Thursday, November 02, 2006


The dark side of growing up in a city like Chicago.


John Chuckman

Jack wasn't eighteen yet, and, despite his unusual height, he wasn't much of a tough guy. He hadn't thought a lot about getting home until it was time to go. But when he left the office lights behind and said good-bye to the all the older guys driving home, none of them heading his way, and especially when he stepped into the silence of the dimly lit street with its blocks of industrial buildings, he began to regret taking the job.

Mr. Johnson's words from the interview came back to him, "The job starts Saturday afternoons, an' it goes till we're done. That's not gonna be before midnight, an' us'ally it'll be somethin' more like two in the mornin'. Is'at gonna be a problem without a car?"

He wanted the job so much. It was only part-time, but there was a good chance they'd make it full-time. Then he'd be out of the dusty library basement downtown where he'd worked the last couple of months since high school. And he'd be working for a big magazine with a chance of becoming something.

"No, sir, that's no problum. The I.C. doesn't run too often at that time, but I'll manage okay."

Except for seeing the place from the train, Jack didn't know the area around 22nd Street at all. There weren't any stores, not that stores would be open at two in the morning, but the light from their signs and windows would be reassuring. Instead, there were just the dim brick industrial buildings and the echoes of his footsteps.

But it wasn't many blocks to the station, and Jack was a fast walker. He got there quickly, but then he was fretting about how far down the long stretch of platform the train would stop, and that mattered because it would be a real short train, and, if he missed it, the next one wasn't for two hours. He decided to walk out about half way.

Suddenly, there were voices on the platform. He looked back carefully. They were just guys from some factory, he could tell from their lunchboxes, three of them standing together down where he'd just come from. He could hear bits of their conversation, and the sound of their laughter was reassuring. If they were regulars, they knew where the train stopped, so he walked back towards them.

Jack watched the yellow light bobbing in the distance, tiny at first but growing larger, glistening off the rails ahead of it. The silhouette of the train soon rushed out of the darkness, and its heavy bulk squealed to a stop.

It felt good to sit down, heading home, but he couldn't relax too much. If he dozed off and missed the 67th Street stop, he'd wake up miles from home on this line. He really didn't need to worry very much about staying awake, because he was just a little terrified about getting off to transfer at 67th Street in the middle of the night. It was the southern end of the 63rd Street ghetto.

He remembered that time late at night on the El, on an almost empty train, when he glanced over his shoulder and saw three black guys get on. He only saw them for a second, but it didn't look good, the way they stood in the doorway whispering, and one of them was wearing dark glasses.

He could hear them come towards him and stand in the aisle just over his shoulder, but he didn't turn his head again. That looked too much like fear.

Then the guy with the dark glasses was in front of him, dropping into the jump seat, close enough to brush Jack's knee. He leaned into the corner at the front of the car so his body kind of sprawled out towards Jack, and he cocked his head to one side. He was staring at Jack. Jack could hear the other guys sliding into the seat behind him.

Normally, the guy would have looked almost funny with a dark straw hat balanced on the back of his head, the brim all turned up, and a few scraggly tufts of beard dangling from his chin. But he just glared at Jack through blank, dark lenses.

Jack was determined not to keep looking since that's all some crazy guys needed to start trouble. He focused on the front window, where he couldn't see much in the dark outside, but there was a dim reflection of the two guys behind him. That could be the only warning he'd get.

Jack tried looking calm, while he frantically worked through each possibility, hoping he'd know what to do when the time came. Still, somewhere in the back of Jack's brain, there was a fragile little hope that his fear was exaggerated and unnecessary.

Jack remembered not being sure at first, but he thought the guy in front was saying something, so he looked at him again, with the mildest expression he could manage.

Even though all Jack could see were jiggly reflections of the car's overhead lights in his black glasses, there wasn't any doubt the guy was still staring. And he was saying something. His lips were moving slowly, mumbling really, through a menacing grin. It took a second, with all the blood rushing through Jack's head and the train roaring over the tracks, to catch the words.

"Hey, - whi' - boy, - you - is - gettin' - off - at - da nes' - stop."

That fragile speck hope just disappeared, and for a few seconds Jack had no idea what to do. There wasn't anybody in the car who could help him, and a fight against three guys was crazy. If he got off, and they followed him, he had a good chance of outrunning them, but maybe they'd just be happy he was doing what they said.

Jack jumped up just as the train jerked to a stop and the doors whirred open. He ran onto the platform, unbuckling his belt and pulling it off. He wrapped it partway around his knuckles, leaving the buckle end dangling, and started running down the platform. But as the small train screeched off down the elevated structure, lighting up the night with blue electric flashes, he realized he was alone.

"67th Street Station - transfer for local South Chicago train," came scratchily over the loud speaker.

Jack was the only one that got off. In seconds the doors slid shut, and he watched the huge I.C. cars glide off, carrying their neat rows of warmly lighted windows away into the night.

The local train wasn't there yet, but he could see he was completely alone. Down the middle of the platform a row of lights capped by metal dishes made little umbrellas of yellowy light. The platform made Jack think of a long, empty pier sticking out into the lake at night.

The old apartment buildings near the tracks were quiet and dark except for a few dim, yellowy lights on back-porch stairs. Little gusts of wind rustled the leaves of trees you could barely see, and you could hear those reedy and chirpy sounds of insects in the weeds that grew along the tracks.

Again Jack didn't know where the train would stop, but he decided it was best to stand where he could see the door to the street. The trains ran on a high embankment in that area, passing over streets like 67th on viaducts. Every rustle or creak of the trees made him look down the long flight of stairs to the doors.

Then he heard the slight hiss in the overhead wire that told you a train was coming. He turned and watched it race towards him through the dark, the headlight bobbing around from the dips and sways in the track, making him think of a boat speeding to his rescue over a deep, dark lake.

A week later Jack was walking towards the station again, dreading the trip home, wondering how many times you could take a chance before something happened, when the lights from a car came up from behind. It startled him a little. He turned his head but kept walking. The car rolled up to the curb just ahead of him. A guy yelled out, "Which way ya goin'?"

He sounded friendly. Jack answered without really thinking about it much.

"Out ta South Shore."

"I'm headed out that way. Jump in. I'll drop ya off."

Normally, Jack wouldn't think of taking a ride from a strange guy. His mother pounded that into his head when he was little, but he was tired, and the guy looked alright, a little on the hoody side with dark hair swept back and a white t-shirt, but lots of guys looked like that. He sounded okay, and Jack figured he worked somewhere around there. And there was just something about being asked like that, it took an effort to say no, and if the guy was weird, Jack was alone on the street with him anyway. So he got in.


"Whereabouts ya wan' me ta drop ya?"

"As close ta 79th an' Jeff'ry as you're goin'." Jack thought it was better not to give his address.
He could walk home easily from around there.


They rode up the Outer Drive without talking, but underneath the quiet, Jack sensed something that worried him a little, a kind of a tension or impatience. But at times like that you can never be sure you're not just imagining things, and you don't like thinking bad things about a guy doing you a favor.

They turned off the Drive into Jackson Park, heading for Jeffery Boulevard, and pulled up to a stoplight. It was a little eerie sitting at the stoplight in the middle of the night with no cars or people around.

The guy suddenly turned to Jack and asked quietly, "Don't s'pose ya'd go for a li'le blow job now, would ya?"

All Jack could think about was getting out of the car. The guy was fairly well built and ten years older. His chances in a fight weren't good. He grabbed the door handle and opened it.

"Thanks, I'll get out here," he said with an amazingly polite tone. No matter how strange it seemed, something told him to keep it polite.

"Ya sure ya wanna get out here? This is nigger country."

"That's okay, I changed my min'. Thanks," was all he could think of saying as he slammed the door. He was surprised the guy just drove off. Jack watched the tail lights heading away for a few seconds.

He crept into the bedroom later, feeling exhausted from the long walk home and the fear. His brother was snoring, sound asleep. He could hear his mother, too, snoring in the living room. Everything seemed so ordinary and peaceful in the little apartment.

He got into bed wondering what he was going to do about coming home in the middle of the night. If he couldn't think of something, he'd have to quit the job. He was tired of being scared.
He wouldn't tell his mother any of this. It would worry her too much. He drifted off to sleep, despite the snoring, thinking if he only had a gun, he wouldn't worry about any more creeps.
That Sunday afternoon he told his brother about what happened.

"Ya know, Kid, travelin' at night like that ain't so great. Las' night this creep got me in a bad situation. It was part my own fault for ever takin' a ride, but I only went 'cause I'm tired a worryin' if I'll get home on the train.

"Don't tell Mom none a this. I'm only tellin' you, 'cause maybe ya can help."

"Jeez, Lips, ya better be careful! What could I do?"

"Ya 'member tellin' me how ol' man Shapiro keeps a couple a small guns aroun' the drugstore just in case, an' how he got one for the guy daliv'rin' milk?"

"Yeah, that's right. Ya mean ya want me ta see if he can get ya one?"

"That's what I was wonderin'. Could ya try an' see? I can't think a anything else ta do, 'cept quit."

"Sure, I'll ask 'im Monday when I do daliv'ries. He'll prob'ly be able ta."

That Monday evening his brother signaled him to come into the bedroom after supper.

"Shapiro says he can get ya a derringer or a 25-caliber automatic."

"The automatc'd be best."

"He wants fifty bucks for that."

"Okay, I got the dough in the bank. I'll get it right away. Do I jus' give it ta ya or what?"

"He said that'd be fine."

"Well, thanks, Kid. Maybe ev'rythin'll be awright."

Wednesday night his brother had the gun. He also had a little file card with some stuff typed on it that Shapiro wanted Jack to sign and return.

It was a heavy little thing, dark gray metal, showing signs of wear, shaped just like a model of an Army forty-five. Jack ran his finger over some engraving on the side of the barrel. The words were Nationale Fabrique, Belgique.

"Oh, Jeez, Kid, this is neat. Thanks a lot. Do ya think he could get me some bullets?"

"I'll ask 'im."

"Well, even without bullets, not too many guys're gonna argue with this."

"Okay, but ya better be careful, Lips."

