“WELCOME TO MAINE,” the entrance sign to the easternmost state reads. “The way life should be.” Maine is, for some, exactly that: the way life should be. For others, it’s “Vacationland,” a faraway enclave for beach houses and ski condos.
By Ari Notis — Photographed by Jazz Martin
For me, it is neither; it is home. But, despite having spent the majority of my life in Maine, a place nationally renowned for its seafood, I have never enjoyed a fried clam. They’re too briny, too salty, too slimy, too chewy—or maybe I’m too picky. Whatever the case, I decided it nigh time to find myself a decent fried clam.
So I set off on an adventure to the one place I could count on.
Old cobblestone roads, verdurous oak trees and a tastefully serene atmosphere are trademarks of Kennebunk and Kennebunkport, two quaint seaside towns in southern Maine. The Kennebunks are separated by a small and creaky bridge; if not for the town marker at its center—which is very easy to miss—you wouldn’t be able to tell that there are, in fact, two different towns. It is right at the end of this bridge, on the Kennebunk side, that Tia’s Topside is located.
If you’re wondering whether Topside is connected to Tia’s at Long Wharf—iconic restaurant in Boston’s financial district, and favored party spot for the Boston Bruins—the answer is yes, it is. In 2010, restaurateur Lori Lilly and chef Alex Fuentes sought to expand. They were drawn to the untarnished beauty of Maine’s rocky coast, and more importantly, the friendliness of Kennebunk.
I should be frank: Tia’s Topside is not a posh establishment—the restaurant is focused more on channeling its surroundings than trying to impress its patrons. Located in a renovated two-story colonial townhouse, the hardwood floors, buoy-adorned walls, and permeating, but not overwhelming, classic rock all serve to embrace customers rather than intimidate them. The upstairs is available for banquets and rehearsals of up to 46 people. “When people clap upstairs, the entire downstairs bursts into applause, too,” said Caitlin Bangs, marketing and event planner for both Tia’s locations. “I have no idea why, but it’s really fun!”
Servers are affable and casual, but make no mistake—they are very knowledgeable. Matthew Doucette, our table’s server, knew just about everything there was to know about every dish that came to us. However, he didn’t wield this knowledge like a weapon, speaking in an almost-foreign language as many savvy waiters do; instead, we experienced a conversation, not an univited education.
Matthew brought us our sushi first. Now, you don’t go to Maine for sushi. However, I can say with certainty that you should go to Tia’s for sushi. The Shrimp Tempura Roll, with a sriracha drizzle and panko-battered, fresh local shrimp—did I mention that Maine is renowned for its seafood?—is unique enough to leave an impression, yet still adheres to the recipe enough to be a classic dish. The California Roll, however, will be something that whets my appetite with mere thought for years to come. Most California rolls are made with crab substitute. Tia’s, on the other hand, uses fresh, local crab—which, in all honesty, makes it one of the best California rolls I’ve ever had.
Thoroughly impressed, but still quite hungry because sushi never fills me up, no matter how delicious, I eagerly welcomed the next dish: Lobster and Fresh Corn Flatbread. This delectable pizzetta blew me away. It simply floored me. Goat cheese, gruyere, roasted corn, basil-infused oil, meaty, succulent chunks of lobster, and chopped chive garnish all come together in a seemingly discordant, but surprisingly pleasant, one-of-a-kind dish. For good measure, I ordered it with a side of Deviled Eggs, whose paprika dusting and heavenly whipped texture proved an exemplary compliment to the flatbread.
It was during the second wave of dishes that I realized Fuentes’ versatility: three dishes from three seas, each prepared with the same level of flavor and mastery. The Grilled Swordfish Skewers, grilled in pepper and glazed with dill, served over a bed of rice pilaf, and accompanied by sides of tzatziki and Greek salad, are a Mediterranean delight. Harnessing stylings from half a world away, the Panko Sesame Crusted Ahi Tuna was a mountain of Japanese cuisine. Slices of seared tuna were piled high over a mound of asparagus, summer greens, and sautéed corn, complete with a delicate drizzle of wasabi mayo.
As excellent as those dishes were, the food from closest to home won out. Lobster is Maine’s specialty, so it should come as no surprise that it’s Topside’s, as well. The Baked Stuffed Lobster was an enormous portion: a one-pound lobster stuffed with scallops, shrimp, and crab, breaded and buttered, baked to golden perfection, and served with a side of fries. If you aim to finish this yourself, I wish you luck. If you are thinking of going at it alone, may I suggest the Lobster Salad Roll? It was one of the most creamy and flavorful lobster rolls I’ve had, and I’m from Maine—I’ve had a lot of lobster rolls.
The best way to judge if a food is good—if what you’re eating is truly impressionable and not just tasty because you’re hungry—is to eat it while you’re full. That’s what I did with the Golden Maine Fried Clams. I can safely say that, after many years, I finally found a decent fried clam. At first, I thought it was a fluke— I was full, after all. It wasn’t too briny, too salty, too slimy, or too chewy. But then, surprisingly, every following clam fit into that middling perfection.
The food, good as it is, is not what makes Tia’s Topside. Lori Lilly makes Tia’s Topside. She darts around the two floors, conversing with customers, laughing and swapping stories. She does a whole lot more than simply ask, “How’s your food?” In fact, it seems like she cares more about making customers feel welcome than anything else. The delicious food is just a bonus.⚓