PORTLAND, Maine — Go for the lobster. Stay for the duck fat.
Because culinary excursionists undoubtedly are drawn to Maine for a taste of the state's signature crustacean. And they won't be disappointed. But once you've had your fill of butter-drenched claws and tender hunks of lobster tail tucked into hot dog rolls, head to the state's largest city where there are many — perhaps even too many — great food finds to explore.
That's actually the problem with Portland. For a city of just 66,000 people along the ocean, it seems practically overrun by amazing eateries, from standing room-only bakeries to award-winning high-enders. For residents and frequent visitors with the leisure to explore them all, it is a boon. But for those on a tighter schedule, it's easy to feel overwhelmed.
So let's keep it simple. If you have time for just one meal in Portland, make it at Duckfat.
Opened in 2005 by the same team that runs upscale Hugo's down the street, Duckfat is a sliver of a shop wedged between two other restaurants in an otherwise unremarkable commercial zone. With its low lighting and crowded, high tables and stools, it feels more like a bar. In fact, ambiance is merely... meh. And slightly uncomfortable, at that.
None of that matters. The stools could be covered with spikes and it would be worth planting yourself firmly on them just to enjoy Duckfat's signature dish: hand-cut Belgian-style french fries made from Maine potatoes and cooked in ... duck fat. Breathtaking doesn't do them justice. They arrive at the table deliciously salted and heaped upright in a paper cone. You'll be tempted to get the small, but you'll regret it if you do.
When you order, you'll have a choice of numerous dipping sauces. They're probably all fine, but the one you want is the truffle ketchup. Savory, sweet, tangy and hauntingly good.
Your best bet is to treat the fries as the main course, then share a few other dishes as sides. The charred broccoli and goat cheese salad is terrific. And the roasted pork belly panini with manchego and saffron-Tabasco mayo will make your eyes roll back. And despite appearances, Duckfat is family friendly. The little ones will love their handcrafted sodas (try the Roots, Bark, Sticks and Leaves — also known as root beer).
Whether you go for lunch or dinner, chances are you will need to wait for a table (they don't do reservations). If so, you have the perfect excuse to amble down to Micucci Grocery Co. just a couple blocks away. This old-timey Italian grocer is jammed with fresh breads, olive oils, cured meats, cheeses and plenty of other items to inspire a take-home feast.
After your meal — assuming you have the time and stomach capacity — wander toward the water, where the bulk of the city's pubs and shops reside. Head for The Gelato Fiasco, which offers roughly 30 flavors (rotated daily out of 100 possibilities) of the chilly Italian treat made from local milk and cane sugar. The brownie batter and fresh cream gelatos are particularly awesome.