's a magical spot, but it really is a magical spot. We said, 'Let's do it.' "
By May of that year they'd relocated to Maine, done a bit of interior renovation on the eighty-seat space, and reopened it as Pier 77, with a small downstairs pub they called The Ramp Bar & Grill. Pete ran the kitchen, Kate the front of the house. The dining experience they envisioned was comfortable, elegant, but not formal, with a moderately priced menu featuring fresh, local, seasonal foods.
"So many places are so overblown in the way they present themselves," Kate says. "That's not us. We wanted it to be a relaxing experience, and to offer people food that was good and fresh and well-prepared."
The model is working. On the evening my wife and I visit, the crowd is a grab-bag: families, polo-shirted couples who look like they just stepped off their sailboats, well-dressed foursomes out for a special occasion. It's busy, but well-managed. The sun-drenched views to the south and west are dominated by water, islands, marshland, and boats.
The room is put together, but not stuffy or precious. Each table is decorated with a potted topiary. A piano player provides dining music: jazz standards, Elton John, and, later in the evening, an elegant version of Aerosmith's "Dream On."
The menu is filled with well-wrought variations on familiar surf-and-turf themes: filet mignon, seafood stew in a tomato saffron broth, lobster in the rough. The special appetizer, a spicy corn chowder, is tasty but pales next to the oysters bingo, fresh bivalves dressed up with spinach, garlic, cream, and parmesan cheese. We stick to the seafood theme with our entrees: a grilled swordfish special is given a south-of-the-border treatment with citrusy black beans and a delicious crab taquito, while a pan-roasted haddock is accompanied by crab risotto, English pea puree, grilled tomato, and pea shoots. Risotto is the dragon at the gate for many kitchens, but this one is nicely done: creamy, with just enough al dente crunch, and a delicate flavor to accompany the mild, flaky haddock. We're in a red-wine mood, and our server recommends a delicious, light-bodied - and very reasonably priced - bottle of pinot noir from Monterey that pairs especially well with the swordfish, and also goes nicely with our dessert of homemade cookies and chocolate truffles.
It's a rare thing on the coast of Maine to find a restaurant that manages a pleasing equilibrium between food, view, and value, but Pier 77 has it dialed in. If anything, the scale may tip in value's favor; this is excellent food in a beautiful room with lovely views, and I'll be back.
Turns out that sunset was a good omen after all.
Pier 77 and The Ramp Bar & Grill are located at 77 Pier Road, Cape Porpoise. 207-967-8500. The restaurant is open March to December. March to May, and November to December, Pier 77 serves lunch and dinner Wednesday through Sunday; June to October, lunch and dinner are served daily. Lunch is 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m., dinner 5 - 10 p.m. The Ramp serves a casual bar menu and is open 11:30 a.m. - 10 p.m. www.pier77restaurant.com By Scott Sutherland
Maine has long been a place to come for T-shirts, but they're usually of the touristy, lighthouse-lupine-and-loon variety. In recent years, outfits like York's Gravestone Artwear and Rogues Gallery have elevated the short-sleever to the realm of art. Small Victory Studios can be added to that list. The South Portland-based company markets the designs of a variety of local artists, offering 100-percent organic, ring-spun cotton shirts in limited edition runs. Like fine art prints, these twenty-dollar tees are individually labeled, and the designs are fantastic, fun, and unpredictable, from hobbling chimps to twisted knickers to desert ostriches. Dreamed up by SoPo artists Jeff and Lydia Badger, Small Victory has screen-printed works by Charlie Hewitt, Sam Van Aken, and Lucinda Bliss, among others. The designs on their site - www.smallvictorystudios.com
- change regularly, which makes it amusing to see what's new. With the holidays coming up, they make great gifts.
The Woman in Question
A new history offers a fresh look at a notorious murder in nineteenth-century Saco.