Each evening Jack spent a few minutes sitting on the creaky floor boards in front of the little bedroom closet, holding the gun to get the feel of it and, really, just admiring it like a remarkable secret treasure. He even took it apart once and put it back together, proud of discovering that it worked the same way as the forty-five he'd handled in ROTC.

He started thinking a lot about how he was going to carry it. You couldn't put it in your pants, he tried, and it pulled down the waistband. Besides, you could make out the shape of it against his leg. And when he tried it in the thin cotton jacket he wore at night, it hung there in his pocket like a paperweight in a sack, pulling the whole side down with its dense, hard weight, but at least you couldn't tell what it was. He'd have to keep his hand in his pocket and hold it when he wasn't sitting.

And he started thinking about just what would have to happen for him to pull it out. He relished the thought of surprising some creep with it, giving him a little of his own medicine. Maybe it was better not to have any bullets. He sure didn't want to go shooting anybody. Then he thought about what he'd do if the creep had a gun, too. Things weren't so clear, especially when you didn't have any bullets. He really didn't know what he'd do, and he didn't like thinking about it.
On Saturday, not long before he started getting ready for work, his mother called Jack into the kitchen where she was standing next to a little pile of laundry.

"Jack, I was doin' some warsh down in the basement, an' I foun' somethin' in Joe's pants." She held out the card he had signed for Shapiro and gave him a really stern look. "Does this mean you have a gun?"

Jack's face felt like all the blood was drained out of it. "Yeah, I only got it 'cause I jus' don't feel safe comin' home late at night like that."

"It doesn't matter what the reason is. There'll be no guns in this house. Now, go an' get that thing right now an' give it ta me."

Jack went to the bedroom and got the gun from behind a stack of stuff in the closet. When he came back, his mother put out her hand to take it.

"Are there any bullets in this thing?"

"No, Mom. I hope you're not jus' throwin' it out. That cos' me fifty bucks."

"Oh, don't worry none about that. I'm takin' this back myself an' tellin' Shapiro a thing or two 'bout sellin' guns ta kids. I'll get that money back from 'im. You can count on that.

"An' I don't want ya doin' nothin' stupid like this ag'in. Is 'at un'erstood?"

"Yeah, Mom, but he only sold it ta Joe 'cause a me."

"I don't care. You ain't much more'an a kid yourself. An' regardless, ya ain't got no business with somethin' like this. He oughtta have the brains ta know that! An' look who he sol' it ta, your brother. Why he's just a baby."

"Ma, Joe only did it 'cause I tol' 'im I was scared commin' home at night."

"Well, you'll jus' hafta give up on that job then. I know ya like it, but if you're not feelin' safe, give it up. One thing's for sure, you're not runnin' aroun' the city a Chicago with a thing like this."

Jack went to the bedroom and stretched out on the bed. In a couple of minutes his brother came in and stood in the doorway with one hand on the frame.

"Sorry, Lips, 'bout the card."

"'at's okay, Kid, it's prob'ly jus' as well. Who wants ta go gettin' in that kinda trouble, anyhow? I wasn't thinkin' too clear when I asked ya 'bout gettin' it."

"So whatcha gonna do?"

"I'm gonna quit. Forget about workin' for a magazine. What choice is there with aw the nuts runnin' aroun' out there at night?"

"You'll fin' somethin' else."

"Yeah, I guess. I sure hope Mom doesn't go goofin' things up with Shapiro. Ya know how she can be. She'll go in there like gangbusters."

"It's okay. He'll un'erstan', an' if he don't, I can do daliv'ry for somebody else.

"Oh, I meant tell ya, Lips. Las' week I saw Molyneaux at schoo'."

"Yeah, really, what's he doin'?"

"He ain't teachin' at Bradwell anymore. He's a vice-principal someplace. I don't know what he was doin' at schoo', but he saw me an' asked what ya were doin' these days."

Jack was visibly affected by the idea of his favorite old teacher asking about him. He was the kind of teacher you'd want to go see when you got to be big shot on a magazine and tell him all about it.

"So what'd ya tell 'im?"

"I jus' said ya were workin' down in the basement at the library."

"Jeez, Kid, cou'n't ya make it soun' a li'le better 'an that? Whatcha go an' tell 'im I'm workin' in a basement for?"

"Well, I cou'n't think a what ya call your job. Ya work in the basement, don't ya?"

"Yeah, but ya di'n't hafta go sayin' it like that."

"What was I s'posed ta say, huh?"

"Oh, I don' know. I s'pose it ain't gonna soun' real great no matter how ya say it."

"Well, anyhow, he said ta say hi ta ya."


Visions of hell and atomic-bomb drills


John Chuckman

The night the president said he was sending more troops to Vietnam Jack had a terrible dream.

He was alone in the apartment, the old apartment on 79th Street. He went to bed after watching a late movie on T.V. and just lay there for a while in the humid, summery darkness, listening to sounds out on the street, trying to fall asleep. Finally, he did.

Then suddenly he was awake again. It was still dark. There was a loud sound outside. It was a harsh, wailing sound that kept rising and falling.

He knew what it was. He'd heard that sound so many times. Every Tuesday morning at 10:30, for years. It was the air-raid siren. He lay there, terrified, listening to the gloomy, mechanical sound, hoping it would stop. But it didn't stop.

He jumped up from bed, breathing hard, feeling sweaty and clammy all over. He ran to the living room. The windows were open because it was hot. A thin breeze was pushing at the curtains.

Jack knelt in front of a window and looked out. He was relieved that it was such an ordinary-looking summer night, except for the people standing down on the street corner. It was late for so many people to be there. They were all looking up, listening, wondering what the sirens meant.

Suddenly the entire sky lit up with an electric-blue flash that was dazzling. It was so intense, Jack thought he could actually feel it penetrating the backs of his eyes. His face and eyes were stinging.

Jack sensed that the light faded quickly, as quickly as it appeared, although he was blinded by its afterimage. He noticed the sirens had stopped.

He could smell something burning. Then, dimly at first, he saw fires all over the neighborhood. Everything that could burn had burst into flames. Signs, awnings, doors, paint, curtains and tree tops all were burning, shooting sparks up.

He saw the people again on the street corner. They were burning, too. He watched in horror as their naked bodies stood burning, ashes flying up into the fire-lighted sky. Their flesh melted and ran in thick drops like hot candle wax.

He saw something off in the distance, just the edge of a huge, dark, blurry shape, towards downtown. His view wasn't clear, but it didn't matter. He knew what it was.

Within seconds he heard a tremendous explosion. He not only heard the sound, he felt it vibrate through everything. Just like the light flash, the sound of the explosion entered directly into his brain. Almost at the same time, a wind, more like a tidal wave than a wind, roared across everything in front of him.

The building trembled underneath him. Every pane of glass in the apartment seemed to shatter. Trees bent over and cracked, some were swept away like giant tumble weeds. The burning bodies were hurled off their feet, joining a torrent of signs and litter and trees, tumbling end over end down the street, some of it crashing into walls.

Then the walls that seemed so solid, as bodies and debris struck them, began to crumble. At first the brick walls swayed and looked almost rubbery. Then bricks broke loose and flew away on the raging wind. Finally, whole walls and buildings were swept away as the last bit of whatever anchored them broke loose.

Jack had this overwhelming sense of hopelessness, of everything he ever knew or cared about being wrecked and swept away.

Then there was another terrible sound. It was unrecognizable at first. It wasn't an explosion, although it was unbelievably loud. Actually, he had a sense of it not even being a real sound, yet somehow he heard it. It was the sound of trumpets.

He saw the dead people, burnt and broken, come back to life. They were standing again on the street. Again their faces, though all charred and misshapen, looked up to see what was happening. Jack didn't think it strange at all that corpses were alive.

Then the smoke and darkness simply disappeared, and it was a shining summer day. A small, brilliant spot appeared in the sky and quickly grew until it was larger than the sun. It was like a whirlpool of intense golden light.

A tiny figure appeared in the center of it and seemed to be moving down toward earth. It just seemed to glide down and looked bigger and bigger as it got closer. In a minute he recognized the figure. It was Christ. He looked exactly the way he looked in old pictures from Sunday school.

Almost instantly Jack was transported to a place he didn't recognize. It was a vast area, and it was filled with people as far as he could see. He knew they all had died.

He looked up. Christ was right in front of him. Only now he didn't look like Christ. There was the same white robe and long hair to the shoulders and beard, but the face was different.

It looked more like the face of a devil, and Jack knew it was gloating. There was something else in the face, almost like a second face projected onto the first. It was shadowy at first, but it grew clearer and clearer. It was the president's face.


Biographical anecdote as short story.


John Chuckman

"There's nothin' wrong with it. It's a perfec'ly good shirt."

It was a long-sleeved, white cotton shirt his mother was talking about. She'd ironed it so Jack could wear it to church that morning. But nothing could make him put that shirt on. And he didn't have to say it. Just the pained look on his face was enough.

"Weren't ya jus' tellin' me how ya di'n't have a white shirt for your class pi'ture at school?"

It was true. He did tell her that, although he rarely complained about stuff like that to his mother. But he did feel embarrassed when he was the only kid in the class picture without a white shirt. He never felt that way where they used to live. But this was a better neighborhood, and all the kids wore white shirts for class pictures.

"It's all ironed up nice for ya."

It was very hard saying no to his mother about anything. It had to be something he had awfully strong feelings about. Because there was this almost overwhelming sense of duty and obligation he felt to her. It was something kids in regular families wouldn't even know about.

All those times seeing his mother come home in tears. What could a ten-year-old boy say to comfort her? If he was bigger, he'd beat up some of those creeps at work.

He knew how she struggled to hold on to a job and raise two kids alone. How she worried about them in some of those neighborhoods every morning she went off to work. How she was always trying to find a better place they could afford to live.

But she was asking the impossible. She taught Jack to be proud and stubborn, and that's just what he was.

It was one night last week that two people from the new church showed up with a big cardboard box full of clothes. He was embarrassed when his mother let them in. But really, what else could she do? Once you answered the buzzer and the pastor's voice came over the speaker, you were stuck.

They'd just moved into the little apartment over a grocery and liquor store at 75th and Colfax. There wasn't any bedroom. His mother shared the Murphy bed with his grandmother. His brother slept on the couch, and he slept on a cot in the dinette. They did just fine. You might even say things were kind of cozy.

