On Mount Desert Island, catch a fresh dining scene

05/31/2014 12:00 AM

05/28/2014 1:00 PM

After a last day of hiking at Maine’s Acadia National Park, creeping up the steep face of Precipice, the hand-over-hand ascent on the east side of Mount Desert Island, we decide to reward ourselves with dinner out. We mean way out — as in five miles offshore.

We step aboard the evening ferry from Southwest Harbor to Little Cranberry Island. The ferry captain, a 25-year-old who has run this route since she was 13, pushes off. We’ll be landing on Little Cranberry, like a map dot out of Moonrise Kingdom, in about 20 minutes.

Since we last came here, 15 years ago, the stunning hiking scene hasn’t changed, but the meal options have, dramatically. They are in many ways better and more local.

Soon we land on Little Cranberry Island and walk past the lobster cooperative and the vegetable garden with its lush plots to Islesford Dock Restaurant, perched over the water. The sun is settling into the sea.

This Shangri-La dinner setting is an eye-opener. In our hikes and drives this trip, we’ve found many more options for fresh local produce, along with surprises in a changed seafood scene. The drive from Boston set the tone: In Portland we stopped at Duckfat, a trendy lunch spot that served a house-made corned beef and tongue reuben, a local wild mushroom and eggplant panino, a duck confit sandwich, creamy milkshakes and their signature potatoes fried in duck fat. Not the seaport of yore.

After stopping in Bucksport, at the grave of town founder Col. Jonathan Buck, we reached Mount Desert Island. We found our rental cabin on a ridge outside Southwest Harbor and settled in.

Famished again, we ventured into town for dinner. At Red Sky, an intimate restaurant, we sampled Maine shrimp with peanut sauce over sweet potato latkes, followed by refined grilled scallops and wild rice. Dessert was blueberry butter cake.

Fifteen years ago, we’d had to cross the island to Bar Harbor for such a meal. The only food options in tiny Southwest Harbor that we recall were a little market and an old fishmonger named Stanley, who kept locally caught fish on big ice blocks in the back room.

Lots has changed since then. Stanley is gone. Lobsters are surprisingly cheap and plentiful. At Sawyer’s Market, we found halibut steaks in that morning from Canadian waters. Fresh local fish have become rare.

That night, grilled and served with fresh vegetables, the halibut was fantastic. But we wondered: What’s going on? Our friend Melissa Kogut, who heads the Chefs Collaborative, a national sustainable food nonprofit organization based in Boston, said that New England’s seafood situation may be the knottiest aspect of the local food movement. Lots of fish coming long distances. Was this season an anomaly?

“Unfortunately, it’s become the normal condition,” John Williamson, a fisheries consultant for the Ocean Conservancy, told us later. Quotas on ocean-caught fish, begun four years ago, have reduced harvests to let New England’s wild populations revive. At the same time, regulators have seen a collapse of fish stock over two decades. Cod and some flounder populations are way down. And amid other economic shifts, the fish industry itself has declined. Returning fish populations to healthy levels, Williamson says, “is just going to take a long time.”

For Acadia visitors, the takeaway is, if you want to buy local, look for lobster, scallops, crabs, mussels and clams.

We fell into a routine: breakfast of granola, local yogurt and peaches; lunch of sandwiches packed for hikes; and for dinner, we’d explore. Sometimes we foraged in markets or at roadside stands, bringing ingredients back to our cabin to grill.

Blueberry pie became a theme. Maine blueberries are smaller than many varieties, bursting with flavor and very addictive. We found a favorite produce stand, run by College of the Atlantic students, a couple of miles north of town at Beech Hill Farm. One day, we drove to Bar Harbor just to rediscover a bakery that had been a favorite before. Morning Glory did not disappoint, with the best blueberry pie in town.

Some days, just a short hike earned us a meal. The Ship Harbor trail is a striking figure eight at the water’s edge below Southwest Harbor, and only a mile long. Afterward we feasted at Thurston’s lobster pound in nearby Bernard, watching the harbor as lobstermen came in. We had so-called “soft shell” lobsters (tasty but a bit watery), lightly seasoned coleslaw, and corn cooked in its husk in lobster water — delicious.

Another night, XYZ Restaurant offered an unexpectedly flavorful taste of Mexico with cochinita (slow-cooked pork with citrus) and zesty short ribs served with a local salad. The name honors three regional cuisines: Xalapa, Yucatan and Zacatecas.

One day, instead of hiking, we joined a sunset kayaking tour on the island’s west coast. All the way to Seal Cove, the wind was at our backs as we paddled past seals, cormorants, a heron and a loon. A harbor porpoise plowed the water 20 feet from our kayak. Later, we reached Beal’s lobster pound, in Southwest Harbor, minutes before they closed. Best lobster roll we’d ever tasted.

By week’s end, we were ready for dinner at Islesford Dock. It looked magical in the day’s last sunlight. Our waiter, however, was inexperienced and harried. The drinking water tasted slightly brackish — okay, we’re on a dock — but we waited a long time for the cocktails, which varied wildly in quality. The weekend rush had the staff scrambling.

The small plates, when they came, were delightful: lobster with fresh burrata, bluefish, oysters on the half shell, a simple garden salad with local cherry tomatoes and basil. The oysters and lobster came from the cooperative next door. An entree of halibut was flavorful, but my country pork ragu was even better: rich with sausage and caciocavallo cheese.

We rushed dessert and just managed to catch the ferry back to Southwest Harbor.

The wind whipped over us on the black sea. Overhead, the constellations shone brightly: the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, all dangling above us, a concentrated slice of a northern sky.

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