The Chilean sea bass, the one thing I would sort of recommend here.
I visited Umami in Brookline because UrbanDaddy wrote it up.
The food is creative Asian (billed as Japanese, but it’s not that exclusively). From the menu, it reads, “Asian Inspired Global mix of culinary imagination with a creative twist.” I first had inklings of what was to come reading the Umami menu, which sounded more like a hopeful amalgam of seasonings than a clear vision. Also, they picked an ugly font, so the typographer in me balked.
Service was bumbling, but earnest. I liked our server, actually. He was kind of awkward, but very sweet.
My suspicions as to the food, however, were confirmed with their free “appetizer.” So there’s nothing wrong with free appetizers, but I mean… just look at this:
The matchstick cucumbers were actually the wet, seedy cucumber innards. When you picked on up, it flopped.
Want to win tickets to Morton’s Uncorked Tasting Series? Have ace recommendations? See the blurb below:
Uncorked Tasting Series, Morton’s The Steakhouse Back Bay is asking Boston vinophiles to submit wine suggestions for the August 30 tasting (theme is “You Tell Us”) for the chance to win four comp tickets to the event. All folks have to do is send suggestions (sky’s the limit) to email@example.com by August 26. The winner and three guests will be treated to five wines paired with five signature Morton’s hors d’oeuvres at the August 30 tasting from 6:30 – 8:00pm at Morton’s Back Bay (699 Boylston Street). Tickets are also available for $40 each (call 617-266-5858 to reserve a spot).
Hell is not bad food.
It’s other people. Specifically, hostile servers. After an atrocious experience at Brookline’s Genki Ya, I’m trying to pick apart the mess.
When I was 16, I was a cashier at my local A & P. Old ladies with tubes in their noses would squawk if a box of crackers rang up 20 cents higher, demanding that I follow them into the aisles to see the price sign. (They usually had misread it.) Soccer moms would mutter mild abuses about my incompetence as if I was wasn’t human. I was there once too. I sympathize.
But some servers have made me cry with frustration. There was pimply-faced one who worked for Western dining chain Wagas in Shanghai (Wagas Citic Square branch, August 8th 2009) who outright lied to escape his screwup, capping off a troubled relationship with China’s service culture. I wrote an incensed email to the chain but never received a reply. Some servers are merely incompetent – forgetting, dropping, blundering – and I tend to just feel sorry for them.
But sometimes there are spectacular front-of-house failures that deserve a writeup all their own. These require repeated, concerted level of incompetence that is really just embarrassing for everyone involved.
There’s a “normal accident” theory that arises in trying to explain tragedies. In these cases, there are many small mistakes. Each of these mistakes alone are normally not a big deal, but it’s the coincidental alignment of them that spells a lost customer.
So let’s explain my disastrous meal at Genki Ya, a small sushi restaurant that bills itself as all-organic. I’d eaten there before and enjoyed the food, so returned with boyfriend in tow.
We wandered in on a Friday night. It was busy, but not so busy since we were seated within two minutes at the sushi bar. I was faint with hunger; he was inured to the world after a week of hell and insomnia. We planned on ordering omakase – sit at the sushi bar, give the chef a budget, and let him/her pick whatever was fresh.
I swear I’m not making ordering omakase up.
We ask for omakase at $50 for the two of us. Blank stare from the waitress. We explain in plain English what it means. Outright refusal. “They’re too busy,” she says.
“Too busy? All they have to do is choose something,” I say.
“They’re too busy,” she repeats, as if we’ve asked for something particularly distasteful.
Desperate with hunger, and somewhat stubborn, I have an inkling she is not Japanese.
I speak to her in Chinese, explaining the concept of omakase in our secret-Asian-people-language-club tongue. I’m right, but am met again with cold refusal.
My dining partner and I look beseechingly at the men making maki behind the counter. They seem friendly. We try to undermine the servers. It’s beginning to feel like a CIA mission. No luck.
Meanwhile, I’m lightheaded with hunger. Our waitress has abandoned us. We finally get another waitress, who we repeat the same request to. Refusal again.
We’re floundering. Finally, after more hand wringing, the manager comes over, who nods several times, and says he’ll send over miso soup. We rejoice since we’re finally going to get the meal we asked for – or so we thought.
