Live From The Harvest On The Harbor Festival In Portland, Maine. Lobster Involved.

Ben Conniff is co-owner of NYC-based lobster roll and urban seafood shake mini-empire Luke's Lobster. In his spare time outside of slinging one of the finest rolls on the East Coast, he likes to write about his frequent travels. In this dispatch from last week's Harvest on the Harbor Festival, we find out what it's like to attend an event called the Maine Lobster Chef of the Year. It was pretty claw-some.

I spent last week in Portland. Not Portlandia, the second Hipsteriest city in the country according to Travel and Leisure. I'm talking about number five on that list: Portland, Maine. Though the former dwarfs the latter by population, the older New England version holds its own in food as well as flannel. The evidence was on display at the Harvest on the Harbor Festival, where Maine's best chefs and brewers gathered to rep their state's skills. Also see: 10 Places To Eat In Portland, Maine

The Grand Tasting

Harvest's kick-off gala featured 19 chefs and 23 dangerously good drink purveyors. It was a night of crostini, a sensible vehicle to transport miniature culinary art into my mouth. The options ranged from Azure Café's meaty "Steak and Eggs" crostini, a tiny medallion of filet, a slice of buffalo mozzarella, and a dollop of white truffle mustard (a creative rendering quite different from an actual egg), to veggie options like Seaglass's dessert-like goat cheese crostini with sangria-braised figs and hazelnuts.

My favorite dishes were actually not crostini, but a smoky salmon tartare from Jeff Landry of The Farmer's Table, as well as a corn masa cake topped with red chili caramel-glazed pork belly and mango salsa from Zapoteca. On paper it sounded cloying, but chef Shannon Bard managed to balance the elements so the dish was only barely sweet, while the salt and spice of the pork dominated.

Fewer than half of Portland's beer makers made it to this event, but there were still enough on hand to brew the pants off of much larger cities. Allagash, as always, stood out. They're now selling their Black — a funky and strong "Belgian stout"— in 12 ounce bottles. They also just released a beer-pairing cookbook. Strong newcomers included Bull Jagger's Big Claw Pilsner, the only local lager I know of, and Fatty Bampkins apple cider, dry and tart like a good New England apple should be.

Maine Lobster Chef of the Year

People come to Maine for the lobster. Many people live in Maine for the lobster. But once you've had it straight up steamed and piled in a lobster roll (note: you can never have too many lobster rolls), it's okay to mix it up, as long as you don't overshadow that sweet flavor. Melissa Bouchard, of Portland's floating restaurant Dimillo's on the Water, made lobster tempura over corn puree with bourbon butter sauce and bacon. Bull's blood beet greens and a sprinkling of porcini salt gave the dish a nice earthy flavor, but the batter and bacon didn't yield enough of the stage to the star crustacean.

Mackenzie Arrington's ricotta gnudi nailed it: the nuggets of ricotta had just a tiny bit of chew and provided a silky, salty base for whole chunks of lobster, whose briny sweetness was fully on display. Arrington currently works at The Dutch in NYC, but snuck in because he grew up in Boothbay. Café Miranda's Kerry Altiero served his claws and knuckles over a sheet of fresh pasta and a mixture of sweet roasted corn, local hydroponic tomatoes and garlic. The flavors were fresh and bold and the choice to serve the dish room temperature emphasized each one without detracting from the lobster. The mix hit the right note for the judges, who gave Altiero their prize. Arrington snagged the crowd vote.

Top of the Crop: Maine's Best Farm to Table Restaurant

I have never seen a state more fiercely committed to using local ingredients, which says a lot when your growing season is cut short by frost. It's a given that Maine has the best lobster, but folks often miss its killer root veggies, corn, blueberries and fantastic wild mushrooms. On this night the crown went to Kevin Walsh of Earth at Hidden Pond, who served a hearty chicken ragout with wild mushrooms and heirloom squash over farro cavitelli.

The meatiness of the dish surprised me—I almost thought I was eating pulled pork. But it was a tough job to pick Walsh over Eric Flynn of the Harraseeket Inn, who marinated the short ribs of a Maine buffalo (not just for the Wild West anymore) for two days in blueberry port wine, then braised it and served it with parsnip and potato puree, red beet demi-glace, root vegetable chips and al dente carrots that added a pleasant crunch. Close runners up were encore performances by Jeff Landry, who served braised local brisket with foraged mushrooms and local root vegetables and Shannon Bard with a spicy sous-vide filet and a side of chipotle mashed potatoes.

I already knew Maine was a great scene for cooks and for lobstermen. And for hipsters. But I came away from Harvest with a new appreciation of how great it is for farmers. The winter may get cold, but for everything from buffalo to fungus, Mainers clearly needn't look elsewhere.