At least they seemed that way to Jack after what he'd been through. In the old neighborhood, their apartment was just as small, but he'd spent the last couple of years just being afraid. Afraid of getting beat up going to school. Afraid of getting beat up at school. Afraid of getting beat up on the way home. This neighborhood wasn't like that at all. He liked going to school now. In Jack's mind things were pretty good.

But that didn't mean you wanted guys from church around poking their noses into everything. Wherever they lived, they always went to church. His mother was just like that, Sunday school and church every week, but nothing like this ever happened before. Jack sat there mortified when they came in with their box of clothes. Did he look that bad on Sunday?

God, his mother even offered them coffee. He thought they'd never leave with their eyes, between sips of coffee and friendly smiles, carefully taking in every detail of the place. Probably trying to figure out how they all slept in there.

Jack swore he'd never be seen wearing a thing from that box. Nobody was going to be looking over at him in church, feeling satisfied about how they'd sent old clothes to that poor woman and her kids instead of throwing them out.

"Well, it's up ta you. I'm not gonna make ya wear it if you're dead set against it."

Jack was dead set against it. Actually, if it had been up to him, he wouldn't ever go back to that church. But that was expecting way too much from his mother. She'd never agree with anything like that. At least he'd show them he didn't need their junk.

"Ya better hurry up an' get somethin' else on, or you're gonna be late for Sunday school."

Later that morning, after Sunday school, Jack sat, as he always did, next to his mother and brother in church. Again, as he always did, he sat as still as possible so he didn't make noise in the rows of creaky auditorium chairs that served as pews. But he sat up really straight.

His face felt a little warm and flushed. And he was sweating a little, feeling nervous about anybody that happened to look their way. But he only saw them out of the corner of his eye because of the way he kept his head up, his eyes straight ahead. He was feeling fiercely proud of that stupid old plaid shirt.


Again, biographical anecdote as short story.


John Chuckman

It was lunch time, and Jack was hungry. He was thinking all the way home about having a can of soup. Tomato soup sounded good. Yes, he'd have that, with lots of crackers crushed up in it and pepper floating on top.

It was more than six blocks to school, and coming home for lunch meant he walked it four times a day, but Jack didn't mind. He loved walking through the neighborhood, once you got away from Kozmynski. University Avenue was a beautiful, mellow street lined with sun-dappled old apartment buildings and huge elm trees. All the streets around his part of Hyde Park were like that.

You didn't run into as many creeps walking home for lunch as you did after school. Anyway, coming home was a lot better than hanging around school. He hated the place. You always had to be worrying about things like guys running up from behind and hitting you in the head or pushing you down. That's why old Miss Hodgkins, the principle, kept a club in her office, and she didn't go into the schoolyard without it.

Jack was only nine years old, but he'd been coming home to make lunch ever since they moved from the old apartment on 51st. This was a lot better building, with no mice or roaches or anything, but it was when they found out about his new address at school that they transferred him to Kozmynski.

His mother cried when she found out. It made going to work every morning a lot harder on her. She knew what kind of a rathole it was, but there was nothing she could do. He'd just have to be brave for a while. She showed him how you do everything for lunch. She trusted him about using the gas and locking up. And he was proud of the way he could cook stuff like a can of soup or spaghetti or make a tuna-fish sandwich. He figured that was pretty good for a kid his age.

Jack turned in at his building before he got to the courtyard. He crossed the grass and walked through an archway in the creamy colored stone underneath the first-floor windows by the corner of the building. They always called it the tunnel when they were running around the neighborhood playing. It led to the gangway with all the back porches for his side of the building. It was closer than using the front door. He ran up the back-porch stairs two at a time.

There was just one thing now about coming home: Jack was still a little nervous from the time a few months back their apartment got robbed. He remembered all the drawers pulled out and stuff dumped all over. They didn't get anything, there wasn't much of anything to get, but it was still bothered you the way they threw all your stuff around. His mother got a good, new lock on the door, so there wasn't really anything to worry about, but still....

Jack turned the key in the lock and cautiously opened the door. He paused for a minute to run his eyes over everything and make sure it was okay. There was something dreamlike about the tiny, quiet apartment with the sunbeams pouring through the kitchen window, making patterns of window panes and plants across the shadowy floorboards of the front hall beyond the kitchen. The only sound was a steady clicking from the clock on the wall. It was a black plastic cat with eyes that moved back and forth with each click.

Something wasn't right. Back in the small hall that had the Murphy bed and some cupboards, a door was open, and in the shadows Jack was sure someone was standing there. He was pretty sure he could see shoes, like someone was standing behind the clothes hanging there.

He was too nervous to go in. He didn't know what to do, but he sure wasn't going in. He'd just wait for a while on the back porch. If nothing happened, then maybe he'd try going in. He stayed right in the doorway so he could see if anything moved.

Jack stood there for a while, every muscle tense, picturing some guy jumping out of the closet at him. As long as he was on the porch, he was pretty sure he could get away. He was a fast runner.
Finally, he decided he had to go in. There wasn't a whole lot of time left before he had to go back to school. He paced back and forth in front of the doorway a few seconds, breathing hard, his heart thumping. Then he walked in, slowly, never taking his eyes from the shadowy hallway. He froze when the floor creaked, but nothing in the hallway moved. He made his way to the drawer by the sink, pulled it out as quietly as he could and got out the paring knife.

Jack took a last large gulp of air before he headed into the hall, knife first. Almost as soon as he got near the closet, he could see there was nothing there but some old shoes of his mother's on the floor. Someone hadn't closed the closet door in the morning. Jack breathed a huge sigh of relief.

He went back to the little kitchen and looked at the clock. There wasn't any time left for soup. He put the knife away, opened the icebox and stood looking around inside. He reached for the milk carton and tipped it up for several good gulps. Then he got the ketchup and a couple of slices of Butternut bread and brought them over to the counter by the sink. He shook some big splotches of ketchup on the bread and put the bottle back.

He took one big bite of the ketchup sandwich before turning and going out the back door, stopping to lock it carefully, pulling the handle to make sure it was locked, just like his mother taught him. He figured he was leaving just in time to get to school for the bell. That's the way he always timed it, so he didn't have to stand around in the schoolyard.


A short story that captures some of my experience as a paperboy in Chicago. It demonstrates the quiet creepiness sometimes experienced in ordinary events, a la Hitchcock. It was not conscious, but I'm sure Jack London's To Build a Fire influenced the intense description of cold.


John Chuckman

It was really cold. Not just cold enough to see your breath. But cold enough to make your face numb if you didn't stop to warm up in the front hall of an apartment building once in while.

Jack could hear the snow squeaking under the tires of his cart and the bottoms of his floppy rubber boots. The set of tags with all his customers addresses fluttered and banged around on a big metal ring hooked to the cart handle.

It was the coldest Jack could remember. But it was the harsh wind that really made you shiver. And the little bits of snow it picked up that made your skin sting.

He could feel the wind slap against the side of his cart. But it was a sturdy thing, built like a buckboard. A big, shiny yellow crate, reinforced with metal ribs, with a wheel on each side like the ones on a wheel-chair and a little swively solid thing at the front.

He tried to keep his mind off the cold. He just wanted to deliver his papers and get home as fast as he could.

But it wasn't easy. The cold went right through his gloves after just a few minutes out. He tried blowing into the wrists, but that only helped for a couple of seconds.

And things just looked cold. Clouds of steam rushed out of all the manhole covers up the street and swirled up into the frosty streetlights. Then fierce gusts of wind drove them almost sideways and filled them with silvery bits of ice.

Some kid back at the agency said you didn't want to go near them when they were like that. The covers could blow off and kill you. Jack didn't know if it was true, but he crossed every street with a steamy manhole cover like he believed it was.

Normally there was nothing Jack liked better than the snow-laced trees overhead. But they were scary, too, now. The gusts of wind tossed the long, graceful branches into huge, sweeping movements. And there were creaking sounds. You couldn't help thinking about one breaking off. He'd seen branches down after storms.

Even a nice neighborhood seemed a little creepy at five-thirty in the morning, especially on a day like this.

Almost all the windows were dark. And even where someone left the Christmas lights on all night, they looked lonely in the windy darkness.

There was always a cozy yellow glow from the front halls of apartment buildings. But this street was almost all houses. Anyway, you didn't deliver in the halls. You only went in there to warm up. All the apartments got their papers on the back porches. From the alley.

That was the part Jack hated. The alleys. In the dark. Especially on a morning like this. The cold made everything slower and harder. If you had to walk one up, there was snow and ice on the back stairs. And the wind meant you couldn't throw so good. And maybe you couldn't hear someone creeping around.

It was funny, alone in the dark like that, especially with the wind howling, the scary thoughts you got. Jack put it down to being a skinny thirteen-year old. Nervous and not really tough enough. Raised by his mother. The manager's words kept going through his head. The guy knew just what to say. This was a man's route.

As much as he could, Jack had delivery down to a system. When it was warm, he rolled papers as he pushed his cart. That was the fastest way once you learned how to do it.

On bad days he rolled them all at once back at the agency. It took longer, but he couldn't roll papers with gloves on. And that way they didn't blow away. He could remember chasing fluttering sheets all over the street once and then trying to make them look like newspapers again.

Streets with houses went the fastest. He thought of it as kind of a performance really the way he lunged forward over the cart and grabbed a paper, then, letting the handle bar go, turned and threw it. He caught up with the cart in a couple of steps and started again. It felt good when it all went smoothly for several blocks.

But it didn't always go smoothly. And this morning he found himself stopping the cart several times and loping across the fresh snow in a front yard to fish a paper out of some bushes. It wasn't so bad, but the snow on the bushes at one place got pushed up his coat sleeve and left his wrist stinging.

Still, Jack got through the main part of his houses in decent time. He rolled his cart up to the side of an apartment building that went over some stores on 79th Street. The lobby was back near the corner of the alley behind the stores.

He'd warm up a few minutes before heading down the alley. The lobby was warm. There was a radiator under the mailboxes and beads of sweat on the door glass. But it was a couple of minutes before the heat penetrated Jack's stiff clothes. Everything he had on seemed brittle.

