Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Best Japanese Restaurants in Portland, Maine

Sashimi at Food Factory Miyake

If you are planning a visit to Maine, you will drive through or fly into Portland, our biggest city (population 60,000.) My state is known for lobster, but it should also be known for the sushi caught in the Gulf of Maine. My husband Henry, who teaches Japanese Politics at Bowdoin College, was my fellow restaurant critic. Proud parents are coming for Bowdoin Commencement this weekend (congratulations class of 2010!) and several blog readers are vacationing in Maine: this post is dedicated to you. Itadakimasu!

Food Factory Miyake (above) serves gourmet/fusion cuisine that tastes as good as the best meals we’ve had in Japan. We’d recommend the $15 or $25 set menus for lunch, which change daily. The head chef is Korean and trained in Tokyo, but he adds Western accents. He serves local organic produce when available. If you don’t eat raw fish, there are other options.

Miyake’s signature dish is their uniquely garnished sushi platter (above.)  The salmon was served with bacon and the fish in the right corner had a mushroom sauce. The fish was so fresh, it melted in my mouth. The toppings added an explosion of complimentary flavor in combinations you would never expect. It was like having a plateful of amuse-bouche at the finest French restaurant. This is not a meal to rush. The location (129 Spring St.) is a bit remote, but there is public parking across the street.

If you prefer more westernized Japanese food or are dining with children, go to Sapporo, the first Japanese restaurant to open in Maine (1984.) The owner is Japanese. Sapporo has all the usual favorites but done exceptionally well. Local crab is used in the California Roll. Our children love the Combination Lunch Bento Boxes. My Japanese sister-in-law was impressed by the quality of the food.  Sapporo (my photo at right) has a pleasant atmosphere and outdoor seating. The prices are very reasonable, and the service is prompt. We are regulars with our kids.

Our Japanese friends in Maine favor Benkay (last photo), which serves more traditional dishes. The head chef is Japanese. Benkay is close to the ferry terminal and in walking distance of Sapporo. Both are on waterfront Commercial Street and have free parking.

None of these restaurants are truly traditional. In Japan restaurants are usually specialized sushi/sashimi bars, yakitori bars, curry houses, Buddhist vegetarian restaurants or noodle shops etc. Having all types of cuisine in one restaurant is a Western convention. Still, the food at these three Portland restaurants tastes authentic.

Benkay Sushi Bar and Japanese Restaurant

Reviewers' Disclaimer: we paid for our meals and were not compensated for these reviews. 

Blog Watch: Through a Sapphire Sky is a lovely blog about gardens, art and life in Japan (written in perfect English.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Fat Cat by Robin Brande

Happy Spring!

Robin Brande is one of my favorite new young adult authors. She writes easy to read novels about teenagers who love science (not science fiction.) Brande’s characters are funny and very human. Her work is provocative and yet tame enough for younger readers. After reviewing Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature, I was eager to read Brande’s second novel, Fat Cat, which came out last fall to  positive reviews.

Cat’s science project is herself. In an attempt to recreate the early hominid lifestyle, Cat forswears all processed food, makeup, technology (except for homework) and transportation. Eating well and walking everywhere, Cat drops to a healthier weight, her skin clears up and she feels more energetic and self-confident. Guys start noticing her, but not everything works out as she planned. It's a cool project but is it good science?

I loved how the narrative teaches teens about healthy choices without sounding preachy. It was great to see a "fat girl loses weight and gets the guys" story that wasn't just about superficial appearances and dieting. Friendships, first romances and academic rivalry were well portrayed. My only criticism was that Cat’s best friend, a published teen poet who looks like a model, was too good to be true. The other characters were more realistic, especially Cat. The central love story was about a girl learning to appreciate herself. Fat Cat would be a good choice for a precocious tween reader who isn't ready for the edgier elements of most young adult fiction.

Here’s my 12-year-old daughter’s review of Fat Cat:

Fat Cat was a very entertaining read. I absolutely could not put this book down! It was not exactly a suspenseful book, but it was a laugh-out-loud funny. At first, I could not really relate to the protagonist, Cat, with her junk-food addiction and her need to cover herself up in baggy clothes and makeup. I like books better that don’t focus mainly on appearances. I kind of forgot Cat was doing her project for the Science Fair and not just as a diet. However, I soon grew to like the character more with her ironic and funny views of many situations and her creativity. The book, overall, was refreshingly realistic and humorous. I liked it very much.

