Digesting the reviews

While restaurants thrive on the big newspaper reviews that get laminated and hung on walls and we’ve gotten our fair share (see our press page for a summary of them), we read all the reviews we can find, especially citizen reviews. We look for write-ups on personal blogs, micro-reviews on twitter and facebook, and of course for reviews written on the behemoths of consumer reviews like CitySearch, Yelp, Chowhound, and UrbanSpoon. What happens with each table is of immediate concern to us, repeat customers and happy customers are what make us succeed.

The commentary has ranged from bombastic praise to pure disgust. This is, in many ways, unsurprising; who takes the time to write a review that says “it was OK?” It seems most likely that people take the time us because they feel strongly. We understand and appreciate that, and we try to read reviews with the understanding that what we’re seeing represents the extremes of people’s opinions about us. These daily reviews are what prompt most of the changes we’ve enacted since opening: how we describe dishes, what we say about the restaurant to first-time guests, how we represent ourselves in social media, and more. Those reviews are the bread and butter of our viability, but that doesn’t seem to fully replace the power of the BIG REVIEW.

Tse Wei has written a bit about our response to our first big review in the Boston Globe on the Public Radio Kitchen blog (available here), but from my perspective in the dining room, there was more to it than that. Our first big review felt like prognostication, Devra First came to our restaurant at least three times, and she had the ability to scry our future in the sauce smears left on her plate and the dregs of drinks delivered to her by our servers. A professional restaurant reviewer knows the business of restaurants, the palates of diners, and the fates of many more restaurants than the one currently in her sights; what she says about a restaurant may well be based on intangibles that no one else could see.

I had a rare chance to eat at my own restaurant on Friday night; due to my graceless attempt to run for a bus on icy ground, I couldn’t walk well enough to serve and host, but I didn’t want to leave my staff in the lurch either. The solution was to sit at the bar and eat and drink, ready to answer their questions, and ready to test them with bizarre requests and tough demands. I’d like to think that I, too, had a chance to see intangibles that no one else might, and since I’ve never seen a business owner review their own business, I thought I’d try. There are some flaws here — I’m biased, I’m reviewing off my own personal ideal rather than a deep knowledge of the Boston restaurant scene, and of course I’m posting it to our own blog rather than to a third party website — but caveats aside, here goes.

Dinner starts slowly at Journeyman: you’re seated, your coat is hung, your water is poured, your menus arrive, and then, you stare at the menus. Devra First is right, you have to start suspending your expectations early here, because the menu is not a well-lit, carefully-worded script for the night. There are no markers of origin for ingredients, no names of dishes, and no indication of preparation technique, only a listing of a few ingredients in each course. On those stark words alone, you’re expected to choose your plan for the evening (vegetarian or omnivore, seven courses, or three or five). Servers, when asked about the menu, will describe the dishes for you but sometimes what they say doesn’t prepare you for what arrives; sardines with horseradish and scallion doesn’t indicate anything about the cubes of horseradish jelly, the salad of hard-boiled egg and scallion, or the finely grated radish atop the fish, but that’s what I pay for when I go out. I go out to eat foods that I wouldn’t or couldn’t make. I pay extra for the inspiration, love, and art that goes into those dishes.

Drinking is almost as hard at Journeyman as the eating, the standard cocktail requires a myriad of choices and the wines by the glass aren’t always the most familiar or approachable: nothing gets in the door of the restaurant without a story, nothing floats effortlessly to your side, and that can be rough. I asked my server for a cocktail with gin and I got a series of questions about what other flavors I like, what I was eating, how sweet I wanted my drink, and if I minded if she conferred with a colleague. Her colleague turned out to be the kitchen, and when my drink arrived 10 minutes later, she told me it should accompany my next dish.

The kitchen is perhaps the most remarkable part of Journeyman, a nearly silent team turns out plate after plate of food and even with my eye trained on the dining room, I have no idea how they keep the pace they do: tables receive food every 15-20 minutes quite consistently, and while I know what the servers do to facilitate that easy-feeling pace in the dining room, the chefs seem to have a myriad checklists in their heads, each dish must get 5+ elements, each table must get 5+ plates, each cook must plate innumerable things each night. I’m used to talking to them through the pass to say that a guest at table 12 isn’t eating much, or to ask if I can get an extra dish of some sauce or element for the guests at table 3 to try, but watching them for the several hours I am eating is surreal. There are no visible emotions, just calm and measured perpetual motion. I find myself speaking with a hushed voice, like I would in a library or museum, as if I am dwarfed or humbled by the concentration I can sense all around me.