He slapped his cheeks a couple of times. The stinging from the wind had faded, and he wanted to make sure he could feel something. He read somewhere that you should start worrying when you couldn't feel things anymore. But it wasn't so easy to tell in this kind of cold just when that was.

He jumped up and down a little. Those rubber boots over your shoes kept you dry, but they didn't do all that much for the cold. Then he stood right against the radiator. He could feel a wave of cold leaving his body almost like cramps going away. Jack sat down on the stairs. The carpet was warm and thick.

From inside, the snowy night looked beautiful. The door's heavy cut glass caught glints of Christmas lights and signs from stores down at the corner. Everything outside was shades of twilight. And the wind swept it with glittery bits.

The door's heavy wooden frame and piston on top made Jack feel secure from the wind and the cold, but you could hear it move just a little with the big gusts. A slight rattle and a whooshing sound.

Jack thought nothing was prettier than the city coated with snow. But he didn't like this kind of cold. He wished he didn't have to go back out. He didn't even want to think about how much more he had to do. Four blocks of houses didn't make the stack of papers go down that much. Most of his route was apartments. He'd stop in several lobbies before he was done.

At least there weren't any starts this morning. He didn't have to search around in the dim light for the numbers on any new porches. He could just go by memory.

His old afternoon route sure was easy compared to this. In the daytime alleys weren't scary places at all. He played in them since he was a little kid. They honeycombed the old neighborhoods with shortcuts and secret passages, with roofs and porches to climb and hide on.
And it used to be fun on a sunny afternoon, rolling his cart down the alleys, seeing if he could make all the third floors on his first try. But that was about sixty papers. Now he had more than two hundred.

He used to get invited in sometimes. One lady baked gingerbread. But no one baked gingerbread at this time in the morning.

He got up after just a few minutes. The first blast of cold air made him stop thinking about anything like gingerbread. He turned his cart around and headed into the alley that ran behind the stores. He quickly left the umbrella of street light behind.

The alleys weren't completely dark. There were lights on some of the telephone poles. Not bright, modern ones, but they made these little pools of yellowy light down the pavement. And a lot of porches had dim lights on the stairs. So you could see your way around. But they were still places with all kinds of dark shapes. And there were all those dark gangways between the garages that led to dark backyards and dark basement doors.

Jack turned again, halfway down, to the alley that ran behind the side street he'd just come up. It was all apartments on the other side of the block.

He noticed the wind wasn't as bad as it was on the street. The buildings were blocking it a little. Throwing wouldn't be as bad as he thought. Except for the third floors. With the snow blowing around on the roofs, lighted dimly from the street, it was like you could actually see the wind whipping over the buildings.

If you had a decent arm, you could throw most of your papers from the middle of the alley. But stairs and porches came in a lot of different shapes. And with things like telephone poles and wires you couldn't always get a good angle. You had to go through the gangway and lob them from the back yard. Or, in some cases, walk them up.

Most porches were pretty small targets. You had to get it over the banister. Without hitting the back windows. And hopefully not the garbage cans. The garbage cans didn't matter when you delivered afternoon papers, but they sure did on mornings.

If you roofed it, you'd be short. That meant bringing another paper back from the agency when you were done. Usually, on big morning routes, the guy down at the agency would run one out for you in his car. But not always. And you didn't like asking.

Jack missed his first third floor. The paper bounced off the banister and spun down. At first, he thought it was in the yard. He pulled his cart over in front of the garages in case a car came by and went looking around the gangway and the backyard.

He couldn't find it. So he was pretty sure it was on the garage. He thought about climbing it and looked for a place to get a boost. Some garages were easy to climb. But there was nothing that looked easy with the snow and ice. And it was just too cold to be heroic. So he'd be short.

Jack had done a couple of blocks of alleys when he saw some car lights turn in about a block ahead. They were moving slowly. That made them look more sinister. He never liked meeting up with cars while it was still dark back there. It was scary the way they put you in a spotlight. With your eyes all adjusted to alley light, they just about blinded you. And you just never knew.

Jack pulled his cart over before it got very close. He'd lob the next couple of papers from the backyard. Hopefully the car would be gone then. He could always wait there a minute if it wasn't.

Jack had no trouble lobbing the papers. A second and a third floor. But the car lights were still there. He could see the glare from them over the top of the garages. He decided to wait. The lights weren't moving.

Jack walked slowly back through the gangway. He peeked nervously around the corner of the garage. It was hard at first to see anything in the glare but blowing bits of snow and some steamy exhaust.

Then he could see it was a station wagon. It looked like Larry's car, the manager from down at the agency.

Suddenly Jack felt silly about being so suspicious. He walked over to the car. Larry rolled down the window and yelled through the wind.

"How ya doin', Jack?"

"Oh, I'm a little behind with the cold. But I'm fine."

"Well, I was just takin' a check aroun', bein' so cold an' ev'rything. Jus' wanna make sure nobody's in trouble."

"Oh, no, I'm jus' fine. Thanks."

Larry held out a white paper bag full of something.

"Ya wanna doughnut?"

"Oh sure, thanks."

"Okay, Jack, we'll see ya back down at the agency."

He rolled up the window. Jack remembered the paper he roofed and started waving. The window rolled down again.

"Say, I forgot. Ya got an extra? I'm gonna be short."

Larry reached over on the seat and handed Jack a paper.

"Thanks, Larry, see ya later."

Jack watched the car roll away for a second, silhouetted against its headlights. The doughnut tasted really good. And he noticed it was starting to get light out.


A story written and published in a couple of small literary magazines years ago. I think it tells us something fundamentally true about the universe, while having some satiric fun along the way.


John Chuckman

It was the first transmission ever received from another world. Picked up by a radio telescope pointed at a nearby star where the existence of planets had only recently been absolutely confirmed. The signal was extremely weak, coming, as it did, across several tens of trillions of miles of space, through a cosmic sea of radiation, the churning, pulsing clatter of numberless stars being born and dying.

It was only through recent advances in technology that it was possible to identify it. Apparently, there was no doubt from its first reception that it represented intelligence.

It hadn't been a big story in the press when they actually confirmed that planets existed around other stars. Lots of scientists had speculated for decades that planets were as common as stars in the universe. And for years they found all kinds of hints and bits of evidence. But, still, that wasn't the same thing as proving planets existed. So you'd think that would have been a big story, but, outside of scientific circles, it wasn't.

After the first discovery they went right on discovering more. But it still wasn't a big story. Just a brief mention on most popular broadcasts. There was an article in Scientific American, an interesting piece in The Economist and a full page in The Science Times.

But even the transmission wasn't a big story. Maybe it was because they couldn't understand it at first. But you'd sure think that the first proof of other intelligent life in the universe would have more of an impact than it did.

There were tantillizing little bits that appeared in the press as they processed the data through big computers and got some preliminary indications of what they contained. There was a fair amount of interest when they were pretty sure it was a television broadcast of some kind. For weeks after that, there were rumors about images of strange beings. There was a rumor about images that looked like lizards, or as some of the tabloids put it, like devils.

Interest really picked up with that rumor. Every tabloid in the supermarkets had artists' renditions of berserk, lizard-like aliens shooting people with death rays and heading back to their spaceships with beautiful girls slung over their shoulders.

The rumors caused a huge surge in TV evangelism. It got so some of those guys were on every night. The networks bumped a lot of their regular, primetime shows. The money must have just poured in. Several of them had special offers on videos and books telling you all about prophecy and aliens. Even though they all seemed to agree it meant the end of the world, you could still use your charge card to order.

The scientists, apparently concerned about the impact of their findings, delayed announcing them. They said they wanted to do some more work with the computer to be absolutely sure. But that just had the effect of creating more rumors. There was a flood of new tapes and books about stuff like ancient authorities trying to prevent Ezekiel from telling what he knew about flying saucers.

Finally the big day came. It was on every channel. An actual taped transmission from another world. Just before the broadcast all the networks had experts on hand, sitting in front of sets that looked like book-lined studies, to discuss the impact of the tapes. They agreed it likely would be serious, particularly on children.

Every stadium in America was rented out either to evangelists holding end-of-the-world services or rock-concert promoters holding space-alien parties. The places with jumbo TV screens and stereo sound were sold out. There were plenty of space-alien block parties, too. One of the big pizza chains had an alien special on deliveries that night.

People everywhere gasped when the first images flickered onto the screen. The aliens were repulsive. Hideous, with slimy skin and bulbous, glassy eyes. They did look like demons of some kind.

But as the tape continued, it became clear that it was only the appearance of the aliens that was strange. In every other respect they seemed just like people you'd meet in any nice suburb. It wasn't long before you could hear yelling and booing about what a disappointment it was. Boring. A waste of time. Although there was some laughing.

The next morning at work a lot of people talked about how boring it was. Not scary at all. They complained about the poor picture quality or the black and white. Or the fact you couldn't understand a word they were saying. The way it looked like some old thing from the 1950s. The TV ratings showed that a lot of people turned their sets off before the tape was over.

One especially perceptive critic in a newspaper column that day said he couldn't be positive but he was almost sure the tape actually was an alien version of an early episode of Ozzie and Harriet.


Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


John Chuckman

At last, the Black Tie Café serves dinner, not at its original location in the Old Port, where the throbbing beat of a nightclub upstairs apparently discourages an evening menu, but at a new location in Yarmouth.. This has been open for less time than I like to allow for the kinks in new operation to be worked out, but a call to a friendly and helpful staff member assured me things were running smoothly. So I made a reservation.

And they do have the kinks out. They have transformed a small, nondescript building along Route One into a special destination. Going there reminded me of one or those wonderful discoveries along a small road in the French countryside, a charming little restaurant run by people who love food.

You enter immediately into a bright, pretty gourmet food shop and a waft of aromas. A door at one end leads to the restaurant. Here the lighting changes to warm and subdued, against chocolate-colored walls, creamy rough paneling below the chair rail, and the luster of oak-strip floor. The tables have crisp linen and handsome candle-fixtures flickering under shades. A few cozy booths to one side, another on a dais at the back, an open waiter-service pantry in a back corner - these few architectural touches transform a simple rectangular room into an intimate and inviting space.

