Captain Tom Martin eases up to a buoy, idles the engine, and with fluidity born from decades of experience, winches up a lobster trap and manhandles it onto the boat's rail. I'm aboard the Lucky Catch, Martin's 37-foot, Portland, Maine-based lobster boat for an experiential excursion. As we weave through Casco Bay's island-peppered waters, he salts us with lobster lore and trivia, demonstrates the harvesting process and explains the tools.
"Maine lobster is the best," Martin boasts. He swears he can tell the difference between lobsters caught in the Gulf of Maine and from-aways — colloquial Maine speak for nonnatives. "The meat coming from lobsters caught elsewhere is a bit tougher and not quite as sweet tasting," he asserts.
Reaching into the trap, he grabs a lobster and measures its body from the eye socket to the tip of its body shell. If it's too small, splash. If its tail is notched, indicating a breeding female, or is bearing eggs, overboard she goes to replenish the population. He bands the claws of any "keepahs" and tosses them into a crate, refreshes the odiferous bait and slides the trap aside.
Hauling the next one on the string, he invites us to don oilcloths and help empty, bait and reset it. Passengers can purchase any lobsters caught at boat price. "You can get them cooked locally," Martin offers. I decline, unwilling to sandwich another lobster into my gluttony plan.
With the ocean out front and organic farms out back, it's no wonder chefs — and foodies like myself — are drawn here. And the truth is, I'm still full from lunch at Duckfat, a tight cafe where I squeezed in and indulged in James Beard Award-winning chef Rob Evans' crispy Belgian fries — fried in duck fat, of course — complemented by a sinful, house-made Tahitian vanilla bean shake.
But my appetite is back in full force for my late reservations at Fore Street, the culinary brainchild of another James Beard Award winner. Sam Hayward, who became Maine's first chef to take home the top honors in 2004, helped put Portland's restaurant scene on the map with his focus on locavore dining.
I'm still dreaming about Hayward's wood-roasted mussels and lobster the next morning when I make a pilgrimage to Holy Donut. Creative flavors turn the humble, cake-style doughnuts made with mashed Maine potatoes into a near-religious experience. I devour a sea salt and dark chocolate one and, in a moment of weakness, snag a cheddar-and-bacon fritter as I head out the door to graze my way through the compact city, padding between must-see sights and must-eat venues.
For lunch, I slip into Slab for a slice of Stephen Lanzalotta's chewy, light-as-air, pillow-bread Sicilian pizza. It fuels my march to the Portland Observatory, the only extant marine signal tower in the United States. I climb 103 steps to the orb deck to drink in the views, later rewarding myself for the effort with oysters-on-the-half shell at Eventide Oyster Co.
As an eye-candy sunset cedes to smoky evening blues, I savor a stroll along the shore-hugging Eastern Promenade Trail before docking at the wharf-top Portland Lobster Co. for a chowder-steamers-lobster feast. Afterward, I linger on the waterfront, listening to a choral lullaby of boats to-ing and fro-ing, masts pinging and a distant foghorn's soulful moan.
Cleveland is having its own culinary moment. James Beard Award-winning restaurant Sokolowski's University Inn rolls out traditional pierogies and stuffed cabbage as large as your head while fellow James Beard Award winner Michael Symon shows off his skills at Lola with house-made charcuterie and inventive beef cheek pierogies. 1201 University Road, Cleveland, 216-771-9236, sokolowskis.com; 2058 E. Fourth St., Cleveland, 216-621-5652, lolabistro.com