Good restaurants need no gimmicks. Whether they’re big or small, affordable or pricey, the food is the draw.

At Stirling & Mull, a gastropub and wine bar that opened in Freeport last summer, gimmicks abound. You have the plastic bracelets, issued by servers after checking IDs, that permit you to pour your own beer. There’s the computerized wall where you can sample up to 32 ounces of 10 different draughts by touching your wristband to the restaurant’s logo, then waiting for a green light to illuminate. And touted on the menu, and on cards at each table, are the blazing-hot lava stones – “very popular in Belgium and the southern U.K.,” according to owner Ed McLean – on which fish and shellfish and steak are served, and then cooked by customers at their tables. Some of the gimmicks are amusing and inventive. A few are even intriguing on occasion. But by the time the check comes, you realize they’re merely diversions. They draw attention away from the food, which is inconsistent and often undistinguished. You can order a few reliable dishes here – no bracelets required – but you’ll have to look past the gimmicks to find them.

A televised hockey game is reflected in a mirror above the taps on the self-serve beer wall. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

A televised hockey game is reflected in a mirror above the taps on the self-serve beer wall. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

McLean and his wife, Shana, worked for the Department of Defense (he’s an Air Force vet) and were stationed in Stuttgart, Germany, for seven years. “When we moved home, we wanted to open a restaurant that showcased some of the European-style foods and flavors we discovered overseas,” he says. An admirable goal. Unfortunately, not all of their imports met with wide acclaim. Since the restaurant opened in July, the owners acknowledge they’ve streamlined the menu to attract customers craving the familiar.

That’s a shame, because some of the best offerings at Stirling & Mull came back to the States with the McLeans. Take the Schwabish salad ($7.95), a dish inspired by the composed salads of southwestern Germany, that features dressed greens served on a mound of potato salad and sauerkraut and surrounded by a ring of pickled beets and carrots. If it sounds filling (it is) and crunchy (it is that, too), the salad is also tart and flavorful, starchy and satisfying. Dig under the greens flecked with fronds of dill and taste the sharp tang of mustard in the potato salad. You’ll come across no gobs of mayonnaise – and you won’t miss them. Then spear a few slivers of brilliant red beet or a piece of carrot and savor the bright, refreshing sweetness. Delicious. The vegetables are pickled in house and would make a bracing appetizer on their own.

The Schwabish salad features house-pickled carrots, beets, potato salad, sauerkraut and dressed greens. Gabe Souze/Staff Photographer

The Schwabish salad features house-pickled carrots, beets, potato salad, sauerkraut and dressed greens. Gabe Souze/Staff Photographer

A cup of tomatoey Hungarian goulash ($5.95) is hearty, filled with shredded beef and topped with sour cream and scallions. The seasoning in the soup – a stew really – is mild, but the pungent paprika is unmistakable, along with a fleeting sweetness from the chunks of onion.

Unfortunately, one of the more ubiquitous appetizers on the menu, a pair of crab cakes ($11.95), served here with house-made aioli, is the most disappointing. The small cakes looked appealing: They were nicely browned and tall, like tiny soufflés just pulled from the oven. But they tasted unpleasantly fishy instead of fresh, and they were heavy, bready and oddly spongy. There are plenty of good crab cakes on menus across Maine. These are not among them.


Salmon, tiger shrimp and tuna steak are all “served sizzling on a lava stone” the menu says. That stone – part of the Black Rock Grill “system” – turns out to be a thick tile heated in an oven to more than 750 degrees F, then placed into a fitted platter and brought directly to the table with the entrée crackling and steaming. As theater, it’s a fine show. Just don’t look behind the curtain. A piece of salmon ($17.95), sizzling as promised, was distinctly raw in the center when the waiter set down the platter. So were the shrimp ($18.95) that a friend ordered – and eyed with concern. The waiter explained that this was participatory dining: “All you have to do is flip over the shrimp, and they’ll cook through,” he said. In regard to the salmon: “No flipping is required, but you will have to wait a few minutes.”

The Schwabish Salad, featuring house-pickled carrots, beets, potato salad, sauerkraut, and dressed greens, is one of the entrée offerings at Stirling & Mull in Freeport, Wednesday, October 14, 2015. Behind the salad is a dish of Hungarian goulash. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

The Schwabish Salad is one of the entrée offerings at Stirling & Mull in Freeport. Behind the salad is a dish of Hungarian goulash. Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Cooking on stones may be clever (and clamorous), but it has problems. As soon as the largest shrimp looked cooked through, my friend sliced into it and declared the first bite to be “very good.” But since the rest of the shellfish on the stone kept cooking, the next was overdone and the final few tasted rubbery. Salmon fared only slightly better: The fillet was thick enough that for a few minutes the fish remained moist. But by the time the stone had cooled and the sizzling stilled, the last bites of fish were dry, veering toward crusty. Eating off a lava stone is, apparently, a question of timing: You have to wait patiently for the food to cook, and then you have to race against the clock before your entrée becomes dessicated.

A barbecue burger ($11.95) served on a pretzel roll (another nod to the owners’ time in Germany) proved a much better and less challenging bet. The 8-ounce burger made with beef from Pineland Farms was lightly seasoned and nicely grilled, and the roll was delicious: toasted, salty thanks to a heavy sprinkling of coarse crystals, and dense enough to soak up the juices that dripped from the burger without getting soggy.

Desserts ($4.95) at Stirling & Mull were a mixed bag. A generous serving of tiramisu (purchased from a supplier) was cool and fluffy. A pear tart, on the other hand was heavy and dry – and the whipped cream on the side tasted as if it had been spiced, inexplicably, with nearly whole peppercorns.

After choking on the whipped cream (a first), I couldn’t help but wonder whether something had gone wrong. Poor ordering? A bad night for the kitchen? An unfortunate accident involving the pepper mill?

Photographs on the website and Twitter feed touted beef cooked on those lava stones. Perhaps beef was the real draw and lunch the better bet?


Yes and no. When we returned at midday and ordered a center-cut top sirloin ($25.95), the waiter graciously suggested the best way to cook it: “I like to tell customers to pull the meat from the stone, slice it and then return the pieces to cook until they’re done to your liking,” he said. The approach had merits: the individual pieces cooked fairly quickly, and the cooking process was easy to control. Still … it still seemed as if the chef was off-duty, and we’d been tapped to fill his shoes. Also, though this beef was tender and flavorful, either the meat or the lava stone was very heavily salted. (The Black Rock Grill website shows that stones are liberally seasoned with coarse salt before any beef is added.)

One thing that was markedly better at lunch was the pear tart, which a friend ordered despite my warning. This time it was moist and fruity with a subtly sweet crust and a dusting of crunchy pistachios. And the whipped cream was, thankfully, pepper-free.

Stirling & Mull (her Scottish antecedents came from Stirlingshire, his from the Isle of Mull) is well located to benefit from the tourist trade in Freeport. The kitchen accepts call-in orders for diners in a hurry, and the restaurant hosts community events most weeks. (There’s a trivia night this Tuesday, an open-mike night on Thursday and live music from Beyond the Fall scheduled for Friday.) Certainly, the selection of 50 bottled beers and 22 on tap is impressive.

But do you dine out for drinks and music, bells and whistles, lava rocks and bracelets? Unless you gotta have a gimmick, you might as well grab a drink here and eat elsewhere.

James H. Schwartz has covered food, travel and architecture for The Washington Post, Downeast, Coastal Living and Southern Living magazines for more than 30 years. Long a commuter between Portland and Washington, D.C., he retired from his job as vice president at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2013 and relocated to Maine.

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