In the year that James H. Schwartz has held the job of Maine Sunday Telegram’s restaurant reviewer, he has been enchanted by smoked blueberries, tickled by Mai Tai Pie and disappointed by haddock that was “under-salted (and) over-capered.” One thing he hasn’t had the opportunity to eat lately is his favorite dessert of all time: crème brûlée. His hard-hearted editor – OK, me – judged that he ate it one time too often while on the job and forbade him from ordering it again. Schwartz says when he dines out for pleasure these days, as he did recently, he finds it “incredibly relaxing.”

“Any observations I had could stay in my own head,” he said. “I wasn’t taking notes. I wasn’t trying to remember things. I wasn’t trying to pick something apart so I could write about it later.”

Several months ago, Schwartz won the Maine Press Association’s First Place Critic’s Award. We chatted with him recently about his first year in what many foodies consider a dream job. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Have you grown tired of eating out?

A: No. All it takes is one creative meal to bring all of the excitement and wonder back to the “job” of eating out. You go to a place and are thoroughly surprised by how tasty or unusual or different something is, and it sparks the fascination with restaurants and cooking and cuisine all over again.

Q: What is your strategy the day you are headed to a review meal? Do you skip lunch? Skip breakfast?

A: Always. Always. Always. I don’t really eat breakfast. That’s not a big denial. I have a yogurt for breakfast, and I always skip lunch. I prefer to “Dine Out” hungry. I find that it allows me to enjoy a meal even more if I arrive hungry.

Q: Have you gained weight since you started in this job?

A: I have not. I am blessed with a forgiving metabolism, and I upped my gym time when I started this job. If I go to a place where I think food is extraordinarily good or so different that it requires more tasting to understand, I will polish off my plate – with pleasure. Other times it may be a few bites of things. Of course, that’s a much easier approach when the food is disappointing. When the chef has missed the mark, you don’t have to eat the entire platter to confirm the disappointing conclusion.

Q: If you have a bad experience eating out, the Press Herald sends you back for a return visit. Do you dread the necessity to eat another possibly bad meal?

A: All of us recognize – whether we are eating out for work or eating out for pleasure – that chefs and kitchens and servers can have a bad night. Consequently, it seems only fair that if I have a poor experience, I return to give the place a second shot. I always return with the hope that I’ll be surprised, and it’ll be a much better experience the second time around. Sadly, that has not proven to be the case very often.

Q: You get paid to eat out at nice restaurants. But is it a hard job?

A: It is hard. It’s not the eating. The eating is easy. I am very good at that. It’s the knowledge that my honest assessment of a restaurant can elevate or injure a business. Not just a man or woman in the kitchen, but the owners and the servers and the people responsible for keeping the dishes clean. And I bear that burden every time I go out. That part is hard. It makes me think of a restaurant I reviewed where the owner asked me point blank not to write about them. She said, “The last time we were reviewed, the review was harsh and it could have ruined our business.” I remember exactly what she said. I also remember that I don’t work for the owner. I work for the reader, and my responsibility is to accurately and truthfully report my experience. My hope is that, over the past year, I’ve established a bond of trust with readers, and they know that I am telling them the truth about my personal experience when I dine out. Then it’s up to them.

People should feel free to disagree with me – and I’m sure that they do. It irks me when people think that I have an ax to grind or that I am accepting payment to say something about a restaurant. I am not.

Q: Do you tell your dining companions what they have to order?

A: I do. We will sit down. We will look at the menu, and I will say, ‘It would be great if you would order any of the following.’ And if somebody says, as (somebody) always does, “Can I just have a green salad?” I say no. And I’ll have you know (one guest) tried to order the crème brûlée the other night, and I wouldn’t let him.

Q: Which do you prefer to write, a good review or a bad one?

A: I much prefer to write a good review. The writing itself is much more fun. Absolutely. It flows. For me, I can write enthusiastically all day long, whereas if I am going to criticize someone, I proceed with great deliberation and caution. It’s more like a grind.

Q: If you could give advice to a restaurant about how to do things right, what would you say?

A: The first thing I would say is cleanliness makes a huge difference. Nothing turns off a diner more than a sticky table. Next, warm service is good. Warm, professional service is better. It’s very nice to have a waiter or waitress who is nice. But it’s better to have a waiter or waitress who is nice but knows what they are doing. The last thing for me would be, simple is always better. A beautifully prepared piece of sautéed fish or chicken is better in my opinion than a poorly prepared piece of fish that is exuberantly sauced. I think gilding the lily is unnecessary.

Q: What is the best meal you had last year?

A: The best meal I had might have been very early in this gig when (I) went to the Thistle Pig in South Berwick. The meal was so delicious and so surprising. I was completely unprepared for a meal that exquisite in such simple surroundings in a town I’d never visited in southern Maine. I still think back on the foie gras mousse. Here it is a year later, and I can still remember that – wanting to close my eyes, wanting the moment of discovery to last. I felt such appreciation for what the chef had accomplished, and I felt so lucky to be enjoying his food. I’ve had other superb meals since then, including one recently at 555, where we had the chef’s tasting menu. But I was primed for a good meal there. It’s a restaurant with a lot of buzz. It’s an elegant interior. That meal was confirmation of what I’ve heard, whereas the meal at Thistle Pig was jaw-dropping.

Q: If tonight were your last meal on Earth, what would you order?

A: I think it would be sole meuniere. Something very simple, very flavorful with a crisp glass of Sancerre and a baguette that I was breaking off pieces of myself to dip into the butter sauce. If nobody were looking over my shoulder, I’d have a crème brûlée for dessert.

Peggy Grodinsky can be contacted at 791-6453 or at:

[email protected]