Service is more than good at Black Tie, it is intelligent. This is apparent in the way you are greeted, the way details are automatically attended to (as when a knife - carried off, as it should be, with an appetizer plate - is quietly replaced), and in the discussion of wine and food. The style of service might be characterized as informal but crisp. Later, I noticed the staff of three working with the smooth harmony of a small stage troupe. Whatever needed attention, such as resetting a table, was taken up by the first available hands.

The occasional gruff sound from the kitchen adds the right note of food-centered informality. We were advised by our waiter that these occasional, muffled grunts were the cook's way of announcing orders.

The wine list is interesting. The selections are mainly from California, and, most interesting, they are all vintages, something that would not have been possible many years ago. If half the listings prove as good as what we enjoyed, there are many pleasant discoveries ahead. The wine list has full bottles only, but there are daily selections by the glass posted. In response to our request, the waiter recommended a California Merlot that proved exceptional, Hahn 1997, Monterey ($5.75 a glass). This is dusky, fruity, liquid velvet.

A basket of bread is brought immediately, sliced baguette, very tasty, with the distinctive aroma and flavor of sour-dough starter. It is especially nice with the sweet (unsalted) butter served. The crust lacks the crispness that this admirer of great bread enjoys on such a loaf, but this is about as serious a criticism as I have.

With a glass of delightful wine and some tasty bread, we are prepared to spend time studying the menu. The appetizers bring together a great many food traditions, from French and Italian to Thai. And this is characteristic of much of Black Tie's cooking, somewhat eclectic and, as is it proved, elegantly successful.

Keeping with this spirit, we had grilled-shrimp crostini with mushroom pate ($9) and Asian vegetarian spring rolls ($7). The crostini were excellent, the mushroom pate providing a rich, moist filling between plump shrimp halves and crisp bread, all drizzled with parsley butter. The spring rolls come sliced, releasing the scent of ginger and sesame, on a plate with a honey-lime glaze and topped with fresh greens. The greens and the glaze are more than decorative since the recommended way of eating spring rolls in Southeast Asia is wrapped with greens and dipped in piquant sauce. Food that reflects this kind of culinary understanding fills me with anticipation for the rest of the meal.

It is a summer menu, happily dominated by seafood, though there are beef, lamb, pork, chicken and vegetarian entrees (one of each) for those not delighted by salmon, crab, lobster, tuna, shrimp and mussels, or bouillabaisse.

The waiter was careful to ask how the pan-seared Pacific salmon ($18) should be done, again reflecting Black Tie's intelligent service. It came medium rare, the stage at which a fish like this remains succulent, arranged prettily with herbed mashed potatoes, Swiss chard, and lemon-dill veloute - a delicious combination.

Our other dish was a special, not on the regular menu, soft-shell crab on a bed of wide Thai rice-noodles with tomatoes, zucchini, Kalamata olives, crumbled Feta cheese, and a remarkable, pungent sauce reminiscent of Thailand ($22). Yes, that's right, Mediterranean and Asian elements combined in one dish using such a delicate seafood as soft-shell crab. And it works perfectly. This dish was among the best I have had in years, memorable for its delightful, unexpected blend of flavors from two of the world's great cuisines.

I was pleased to see the dessert menu topped by fruit and cheese, a delightful French custom that still has not widely caught on in America and that I would surely avail myself of another time. But I wanted chocolate, and the menu provides several intriguing ways to satisfy this craving. We selected the chocolate truffle flan ($5.25). Berries are another craving, so we also selected the mixed berry crisp ($5.25).

The flan was a complete success, a rich chocolate custard served with the sauce you'd find on a crème caramel. The berry crisp was less successful. There was a nice compote of blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries inside, but the crumb topping was less than crisp, and, most unsatisfying, there was too much of it underneath the fruit, reduced to porridge by liquids - my one low note for the evening.

Our bill came to $95.77. I'll be going back for the bouillabaisse.

Black Tie Café
233 Route One
Yarmouth, Maine
Food: 4 Stars
Atmosphere: 4 Stars
Service: 4 Stars
Dinner Hours: (Summer)
Monday and Tuesday: (Closed)
Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday: 5:30 PM - 9:30 PM
Friday and Saturday: 5:30 PM - 10:00 PM
Lunch Hours: (Summer)
Monday through Friday: 11:30 AM - 2:00 PM
Brunch Hours: Saturday and Sunday: 9:00 AM - 2:30 PM

Credit Cards: AE, MC, VISA
Price Range: Entrees $15.00 to $21, but with several items at "market"
Reservations: Strongly Recommended
Bar: Full
Wheelchair Access: From Rear Only and Throughout Restaurant; Step-down for Shop
Serious Cuisine in an Intimate Atmosphere

On Route One , just north of Interstate at the south end of a strip of Yarmouth Area businesses along Route One. It is on seaward side of Route One.


Review of an interesting restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.

RESTAURANT REVIEW: 1810 Tuscan Grille, Kennebunk, Maine

John Chuckman

The approach to 1810 Tuscan Grille is a blend of the charming and the off-beat. The restaurant is in a small frame building - dating back to 1810, hence the name - set back by a fenced yard from all the surrounding buildings on the main street of Kennebunk. The yard has a white garden arch, a tree with Italian lights, and a handsome black metal sign (which, regrettably, owing to its placement, is not visible for any distance on the street).

There is also a series of wooden poles, each entwined with ropes of dried branches and supporting strings of large colored light bulbs from the garden arch to the building's entrance. To one side of the walkway, on the grass, is a larger-than-life stone or cast statue of a Roman goddess. This has a slightly Monty-Pythonesque quality about it, suggesting the mental image of a several-ton classical statue that mysteriously has dropped from the sky onto someone's front lawn.

Tuscan Grille's interior is a genuine hybrid of old-country and off-beat. It reminds me very much of hip or experimental places during the late 1960s in certain urban areas before they became gentrified. Spaces inside are intimate, and you are right up against a large mural just inside the front door.

All the walls are roughly decorated with the bright polychrome colors found on Florentine boxes - reds and yellows merging into gold leaf. In the small dining room there is a wine cabinet, varnished dark wooden tables (including a couple in corners shaped like large artists' palettes), a few strategic decorations including a statue, a vase, and some mounted animal heads (antelopes? gazelles?). Above an antique fireplace, specials are listed on a chalkboard.

Food lovers should not be deterred by any of the mildly eccentric appearance, because Tuscan Grille is certainly one of Maine's relatively undiscovered little culinary gems.

Service is very informal and personal, our waitress often discussing, almost as a neighbor would, points on the menu. She was genuinely interested in whether we had enjoyed each dish.

The menu is not large, featuring a few "sizzling skewers" of beef or seafood from the wood-fired grill, a selection of eight "country comfort foods" - including a Tuscan pot roast and versions of the classic parmigiana dishes - and lobster. There are several specials on the chalkboard - on our visit, these amounted to the same dish made with various seafoods at different prices.

There is a good one-page wine list. A very nice feature is the availability of virtually all selections by the bottle, the glass, or the half-glass. We enjoyed glasses of San Matteo Frascatti, 1999 ($6), a simple, refreshing wine.

Discovery of Tuscan Grille starts with the bread - a rough, crusty loaf of warm Tuscan bread served with a tray of olive oil, sprinkled with rosemary and containing some cured black and large green olives. This is absolutely delicious, and I cannot think of another restaurant offering a more pleasant or generous start to a meal.

And discovery continues with the appetizers; indeed, here is where discovery merges into culinary adventure. Beef carpaccio (strips of raw, lean beef pounded until they are very thin) with olive-oil-drizzled greens, capers, shaved Asiago cheese, and some exquisite, deep-fried onions (thin slices of lightly battered sweet Vidalias) is simply wonderful ($9). A few servings of this with some bread and wine would make a truly fine meal.

Equally delicious is what the menu calls "Tapas-style Cassoulette" ($8). This is a large bowl of thick, rich tomato sauce, a stew really of chunky, sweet plum tomatoes, roasted garlic, and goat cheese, the cheese having been baked into the sauce. It is served with wedges of warm, oiled flatbread tucked into the sides of the bowl for dipping. This appetizer, too, could provide a very satisfying simple meal with wine.

The menu whimsically mentions "amazingly great mussels" ($8), which we did not sample this time, but we had previously done so when we discovered the place at lunch, and they are exceptional - a beautiful plate of mussels simmered in wine, garlic, and lemon - sprinkled with parmesan.

Our filet mignon on roasted squash with garlic mashed potatoes and onions ($24) came in a slightly odd (what else?) but impressive presentation. This was a culinary version of the tower of Babel: a large chunk of roasted squash was topped by a thick layer of potatoes; then came the thick little steak dripping juices onto the potatoes; and then a pile of those wonderful fried Videlias - all topped with a fresh scallion standing like a tree. The edges of the plate were daubed with a pepper sauce.

How did they make the scallion stand up and, no less, the whole impressive mound? The scallion was stabbed into a clear plastic straw that pierced the entire stack, holding it in place. Interesting, but here begins a problem. How do you eat such a thing? I found it necessary to take it apart. Any effort to cut into the steak threatened to send mashed potato squishing out, endangering all nearby. Perhaps, they might want to reconsider this presentation.

I am not a great fan of grilling fine meats, and for me this fact represents one of the real limits of Tuscan Grille where the wood-grill plays an important role. But I must say the crust of the filet was indeed caramelized and not simply charred. The flesh was as I ordered it, medium rare and succulent. The squash made an excellent companion, although I would have preferred it roasted longer. The Videlias, the same as used on the carpaccio and a house specialty, were sensational.

The potatoes were less satisfying. The menu calls them "smashed potatoes," and they are literally that, cooked whole potatoes smashed with roasted garlic. The garlic is fine, indeed the flavor could be stronger, but, while fried potatoes with skins or the buttered skins of baked potatoes are delectable, bits of boiled skin are not. I remain to be convinced that mashed potatoes (flavored any way you like) should be anything but creamy and white.

Our other plate was a special, grilled ahi tuna ($19). This does not come as a Busby Berkeley production, just a nice slice of tuna grilled and topped with a wine-garlic reduction with lemon. It comes with the same smashed potatoes, and again the rim of the plate is daubed with a hot sauce. The fish was tasty, the reduction complemented it well.