It was a spring morning in Saco and the ice was finally melting, but a brook running into the Saco River was blocked and needed to be cleared. Neighbors gathered, heaved out a six-foot-long barn plank, and discovered that something was attached to it: the remains of the body of a woman, tied to the wooden plank at the neck and ankles. A physician called to the scene took very little time to conclude that this death was neither a suicide nor an accident, and that the woman had died as the result of an abortion. The police had a homicide investigation on their hands, and the press had another sensational story to sell to their readers along with the socially acceptable moral that came with it: this is what happens to innocent young women who leave the safety of their homes to work in the mills. The date was April 13, 1850. This was the murder of Mary Bean.
Elizabeth De Wolfe has taken this death as the subject of her book, The Murder of Mary Bean and Other Stories (Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio; paperback; 224 pages; $24.95). Despite its title, this is not a murder mystery, but a social history. De Wolfe, who teaches history at the University of New England, uses this event as a lens through which to view the changing social landscape of New England in the 1850s, especially anxieties around women's economic independence. Besides her historical analysis, the book includes two short pulp novels based on the murder, first published in 1852, which make fascinating reading in their own right.
At first, De Wolfe's own study of the murder is less fascinating. She has several points to make about gender, sexuality, and the social regulation of women's lives, and she makes them repeatedly. Her narrative meanders maddeningly back and forth from the murder investigation to historical background about the development of the mills and the problems faced by small towns undergoing urbanization. She delays, doubles back, interrupts herself. But the story becomes more engaging as it goes on. It is filled with interesting characters (Portland's own soon-to-be appointed U.S. Supreme Court justice, Nathan Clifford, makes an appearance as a humble defense attorney), and De Wolfe marshals a multitude of details about Maine life in the 1850s that may surprise readers. The easy access women had to abortion, for example, plays an important part in this story.
Mary Bean was an alias. The dead woman's real name was Berengera Caswell, a native of Quebec, who had emigrated to New England with her two sisters to work in the mills. When she became pregnant by William Long of Biddeford, Caswell sought an abortion. Abortions were not hard to obtain. Herbs used to induce them were advertised openly in newspapers, and doctors performed them under the euphemism "menstrual regulation" or "unblocking." So many women were using abortion as a form of birth control that the American Medical Association began a campaign against the practice in the late 1850s, targeting midwives and "botanics." Caswell sought her abortion in Saco from just such a botanic, James Smith, a doctor who specialized in herbal remedies and who treated her under the alias, Mary Bean. When herbs failed, he used wire, and when wire failed and Caswell died, he tied her body to a barn plank and dumped it in the brook, hoping it would end up in the sea. This final attempt to erase Berengera Caswell's existence was also a failure.
The murder of Mary Bean was sensationalized by the press and became the subject of popular "true crime" novels. According to De Wolfe's analysis, this was not merely because of the way Caswell had died. In the course of Smith's murder trial, the press learned more about Berengera Caswell. She earned her own living, she could afford to buy herself the fine clothes and jewelry displayed at the trial, and she lived an independent life far from her family. All these details changed the perception of her from an innocent victim to a woman somewhat complicit in her own murder. The texts of the two novels suggest as much. They are cautionary tales in which the death of Mary Bean becomes an object lesson, a warning against transgressing social norms. Like our own docu-dramas, they radically reshape the factual narrative to turn a complex story of real human beings into a mix of sensational voyeurism and sentimental moralizing.
History's best lesson may be the more things change, the more they stay the same. It's a lesson De Wolfe delivers to us once again, with a punch.By Agnes Bushell
ON THE WEB
Whatever grief state government gets in Maine, you have to admit that maine.gov is pretty cool. The state's official Web site was a pioneer in the early days of offering governmental services on the Internet. And it's still ahead of the curve. One of the site's cool new features is its Google Maps interface. Got jury duty? Click on the maine.gov map and your courthouse will pop right up. Out of work? Maine.gov can direct you to the nearest career center. There are currently eleven available maps, from DMV offices to state parks, public libraries to district forest ranger offices. (If you're in a rush to find Smokey the Bear, apparently.) Of course, when you actually arrive at your state government office, you're on your own. But at least you got directions fast.
BRIEFLY NOTED" Margaret Hathaway and Karl Schatz wanted out of the big city. Nothing unusual about that. But how many urban couples aspire to become goat farmers in Gray, Maine? The Year of the Goat: 40,000 Miles and the Quest for the Perfect Cheese (Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut; hardcover; 224 pages; $22.95) is their fun account of going on the road, getting a sort of a movable education in all aspects of animal husbandry.
