As we all know, putting a star value on a dining experience is a fraught proposition at best; nevertheless, it's the way of so much modern reviewing, and must be considered as part of the literature. As such, reviews read alone are interesting, but side-by-side comparisons can be even more telling, especially when pieces are separated by so little time.
Press Herald critic James Schwartz took on two young Portland restaurants in the Dine Out Maine column recently, places that are still figuring out how to fit into the crowded local scene. Sur Lie received 3.5 stars this week, while Timber scored 4 stars the week before. Fair enough, until the reading begins.
What problems did the critic have with Sur Lie? Just one minor quibble, it seems: he was "less than wowed" by the Sweet Pea Hummus ($7) that "several friends who frequent Sur Lie (and more than a few bloggers and online reviewers) rave about." He liked it better without the side of "sugary lemon sabayan" which "overwhelmed the delicate pea flavor."
Otherwise, he loved his meal from start to finish, particularly focusing on how various sauces and accoutrements were layered by chef Emil Rivera to turn good food into excellent food. Try the Poached Haddock ($8) with its "delicious" parsnip puree, the "nicely prepared" hangar steak ($12) with its "jam-like confit of caramelized onions," and the Brussels sprouts ($8) with their "smoky-sweet pimenton."
Schwartz also raved about much of the food at Timber, the steakhouse and rotisserie from the owners of The North Point, including a Tuna tataki starter ($18), an "excellent Caesar salad ($13)," and "slow-roasted rotisserie chicken and filet mignon, steakhouse staples, both of which proved deeply flavorful and deeply satisfying."
On the other hand, aside from Schwartz's wariness about the "bright" acoustics that could easily turn loud with more bodies in seats, he finds there are items that don't pass muster. "The beef burger with Portobello mushrooms ($21), [is] just okay. Ditto New York cheesecake from Junior's ($11), a bland slice that was smooth without being creamy and served too cold to really taste or enjoy." To be clear, these are the "less expensive" items.
Schwartz is indeed aware of the high price points, including that of the filet, "priced at $41 but worth every marbled, bloody cent." To be clear, that price is for the meat alone, as everything at Timber is sold a la carte: "Kudos to Timber for serving this steak solo," Schwartz concludes.
The critic himself recently told an interviewer he would not get rid of the star system if given the choice. "They are a quick reference tool. If I had my druthers, I would ask readers to check the number of stars and then read the review as opposed to turning the page or clicking to the next article," he shared.
Sometimes, though, as in the case of these two reviews, following this directive leads to more questions than answers. Plenty of enthusiasm, no real complaints: 3.5 stars? Plenty of enthusiasm, complaints about things like a "just okay" $21 burger (one of the most expensive in Portland): 4 stars? Fascinating.