The close of another year always brings along with it a period of reflection. As important as it is to pause and meditate on the more serious events of 2018 — both personal and societal — a little focus on the light and joyous never hurts to add balance and perspective to life as a whole. For me, that means taking a look back at some of the eats that brought me happiness this year, even in the darkest of moments.
While some of the best dining experiences I had in 2018 occurred outside of Maine (particularly in Denver and San Diego), our great state continually proved itself as a hotbed of talent and deliciousness throughout the year. From the simple to the inventive, here are the 13 best bites I had in Maine in 2018.
Suzuki's Sushi Bar (Rockland)
Ankimo (monkfish liver paté) nigiri topped with unagi (freshwater eel)
Self-taught sushi chef Keiko Suzuki Steinberger quietly offers one of the best omakase (chef's choice tasting) experiences on the east coast at her cozy shop on Rockland's Main Street. Nothing can compare to her ankimo and unagi nigiri — a focal point of the tasting akin to biting into an oceanic cloud of funk and briny minerality.
Plevra arnu (grilled lamb rib chop, pomegranate au jus)
Niko Regas — chef at Emilitsa — has an adept level of skill when it comes to reinventing traditional Greek fare for the modern palate. His approach to lamb is anything but tired, case in point being the grilled rib chops which grace the restaurant's bar menu. Juicy, complex and cooked to perfection, they strike the perfect balance between the Old World and the New.
Meanwhile in Belfast (Belfast)
"Hot Summer" pizza diavola
Owners Alessandro, Clementina and their small team have slowly built a name for themselves at Meanwhile in Belfast, where light and airy sourdough pizzas — like little sonatas — offer a brief glimpse into what happens when simplicity, passion and high-quality ingredients intertwine. The "Hot Summer"—hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes, spicy salami, fresh "Fior di Latte" mozzarella and taggiasche olives—is a must-try on any first visit.
The Honey Paw (Portland)
Spicy Salty Squid
A regular appearances on the specials board, spicy salty squid is reason #48 for my can't-stop-won't-stop love affair with the Honey Paw. Gently numbing and bursting with an unabashed presence of chilies, it's a consistently excellent dish that no longer requires a drive to Boston's Chinatown to order.
Wasses Hot Dogs (Rockland)
There are no frills at Wasses Hot Dogs, where quality tube steaks are grilled to perfection on a flat top alongside a pile of diced white onion that never seems to dissipate in size. Topped with kraut, said grilled onions, mustard and relish, they're the best use case of $1 and change I can possibly think of on a dive up mid-coast Maine in the summertime.
Công Tử Bột (Portland)
Gỏi bò cải xoong (Rare beef and watercress salad)
Everything that comes across the pass at Công Tử Bột is worth eating, but on Thursday and Friday nights, the rare beef salad (gỏi bò cải xoong) steals the show. Aggressively dressed with a fermented shrimp and pineapple sauce, it's the pungent, floral shiso that adds a certain "je ne sais quoi" to the dish, which is as fun to eat as it is beautiful to look at.
Palace Diner (Biddeford)
An item I would almost never order elsewhere, the tuna melt at Biddeford's Palace Diner is a veritable epiphany for anyone who grew up mindlessly eating this oft-misunderstood sandwich. From its gargantuan height and ooey-gooey textures to a zippy acidity that cuts through fat and salt like damascus steel, the only reason not to order this delightful throwback is the equally earth-shattering cheeseburger that sits below it on the menu.
Tao Yuan (Brunswick)
Pork belly cheung fun rolls
Served as part of a recent set-course dim sum brunch menu, the pork belly cheung fun rolls at Tao Yuan were as complex as anything I've tasted all year. Delicate, rich and painted with a heady soy-laden sauce that I can't stop thinking about, I would gladly eat these on a daily basis for the rest of my existence.
J's Oyster (Portland)
Forget about lobster — summer in Maine is about endless buckets of steamers and all the butter they can possibly be coated in. Though not particularly a though dish to mess up, no restaurant in the area does quite as good a job on steamed clams (or pours as strong a whiskey) as J's Oyster, making it a must for locals and tourists alike seeking quintessential summer hangs.
Kanom-krok quail eggs
Perhaps the single most addictive dish to ever grace the Portland peninsula, Boda's kanom-krok quail eggs remain unstoppable nearly nine years after first being served at the city's best Thai establishment. Lively and crisp with a satisfying "pop" delivered alongside each bite, I haven't found a better vehicle for soy and scallion, and I'm not sure I ever will.
The Purple House (Yarmouth)
Black sesame bagel with house-cured salmon
Magic is to be found in droves at Krista Desjarlais' quaint little Yarmouth bagelry, but the real eye-openers tend to live on the specials board. I can't identify anything I've eaten in my lifetime quite like the black sesame bagel with house-cured salmon, wasabi tobiko, ume plum paste, pear, cream cheese and herbs I had at the Purple House last spring. It's inventive one-offs like this that are a testament to Krista's creativity and spark in the kitchen.
Fat Boy (Brunswick)
With the future of Brunswick's iconic Fat Boy Drive-in currently sitting in limbo, it's worth noting that we'll be losing something truly beautiful should this temple of guilty pleasures shutter its doors for good. Case in point: the Royal Burger, a Fat Boy staple that keeps things simple with lettuce, tomato, cheese and mayo, yet somehow destroys all other burger competition for less than the price of a latte.
Izakaya Minato (Portland)
Kakiage (crispy scallop & vegetable bird's nest tempura)
A delightful approach to tempura which elegantly binds thin-cut vegetables and juicy scallops into a bird's nest shape that nearly hops off the plate, Izakaya Minato's recurring special of kakiage is one of the restaurant's hidden gems. It's an exceedingly fun, deceptively light share plate, and one which inevitably disappears faster than the time it takes to materialize on the table.