Reviewers' Disclaimer: we borrowed Fat Cat from YA author Maria Padian, who received the ARC from their publisher, Knopf.

Book Watch: Paul Doiron gave a wonderful reading of his literary suspense novel, The Poacher's Son, at Gulf of Maine Books. I bought 2 signed copies of his debut novel for gifts. Go hear him read if you have the chance; he's a great story teller and totally captures Maine. Book tour details are on his website.

Paul Doiron and Sarah Laurence, photo by Maria Padian

Blog Watch: congratulations to Barrie Summy on the release of her third book! A Cuban in London and Tricia@Talespinning both blogged about the creative writing process.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Maine Garden and Wildflowers

1.happy surprise: naturally reseeded pansies

It takes a lot of will power to keep working on my latest novel with everything blooming in my garden. I’ve drafted the first seven chapters of NOT CRICKET, and now I’m rewriting them from alternating points of view. The American girl voice has been there from the start. I’m enjoying the challenge of writing in a British boy voice. I’ve spent the past 22 years listening to one. My husband is English, and our kids are “bilingual” after a year’s sabbatical in Oxford. I’m feeling nostalgic…

2. Cherry and White Pine 

. . . and manic: yesterday I started writing at 7am and finished at 9pm with breaks to tend to household needs. It’s a busy time of year for my kids (piano concerts, dance performances, out of state crew races, exams) and my professor husband (last classes, grading, dinners, exams.) I’m the Cat in the Hat juggling car keys, bills, pots, a manuscript, a shedding dog and endless laundry.

I’ve been looking forward to my Wednesday blog day for an excuse to get outside with my camera and online to catch up with you. The bright sun melted the near frozen dew, and it’s going up to 60F with blue skies. I’m posting late so that I can share this glorious day with you. Next week I’ll be back to 7am postings.

3. Azalea

Late Happy Mother’s Day! These cyber flowers are for my mother who is traveling in Europe. The blooms are from my garden and woods, most are naturally reseeding wildflowers. Spring is three weeks early after a mild winter. The snow went south.

4. Hybrid Grape Lilacs

5. Wild Violets

6. Forget Me Nots

7. Wood Anemones

8. Star Flower in the woods

9. Barrenwort (thanks, Jan!)

10. Phlox (thanks, Jacoba!)

11. Salvia officinalis (thanks, Jacoba!)

12. wild geranium (thanks Tina and Bonnie!)

13. Lily of the Valley (thanks, Tina!)

Blog Watch: this post will be part of Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day on May 15. A Book A Week posted a literary tribute to her mother. Oasis Writing Link is back on line with a post in memory of her murdered mother.  Several garden bloggers helped me ID blooms.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Poacher's Son by Paul Doiron

I don’t usually love suspense-thrillers, but The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron steps beyond the limits of genre writing. Typically commercial fiction focuses on plot at the expense of character, but this new release novel manages to be both a page-turner and a complex family drama. Plus the North Woods setting is magical. The Poacher’s Son is one of the strongest debut novels I have read. I wouldn't be surprised if it becomes a bestseller.

It's a gripping story: Jack Bowditch is the number one murder suspect after a reviled property developer and his police escort were shot and strung up like jacked deer. Jack has a record of drunk, violent behavior and poaching, but he never cared about local politics. Jack has evaded arrest and has disappeared with uncanny skill into the woods. Not even the dogs can find him.

Jack's son, Mike, is a newly minted Maine Game Warden and the narrator of this suspenseful tale. Mike ditches his wardening responsibilities, hoping to find his father before a trigger happy officer shoots him. Childhood flashbacks are woven into the present day manhunt and render a multi-dimensional family portrait. Is Jack a dark hero framed for crimes he didn’t commit or is he a vindictive murderer? Is Mike a reliable narrator?

My only criticism is that the female characters were not as well developed as the male characters. With the notable exception of Mike’s boss, the women function as manipulative objects of desire.

The Poacher’s Son is dripping testosterone, but given that, I was pleased that the protagonist was such a kind and sensitive man. Mike is a good foil to his womanizing father. I’m looking forward to seeing how he matures in the upcoming series.