Harvard was built in 1636. As another transient moving through these classrooms and dorms – every spring, boxing my pathetic belongings and thinking towards a shrinking timeline – it’s easy to forget that the Square is transient as well.
After all, it seems that Spare Change man has been hawking his newspapers in front of Au Bon Pain forever, and ever, calling, “Young lady! Young lady! Won’t you have a heart?” And the Asian tourists spill eternal over the Yard, clutching their cameras like stunned mice and groping John Harvard’s storied foot. I remember freshman year, dodging and weaving through the tourists to breakfast, I’d feel superior to them. I lived here; I was real. But now, I think that I’m just as much a tourist as they are.
As an admitted high school senior, a freshman introduced me to the area. I remember one venue: Z Square, where the newly opened Russell House Tavern now stands. “This is where you take someone when you’re getting serious,” he explained, and it seemed like an institution to me. The unholy trinity of the Kong, ‘Noch’s, and Felipe’s seemed cast in stone. It was only years later that I found out Felipe’s had only been around for a few years, as had Z Square.
I’ve long stopped talking to that freshman after a mysterious tiff my first semester, and I never visited Z Square while it was open. So when I heard a new restaurant was opening, I was curious.
I’ve now visited Russell House Tavern three times in the past few weeks, more than any other restaurant. This has been purely by mistake. But I can see why I keep getting drawn back. They’re not perfect, but they are very good, and more ambitious than I would have expected, or need be.
Russell House is owned by the Grafton Group, which also runs Grafton Street, Redline, and Temple Bar, where chef Michael Scelfo still works.* Their promo blurb of “seasonally changing, classic American fare” did not excite me. But I eventually got dragged along anyway after a viewing of Top Chef Masters at Rialto, where I somehow sat at a table with Christine of Citysearch and Leighann F. of Yelp. (They’re friends!)
The space is heavy on dark wood, a kind of polished masculinity that’s not too old boy’s club. The dining room proper is downstairs – a sea of high tables and stools, a few padded banquets, a long U of a bar.
I wasn’t particularly hungry, but tried the fried poached farm egg, which was an oozy, bacon-laden, plate licking appetizer. It is a bit pricey considering a full pizza is only a few bucks more, but worth it in inspiration. It led me to attempt my own fried poached eggs, to little success. I also sampled a lamb tartare – a bit too raw/gamey for my tastes – and a cured and smoked lamb belly pizza, with fontina cheese and mushroom, although the intensity and saltiness of the lamb overpowered the rest. The chef clearly has a fondness for the bleating little creatures, and wasn’t afraid to show it.
I came back again, on a whim, on a busy Friday night to catch up with a friend. I had the crispy poached egg again, and savored every last crumb of the brioche and smudge of the aioli. Unfortunately, service was pretty slow – it seemed that they were short staffed – and my egg was already cooling down. I tweeted my dissatisfaction, and the chef tweeted back: “so sorry!! please let me make it up to u next timer ur in…”
Finally, about a week ago, I dropped by again after one of the worst meals in the past year at Shabu Ya. (Avoid at all costs.) My friends had ordered up chicken liver crostinis – richly satisfying bites, rounded out with a dab of prune-honey jam. The short rib wellington was fine, as was the caesar salad. The centerpiece ended up being a lamb shank, cooked to a melting, falling-off-the-bone tenderness, presented in a black lentil stew. I didn’t get to talk to Chef Scelfo, but the manager sent out a few desserts – a semolina cake (tasting akin to a more complex corn muffin), sorbet (a trio including a nice icy grapefruit), and carrot cake – served in a round pot, with gooey layers. The waiter, coincidentally, happened to read my blog.
Not everything is perfect, but I give the chef points for taking risks with the menu. And even when there were hiccups in service – a forgotten order, say – the staff immediately corrected it and removed the dish off the bill. The prices are about right, with pizzas $10-13, and entrees $10-28. This is not a restaurant that will change dining, but it’s one I could see becoming an institution. Then again, in Harvard Square, that doesn’t take so long.
*Correction appended: Chef Michael Scelfo still works at Temple Bar, in addition to Russell House Tavern.