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Why Portland is Maine's culinary capital

Jim Buchta, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) on

Published in Travel News

A server took a break from shucking oysters and shaking martinis to deliver my supper: a hat-sized bowl of plump, steaming mussels. I'd just finished snowshoeing along the Presumpscot River and was perched at the seafood counter at Scales, an upscale restaurant on a fishing wharf in the Old Port section of Portland, Maine.

The mussels were the best I'd ever had, and I noticed the guy next to me -- with wind-chapped cheeks and a graying goatee -- savoring his own bowlful.

"Where are they from?" I asked.

"Me," he said.

Gary Moretti, along with his son, Matthew, runs Bangs Island Mussels in a warehouse just behind the restaurant. They harvest the sweet little bivalves from ropes that dangle below rafts several miles offshore, motor them to the wharf and then deliver them to area restaurants.

Succulent and fresh, this dinner was a far cry from my first taste of Maine a couple of decades earlier when I had the equivalent of a dining cliche: a rubbery steamed lobster at a touristy cafe in Bar Harbor. I've been to this ruggedly beautiful state several times since the attack of the rubber lobster, but Portland was never more than a pit stop on my way to visit a poet friend and his family on a pond far from the coast.

 

Last winter, I finally decided to make Portland, Maine's largest city, a destination. I'd heard it had become one of the East Coast's hottest spots, I was already in Boston for business and a different set of friends had settled in Portland, so I took a two-hour drive up the coast from Boston. My four-day stay in the Old Port -- the heart of the sea-to-table movement in Maine -- left me hungry for more.

Portland is a thumb-like peninsula that juts into Casco Bay, an easy 100 miles north of Boston with several worthy diversions along the way. I detoured to Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells, Maine, where I trudged through knee-deep snow on a mile-long path through a pine forest overlooking an icy salt marsh. The area is named after the author of "Silent Spring," the 1962 book credited with sparking an environmental revolution; it was inspired, in part, by summers spent on Maine's coast. I also made a quick stop in Kennebunkport, a sleepy seaside village with a trolley museum and a quaint downtown.

Portland has no shortage of waterfront lodging options, but I booked a room at a newish hotel called the Press, aptly named because it occupies the former Portland Press Herald building. It's a hip boutique hotel that pays homage to newspapers with type-themed sculptures and type-patterned wallpaper and carpet. From my top-floor corner room I had a view of the Old Port: a historic warehouse district overlooking a bulge in the Fore River just before it spills into Casco Bay, where fishing boats and lobster haulers bob in the inky swells.

The Old Port has helped make Portland a great getaway. During earlier visits to my poet friend in the deep woods of central Maine, I had met back-to-the landers who had fled big cities to the quaint villages and towns of Maine. Today, something similar is happening in Portland, which has drawn a new wave of chefs, baristas and brewers from big city life elsewhere.

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