What a cute place this is. It’s tucked into a hill, on the side of the road, on the way out of Brunswick, surrounded by water and magnificent trees. We ate on the sunken outdoor dining patio and felt the warm wind as we munched on seafood and felt hopeful about the Summer ahead. It’s just too bad the food was so mediocre. Because everything else appears so right. It ought to be right. They dive for their own scallops and dig their own clams. They buy and sell local from the icy waters of the Casco Bay. I can’t explain it. For a sunny afternoon at the very beginning of a promising season, it seemed like very little care was being applied to the preparation of this well-regarded fare.
Gurnet Trading Co is a small shack that sells raw seafood, fresh and prepared foods. It’s a nice place to stop, stretch your legs, and have a bite to eat during a Sunday drive on a Friday afternoon. You’re in Maine! The weather is fair and lovely. And everything seems so promising. There are open topped lobster tanks that fill the room with the rushing sounds of water and gives the place a nice, salty atmosphere. They sell steamers and haddock and halibut and hake and crabmeat. Which all looked super fresh. Did you know that when you buy a whole fish its eyes should be clear? That’s a quick tip from me to you.
The menu features the typical fare, at very reasonable prices. We went with a fried haddock basket which includes fries ($10.95), a lobster roll ($13.50), and an order of steamers ($6.99). The haddock: four fat pieces of fish on top of frozen french fries. It looked weird. That’s professional food writer language. It looked like someone opened a box of Gordon’s fish stick fish. It looked perhaps frozen, or, at least, not homemade on the premises. I can’t say for certain, mind you, but this is my honest assessment. The fish was firm, white and flaky, as it should be. It didn’t taste off or mushy. But the batter was definitely odd. Kind of crusty. And the tartar sauce tasted yellow. You know when the tartar sauce tastes yellow? I do, because in my misspent youth I waitressed at many sketchy seafood joints on the Connecticut shoreline, and I remember wrapping up in cellophane the tartar with the skin on top, that had been sitting around in the service window all the long, hot day. Again, it didn’t taste spoiled, just, um, older. It was the Jane Seymour of condiments.
Malcolm: I don’t know if the haddock, like the fries, arrive pre-made and frozen in big boxes at the Gurnet Trading Company. We spent several minutes debating this. I do know that in the surrounding ten miles, there are many, many places that are battering and frying their own fresh haddock fillets each day, and I know that when they do, the results are much different than what is being served in the haddock basket here. The portion was generous, and the fish firm, flaky, and flavorful. But if we allow ourselves to presume that the haddock here arrived pre-breaded and frozen, let’s pause for a minute and reflect on the cynicism present in that choice for a restaurant priding itself on its fresh seafood. Using frozen, pre-breaded haddock makes so little sense, that I have to assume that it can’t actually be going on here.
I ate exactly one steamed clam, but Malcolm claims they were all tasty. The one I opened was solid and easily pulled from its shell. Nicely steamed, not too rubbery, with a good dowsing of drawn butter – this is a fine choice here. Oh, and this is a perfect opportunity to mention that they sell wine and beer, which is always delightful. An order of nicely priced steamers and a beer? An excellent option, always.
Malcolm: I was delighted that Jillian was not in the mood for steamers, as it allowed me to eat the entire one pound bag by myself. They were truly outstanding clams; among the best I’ve had in quite a while. It’s a bit of a trick to race the cooling of the clams when you eat steamers outside, but on a warm day, tilting a beer and looking out over Buttermilk Cove, it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend the afternoon.
Malcolm went with the lobster roll, which looked to hold about a quarter pound of meat, chopped in small pieces and liberally mixed with mayonnaise. I declined a bite, having had a near perfect one on Sunday from the Bite Into Maine truck, but that’s another story for another day. Last summer when I was with child, I thought all the lobster had gone bad. All the lobster everywhere. It was a sad time to live in Maine. Well, I must confess that I have since developed a slight sensitivity to this most perfect crustacean. If it isn’t gorgeous, I don’t want it. And maybe that’s just a good rule for life.
Malcolm: All I’ll say about this is that it was the eighth lobster roll I have eaten in the last week. It was good, but not outstanding; ample amounts of finely shredded meat with a lot of mayo. Like so much of our meal, it was fine, but unremarkable.
I took one look at the blue plastic tray of food and knew no one was trying. It was unfortunate. And we were sorry. We really wanted to like it here. I would call it quaint, but I have been banned from using that word. Which is very difficult for me, because I find a great many things quaint. But certain people think it sounds condescending. I digress. The Gurnet Trading Co has so much going for them. Location! Location! Location! But the food felt careless, and I don’t understand why that would be. We stayed for a few minutes to soak up the sun in the Adirondack chairs and shrug our shoulders and say, “so be it”. Sometimes lunch is kind of a bummer. It happens to the best of us. There are worse things in this world, to be sure. But it made us feel sort of defeated, all the same.
Malcolm: Eating seafood in Maine in the summertime is one of my favorite reasons to live here. It’s available in every convenience store on the side of the road, prepared simply, either steamed or deep fried, allowing the quality of the fish or shellfish itself to shine through. When it works, it’s nearly perfect, and there’s almost nothing I’d rather eat. Sometimes, though, you can feel when a restaurant is just going through the motions, has resigned itself to feeding a steady stream of tourists whatever they can pull out of the freezer for as high a price as they can command. The Gurnet Trading Company has so much going for it: an amazing location, a charming outdoor seating area, friendly service, relatively low prices, and a full-service fresh fish market. But when the guys selling fried seafood out of a trailer in front of the abandoned car wash next to the Napa Auto Parts seem to be trying harder to expertly fry gill-flappingly fresh seafood, without the benefit of scenery? That’s ultimately who will receive my repeat business. Gurnet Trading Company isn’t bad. Not by a long shot. They just don’t seem particularly hungry.