Springtime in Maine: Oysters, Duck Fat Fries, and Soft Shell Crab Off the Coast

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This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and FIAT USA. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.

In partnership with FIAT USA we asked photographer and globe trotting food writer Bonjwing Lee (also creator of the restaurant travel blog The Ulterior Epicure) to book his ideal summer road trip. With only a brand-new FIAT 500X Crossover and the open road for inspiration, Lee chose to drive through scenic New England. In this four-part photo travelogue, we follow him as he stops at picturesque points along the region’s rocky coastline, pauses at historical landmarks, and meets up with friends along the way to do what he does best: eat.

Before I left on this road trip, there were only two U.S. states I had not visited. I arrived across the border of one of them — Maine — in the FIAT 500X on a sunny, but slightly chilly day. I went straight to Eventide Oyster Co., an oyster bar in the heart of Portland. It’s owned by chefs Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley, and their business partner (and general manager of Eventide Oyster Co.) Arlin Smith, who, together, had also bought the famous Hugo’s next door from its former, owner and award-winning chef Rob Evans. I sat on the sidewalk and warmed up with a rich bowl of lobster stew. I followed that with a dozen local oysters – six from nearby Glidden Point, and the other six from Pemaquid.

I love east coast oysters, because they’re especially plump and briny. Halfway through my lunch, chef Wiley joined me for a brief chat. He sent out a couple of additional dishes, including a beautiful razor clam salad topped with crunchy fried bits, and three blushing slices of hamachi crudo with shredded radishes and a ginger-scallion sauce.

After lunch, I drove up Congress Street to Tandem Coffee + Bakery. I had bookmarked Tandem Coffee after I saw it on the shelf at Bolt, the espresso bar that I had visited in Providence, Rhode Island a few days earlier.

This relatively new location has a generous case of baked goods, all made in-house. I especially loved the rye shortbread cookies there — they had a nice, roasty, toasty caramelized flavor to them.

Kennebunkport is a popular, summertime destination. Thankfully, my trip was on the cusp of the Memorial Day weekend, after which the area becomes flooded with visitors. About a half-hour drive south of Portland, Kennebunkport is home to some of the most scenic drives along the coast of Maine.

I arrived just as a thick fog rolled in from the sea, blanketing the area in what locals describe as "pea soup." I took the FIAT 500X around Kennebunkport’s famous Ocean Avenue, which winds its way around the misty coast, seeing everything in silhouette.

Fore Street is one of those restaurants that everyone talks about with fond memories. Opened in 1996, it has since become a Portland institution. The enormous, open hearth is the focus of the cooking here. Meats and vegetables alike are roasted and smoked over the open flames.

The menu is long, but clearly focused on high-quality ingredients (I was told that each cook is in charge of writing the menu for the items that come off of their station). The overall feel of the food reminded me, a little bit, of Chez Panisse, Alice Water’s iconic Californian restaurant in Berkeley, California.

I ordered a plump soft shell crab that had been fried with a cornmeal crust. I also had a beautiful salad of wild mushrooms and baby artichokes. For dessert, there was a beautiful plum tart, with a gingery cream filling

It rained all morning on my second day in Maine. I decided to drive north, to check out a couple of spots that my friends Alex and Aki of Ideas in Food had recommended. As luck would have it, the rain stopped just as I pulled up to Red’s Eats, a roadside stand in Wiscasset famous for its lobster rolls. The lobster rolls here come with the entire lobster — sometimes, nearly a pound of meat. As if the toasted buns aren’t buttery enough, they give you a side of drawn butter on the side. It was terrific.

A 15-minute drive from Red’s Eats is Pemaquid Point, from where those famous oysters hail, and where you’ll find the lonely Pemaquid Lighthouse. The American flag was flying high in the wind, as I surveyed the quiet landscape by myself from the top of the lighthouse.

Back in Portland, I swung by Rob Evans’s tiny, new restaurant, Duckfat, for a snack. As the name suggests, it offers a hearty menu of comfort food. There are duckfat French fries (which you can order with cheese curds and gravy — a take on poutine and a shout-out to Maine’s neighbors to the north), and creamy milkshakes. I especially loved the haddock melt laminated between two slices of buttery rye toast. A tart layer of pickled onions in this sandwich helped thin the richness of it all.

For my last dinner in Portland, I sat at the generous counter at Hugo’s (next door to Eventide Oyster Co., and owned by the same guys). Chef Mike Wiley presented a tasting menu of multiple courses, which included agnolotti filled with sweet parsnip purée, a board of house-made charcuteries, and his version of "steak and eggs."

Maine blueberry and white chocolate French toast: that’s what I had for breakfast in the wood-paneled dining room of The White Barn Inn, a classic Relais & Chateaux resort in Kennebunk, where I was staying. Jonathan Cartwright’s cooking here expresses the best of Americana cooking with local, New England ingredients.

My friend Chris is from Cape Elizabeth, Maine. I didn’t have time to fully explore his recommendations in his old neighborhood, but I did make a point to stop at the great Portland Head Light, a gorgeous lighthouse on a rocky perch that juts out into the sea at Cape Elizabeth.

One last lunch in Portland before I headed to the airport: the spicy beef salad (slices of raw beef in a spicy dressing with fresh herbs and peanuts) and soft shell crab with coconut curry at Central Provisions, which was nominated this year for Best New Restaurant at the James Beard Foundation Awards.

I had a fantastic road trip up the East Coast of the United States in the FIAT 500X. I got to see some friends, took in some gorgeous scenery, ate lots of fantastic food, and checked off number 49 on my list of states. Onward to Alaska!

—Bonjwing Lee

This feature was produced in collaboration between Vox Creative and FIAT USA. Vox Media editorial staff was not involved in the creation or production of this content.


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