It’s the ultimate summertime foodie fantasy for anyone who has vacationed along the New Hampshire and southern Maine coasts. Spend an imaginary day eating and drinking your way up the coast from Massachusetts to Kennebunkport until, to quote that great gourmand Ricky Ricardo, you’re ready to “s’plode.” Here, in no special order, are some of my choices.
When I was a kid in Ogunquit, Maine, mussels were things that scraped you up if you dove too deep off the beach bridge. Now, of course, they are high-demand appetizers. Vasa, in Salisbury, may be recently opened, but it already has the mussels down. Leeks, cherry tomatoes, white wine, cream, basil and, of course, a ton of mussels. I wish I was eating them right now.
I have had some great meals at CR’s The Restaurant in Hampton, N.H. But during the warm weather months, there is nothing wrong with sitting as their inviting bar and opting to eat light and drink a few summery drinks. I’ve never been a meatball guy, in part because I usually find them disappointing, but try CR’s wagyu beef meatballs ($10). They’re a mix of high-end Japanese beef and ground pork simmered in a savory marinara and taste even better than the description. Yeah, the kids will love ‘em. But you know what? They’re too good for the kids.
Justin’s Seafood Hut in Rye, New Hampshire, is the kind of ramshackle takeout place you might hesitate visiting. Don’t. Pull in and order their shrimp tacos. You can thank me later.
Oscar Wilde once remarked, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” Surely he was talking diets and summertime eating habits. You haven’t enjoyed summer until you have some fried clams. Bob’s Clam Hut in Kittery, Maine, wins top honors around here. Even USA Today has raved about them. But there’s more — you can have your choice of fried clams in either the Bob or Lillian style. The latter has more batter. Both styles are sinfully good and indulgent.
I am a lobster roll snob, so for years I walked past The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport, Maine, without even a glance. Why? The place committed the ultimate sin of using (gack!) hamburger rolls. Or so I thought. Actually, it makes its own rolls, using hot dog bun ingredients and lobster off the pier that is maybe 2 miles away. They’re fabulous, and like the legendary Red’s Eats in Wiscasset, Maine, The Clam Shack offers you the choice of a side of mayo or melted butter. Order both, and then get your cholesterol checked.
Sometimes, all that summertime seafood and steak piles up on you and you want something a little different. Cornerstone Artisanal Pizza & Craft Beer will scratch that itch. The spot features indoor and outdoor dining in downtown Ogunquit, the people-watching capital of southern Maine. I suggest the “Katahdin mushroom truffle oil pizza” (someone really has to help them with their names), which also features arugula and shaved Parmesan. Maine too far to drive? Fear not. There’s a Portsmouth, N.H., location in the works.
There is something about the summertime salt air that allows us to splurge in ways we never would the rest of the year. When it’s splurge time and you are in the mood for something sweet, head to Byrne & Carlson in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, or Kittery. That they call themselves “chocolatiers” is a sure sign you will pay good money. But it will be worth it. Their high-end candy will spoil you. Try the artisan “Pansy” or “Violet” bars. Maybe pick up some of the fresh cream truffles or the “Palets des Fleurs” (Belgian semi-sweet chocolate disks with dried cranberries, candied orange peels and violets). You hate me now, don’t you?
Care to eat yourself into oblivion while you also take a step back in time? Try The Steakhouse in Wells, Maine. It’s the kind of busy, multilevel, very casual, family-style eatery that your grandparents will immediately relate to. The prices are terrific, and the meats are all top quality. But for me, it’s all about the in-house barbecued baked beans. They are to die for. The secret? They add a little scrambled beef to their mini bean pots.
We all like to enjoy a cool, cool beverage during the summer season. Applecrest Farm in Hampton Falls, N.H., offers an indoor farm market and an ice cream stand. But it also features a bistro that serves up three meals a day along with some impressive cocktails. I will never forget the bloody mary made with their own bacon vodka. There should be some kind of reward for that.
Folks go lobster mad along the seacoast during the summer season. There is boiled, baked, fried and pied lobster, along with lobster pasta, tacos and rolls. I believe some miserable wretch even tried to foist lobster ice cream on the visiting public. But good lobster chowder is hard to come by. Hurricane in downtown Kennebunkport has the best I’ve found. My version of a surf and turf dinner is their chowder along with their tenderloin carpaccio with capers, rosemary-infused oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano.
When it’s time to do the beach picnic basket or the backpack meal, the Tuscan Kitchen in Portsmouth is the place to begin all shopping. This is a newer addition to my list, although I’ve been to the Tuscan Market in Salem, New Hampshire, many times. The Portsmouth operation, which opened March 1, is already setting food shopping standards for the seacoast city.