The dessert menu had only four items, but they are all versions of great classics - vanilla crème brulée, a Napoleon, Maine blueberry pie, and flourless fudge cake (each $7). This is a very small kitchen, doing its own baking, and I think this selection emphasizes genuine culinary judgment. It would be difficult to select a better limited list. The flourless espresso fudge is simply as good as it gets. It's so rich you will not likely be able to finish it after a substantial entree.

The Napoleon is baked in a crockery bowl. It has the traditional, crisp, thin layers of pastry packed with creamy Italian custard. My only reservation is that the custard was somewhat sweeter than my preference.

Our bill came to $108.07. For appetizers and desserts (and bread), Tuscan Grille ranks with some of the best restaurants in Maine. The entrees we sampled are very good, but not quite the same bravura performances.

1810 Tuscan Grille
17 Main Street
Food: 4
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 4
Dinner hours: 5:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday
Credit cards: all major cards
Price range: entrees $16 to $24 with one at "market"
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: accepted
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: limited - staff help for front stairs
The bottom line: Some excellent cooking in an off-beat environment


Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


John Chuckman

China, perhaps the world's oldest continuous civilization with misty origins contemporary with the Pharaohs and fabled kings of Mesopotamia, possesses what is often regarded as one of the world's two or three true cuisines - that is, vast and varied collections of cooking arts, skills, and recipe traditions - as opposed to more limited collections of national dishes from many lands, tasty as they may be, we loosely call cuisines.

Apart from its many regions of origin - Canton, Szechwan, Hunan, etc. - Chinese food is found nearly everywhere on the planet with still further variation reflecting available ingredients and local tastes. It is a remarkable phenomenon, and only adds to the interest and excitement of discovering Chinese restaurants.

Panda Garden is not in a prepossessing location. It's in the corner of a small L-shaped plaza along Brighton Avenue. But when you step inside, there is pleasant environment, much above average for such locations, with a handsome bar, two beautiful aquariums of tropical fish, and tables and chairs that are quality imitations of antique Chinese lacquered furniture. There is a clean and relaxed feeling to this small dining room, with soft recorded music by Chinese chanteuses. Only aging indoor-outdoor carpet detracts from it.

I don't know why it is, but North American Chinese restaurants often feature those exotic cocktails like the Mai Tai, drinks which have no historical connection with China. Perhaps it is the result of all those old Hollywood movies that were supposed to be set in places like Shanghai or Singapore with expatriates drinking their troubles away. The drinks do seem a little corny with their umbrellas or fans or hollowed-out pineapples, but when they are well made, as they are at Panda Garden, they are a treat. Panda's Mai Tai ($4.25) is generous, deliciously blended, and includes the visual appeal of a chunk of pineapple, lime, and a cherry.

We also had a bottle of Tsingtao beer ($2.75). This rather sharp but clean-tasting beer, China's most well-known, complements most Chinese dishes.

Our hot-and-sour soup ($1.75) was excellent - flavorful chicken broth, peppery and sour with rice-wine vinegar, thick with slivers of bamboo shoot, bean sprouts, mushrooms, chicken shreds, and drizzled egg. Our egg-drop soup ($1.75) was very good, thick with drizzled egg, and with the unexpected (in my experience) presence of corn kernels flavoring the chicken broth.

Panda Garden has a few appetizers that like those exotic rum punches have little connection with China (Teriyaki chicken or crab Rangoon), but it has a good selection of classics. Our cold noodles with sesame sauce ($4.50) were excellent and large enough to provide a small lunch. The original of this dish uses sesame oil, sesame paste, Szechwan peppercorns, plus bits of various vegetables. Panda's bowl of cold cooked noodles is tossed with sesame oil, peanut butter, a touch of chili flavor, and scallion slices - a good example of Chinese culinary adaptation. Our traditional Chinese barbecued ribs ($6.50) had a half-dozen large, tasty ribs over a bed of shredded lettuce. Again this was an appetizer that might make a small lunch.

The menu is large at Panda Garden, including beef, seafood, pork, and poultry. Certain features of Chinese cooking do not make a large menu necessarily incompatible with excellent food, as, for example, in the use of the same shredded, cooked chicken or blanched broccoli as components of numerous dishes. There are only dishes cooked in various Chinese styles (no steaks, chops, French fries, or spaghetti). Another interesting example of adaptation is a section called Revolution Diet. These are dietetic dishes served without salt, sugar, MSG, or corn-starch thickening. I had the orange-flavored chicken ($8.25) at lunch once, and it was remarkably good - chicken chunks and vegetables, steamed and flavored with chilies and preserved orange peel.

Our Hunan crispy fish ($10.95) came beautifully and appetizingly prepared. A generous serving of white fish fillets, fried with a light, golden crust (no obnoxious, heavy breading), thickly strewn with slivers of carrot, scallion, and snow peas, all dripping with ginger-scented sauce. The sauce is mildly hot, gingery, and sweet, the fish cooked not a bit beyond retaining its flaky texture and moistness. I recommend this dish highly to anyone who doesn't object to some sweet flavoring with fish.

Our other entrée was one of the great classics of Chinese cuisine, Peking (Panda hasn't yet adopted the international standard of Beijing) duck ($21.95) - a dish that when made properly is one of the world's culinary treasures. And Panda Garden knows how to make it.

This is a dish that requires time to prepare (the honey-coated skin, loosened from the flesh, is hung to dry before cooking) - unfortunately, the fact that it is always made ahead sometimes can yield unhappy results with flesh that is tired or dry. But Panda Garden makes a batch each day. What we received was a beautiful platter of moist, shredded duck breast, crisp strips of the luminous, golden skin (the essence of the dish), four crisp drumsticks, some Julienned scallions, Mandarin pancakes (a close kin to flour tortillas), and a bowl of hoisin sauce.

Peking duck is eaten in the fashion of mu chu pork: Some hoisin sauce is spread on a pancake, then pieces of crisp skin, shredded flesh, and scallion strips. You roll it all up and enjoy something extraordinarily tasty.

Since we knew that neither of our dishes had a large serving of vegetables, we also ordered a simple dish called Buddhist delight ($6.75). This is a delicious mix of straw mushrooms, broccoli florets, carrot slivers, snow peas, slices of bamboo shoot, and slices of bok choy - the vegetables all retaining their color and texture and very lightly sauced - nothing more than a bit of thickened broth.

There are a few desserts on the menu, but we already had begun imagining, despite the portions of our feast we had set aside, some kinship with well stuffed dumplings.

Our total came to $74.55. I was charmed to see that the words on our bill were written in characters - those ancient, beautiful ideograms.

We not only had an excellent dinner, but the cost was remarkable considering that one of our dishes, Peking duck, was by far the most expensive on the menu. Our waiter packaged up enough leftovers, including obliging us with a few more pancakes, to provide a second large meal a few days later. I adore leftover Chinese food when it's this good.

Panda Garden
1041 Brighton Avenue
Food: 4
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 3 1/2
Dinner hours: 3:00 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday to Thursday
3:00 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Monday to Saturday
12:00 noon to 3:00 p.m. Sunday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $7.95 to $21.95
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: accepted
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: yes
The bottom line: Excellent Chinese cuisine in a relaxed, pleasant room


Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


John Chuckman

Commissary's attractiveness starts with the great advantage of being part of Portland Public Market, the finest piece of contemporary architecture in the city. The Market's tall windows, glowing in the evening and now decked in holiday greenery, are suitable for the cover of a luxurious travel brochure and provide a wonderful approach.

The restaurant, just inside the Elm Street door, has a polished, clean look, with almost Scandinavian lines - wood-strip floor stained to brown and ivory stripes, satin-finished butcher block tables, and blond strip paneling. It is reminiscent of stylish, contemporary restaurants in New York or Toronto, and this is no coincidence since the owners and start-up management are from New York.

The restaurant seamlessly flows into the Market. A handsome bar sits in front with a tall, back-lit display of bottles on wall shelving. The room has banquette-seating along its window side, some booths on the wall beyond the bar, and tables and chairs between - an arrangement that pleasantly avoids excessive uniformity. The back of the restaurant is an open kitchen, almost like the stage of a theater.

A gracious hostess greeted us from a lectern that serves as entry point, a well informed person who attended smoothly and automatically to details like checking coats and stamping our parking ticket. Service is friendly, unobtrusive, informed, and perhaps a little more informal than in some restaurants of this quality. Our waitress very much displayed these qualities.
The menu's single sheet of olive-drab paper with black type seemed unpromising in appearance, but reading its rather too short descriptions hinted at some fine dishes.

Turn the sheet over, and there is the wine list. About a hundred listings are squeezed onto the page, covering much of the world's wine geography, although it would be nice to see them better categorized than the space permits. Most are available only by the bottle, with both a fair choice at under $30 and some lovely, more pricey items. There are more than a dozen by-the-glass listings.

Being confronted by a choice of appetizers that includes tuna tartare with lime and ginger, beef carpaccio with fennel and truffle oil, and warm goat cheese tart with fig jam provides the kind of difficulty a food lover relishes.

White bean soup with lobster ($8) sounded fresh and innovative. This was a true white bean soup, without tomatoes, that has been creamed-up a bit and suffused with lemon oil to provide a remarkably fine base for lobster. This was a superb dish, highly recommended.

Not quite as original but very delicious was foie gras with pomegranate ($12). A slice of pink-tinged foie gras was served with a sprinkling of magenta pomegranate seeds, sprouts of greens, and two wedges of toasted brioche. The silky butter of foie gras was perfectly matched with the thick toast, crisp on the surface and moist inside, and the tart bits of pomegranate and tender sprouts made fine relishes.

The theater kitchen contains a wood-fired oven, and several entrees feature wood roasting. Our entrees were cooked this way, and it was a fine gesture when, our waitress then busy, a member of the kitchen staff rushed the plates to the table. I don't know whether Commissary can maintain such fine service with a full room.

Commissary's wood-roasted scallops, crisp cauliflower, and caper vinaigrette ($18) deserves consideration for the pantheon of heavenly dishes. Four large, plump scallops, beautifully crusted with brown sat on a brown-buttered plate with capers and florets of richly stained and roasted cauliflower. The scallops were succulent inside, the vinaigrette's browned-butter flavor and capers suited them superbly well. The cauliflower's color came from saffron, and its crusting plus the buttery vinaigrette made this a surprisingly fine match for the scallops.

