Center Stage at Harvest on the Harbor
If you had any lingering doubts about Maine being a mecca for fine dining and other gustatory pursuits, then all you needed to do was attend one or all of the events that took place last week at the fourth annual Harvest on the Harbor held at the Ocean Gateway pier — a celebration of Maine chefs, farmers, fisherman, and wine, beer and cheese purveyors.
Ocean Gateway is a fabulous venue for such an extravaganza. And wouldn’t it make a dazzling permanent food hall, with the backdrop of the great Atlantic beyond that puts the waterfront to productive use beyond the otherwise dusty piers that line the trailing shoreline?
Logistically the event was monumental. And I don’t mind praising the labors of its organizer, the Portland Visitor’s and Convention Bureau whose efforts made it possible (Down East magazine was among the sponsors of the great food gala).
Last Thursday the Ultimate Seafood Splash and the Grand Tasting were two highly touted standing-room-only events. The crowd got to sample some pretty good eats from the likes of Fore Street (pan-seared red fish), Zapoteca (corn masa boats with lobster), the White Barn Inn ( a wonderful triple chocolate mousse), the Sea Glass at the Inn by the Sea (whiting over quinoa). One of my favorite bites was barbecued northern shrimp prepared by visiting New Orleans chef Michale Ruoss of Salu.
The two most highly anticipated presentations were the two sit-down tastings--Lobster Chef of the Year competition and Top of the Crop: Best Farm to Table Chef, of which I was one of four judges. Emceed by Arrows star chefs and proprietors Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier, the Top of the Crop evening was immensely entertaining.
The lobster competition presented an interesting trio of chefs hailing from obscure reaches of the Maine food map. Ryan Campbell, chef at the Lake Parlin Lodge and Cabins outside Jackman, presented Maine lobster three ways. It was not a favorite of the 200 diners who served as judges, but I liked it for its inventive flavors and composition. Stonington chef Kristian Burrin of the Seasons of Stonington restaurant prepared a trio of lobster rolls, which were tasty but not special enough to take first place.
It wasn’t a surprise, therefore, that Kennebunk private chef and cook at the Arundel Masonic Lodge Thomas Reagan won because his dish was the most sophisticated. His slowly poached lobster tails in a classic beurre blanc rendered a delicate dish of butter bathed crustacean. I liked the fact that he also shared his secret for a foolproof beurre blanc, an emulsified sauce that can easily separate if cooked at the wrong temperature. He explained that adding heavy cream stabilizes the sauce.
The Top of the Crop competition was a tricky one to judge. The chefs were required to showcase local food and the use of pumpkin as a prominent ingredient. Our voting process used a point system of judging.
Two of us gave the highest marks to five fifty-five as the top choice, but the rest of our panel thought otherwise. Chef Derek Federico prepared a striking and complex pumpkin soup, the sum of its parts being, in a word, brilliant. The preparation was a puree of local pumpkin with a confit of local goat, house-made ricotta and toasted pumpkin seed oil with flecks of toasted kale. I hope it’s on the restaurant’s menu because I can’t wait to have it again.
The winner of the competition, however, was Joshua Mather of Joshua’s in Wells. The other judges were impressed by his use of local ingredients and down-home, hearty fare. I liked the dish well enough. It was cider-braised country-style pork ribs that was a good balance of sweet and savory. It was served on a bed of mashed potatoes and accompanied by balsamic braised beets, cranberry chutney and candied pumpkin seeds. It easily hit the comfort food sweet spot, but it was not, in my opinion, riveting.
The other two entrants had mixed results. Harraseeket Inn executive chef Eric Flynn prepared an admirable rendition of braised pork belly with apple cider glaze. But it was his pumpkin gnocchi that wasn’t up to snuff, being a bit rough and tumble in texture and lightness.
The incredible Japanese chef Masa Miyake of Miyake was not at his finest either. He offered his own farm-raised guinea hen prepared as a galantine with pumpkin confit and local eel porcine. The dish was probably too esoteric to come off well in the confines of a competition.
Savory Samplings was the final event held on Saturday. It was like a huge street fair held under a tent set up at the pier.
Interestingly two of the vendors present are currently the basis for the latest food drama in town. The buzz involves the Brunswick-based Gelato Fiasco setting up shop across Fore Street from the already established Gorgeous Gelato. I’ve had the gelato from the latter shop and it’s one of the best ice creams anywhere. The flavors are rich and intense and display incredible creaminess. According to the owner, Donato Giovine, “It’s all in the process,” the success of which involves small-batch preparation.
Still, long lines formed in front of Gelato Fiasco where tasters were able to walk away with heaping cups of ice cream whereas Gorgeous Gelato merely offered a smear on a small spoon. I guess it goes to show aggressive marketing takes the scoop.
John Golden makes no bones about sharing his opinion. If you'd like to share yours, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.