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Susan and Ted Axelrod

Susan and Ted are a writer and photographer team who met while working for a magazine — Susan reviewing restaurants and writing food features, Ted photographing them. When Ted left the magazine for a freelance career, they launched their blog, Spoon & Shutter in 2010 as a way to keep doing what they love, together. After many years in Northern New Jersey, they are thrilled to be living in Maine, where Ted's clients occasionally include restaurants and food businesses. When they're not working, cooking, rehabbing their old farmhouse or hanging out with their two cool dogs – Ella and Dixie – they're having a blast exploring this spectacular state. To reach Susan, email saxelrod [at] mainetoday.com or follow her on Twitter: @susansaxelrod To reach Ted, email ted [at] axelrodphotography.com or follow him on Twitter @TedAxelRodPhoto .

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Spoon & Shutter with Susan and Ted Axelrod
Posted: August 15, 2014

Michele Ragussis puts her stamp on Maine seafood at The Pearl in Rockland

The Pearl in Rockland harbor.

The Pearl in Rockland harbor.

All photos by Ted Axelrod

A couple of weeks ago, a sunny day inspired us to load up the dogs and our house guest and head up the coast to Rockland. While the community was bracing itself for the annual Maine Lobster Festival, we had something else in mind — seeing what our friend chef Michele Ragussis was up to at The Pearl.

Chef Michele Ragussis, at home at The Pearl.

Chef Michele Ragussis, at home at The Pearl.

At the end of a pier on Rockland harbor, The Pearl is perfectly situated to be the quintessential Maine waterfront restaurant. Ragussis’ presence in the kitchen, however, means that the fabulous view is accompanied by equally stellar food, (not always the case, as you no doubt know). Now in her third season at the Pearl, Ragussis is fully in charge, having leased the property from owner James Fanning. She’s extended the restaurant’s hours, adding happy hour, brunch and late-night offerings, as well as theme nights — Greek, Italian (reflecting her heritage) — and live music.

The Pearl is a Rockland landmark.

The Pearl is a Rockland landmark.

Before she began to make her mark in Maine — as a celebrity emcee at Portland’s Harvest on the Harbor in 2012 and last year’s Claw Down in Boothbay Harbor, Ragussis was already a TV star. A finalist on the eighth season of Food Network’s Food Network Star, winner of 24-hour Restaurant Battle, veteran of Chopped (she lost after the entree round) and more recently, NBC’s Food Fighters, she’s clearly comfortable in front of a camera. But she also has a deep interest in New England cooking. All of that TV stuff is cool, but what matters to her right now is her Rockland restaurant, which is serving up Maine coastal food, with a few twists, in a professional, we-care-about-what-we’re-doing way.

Inside at The Pearl.

The Pearl’s charmingly rustic dining room.

In her element: Ragussis in the kitchen at The Pearl.

In her element: Ragussis in the kitchen at The Pearl.

What we experienced at The Pearl for lunch stood in stark contrast to the dinner we had in what we will diplomatically call another “midcoast community” the night before, where the venue had just as much chance to get it right, but fell short with a huge menu, poor execution and sloppy service. When a chef of Ragussis’ caliber is in the kitchen, it makes a difference.

Starters, from left: Maine oysters; Michele's award-winning clam chowder; smoked trout "fish dip"

Starters, from left: Maine oysters; Michele’s award-winning clam chowder; smoked trout “fish dip”

The three of us started with local oysters on the half shell, clam chowder and The Pearl’s “fish dip,” which on this day was smoked trout. Served with water crackers, it was a delicious nibble with pints of local beer.

Perfectly executed classics: fried fish sandwich and Maine lobster roll.

Perfectly executed classics: fried fish sandwich and Maine lobster roll.

We followed up with a traditional and nicely done lobster roll, fried haddock sandwich and an unusual and delicious salad with a deep fried, poached egg over grilled asparagus with crabmeat, shaved Parmesan and olive oil.

Simple and delicious asparagus and Maine crab salad with a "fried" egg.

Simple and delicious asparagus and Maine crab salad with a “fried” egg.

There’s nothing especially groundbreaking about what Michele Ragussis is doing at The Pearl (except that deep-fried egg, with its perfectly runny yolk, is pretty exceptional). But in addition to her effusive personality, it’s that old chestnut, “attention to detail,” that sets her —and the restaurant—apart from the summertime crowd.

Michele gets some puppy love from our Ella.

Michele gets some puppy love from our Ella.

Coming up at The Pearl

Wine and Dine for Make-A-Wish

Who: Chef Michele Ragussis plus Food Network chefs Nikki Martin, Martie Duncan and Linkie Marais

What: The chefs will do cooking demos and offer tastings, live music, wine, Allagash beer.

When: Wednesday, Sept. 3, 6 p.m.

Tickets: $100. maine.wish.org

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