There are a few delectable-sounding "sides" (the menu strives, perhaps a bit too hard, for informality), including pumpkin gnocchi and roasted autumn vegetables. Of course, I can only vouch for what I've tasted, which was the mushroom risotto ($6).This was perfect risotto, moist, creamy, textured, and thoroughly suffused with earthy mushroom flavor. What a lunch menu item this would make!

Wood-roasted arctic char ($19) was not as exciting as the scallops, but it is a very good dish. The char, a close relative to salmon in taste and texture, was tender and moist. The almond pesto was good enough to eat with a spoon. The plate included steamed chunks of delicate finger potatoes and buttery sauteed mushrooms.

Our dish of three sorbets ($4) included pumpkin, pear, and apple cranberry. These all tasted richly of their flavorings. Chocolate profiteroles ($7) are little cream-puff pastry balls, sliced and filled with ice cream, sitting in chocolate sauce, dusted with cocoa, and served with two bittersweet sticks of chocolate. These were wonderfully sweet notes with which to close a well orchestrated meal. I should say that all sorbets and ice creams are house-made.

Our bill was $109.15. Commissary is a fine new restaurant with cooking that is consistently excellent and sometimes superb. Most recipes are not complex, but they reflect excellent ingredients, innovative combinations, and fine cooking skills and judgment. It has a wonderful location, and the restaurant's effort to use produce from its neighbors represents a healthy relationship for our beautiful market.

Commissary has made a few easily correctable mistakes in its atmosphere. Most serious is piped-in music, which on our visit was hip-hop stuff. Now, in a metropolis the size of New York City, five or six times Maine's entire population, it is possible to find a niche for anything. Maybe it has enough twenty year-old stock brokers to support a fine-dining restaurant with hip-hop music, but that seems unlikely in Portland.

The restaurant had so few customers when we arrived I felt no hesitation in asking our waitress whether it could be turned off. She happily complied, but it did take a while for the music to stop, and it genuinely soured the atmosphere of wine and windows on the street.

Another issue is table setting. The blond wood grain of the table tops is attractive, and eminently practical, but I think that even such clean, contemporary lines can use some dressing-up for evenings. There are beautifully textured Scandinavian fabrics that would make suitable table cloths.

Portland Public Market
25 Preble Street
Food: 4 1/2
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
Service: 4 1/2
Dinner hours: 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
5:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Sunday and Monday
Lunch hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Sunday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: $16.00 to $22.00
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: recommended for Friday and Saturday
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: throughout
The bottom line: Excellent cuisine, with some superb touches, in a clean, contemporary


Review of an interesting restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


John Chuckman

Thailand Restaurant is located on Wharf Street, a cobbled lane with the atmosphere of early urban New England, lined with restaurants that in the warm weather spill out of their doors and windows onto the pavement with little clusters of tables.

Despite this fine setting, the entrance to Thailand is less than promising. The door opens onto a narrow hallway that gives you the sense of entering a basement. The dining room is small and, I think it fair to say, makes a drab impression. There is an odd collection of decorations varying from a coach-light sharing one wall with a large photo-mural of a Thai temple to some shelves with a collection of kitschy plaster statues, including religious figures, and Thai tourist mementos. Along the way there is a copy of an 18th century, wall-mounted, pendulum clock, a strange mix of potted plants and flowers, and a dark green pedestal fountain burbling water. Simple blonde wooden tables with paper place mats stand on tired red indoor-outdoor carpet. The glass candle holders on each table are old Christmas decorations.

And the appearance of the menu itself is a little discouraging with its system of letters and numbers for each item and its chart of meats that may be added to various curries, stir-fries, or noodles. One can't help but think of a fast-food menu.

But appearances can be deceiving, as they proved to be at Thailand.

We relaxed with some beer. Thai food, which tends to be seasoned with a good deal of chili or in some cases is sweet with fruit, goes handsomely with beer. Our choices were Singha, a Thai import ($3.75), and Casco Bay ($3). Singha has a slightly sweet taste.

We ordered soup while studying the complicated menu, and, as soon as we sipped our hot-and-sour and coconut soups ($3.50 each) from large, bowl-like cups, we knew that Thailand was a serious restaurant. Thai hot-and-sour soup uses lime juice for the sour component instead of the rice-wine vinegar in its perhaps better known Chinese counterpart. Its basic lime-and-chili-flavored chicken broth is turned into a wonderful soup with lemon grass, coriander, scallions, and plump shrimp. Sometimes tomatoes are included, but not in Thailand's version. Coconut soup blends coconut milk, ginger, lime-flavored chicken broth, scallions, coriander, and shrimp.

These were both delicious.

Thai food has some of world's most mouth-watering appetizers, so much so that I've imagined - undoubtedly inspired by the delightful Chinese custom of dim sum - having a wonderful meal of nothing but a large assortment of appetizers. The offerings on Thailand's menu would permit you to do just that - including skewers of chicken satay, tiny, crispy egg rolls, deep-fried, coconut-coated shrimp, and spicy, marinated chicken wings. We read the list with relish and picked two favorites, fresh spring rolls and steamed chicken dumplings ($7 each).

The fresh spring rolls were the best I've had, and that includes my own. These are a sensational mix of cucumber, carrot, lettuce, bean sprouts, basil leaves, and bits of shrimp and chicken wrapped in the traditional steamed rice paper. They were large, generous rolls, and every vegetable was fresh and crisp. Thailand serves them with a version of the usual sweet, garlic dipping sauce but adds a second thick, rich bean sauce I've not tasted before. The bean sauce was magic with the spring rolls. All the sauces were served in amounts adequate for lavish dipping.

One of my favorite treats in Asian cooking is dumplings. Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or Thai - I adore a well made dumpling. And the dumplings at Thailand were beautifully made, gently crimped half-moon shapes, glistening from steam, aromatic with fresh cilantro. Inside each melt-in-your-mouth wrapper, dripping with sweet chili-soy dipping sauce, there was a plump morsel of Thai-seasoned ground chicken. Eating just doesn't get much better than this.
The range of entrees at Thailand includes chicken, duck, beef, pork tenderloin, seafood, and tofu. These come combined in several cooking methods with various medleys of bamboo shoots, carrots, onions, peanuts, cashews, pineapple, coconut, tomatoes, broccoli, mushrooms, green pepper, celery, green beans, peas, scallions, zucchini, eggplant, plus the pungent flavorings of lime, lime leaf, chili, lemon grass, ginger, garlic, sweet basil, and mint. Apart from its delightful tastes, Thai food makes it almost impossible to eat without getting a balanced diet.

Our entrée of tamarind duck ($16) was a stir-fry of tender pieces of duck, green pepper, cashew nuts, ginger, onions, peas, and chunks of pineapple, in a tamarind-based sauce. The exquisite flavor of tamarind - tartly sweet and savory - is used in a number of South Asian cuisines, and I've not had it with duck, but the two make a very happy marriage.

Our special of soft-shell crab, Royal Thai ($18), was a beautiful dish. A bowl of vegetables - onions, baby corn, carrot, mushrooms, bean shoots, and peas - pineapple, and cashews topped with chunks of lightly battered, deep-fried crab. Slices of orange were tucked around the sides with halves of cherry tomatoes decorating each slice. The dish was as flavorful as it looked. The vegetables were fresh, the sauce mildly sweet with the flavors of ginger and garlic. The crab pieces were crisp on the outside and tender inside with the clear taste and texture of the shellfish.

There are no desserts on the menu at Thailand, and our very polite waiter, after patiently boxing up the remains of our little feast, perhaps felt that mentioning dessert seemed excessive. And the truth was that neither of us were inclined to have dessert, but I asked him, just for information, and he said there was a cheesecake.

Our bill was $73.30. There can be no doubt that dining pleasure is enhanced by attractive surroundings, there being a strong element of theater in the restaurant business. But for this lover of good food, atmosphere never substitutes for cooking. And excellent cooking is what there is plenty of at Thailand. I left thinking we had discovered quite a special little restaurant, just the place to go back for that meal of appetizers.

Thailand Restaurant
29 Wharf Street
Food: 4
Atmosphere: 2
Service: 3 1/2
Dinner hours: 3:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Lunch hours: 11:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday
Credit cards: Visa, Master, American Express
Price range: entrees $9 to $20
Vegetarian Dishes: yes
Reservations: yes
Bar: beer and wine
Wheelchair access: only with assistance for stair
The bottom line: Excellent cooking in an unpretentious little place.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


John Chuckman

Driving near Rockland late last summer, we spotted Primo's strikingly handsome sign and turned into the driveway to investigate. The restaurant is on a slight hill in a renovated older home, but other than its artful sign, there is little outside to identify its nature. The discovery of a beautiful, extensive herb garden, however, immediately put this place on my must-do list.

It was near Christmas when we returned to Rockland, and, I much regretted the herb garden would be unavailable for our visit, but, as it happens, there is a greenhouse to provide the same fine culinary advantage throughout the year.

Primo has three small dining rooms on the main floor with a bar and another dining room upstairs. The room upstairs is rather European in feeling with banquette seating, the rooms downstairs all have tables and chairs. Other than warm yellow walls with a hint of polychrome at the edges, refinished floors, and simple diaphanous material over antique iron drapery bars, the room in which we were seated retains the look of Granny's pleasantly faded dining room.

The wine list - which certainly could be better organized than the "red, white, sparkling" that is becoming distressingly common - has about seventy listings with a nice balance from major European producers and the U.S. West Coast. There is a fair choice under $30/ bottle, although most are well above that price. About ten listings are available by the glass. We were tickled by the fairly unusual availability of glasses of sparkling wine, and toasted the season at our cozy window table with Bossard-Tuaud Sparkling Muscadet ($8).

Primo serves an amuse-gueule, undoubtedly with two purposes in mind: the traditional one of providing a pleasant savory with wine; and another of providing a teasing hint of what is to come from this extraordinary kitchen. And ours provided quite a hint: a pair of perfect, small puffed pastries with a creamy, whipped smoked-trout filling on a plate strewn with very tender and tasty baby stems and leaves - these I was advised were Clintonia (from the greenhouse), which is actually a wild lily not often regarded as food.