My server’s silly jibe about a clean plate (“oh, did we forget to put any food on that plate?” as she clears a course) punctures the reverence and reminds me that I am here to enjoy myself, even as I point my employees toward tables that need more bread or water, or answer questions about how to pronounce the name of of an Austrian grape (Zweigelt, or schvai-gelt, roughly). Their relaxed and cheerful demeanor makes it easier to break the spell of intensity cast by the kitchen, and easier to appreciate what’s bare and stripped clean at Journeyman: there’s no diversion here, no centerpieces, no tablecloths, no silver pitchers pouring water into each glass, just food and drink and guest and staff.

I finish my courses by mopping the plates with bread or surreptitiously smearing my finger through the dregs of the sauce, behavior I’d be embarrassed to indulge in if I hadn’t been encouraged by the chefs, by my server, and by my tongue, clamoring for one last taste of yuzu jelly, walnut terrine, and foie gras. Guests at another table nearby catch me licking my fingers and grin & wink at me, I feel like we’re all in this together.

By the time I’ve finished my meal, I know the names of the next table’s inhabitants, and that they’re at Journeyman celebrating a birthday. I know more about them than I’d expect, given the distance between our seats, but the atmosphere here seems to invite collegial cross-table chatter. On a night when I was working, I watched two tables who didn’t know each other broker a deal to split a bottle of dessert wine that they’d both been thinking about and had ruled out as too steep an expense. Devra First is, again, right, the feel is dinner party-ish, where guests mingle and meet. To me, though, that doesn’t mean amateurishness, it means that Journeyman encourages breaking a classic fourth wall of dining, the expectation of privacy. The only other restaurant at which that has ever happened to me was Grant Achatz’s temple to leisurely exploratory meals, Alinea. On the night of my 30th birthday dinner, the table next to my companion and I at Alinea traded sips of drinks, took each others’ pictures, and even traded email addresses at the end of the night; that was a big plus, even though our goal had been to be celebrating together, just the two of us.

Jumping from an a la carte menu and a “how would you like your steak prepared” restaurant to ours takes courage, for even for the adventurous, and I’ve asked my servers to respect that. So far we’ve found that being friendly, casual — and yes, unpolished — is what seems to make most of our guests most comfortable. At its best, I hope that our restaurant invites strong response, the need for communication, and an exuberant interest and involvement that almost begs ineraction. We’re never going to be a posh and sumptuous establishment, we can’t — it doesn’t suit our location, our passions, or our personalities. The closest comparison to our price points and to our attention to detail is, certainly, fine dining, but that doesn’t mean we have to fit into that model. We don’t see that as hubris, we see it as a simple acknowledgment: we can’t do that, but we can do this.

What it comes down to, for me, is that eating is a social activity: we base our holidays around meals, we socialize by eating and drinking together, and we go out to eat to see, to be seen, and to taste someone else’s food. There is nothing, to me, private about eating out: there’s intimacy, and there’s dyadic personal relationships, but at its heart, eating out is just that, out. I don’t mean to go into an anthropological treatise on performance and public space and food, but I do mean to state that my biggest disagreement with Devra First’s review is that she seems put off by the fact that I have asked my servers to be themselves. They are not there as actors or to keep each guests from walking up to the kitchen to ask for their food, but as humans who want to take care of each guest and help create an environment in which dining companions shouldn’t have to whisper sotte voce to each other about their hunger or their frustration. I wonder how differently Ms. First’s devastating five course meal would have been if she’d asked her server to speed up the pace or to bring them additional food.

I am thrilled to work at a restaurant that believes that eating is social, and that allows for interpersonal relationships to exist in ways that feel natural and leisurely to me, rather than formalized and structured. It may not be for everyone, but it is certainly for me. My biggest regret about working for and at Journeyman is that I cannot eat there more often.

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