Down East 2013 ©
Photograph by Ted Axelrod
Robert’s Maine Grill, located in the heart of the discount-shopping mecca that is Route 1 Kittery, stands out from its surroundings — and not just because of the faux-lighthouse in its parking lot.
Flanked by outlet stores, the dark gray clapboard building is reminiscent of an older, iconic Kittery. One thinks of the historic John Bray homestead in nearby Kittery Point, reportedly the oldest house in Maine. In contrast to the rushing traffic a stone’s toss from the restaurant’s front doors, an expansive wetlands encompassing Spruce Creek extends out back. Hawks and herons wheel overhead from the vantage point of the restaurant’s tranquil back dining porch: the perfect place to sip a Maine lemonade (the traditional drink made extraordinary by the addition of Cold River Blueberry Vodka) or a Dark and Moxie (a Maine version of a Dark & Stormy) while waiting for your meal.
“It’s a bit of an oxymoron,” admits Michael Landgarten, who also owns Bob’s Clam Hut across the street, a landmark more in keeping with the pace and tenor of busy Route 1. “We’d hoped to create an updated version of the traditional Maine seafood house — as if Bob’s got gussied up, put on shoes, and went out for a nice dinner.”
A Bowdoin College grad who originally got into food because he was looking for a business to support his music avocation (Landgarten played rock guitar and sang), he had no idea he would fall in love when he purchased Bob’s twenty-five years ago. “I loved the people and the passion they had for the place. It was so sincere.”
His old Bowdoin friends were not surprised. Landgarten had made something of a name for himself during college, painstakingly compiling a list of the best fried fish sandwiches and chocolate shakes within a thirty-mile radius of Brunswick (e.g., Fat Boy’s). Running a clam shack seemed a natural extension of the old preoccupation.
Built on the site of the former Quarterdeck Restaurant, Robert’s is spacious, well-lit, and casually comfortable. A hammered aluminum bar wraps around the entrance and into the dining area, with super-fresh offerings of raw oysters and clams, as well as shrimp and crabs, on display. Overhead, the restaurant’s “Marquee Specials” are proclaimed in a bright art installation using standard Maine road signs lit from within by makeup mirror lights. Walls are lined with nautically themed Maine art and poster-sized photographs.
Local, fresh, and top quality are the principles at work in the kitchen, confirms executive chef Craig Spinney, a local product himself (his ancestors were among the first four families of Eliot, Maine).
“We work hard to find the best sources,” Spinney says. For him, that means scallops from Winter Harbor, which are the sweetest he’s ever tasted. “We get a call as soon as they’re landed, and it’s all over our specials board that evening.” He’s a big fan of organic German butterball potatoes from Misty Meadows Farm in Grand Isle (“We go through seven-hundred pounds of those every two weeks”), mesclun from Sparrow Arc Farm in Unity, and outstanding cheeses from Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.
While standard “fish house” fare such as fried haddock, steamers, boiled lobsters, and meatloaf form the backbone of the menu, Spinney elevates them to something special. His meatloaf is tweaked with a little Moxie, his steamers are redolent of Allagash White beer. The haddock was certainly caught that day, and the oil it was fried in is free of trans fats and replaced often. Traditional Maine “comfort food,” such as mac ’n cheese, reaches new heights with the addition of fresh lobster and smoked Pineland cheddar. Spinney even gives his mozzarella sticks a Maine twist by breading and lightly frying Pineland Farms cheese curds and serving them with marinara.
Among the not-to-be-missed items: mussels and chorizo in mustard cream, listed under “starters,” but sometimes offered as an entree over linguini. The mussels are sweet, the spicy chorizo adds a little heat, and the mustard cream balances out the whole dish. A hearty lobster bruschetta served on ciabatta with roasted tomato, parmesan, and garlic could be a meal in itself. The Maine seafood paella is perfectly seasoned and presented in a personal, cast-iron pan. Desserts, blessedly, can be ordered in “bite sizes” at reduced prices, although there are not enough superlatives to describe the raspberry pie from Bread & Roses Bakery in Ogunquit. Do not miss it.
With Robert’s, Michael Landgarten has definitely advanced well beyond his college-era fried fish sandwich and chocolate shake stage. The food he now serves up would no doubt have made the top of his old list.
Robert’s Maine Grill is located on Route 1 in Kittery. It is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Appetizers $7.95-$15.95; entrees $15.95-$28.95; desserts $2.95-$6.95. 207-439-0300. www.robertsmainegrill.com