The menu's appetizers included crisp cheese crepes with chard, wild mushrooms, and mushroom syrup; grilled goat cheese in grape leaves with herbes de Provence; and a salad of escarole, chicory, and endive with garlic vinaigrette, smoked bacon crisps, and soft-boiled egg.

Our swimming (a la nage) lobster ($12) was an extraordinary appetizer with a whimsical title - a bowl of rich broth, flavored with roast squash, green onions, and Roman chicory, containing an artichoke-bottom island supporting a fine chunk of lobster. How good was this? The truth is that the broth with its swirl of vegetable bits was so exquisite, the lobster served almost as garnish.

What are oysters "Rockefeller" ($12) as opposed to the more familiar oysters Rockefeller? They are fried oysters with the most delicate, golden coating, each set into a shell full of pernod-flavored creamed spinach, and they are utterly delicious.

Some of the appealing entrees offered that night - the menu changes regularly - were duck breast with squash gnocchi and black truffle; peppered venison with a gratin of aged goat cheese and broccoli and a Pèrigueux (Madeira and truffles) sauce; and goat-cheese encrusted lamb loin with dried cherry-port sauce and grain pilaf. Of course, the words of a menu are one thing and the actual dishes sometimes quite another, but from this kitchen, dishes seem only to surpass words.

Primo's beef tenderloin with fricassee of wild mushrooms and Jerusalem artichokes ($27) was the most exquisite beef dish I have ever tasted. A beautiful chunk of perfectly seared beef accompanied by savory wild mushrooms and tiny, steamed fingerling potatoes - all drizzled with a broth or natural gravy as wonderfully flavored as that of the lobster appetizer. With the first bite, romantic silliness drifted through my mind,

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace….

Lord Byron, of course, was writing of a woman, but somehow the words suited this magnificent dish. It just couldn't be improved, and it couldn't be changed without damaging its perfection.
Primo's kitchen has a wood-fired oven, so it is able to offer the flavorful cooking of wood-oven roasting. Our other entrée was cooked in this fashion. A fillet of daurade (a kind of bream or porgy, only with a more romantic French name) was served with toasted cous cous, caper berries, tomatoes, and olives ($23). The flesh was succulent inside and delightfully crisped outside, and everything was rich and moist and savory.

The dessert menu is a pleasure to read and includes house-made ice creams and sorbets. My choice was immediately fixed by the presence of pear tarte tatin ($7). This was a classic crust under a circle of juicy pear slices, not overly sweetened, with a scoop of ginger-and-walnut ice cream - made, unmistakably, with fresh ginger - sitting in a tiny brown sugar basket. Is it even possible this could be anything less than scrumptious?

Our other dessert ($7.50) was slices of Taleggio - a creamy, salty, and richly scented, aged cheeese - with toasted walnuts, slices of roasted pear, and a slice of Italian Christmas bread full of dried fruits (they were selling these whole at the front). Again, is it possible this would be less than perfectly delicious?

Our bill came to $126.80. This is a remarkable kitchen whose dishes in not one instance fell below superb. The talent at work here is obvious and exceptional.

But this magnificent kitchen is not supported out front by the service it deserves. Service is quite mixed. The woman who ran plates from the kitchen did her work extremely well and with pleasant humor. Others, too, did a fine job, but a number of things happened that just shouldn't happen in a restaurant of this quality.

A great fuss - quite disturbing to the ambiance of a room with about six tables and the kind of thing one might expect in a family-restaurant chain with televisions blaring scratchy cartoons - occurred at one table as a waiter lengthily demonstrated some sort of small plastic car to a boy and his family. The mother and the waiter loudly performed for a considerable time, and, in the end (one could not avoid the play's last act), the child didn't want the proffered toy.

A waitress asked patrons whether they wanted a bucket for sparkling wine, something that should be supplied as a matter of course, rather than putting the onus on guests. Removing an unwanted bucket is easy and gracious.

When we arrived, we were asked whether we preferred upstairs or downstairs. Never having been there before, we had no idea what the differences were. The host, friendly enough, suggested we go upstairs to look, but I felt a more helpful response would have been briefly to characterize the differences ("Banquette seating upstairs, tables downstairs - do you have a preference?") before asking guests to look upstairs. This is small, but it was an awkward moment for new guests in a fine place. Enough small things add up to service that doesn't match the superb food and tends somewhat to diminish the pleasure of this restaurant.

2 South Main Street
Rockland (at Owl's Head line)
Food: 5
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 3
Dinner hours: 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Thursday to Monday
Credit cards: all major
Price range: entrees $17 to $27
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: recommended
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: yes, but washrooms on second floor
The bottom line: Absolutely superb cuisine but service that needs work


Review of an outstanding restaurant written for The Maine Sunday Telegram when I served as restaurant reviewer there. Menu, prices, and possibly other information are now out of date.


John Chuckman

The Dockside Restaurant is part of an inn, actually a compound of buildings along the picturesque shore of Harris Island, which, despite its name, is a peninsula. The approach is through a driveway neatly lined with mature pines against a background of forest. The grounds include a beautiful clapboard mansion with old-fashioned, gallery porches as a focal point.

The restaurant is a modern building, built right into the slope of the island, off to one side of the mansion. Inside, it is well-lighted with clean lines and a feeling somewhat resembling the deck of a ship. At the lower part of the restaurant is a large porch, screened from floor to ceiling, that has what surely is one of the most placid, delightful views in Maine (actually, the entire restaurant shares this view - it is just more intimately framed on the porch). It looks right across York Harbor, with sailboats, cabin-cruisers and lobster boats anchored in a quiet cove and a cluster of beautiful homes on the far shore.

We were seated at the end of the porch nearest the inn, for although it was a slightly cool evening the porch is a very appealing place, considerably more aesthetically satisfying than the main restaurant interior. The very essence of a quiet summer evening softly enveloped us - a touch of breeze, the sound of crickets, the dimming yellowy light cast on the inn, a grassy slope with large white hydrangeas, white Adirondack chairs, a gazebo, and a pier at the edge of the water's shimmering surface.

The porch is simple and elegant with wood-beam floors, circular marble-topped tables, candles, woven placemats, strings of Italian lights along the top of the fine-mesh screens. You see, feel, and smell summer here.

Service at Dockside is breezily informal, almost like that in a chain, but our waitress was far more attentive, knowledgeable, and professional than one generally expects from such service - taking care of matters like a missing utensil without being asked and offering informed, helpful opinions.

Dockside has a small but well chosen wine list with most bottles well under $25. Wines are selected daily as by-the-glass features. House wines are available in carafes and half-carafes - a very nice feature, as I've stressed before. We extended our summer reverie with glasses of Dunnewood Merlot ($6.50) and White Opal Chardonnay ($6.25).

The menu at Dockside is neither large nor does it contain anything that might be characterized as unusual. The emphasis is on seafood with a few selections of beef and poultry. The menu helpfully advises that the kitchen will try to accommodate any special request .

Our appetizers were steamed mussels and brushetta (both $6.95). The mussels surely rank as one of the best values in Maine with a very generous serving of the plump morsels in garlic butter sauce (a bit too salty but very good) and two fair-size pieces of crusty garlic bread. With the plate's impressive appearance and the ado we made while eating, a couple at a nearby table was overheard saying they should have had the mussels.

The brushetta were large, warm, crusty chunks of baguette with finely diced fresh tomato, fresh basil, and a finely grated mixture of Italian cheeses - on a plate glazed with olive oil. The tomatoes were a little pale, but the overall flavor was very satisfying.

Dockside's menu does not have a selection of salads, because salad - either Caesar or a visit to the "salad deck" - is included with the price of every entrée. We had the Caesar, and it was good - crisp Romaine, house-made croutons, several anchovies, and a tangy, mayonnaise-consistency dressing.

Our entrees were broiled scrod ($16.95) and a house specialty called Lobster Dublin Lawyer ($20.95). The scrod plate had a small tureen of the firm white fish in lemon butter, dusted with breadcrumbs lightly browned on top, buttered red potatoes, and some steamed, still-crisp snap peas, slices of summer squash and red pepper. This was fairly simple fare, but it all was done well and very suitable for someone not wanting a heavy meal.

Lobster Dublin Lawyer includes half a steamed lobster, a generous serving of large, sautéed scallops - all drizzled with a sauce of Irish whiskey-and-cream reduction, plentifully speckled with fresh bits of scallion (the menu said shallots, but the scallions worked nicely). Despite a wee bit too much salt, this is a delicious dish. The plate included the buttered red potatoes (there is a choice of potato, but these are favorites) and the same fresh, steamed vegetables as the scrod.

When our waitress mentioned both fresh peach pie and fresh strawberry-nectarine pie (a delicious-sounding combination I've not come across before), your reviewer's eyes lighted up while puzzling over such a pleasant dilemma. Peach ($4), an old favorite, won out. Our other selection was easy enough, a lemon crumb pie praised as very lemony ($4.50).

The peach pie is handsome. A generous slice with thin, lattice-style crust filled with slices of fresh peach, a minimum of sugar and paste, and a fat squiggle of whipped cream along two sides of the plate next to the pie. I have a small quibble, being a stickler for detail, the crust becomes too thick along the pinched edge. Still, I seriously considered getting a piece of the strawberry-nectarine to take home.

The lemon crumb is just as attractively presented and just as tasty - a wonderfully lemony wedge with whipped cream on the sides.

Our bill came to $90.80. I broached the possibility of another piece of pie to our very helpful waitress but was quickly overruled by a slight but firm nudge to the shin.

Dockside Restaurant
Harris Island Road, York Harbor

Food: 4
Atmosphere: 4
Service: 4
Dinner hours: 5:30 pm - 9:00 pm Tuesday through Sunday
Lunch hours: 11:30 am - 2:00 pm Tuesday through Sunday
Note: Dockside is closed November through April

All major credit cards
Price range: entrees $16.95 - $25.95 with some at "market"
Vegetarian dishes: yes
Reservations: encouraged
Bar: full
Wheelchair access: some but limited
Well prepared food in a comfortable, summery atmosphere