ROCKLAND, Maine — Two airplane flights (four hours in airports, combined) and roughly 120 minutes of creeping along two-lane roads that snake their way through stoplight-free Northeastern hamlets later, I finally arrived in the bayfront oasis I would call home for the next few days.
The most pressing problem, other than a serious lack of sleep, was how to kill the 17 hours until my first official work dinner.
Coming up to investigate the gastronomic enterprises Maine Democrat Chellie Pingree is fostering on North Haven was always meant to be the crux of my assignment. The critic in me, however, could not pass up the opportunity to feast upon — without completely spoiling my appetite — this personally uncharted territory.
I pressed Pingree for recommendations, but the savvy lawmaker kept things totally diplomatic. “When we first moved to the area, Rockland was a rough town for food, and there were only a couple of chain restaurants. But today, it is one of my favorite food towns in Maine,” was all she would say about the evolving dining scene.
So I struck out in search of a definitive taste of Maine.
Day One I rarely eat breakfast. (I know, I know. Dumb move.)
But plenty of people in this part of the country apparently do. And I ran into a fair number of them at Willow Bake Shoppe.
Freshly made goodies on display when I visited the approaching 70-year-old shop were sprinkled with sugar, rolled in coconut, studded with blueberries and shrouded in sticky glazes.
A molasses-spiked number reminded me of spice cake. Dried fruit pops (I’m a sucker for tartness) beneath the icing-wrapped façade of a glazed blueberry production. The combination of streusel-like, butterscotch-flavored coating wrapped around a moist, fudgy chocolate doughnut proved outstanding.
But I had work to do, so I soldiered on.
Mere minutes after indulging in an impromptu doughnut taste-athon, I was at Home Kitchen Café eyeing an enormous tray of freshly baked cinnamon rolls.
In addition to the aforementioned rolls, HKC is renowned for its pecan-studded sticky buns and other assorted sweets.
As soon as the jaw-dropping pastry arrived, I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew. The extra gooey treat was all nuts and caramel up top and spicy-sweet cake below. Staff, wisely, pre-slice the mammoth portion in half for easy sharing/reserving as leftovers.
The cinnamon bun was just as big, but didn’t wow me. Ribbons of glazed sugar crisscross the top of the three-fingers-tall bun. Too bad the fluffy interior is sorely lacking in the spice department. All I tasted was cottony cake — which would otherwise have been fine, but is not what this cinnamon junkie had in mind.
Things got back on track as soon as a giant lemon-blueberry square arrived. "It's got a graham cracker crust and like a cream filling. It's like a pie," the waitress said when I inquired about the fruit-filled indulgence. The end product reminded me of key lime pie; the chilled lemon mousse is littered with lush blueberries, while the pulverized graham crackers added sugary crunch.
A quick glance at the clock reminded me that perhaps I ought to put some lunch in my belly.
So off I wandered over to Wasses.
The house specialty is grilled dogs with your choice of toppings; "everything" includes grilled onions, sweet pickle relish and a stripe of yellow mustard.
One bite in, and the pickle and onions were already battling it out for supreme topping (I’d have to give to the savory onions). Wasses should, however, seriously consider stepping things up with either a spicy brown or whole grain mustard (straight yellow doesn't really cut it anymore).
I had no such complaints about my bacon-chili cheese dog. The rock solid performer featured crispy bacon, a lean but juicy frank, zesty chili and melted cheese sauce.
With just two hours to go before I’d need to ship off for my trip to Nebo Lodge , I decided to call it quits.
Day Two You can’t come to Maine and not devour shellfish.
You order at one window, pick the food up at another, and then enjoy whatever crustacean-based delight you’ve got on the sun-splashed picnic tables they’ve set up outside.
I dove right into the clam dip, and was immediately rewarded by a delicious mix of chopped clams stirred together with sour cream and chives.
A lobster roll kept the smiles coming. Their generously buttered bun is stuffed with plump, succulent lobster meat tossed in mayonnaise and lightly sprinkled with seafood spice.
My lobstah lust now in full bloom, it was time to sample the sandwich local restaurateur Lynn Archer used to smack down cheflebrity Bobby Flay a few years back.
The lobster club sandwich served to me at Brass Compass Café looked very promising. A triple-decker boasting lobster meat, bacon, lettuce and tomato on your choice of bread has to be a winner, right?
I found the sandwich to be substantial but not as satisfying as a traditional roll. My fault for ordering rye, but there’s no way toasted caraway seeds and smoky bacon should have totally eclipsed the main ingredient, lightly covered in mayonnaise. The claw meat I could detect was tasty, while thick-cut tomatoes injected garden freshness.
One Brass Compass server strongly urged me to stick around for piña colada muffins.
But I had designs on something I’d heard about earlier in the day: Cone Home’s whoopie pie sundae.
Home Kitchen Café’s dairy-slinging spinoff traffics exclusively in Round Top ice cream, a local favorite that rose to fame in neighboring Damariscotta, Maine.
The shop combines HKC baked goods with said ice creams on demand, so I bellied up to the window and told the server to make whoopie.
The chocolatey cake, which had been pre-chilled, was stacked sideways into a cardboard container and then deluged with peppermint ice cream (killer), chocolate custard (insanely rich) and assorted toppings. The pie itself was disappointing; I suspect the cooling process robbed the cake (at least I hope it was the fridge) of all moisture, leaving behind crumbly walls rather than a sponginess I had envisioned. But the surrounding ice cream was crazy good.
Now, all I had to do was survive the seven-course, family-style barn supper awaiting me at Turner Farm.
Willow Bake Shoppe: 1084 Commercial Street; 207-596-0564 Average entrée: less than $12 ($). Open for breakfast and lunch, Monday through Saturday. Home Kitchen Café: 650 Main St.; 207-596-2449; homekitchencafe.com Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for breakfast and lunch Wednesday through Monday Wasses: 2 N. Main St.; 207-975-7472 Average entree: less than $12 ($). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. Claws: 743 Main St.; 207-596-5600 Average entree: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for lunch and dinner daily. Brass Compass Café: 305 Main Street; 207-596-5960; thebrasscompasscafe.com Average entrée: $13 to $20 ($$). Open for breakfast and lunch daily. Cone Home: 19 N. Main St., Rockland, Maine; 201-594-1044 Average entree: less than $12 ($). Open for lunch and dinner daily. Related Stories: Chellie Pingree Cultivates Her Own Food Capital Getting a Taste of the Chellie Pingree Experience Rock on, Rockland! Roll Call Election Map: Race Ratings for Every Seat Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.