You take a chance when you visit a new restaurant. The excitement of dining out someplace new is sometimes spoiled, in the first couple of months especially, by kinks the restaurant hasn’t worked out. We visited Artichokes, an Italian restaurant that was formerly next to the Malden Center T station, six weeks after it reopened in the former YMCA building in downtown Wakefield. The kink we encountered was a big one: a 90-minute wait just to be seated.
The food was great, but not everyone in our party of four agreed it was worth the wait.
Admittedly, being hungry makes us crabby. From what we could see, everyone else in the place was happy to be there. Although it’s new to Wakefield, Artichokes is already mobbed, even on weeknights. The old brick Y building made an oddball but attractive setting for a restaurant. The rooms have been nicely remodeled, with plenty of woodwork, including wooden floors, warm lighting, and simple white tablecloths.
We arrived just after 6:30 on a Tuesday evening. (Artichokes does not take reservations.) The place was already packed, both the medium-sized dining room and the ample bar across from it. There was a 20-minute wait, we were told, possibly 30 minutes. After waiting in the bar for 45 minutes - two of us standing, two of us sitting, all of us hungry - we copped a basket of half-eaten bread from the waitress station. As the hour mark approached, we were told there were just a couple of parties ahead of us - maybe a five-minute wait. As with commuter-rail delays, it’s faulty information that’s most infuriating, not the delay itself. Finally, just after 8 p.m., we were ushered into the dining room as the place was beginning to empty out dramatically. We felt like second-class customers.
Some of the delay, no doubt, was due to the kitchen not yet being geared up to handle the busier Wakefield site. Judging from our meals, when they finally came, Artichokes’ kitchen hasn’t cut corners in order to meet the increased demand. Most of the dishes we ordered were quite tasty, starting with a warm (but not wilted) salad ($9): capers, artichoke hearts, chopped plum tomatoes, basil, and fresh mozzarella in a lemon dressing over a bed of greens. Famished, we were all set to order two when our server advised us not to. At her suggestion, we split one, and it was plenty. Also big enough for two was a $7 salad of baby field greens.
Of our entrées, a particular favorite was the chicken marsala - $18 worth of scrumptious mushrooms and chicken on a bed of al dente linguine, all slightly tangy and slightly sweet.
An order of grilled salmon ($18) wasn’t anything unusual, but it was well prepared and came coated in cracked peppercorns with a lemon-butter sauce. The baked New England haddock ($18) was topped with crunchy bits of seasoned Italian bread and came with a side of linguine. The haddock was moist and fresh, but the dish was a little on the salty side.
The veal Francesca ($21) was a lemony affair with large capers, mushrooms, and an ample supply of large artichoke hearts - the restaurant’s culinary theme. It was tender and flavorful, although it was saltier than it needed to be.
All our dishes arrived steaming hot - whatever delays had occurred up till now, once our food was prepared it got from the kitchen to our table in no time.
We’re chalking up our experience to the restaurant’s growing pains. Once the staff adjusts to its new location, and perhaps once the attraction of being the new hot place dims a little and the crowds thin out, there’s no reason Artichokes couldn’t be an enjoyable dining experience even for crabby people.
COCO McCABE and DOUG STEWART