Criticizing the vibrant food scene in a small town state like Maine isn't an easy task, and voicing an opinion is opening yourself up to criticism in kind. Dine Out Maine reviewer James Schwartz certainly isn't earning himself any vocal supporters with his recent spate of reviews. In his latest, Schwartz takes on Kittery Foreside darling and leader of that neighborhood's food resurgence, The Black Birch.
In a three-star review, Schwartz praises the restaurant's comfort food, from its house-corned beef Reuben and its accompanying pickles ("I'd order this Reuben just for the chance to polish off the pickles - and the warm potato salad offered alongside," he emphasizes) to its kale salad, its Lacquered Duck (described as "Out of this world,"), and its coffee-infused crème brûlée. The only thing he truly doesn't care for is the "bland" pappardelle with Bolognese sauce, "a classic that should have been satisfying but was merely filling."
While it's expected to find comments sections riddled with childish trolling or raging hostility, it's less common to find well-reasoned dissent, which has popped up on Schwartz's pieces. Jonathan Erskine, who evidently works in food himself, questioned the critic's harsh conclusions, including his lack of discussion about the bar's thorough, respected drinks program. "Interesting sounding place, However I wonder about your criteria for stars. There only seemed to be one dish that wasn't very good, yet only 3 stars. Also, the mention of 24 draft lines and cocktail program without any details on them. Obviously these would be a big part of the draw at a place like this."
This follows closely on the heels of Schwartz's hotly contested two-and-a-half-star review of Ebb and Flow, a restaurant that hadn't even been open the generally accepted reviewer's grace period of three months when Schwartz skewered its food quality (the eatery opened November 6, 2014, while the review was filed January 25, 2015). John Golden took to the comments immediately to defend the restaurant from what he saw as unfair accusations: "Just based on one visit, this is a very misleading review, one not fair to an establishment that deserves much better treatment than this swipe."
Golden is, of course, no stranger to the slings and arrows of critical diners, which he discussed in an interview with Eater about a year ago. His take on Schwartz's reviewing chops is of particular interest given that he's a former Dine Out Maine reviewer and a current food blogger for Press Herald parent company Maine Today Media, for whom he continues to write reviews on The Golden Dish. One question that he raises obliquely is what could cause the Press Herald to make good on its promise that "if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second." How "unsatisfactory" does a meal have to be before a place gets a second shot? Golden declined to comment further on the situation, however.
The other four commenters present similar rebuttals to the review, and only one flirts with conspiracy theories; Teresa Medved suspects Schwartz might be "receiving some kind of kickback from the other new Mediterranean restaurant in Portland." Her reference to a shady involvement on neighboring TIQA's part is a bit much, but her follow-up question is valid: "Is it true you have only been to Ebb once before writing your review?"
Jack Rent points out that chef/co-owner William D'auvray's "forte is seafood," and that Schwartz would have done readers a better service by researching that ahead of time and exploring those options further. Ellen D. Murphy thinks Schwartz "writes as if he has a grudge," and Graham Consulting gets a nautical jab in, concluding, "With all due respect, I think you missed the boat on this favorite of mine."
If Schwartz's objective is to spark a dialogue, he's doing a bang up job. If his goal is to prove he can objectively assess the state's many popular restaurants, it appears he still has some work to do convincing readers.