“The grass was brittle from the cold and made a crunching noise beneath our boots, like a person eating potato chips. At the bottom was a frozen pond, filled with standing dead trees like sharpened poles. There was an area of open water at one end of the pond where a stream flowed out. A muskrat was struggling in the water, near a hummock of grass and dead branches where the trap had been set. My dad waded into the knee-deep water until he stood over the small, writhing animal and shot it with his pistol.”
-The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron
will be released on May 11, 2010 in the USA

Interview with Paul Doiron
author photo by Mark Flemming

Sarah: your fictional story of property development in the North Woods reminded me of the Plum Creek Development Controversy by Moosehead Lake. Was this the inspiration?

Paul: my inspiration for The Poacher's Son actually predates Plum Creek's proposal to develop the Moosehead Lake region. Since 1997, roughly 6 million acres in northern Maine has changed hands. Unfortunately, many of the new timberland owners are absentee profiteers rather than responsible stewards of a precious natural resource. Game wardens have been on the front lines of the transformation that has swept through the Maine woods.

Photo by Kristen Lindquist (Paul Doiron's wife)

Sarah: The Poacher’s Son is full of detail and has a strong sense of place, how did you research it or was it based on personal experience?

Paul: the nature descriptions and sense of place come from my own experience. I was one of those Maine kids who was either wading through swamps, catching snakes, or holed up in my bedroom reading Sherlock Holmes stories. I still spend as much time outside as I can. I fly-fish close to a hundred days each year and am an avid birder. I'm also a Registered Maine Guide, which means I’m licensed by the state in first aid, map and compass work, and basic woodcraft to lead trips into the wilderness.

Sarah: has writing this novel changed or reaffirmed your view of the father-son relationship in your own life?

Paul: my poor father! He's a gentle and even-tempered man, utterly unlike the character of Jack Bowditch. I'm sure readers will wonder where my knowledge of fractured father-son relationships came from. I've had friends with emotionally abusive fathers. I also attended an all-boys Jesuit high school where tests of manhood were daily ordeals. I think I had to unlearn the bad lessons I learned in that hyper-masculine environment before I could write The Poacher's Son.

Sarah: as editor in chief of Down East Magazine, Books and website, when do you find time to write your books?

Paul: I'm going to steal a joke from Kate Braestrup, who is a Maine Warden Service chaplain and bestselling author. When asked how she balances her job responsibilities, she said, "By neglecting my personal relationships." In my case there's some sad truth in that statement. I would say that my two "full-time" jobs as editor and author actually complement each other, though. Every day I get to explore Maine and meet interesting people. Some of what I learn informs my work for Down East; other observations go into my novels.

Sarah: why do you write fiction instead of nonfiction?

Paul: great journalism is unquestionably an art form (I'm thinking of works like The Executioner's Song and Refuge), and I could see myself writing a nonfiction book eventually. But fiction was my first love, and I think "made up" stories can bring us inside other people's experiences in ways that defy understanding. I've learned more about the human condition from reading novels than I have from reading newspapers. Think of what Pride and Prejudice has to teach us about romantic love, for instance.

Sarah: you seemed to enjoy spinning your campfire tale. Was The Poacher’s Son as much fun to write as it was for us to read?

Paul: I just love telling stories. Having people lean closer to me and ask, "And then what happened?" It just delights me to no end.

Sarah: what is the best writing advice you received?

Paul: the best advice I received was actually something I read in A Moveable Feast. "All you have do is write one true sentence," Hemingway used to tell himself. "So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there." It's a lesson in staying true to your ethics as an artist, but it's also a piece of practical advice. A novel is built out of individual sentences, after all. You have to persevere.

Sarah: can you share a preview of where the Mike Bowditch series is headed?

Paul: my plan for the series is that in each book Mike will be a year older. Especially in detective fiction we're used to meeting our heroes fully formed. (Philip Marlowe is already Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep.) But I'd rather follow Mike as he overcomes his personal demons and discovers an inner strength he doesn't know he possesses. He's going to journey through some very dark places, internal and external, before he becomes the man he's destined to become. I hope readers will want to come along with me.

Disclaimer and Photos: I received the free ARC from the author on my request. Thank you, Maria Padian, for connecting us. Kirsten Lindquist's lake and cabin photos and Mark Fleming's author photo were reproduced with permission and under copyright. My mountain vista in autumn and beaver pond photos are from the White Mountains in Maine.

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