If you’re talking about Rockland restaurant royalty, the kind of family-run dining dynasty that spans decades of alternating acclaim, setbacks, and success, spread across several different restaurant ventures, you’re probably talking about the Millers.
After transplanting from Connecticut in 1995, Kate and Mike Miller began slinging their brand of updated classic New England fare with “Grapes,” originally located on Route 1. Grapes moved to the waterfront location currently occupied by The Pearl in Harbor Park, until it was destroyed by an arsonist after just one season in 2004. In 2013, the couple settled in as stewards of “The Landings,” the combination restaurant and marina located on Rockland’s waterfront, abutting Buoy Park, while almost simultaneously launching “Bricks,” the brick oven pizzeria now occupied by Hill Seafood Company.
Kate and Mike, along with The Landings executive chef (and son) Max Miller, have all been exceptionally kind to me over the years, allowing me to take up space standing around their kitchens and sharing the kind of wisdom with me that can only be gleaned from a lifetime in the restaurant business.* It was a friendship that came fast and naturally; the kind that makes you feel as though you have much, much more history together than your few years would dictate.
*”Would you guys just pick some music and stick with it,” I remember Kate crying out one night at her kitchen staff, “The only reason we even PLAY music in the dining room is so our customers don’t hear you guys saying ‘f**k’ in the kitchen all night.” This is the kind of industry wisdom that restaurant consultants would pay thousands for.
In the hottest summer months, when temperatures inside my own food truck would frequently exceed 125 degrees, they would order me to take a break, and go stand in their walk-in refrigerator until my core temperature dropped back to a safe operating level, with a strong cocktail and a sample of fresh scallop crudo, or a bit of crispy skin from a Peking duck, or a scrap of halibut that had been cold-smoked in the bark of a pine tree, or whatever other wildly inventive dish Max was working on at the time. It was standing in the kitchen at The Landings, where I learned how to roll freshly-made head cheese into a roulade, and it was where Max tried (and failed) to hide his disapproval of my fledgling knife skills, while teaching me (for no real reason, mind you) to fillet an enormous 70-pound halibut worth thousands of dollars, that had been caught just that morning.
The point of this long-winded introduction is this: I like this family. I like them a lot. They work harder than almost anyone I know, they’ve seen dozens of restaurants come and go in this town, they know the business backwards and forwards, and they’ve always been kind enough to share that information with me, the writer-turned-cook with a lot to learn.
That’s why when I heard about “Eat Soup,” the new off-season food truck helmed by Kate and Mike and operating all winter long out of the parking lot of The Landings, I got excited about the possibilities. Eat Soup offers a rotating daily selection of homemade soups and grilled cheese sandwiches which, according to Kate, was an obvious fit.
“During the workweek, most folks eat out on their lunch break,” Miller says. “In the winter, there are limited choices. I love soup, and I love to make it. Grilled cheese and soup in the winter seemed natural!”
I’d always wondered about the more difficult operational aspects of running a mobile kitchen in our coldest winter months, when food truckers have to worry about things like staying warm in sub-freezing temperatures, frozen water lines, and an ever-increasing snowfall level. But according to Kate, it hasn’t been a problem so far.
“The truck is toasty warm. We have a small heater, and the griddles give us the rest. We tell our customers to wait in their vehicles, and we wave when the order is ready. It may be challenging for customers, but sometimes you have to get out of the car to get good food. You certainly won’t get food this good and healthy at a drive-thru!”
The menu is uncomplicated and turned around exceptionally quickly, which is exactly what takeout food served from a blustery parking lot abutting the Atlantic in December should be. The menu’s grilled cheese sandwiches, which you can order straight-up or augmented with spinach, bacon, avocado, tomato, or thin-sliced kielbasa are inexpensive, served evenly golden brown, with that addictive combination of crackly bread and smooth, cheesy inside, starting at just $5 bucks.
However, what really transforms the sandwich into a complete meal is the addition of a sidecar of one of Kate’s favorite homemade soups; creamy tomato, butternut bisque, beef barley, and clam chowder were on offer the day I visited. The soups are silky, rich, and packed with flavor, and combined with a grilled cheese, make for the kind of Sunday afternoon lunch we all wish we could make for ourselves at home, if only we had a professional kitchen’s worth of ingredients and a trained cook on staff.
“Lots of places serve soup,” says Miller. “But we have at least four fresh and homemade varieties available every day. I think that sets us apart.”
In a town where affordable lunchtime options continue to dwindle, particularly during the winter months, the Eat Soup truck is a welcome addition to our culinary community. Kate and company prove that you don’t have to spend $15 and 45 minutes of your life on the simple act of feeding yourself, offering well-executed twists on homey comfort food classics that won’t put so much as a dent in your wallet.
In fact, efficiency and speed of service is at the heart of what the Millers hope to accomplish with Eat Soup. “Many people only have 30 minutes for lunch,” Kate explains. “You can order ahead, pick up, and still have time to enjoy a great lunch at a fair price. You can sit in your car and enjoy our incredible waterfront view no matter what the weather is like…and there is plenty of parking!”
Good food, made well, served inexpensively and quickly. It’s everything lunch should be, served by an experienced staff who believe in what they’re doing. The attitude is infectious.
Eat Soup: 1 Commercial Street, Rockland, Maine 04841; (207) 594-3011; Facebook.