Young at HeartA day in Farmington can bring back a little of those bright college years.
Looking for something to do before the snow flies? Farmington is more than just the gateway to the mountains of western Maine. It is home to a top-ranked liberal arts college, a walkable downtown that boasts an eclectic array of shops, and fascinating architecture to admire.
If you're stocking up for your winter reading head into Twice Sold Tales
(155 Main St., 207-778-4411). This used bookstore has plenty of books with a Maine persuasion; from literary novels, to biographies, to hunting and fishing guides, there's sure to be something to pique your interest. And while you're in a browsing mode you won't want to miss Sugarwood Gallery
(248 Broadway, 207-778-9105, www.sugarwoodgallery.com
). This Maine artisan-owned shop has a selection of unique pieces ranging from bookcases and tables made of antique reclaimed wood to hand-painted lampshades. You'll likely find one of the artists (who will be happy to chat with you about finding the perfect piece for your home) working the shop. We all need an extra bit of sunshine at this time of year, so soak some up at Liquid Sunshine
(165 Main St., 207-778-4413). The store, with its ample selection of unique T-shirts, jewelry, tapestries, candles, journals, and more, quickly outgrew the VW Microbus it started in. Ready to try something new this ski season? Swing into Aardvark Outfitters
(108 Fairbanks Rd., 207-778-3330, www.aardvarkoutfitters.com
) to be fitted with Telemark boots and skis. You'll also get some helpful advice on the local skiing before you hit the slopes this year.
Pull up a stool at the Granary Brew Pub & Restaurant
(147 Pleasant St., 207-779-0710, www.thegranarybrewpub.com
) and enjoy a local brew from Oak Pond Brewery Ales & Lagers in Skowhegan. Or grab a table and order up a delicious dish of grilled veggie lasagna or a juicy cut of pan-seared pork tenderloin. The Homestead Bakery
(186 Broadway, 207-778-6162, www.homesteadbakery.com
) offers dinners with an Italian flavor. Settle in next to the cozy fireplace with a plate of their vegetable raviolis and drink in the atmosphere. (Be sure to call for a reservation so you're not disappointed). For something homemade and on-the-go, try Soup For You
(222 Broadway, 207-779-0799), extremely affordable at less than five dollars for bread and a bowl of soup.
Take a stroll toward the University of Maine at Farmington campus and admire the Romanesque architecture of Merrill Hall
(224 Main St.). It's hard to miss with its magnificent arches, immense windows, and hand-carved woodwork. Not only is it the oldest building on a public campus in Maine, but it also claims fame as the home of Nordica Auditorium (named after world-famous opera singer Lillian Nordica). Just up the road you'll find a prime example of the Beaux Arts classical style in Cutler Memorial Library
(Academy and High St.). Built with granite from the same quarry (in North Jay) as that used in President Ulysses S. Grant's tomb, it has certainly stood the test of time. University of Maine at Farmington Art Gallery
(238 Main St., 207-778-7002, art gallery
) is a great, last stop on your cultural tour. The on-campus gallery presents exhibits of local (and often student) artists as well as those from out of state. The work is sure to provide interesting conversation for the ride home.By JEnnifer Baum
Beat The Plow
Mailboxes and snowplows have a relationship similar to dogs and postal carriers - they're never going to get along. Mainely Metals has come up with a solution to this age-old war, a truce in the form of a swing-away mailbox. The Gardiner-based company manufactures sturdy postboxes attached to long, galvanized steel arms. If they take a hit from a snow-pushing plow, these boxes will swing up and away and return to their normal position after the big blade passes, automatically resetting themselves. Better yet, they'll allow your plow guy to shovel right up to the base of your pole, so the mailman will never have trouble getting close to your box. Ingenious and, in a place like Maine, necessary. The MailSwing comes in a few ways - the full kit ($199); the swing arm and mailbox to attach to a post of your own ($119); and a post and arm with no mailbox ($179). You can order and find more info at www.ruralmailboxes.com
. Get one now before the ground freezes.