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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: January 30, 2015

Critic at large: the rigors, rants and raves of restaurant reviewing

Restaurant criticism in such a small city as Portland has its fine moments as well as its dauntless times to set the record straight for a dining public that wants to know it all.

Written by: John Golden

Portland’s restaurants are absolutely vibrating. Talented chefs are leading the way at both new and established places, collectively keeping our culinary embers red hot. Keeping track of the goings on is a challenge for dining critics as we tackle the totality of our subjective assessments.  One man or woman’s foie gras might be anathema to another’s heckle of dried fish.

To the outside observer, Portland is something of a food mystique. How did we emerge from the gray tones of our climactic tundra to produce so ably the colorful crops of farm-to-table provender that have clearly defined our go-local economy? Just consider Vinland, the restaurant that epitomizes the locavore credo.  No other culinary hot spot in the country can boast of such a restaurant or what Vinland’s David Levi has accomplished by creating dishes that are exclusively locally derived.

But then take the critic who goes there for the first time and tries to assemble thoughts on whether it’s all good, bad or just plain crazy. At the time when my January 24, 2014 review appeared, the critique itself was as controversial as the dining experience – both of which rattled with hyperbolic glitz – and I raved over the dining revelations of a fabulously otherworldly meal.

And just as you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, you shouldn’t assess a restaurant after one visit.  I make exceptions, however, such as my initial visit to Vinland or to places that I’ve dined at often over the years. Otherwise I visit a restaurant multiple times, often on my own dime, before putting pen to paper for the final account.

Of course chefs have their good and bad days. I recall one time reviewing a restaurant where the food was not good at all from a chef who was otherwise very accomplished. I pushed my plate aside, asked for the check and walked out. The chef knew I hadn’t enjoyed my dinner and emailed me the next day saying that he was having a difficult time. I didn’t write a review on the experience but instead went back a few weeks later, two nights in a row, where I had superb meals to write about.

At Outlier's, house made blini with salmon and cavist; feta cheese spread with chili peppers at Ebb and Flow

At Outlier’s, house made blini with salmon and caviar; feta cheese spread with chili peppers at Ebb and Flow

Some restaurants take their time to reach their stride, moving along with grave determination down a bumpy road until a clear focus emerges. Some have criticized me for my series of First Looks – going to a restaurant within hours or days of opening its doors to the public. How can it be valid? Well, I usually go a second time for confirmation. And I find you can tell a lot about a kitchen in those early moments: the strengths, weaknesses and potential.

In a First Look, my purpose is simply to give an overview – good, bad or indifferent. Take Bao Bao, for example, one of the most highly anticipated restaurant startups of the year. Its limited menu bothered me, which I mentioned in my October 24, 2014 review. I reasoned, how many dumplings can you have at one sitting and call it dinner?  But I gave it an A for effort and creativity and another A for the setting. Most of the food was interestingly tasty but not ground-breaking. Still, it had wow factor, so I gushed over every tidbit as though it was a glacial moment. That’s where the theater of dining takes center stage in a restaurant that’s fun to go to and visually exciting.

At Caiola's a panna cotta of heirloom carrots

At Caiola’s a panna cotta of heirloom carrots, Greek yogurt and grilled garlic bread

Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cookery is the new darling of Portland dining—namely Ebb and Flow and Tiqa, two restaurants splashed across big spaces in prominent locations in the Old Port. They offer menus beyond the clichés of falafel and tzatziki.

Vastly ambitious menus offering different cooking styles demand multiple visits before setting proclamations to paper.  At Ebb and Flow (reviewed here November 23, 2014), the focus besides grilled and braised meat is on seafood, from langoustine and squid to local catches of the sea. The spreads like the htipiti (goat’s milk feta) and revithia (a hummus of organic chick peas) are sublime dishes, too, served with their specially baked pitas, which arrive luxuriously puffed and golden brown. At my most recent meal, pan seared halibut was divinely prepared as was a starter of breaded and fried local goat cheese with quince conserve and grilled Treviso—sensational.

Tiqa is Portland’s ultimate pan-Mediterranean restaurant, offering country-specific dishes over a wide swath from the southern Mediterranean to the Middle East and recently reviewed here on January 23, 2015 . The question is, can our region – with its relatively small population base – absorb two restaurants of similar stripe?  The answer is absolutely yes. Each is so distinctive and each offers a caliber of cooking that matches the best restaurants in our city.

Langoustine at Ebb and Flow

Langoustine at Ebb and Flow

Most recently I dined at four of Portland’s established dining rooms. At Outlier’s, whose menu I find at times limited, I had two very satisfying dishes—namely a starter of house made blini topped with smoked salmon and caviar and another starter of glazed duck wings.

Onto the venerable Back Bay Grill, it was the rack of lamb prepared flawlessly that was so enjoyable in a restaurant that hardly ever falters.

At Caiola’s a few nights ago, an extraordinary dish new to the menu was a panna cotta of local heirloom carrots that was incredibly inventive.

And finally, just last night, dinner at the Fore Street bar was one of the best meals I’ve had there in recent memory. A plate of varied oysters from Casco to Frenchman’s bay displayed the requisite brininess that I love.  This was followed by local smelts in a cornmeal coating—leave it to Fore Street to prepare a rather esoteric fish so well. It was accompanied by a most unusual preparation of braised cabbage in a pork belly vinaigrette. (How do you make that? Render the fat and whip it into a vinaigrette?)  My main course of summer flounder on a bed of candied carrots and spinach was simplicity itself.  Then one of  pastry chef Brant Dedaleares’ desserts of passion fruit cake with coconut sorbet and candied Macadamia nuts was pure sweet opulence.

At Fore Street, summer flounder (left) and cornmeal coated smelts

At Fore Street, summer flounder (left) and cornmeal coated smelts

There’s still a long list of restaurants getting ready to open in the coming months. The most notable include these: MC Union at the Press Hotel under the direction of Arrows founders Clark Frasier and Mark Gaier; Tempo Dulu—a plunge into high-style Southeast Asian cuisine at the luxurious, newly renovated Danforth Inn; the Honey Paw from the Hugo’s/Eventide team with Thomas Pisha-Duffy as chef.  It promises to expand – somehow – the borders of noodle cookery.  I’m not sure what that might be, but we’ll find out soon enough.  And the old East Ender will open its new iteration under the chefdom of Small Axe Truck renown, Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy.

They all have hard acts to follow on the heels of some 20 restaurant behemoths that have opened in the last 12 to 18 months.  At the very least these newcomers will keep Portland’s crew of food critics busy to sift through the remains of the day.

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