Over the last couple of years that I have reviewed restaurants for Dine Out Maine, I’ve fielded some of the same questions repeatedly. I thought I’d take a portion of this column to answer them. I follow with a roundup of some of my favorite dishes in the last year.
Does the restaurant staff know who you are?
I try to keep my identity under wraps, but I don’t go so far as to wear a disguise or pretend to be someone else. Reservations are made under a different name. I don’t think most people know who I am. If they do, they’ve never let on.
Who chooses the restaurants you review?
I choose them, but I always run options by the features editor, who occasionally makes a suggestion, as does the newspaper’s food writer, Meredith Goad. The other reviewer for Dine Out Maine, Shonna Milliken Humphrey, does the same. We divvy up the new places. The goal is to include a mix of types of establishments, cover the whole state, and not repeat a review for at least three years. But generally, more than half of the restaurants are in the greater Portland area.
Do you keep one eye on your advertisers?
No. Whether an establishment advertises in the newspaper or not has no bearing on what I write. Good journalism demands that firewall. And the newspaper never questions my assessment or hints at any changes. They pretty much let me do my thing.
How long do you wait before you visit a restaurant for a critique?
While bloggers often go as soon as a place opens, the newspaper’s policy is to wait at least six weeks before reviewing a restaurant in print. It’s a good one, in my opinion.
In this world of instant information, people want to know immediately if a new place is blissful or a disaster. In the wild dash to weigh in on a new restaurant, especially one that’s received a lot of buzz, consideration for the owner sometimes gets lost.
Any new restaurant needs time to smooth things out, test its menu, and get some honest and constructive feedback from people who care. Even six weeks isn’t a lot of time. If you love or hate your experience in the first few months, be a sport and try it again after six or eight months. Then make up your mind.
NOW ON to some favorites.
Last August I wrote a column highlighting a few items I’d particularly enjoyed since writing for Dine Out Maine. Here is an update, covering the last year.
• Put aside for a moment the hard-to-beat simplicity of the steamed lobster. Top-notch treatment of Maine’s iconic seafood is the lobster ravioli at Ports of Italy in Boothbay Harbor, where fresh homemade pasta the size of a playing card envelops shredded seafood, the rectangles dipped in a dreamy prosecco and chive sauce.
• Whimsy meets elegance at Fromviandoux in Camden with this stand-out dessert: bite-sized ricotta doughnuts with crisp, sugared crusts made glorious with sides of huckleberry compote and mascarpone cream. Included are three shot glasses, each containing a swig of ginger milkshake. Diner food made sublime.
• Best for-real doughnut I found (caveat: I don’t taste many for this column) is at Edna and Lucy’s in Pownal. Must be the French fry oil.
• Most interesting nonalcoholic beverage honor goes to red corn tea at Cho Sun, a restaurant serving Korean food in Bethel. The complimentary hot brew, made from roasted, caramelized corn kernels, is subtly reminiscent of charred sweet corn.
• Enoteca Athena in Brunswick creates a sharp and salty romaine salad with kelp flakes, housemade croutons and garlic-and-anchovy-rich dressing that distinguishes itself from so many others. Here is a Caesar to seek out.
• Most brilliant bruschetta award goes to Enio’s in South Portland, which serves a tangled mound of pickled fennel, Broadbent ham and Buffalo mozzarella on crisped bread, demonstrating again how simplicity done right translates into deliciousness.
• Most outstanding counter staff encountered: El Frijoles, a Mexican-inspired eatery set in an immaculate barn in Sargentville. The amiable owners work at every aspect of this out-of-the-way spot. Go for the crabmeat quesadilla, agua fresca and ice cream sandwich made with chipotle chocolate biscuits. I am already plotting my return.
• Pie in the Sky award: Seabright in Camden creates a hand-tossed, wood-fired pizza, with bubbled edges and slightly charred crust topped with sweet corn puree, caramelized leeks, trumpet mushrooms and gruyere cheese. Heaven.
• The wursts may be best, but don’t miss the delicious sides at Morse’s Sauerkraut in Waldoboro, including housemade baked beans or the red cabbage braised with bacon, apple, currant jelly and onion.
• Fried cauliflower mixed with golden raisins, capers and lemon and served in a paper cone at 45 North, the restaurant in the Sugarloaf Hotel in Carrabbassett Valley, is bound to make anyone a lover of cruciferous vegetables.
• My top restaurant from the last 12 months is Tao Yuan (originally Tao), in Brunswick. A dinner here is a journey across Asia, using local ingredients of the season. Steamed buns with braised lamb tongue, salt cod brandade with pureed celeriac, or simple Asian slaw – nothing here is ordinary. The menu is always changing and a dish rarely disappoints.
This story was updated at 2 p.m. Sept. 30 to correct the location of Enio’s.
Nancy Heiser is a freelance writer and editor. She can be reached at: