Portland, Maine may seem on the surface to have evolved into yet just another restored seaside American city, but the fisheries that built its foundations still thrive. It’s true that Commercial St. seems lined with more boutique shops, cafes and condo piers than salty fishermen but look more closely. The port of Portland’s piers are dominated by major players in the 21st century business of Atlantic fisheries. Then there are Harbor Fish Market and J’s Oyster to remind us that traditions are not far away.
It takes less than five minutes to walk between historic Custom House Wharf and Portland Pier, but it’s a short time warp to days when all the piers were busy with fishing boats unloading their daily catch. Custom House Wharf and Portland Pier retain much of their early 20th century wooden structures including Harbor Fish Market. For over 40 years, Harbor Fish Market has selected their fish and seafood every morning from boats that tie up right at their back door.
Buzzy, a fourth generation Maine fisherman, will be more than pleased to explain the differences among the dozens of selections from today’s catch. Besides everything from eels to littlenecks, sushi grade tuna and locally smoked seafoods are in abundance. Harbor Fish Market will pack for travel or ship just about anything anywhere in the continental United States.
Patrons at J’s Oyster can be overheard telling waiters that they’re regulars. They’re not being snobs. In a city of 65,000, with a restaurant to population ratio of one to 108, all Portland restaurants must survive on a constant clientele of regulars. J’s Oyster is modest in size and, even though it’s nearly 40 years old, ever since Anthony Bourdain made an appearance a few years ago the table wait is longer, especially in the tourist season. So it’s with pride that regulars stop the server from having to explain the menu.
J’s Oyster, ignoring trends, serves classic seafood platters of ocean fresh lobsters, clams, oysters and fish along with generous salads and sandwiches. Tucked into a simple building at the end of Portland Pier, with outdoor seating in good weather, its interior is comfortable old wood, and there’s always a game on the TV. J’s Oyster is not a place if in a rush. All its menu items are freshly prepared, although sitting at the bar, watching the oysters being shucked, may speed up the process. The menu features an especially savory bouillabaisse, a baker’s dozen raw oyster platter, a generous cold lobster salad plate and a good selection of Maine beers on tap.
Modern transportation makes fresh seafood and fish easily available. Shucked oysters are sold at most good seafood markets, but remember that shucked oysters must never be eaten raw. This oyster casserole is quick and easy.
Harbor Fish Market’s Oyster Casserole
- 1/2 cup butter
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 shallots, diced
- 1/4 cup fresh chopped parsley
- zest of 1 lemon
- dash Tobasco, or other hot sauce
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 1 quart shucked oysters
- 1 1/2 cups fresh bread crumbs
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons dry sherry
- Preheat the oven to 425ºF.
- Melt butter in the bottom on a saute pan over medium heat. Add minced garlic, diced shallots, salt and pepper and saute for 2 to 3 minutes stirring constantly.
- Add bread crumbs and stir to coat the mixture evenly. Cook until golden brown.
- Remove from the heat and mix in the parsley and lemon zest.
- Use half the bread crumbs to coat the bottom of three 8 ounce oven proof ramekins.
- Drain, but reserve, the liquor from the oysters. Divide the oysters among the three ramekins.
- In a small bowl, combine the cream, sherry and reserved oyster liquor and spoon over the oysters and top with the remaining bread crumbs.
- Bake for 20 to 25 minutes until the crumbs are a deeper brown and the liquid is bubbling.
Harbor Fish Market, 9 Custom House Wharf, Portland, Maine 04101
J’s Oyster, 5 Portland Pier, Portland, Maine, 04101