The Whale’s Rib Tavern,  in the beautiful and historic Pilgrim’s Inn, is worth the trip.

George

We’d drive all the way to Deer Isle to eat at the Whale’s Rib Tavern, but it’s helpful that the restaurant is in a gorgeous and historic inn because we wouldn’t want to drive all the way home after dinner!

Last June, with our friends Rusty and Sue Atwood, Linda and I enjoyed a wonderful getaway weekend on Deer Isle at the Pilgrim’s Inn. Deer Isle, Stonington and Blue Hill are full of interesting art galleries, book stores, gift shops and stunning scenery. We spent a morning hiking to Barred Island and a beautiful isolated beach.

At the end of June we told you all about that trip. But we saved the best for last — the food!

The inn has a very nice cozy bar with two sitting rooms nearby. Arriving late on Friday night, we quickly moved into our cottages and headed to the bar where we ordered up drinks and sat in one of the rooms, admiring the amazing fireplace and beautiful works of art. I studied the tavern’s dinner menu, anticipating a great feast.

Tina Oddleifson and Tony Lawless purchased the inn nine years ago. They are very hospitable hosts, focused on the details that make your stay comfortable and enjoyable, but it’s in the restaurant that their experience really shines through. Tina attended Cambridge Culinary School when Tony taught there, before they married and purchased the inn.

While there are several great places to eat in the area, the Whale’s Rib Tavern offers the finest dining. We got a taste of the place with breakfast in the tavern on Saturday morning — scrumptious blueberry pancakes, fruit, juice and coffee, and, of course, real maple syrup. We loved the room, decorated with historic artifacts, with lots of windows and nicely spaced tables — a place to linger. No rush to turn over tables here.

Dinner was, well, I have to say spectacular. A lengthy list of house cocktails, good selection of Maine brews (including several gluten free) and a very special wine list made our first dinner decision difficult. We opted for our tried and true, a Chianti from La Striscia in Italy, priced very reasonably at $30.

But the decisions only got tougher. Because Linda doesn’t like (or cook) fish, I often order seafood on our travel column visits to restaurants. Two appetizers jumped out at me: local mussels steamed in white wine, garlic and butter, for $11; and smoked haddock clam chowder for $7. Concerned that the mussels might fill me up, I ordered the clam chowder.

Good choice. The chowder included large chunks of potato and haddock, was thick, nicely salted and arrived in a beautiful bowl. I took our food to another table, with better sunlight, for photos, amusing the couple sitting at the next table. They were from Iowa and have visited the Pilgrim’s Inn several times.

Presentation matters when you are writing travel columns, and Tony and Tina really know how to present their dishes. But even I was surprised, the next day, to discover that I’d taken more than 75 dinner photos.

Perusing the list of entrees, I knew I was in trouble. I wanted them all! Thankfully, with four of us at the table and only six choices, I got to try four of them. Rusty saved the day by ordering the grilled ribeye ($26). It would have been my choice, but I would have missed out on the amazing sea scallops ($26).

That dish featured four huge seared fennel-dusted sea scallops with a very tasty rosemary white-bean puree. The dark and salty olive tapenade and fried capers added flavor. I loved this dish.

Rusty’s ribeye was so good that I asked how it was prepared. The one and a half-inch thick steak was grilled in a cast iron fry pan in canola oil for 2 minutes a side with pepper and spices added, then placed in a 400-degree oven for eight minutes. It was a good thing he was seated opposite me at the table, out of reach, or I’d have eaten more of it!

At some point in the evening, Tina told us that Chef Max, who lives right down the street, worked with the local school on healthy eating initiatives. Thank goodness he didn’t insist on those that night! I ate gluttonously, with the excuse that many of the ingredients in our dishes came from the area’s well-known organic farms.

I returned to our cottage stuffed and satisfied. But regular readers won’t be surprised that I mustered the next morning for another great breakfast in the tavern: an omelet with red pepper, chive, cheddar and sausage, served with sourdough bread. I am certain, given Max’s reputation, that it was a healthy start for another wonderful day in Deer Isle.

Linda

Dinner at the Whale’s Rib Tavern is not to be missed. The dining space, once a former barn, features barn-board walls and a top shelf full of wonderful antiques that circle the room. Wooden floors and small-paned windows add to the cozy atmosphere. During our leisurely early summer dinner, a rainstorm passed through. Servers closed up the double screen doors and patrons happily relaxed into their meals wishing to linger there as long as possible.

Sue and I quickly settled on the Arugula, Fennel, Grapefruit and Apple Salad to begin our meal. It was a refreshingly light combination that went well with their Dijon champagne vinaigrette.

Sue thoroughly enjoyed her entree of duck breast with wild rice, water chestnuts and wilted greens. Beautifully presented, she commented that it had a great balance of textures.

Tina told us how lucky they are to be located within a “local farm mecca.” She named two cheese makers, a farm raising organic chicken and the presence of three local farmers markets. “We have very fresh local ingredients readily available,” she reported. We could tell they take full advantage of that and the chef really shines.

When my eyes landed on the porchetta entree, I was transported back to a great day in Italy at a farmers market in the town square. George got hungry while we made our way through the stalls with everything from hardware and clothing to vegetables and cheese. Spotting a cart serving something on a bun that everyone seemed to be eating, we found out it was a porchetta sandwich. They must have roasted the whole suckling pig, as its head was on display on the counter! We split one sandwich and it was heavenly. I barely got two bites, but its memory still lingers.

Porchetta is pork shoulder and pork loin rolled together, filled with fennel, sage and rosemary and slowly roasted. The tavern’s version was moist and tender on the inside, had a crispy outside crust, and held a deep flavor from the herbs. The dish was finished with creamy rosemary polenta and Swiss chard. What an amazing meal! It is an entree I have never noticed on a menu before, but will certainly be looking out for.

I’d never heard of Boca Negra cake before, but it turns out it was made famous by Julia Child. Heads up all chocolate cravers: This one is intensely chocolate, made even more decadent by being served with a white chocolate ganache. Both couples at our table ordered one to split, and we all left with big grins on our faces.

Visit George’s website — georgesmithmaine.com — for book reviews, outdoor news and all Travelin’ Maine(rs) columns, found listed in the “Best of Maine” section.

Sculpture Tour

One of the volunteers at the Lubec Library during our visit handed me a brochure of a Sculpture Tour located throughout Down East Maine. The Schoodic International Symposium is a self-guided tour of public stone sculptures created by artists from all over the world. Lubec will be getting one, but there are already 19 on the current list.

I was pretty excited to get started since we pass through many towns that are on the list. First off, I recognized one I had seen in Southwest Harbor a few weeks earlier. Easy directions to each sculpture led us to the ones in Machias and Roque Bluffs on our way to Jonesboro. We knocked off five more the next day on our regular route home.

The scale of these creations will make you appreciate all the artistry and logistics involved. It is impressive art that it’s right out in the open in some beautiful Maine towns. It’s kind of like our own personal treasure hunt. If I hadn’t had the brochure handed to me, we’d have kept right on driving by them without stopping to notice!

Put this activity on your list for whenever you find yourself Down East. Info can be found at www.schoodicsculpture.org. Try to see them all before we do! — Linda

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