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Dining Out

At Journeyman, expect the unexpected

Creative, exquisite menu at a cost

By Devra First
Globe Staff / December 22, 2010

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If you have ever dreamed of opening your own restaurant, have dinner at Journeyman before you sign any papers. A meal here is a practical illustration of the challenges of starting and running an establishment; it shows how much being a great cook both does and does not matter.

Opened in September, Journeyman is the joint venture of three former academic types, manager Meg Grady-Troia and chefs Diana Kudajarova and Tse Wei Lim, a couple who chronicled the experience of opening this restaurant for the Globe. Kudajarova and Lim are brilliant in the kitchen. They are the kind of people who frequently create dinner parties in their own home, feasts of innovation and great labor. (These dinners are so impressive I once interviewed them for a potential story, thus I am not an anonymous diner here.) Journeyman’s menu changes constantly, dictated by what the chefs have procured from local farmers and producers. They make almost everything in house, from bread to kimchi-flavored mayonnaise. At its pinnacle, their food amazes, delicious and different, whimsical and beautiful, ever thoughtful. This does not make a restaurant run.

To enjoy a meal at Journeyman, the best thing to do is let go of your expectations. Dinner will not be served at the pace to which you are accustomed. The service will not be as polished or knowledgeable. Pretend you’re at an underground supper club, which is what the restaurant feels like, tucked like a secret into an alley in Somerville’s Union Square. If you are not in a hurry, if you do not arrive starving, if you are willing to go with the flow, your reward will be an experience as much as a meal.

Journeyman serves only tasting menus, in denominations of three, five, and seven courses, the first two choices available in vegetarian or omnivore form, and all with the option of wine pairings. (Although you don’t choose what you’ll be eating, dietary restrictions are taken into account.) Reservations are strongly recommended; since the restaurant opened, tables have been hard to come by, particularly on weekends. If you show up unannounced, you might still land a spot at the little bar overlooking the open kitchen, a space of shining stainless steel and a forest of implements. The only noise in the restaurant is their muted clink and clank, and the conversation of other diners. There is no music.

The restaurant is in a brick building that was previously a pasta sauce factory. Inside, the room feels both industrial and organic. It features plenty of weathered, reclaimed wood. The lighting is oddly bright. Usefulness and industry are on display, with cookbooks, jars of pickled crabapples, bitters and bottles arrayed on ledges; in the front of the restaurant, a vertical herb garden scales a large window, planted in wooden wine crates on black metal shelving. On the tables are glass and silverware with heft, white plates, and napkins tied with brown string.

A wheeled blackboard is attached to the herb garden like a library ladder. It lists specials and cocktails — perhaps a well-made but wee Manhattan, just a few sips around a large cube of ice, or two interpretations of milk punch, one traditional, one modern. If a charcuterie platter is offered, you might want to order it. It is excellent, and it fills the gaps in the stomach you may experience here. Portion sizes are small. Sometimes very small. The charcuterie could save you from spending the evening with a tablemate who repeatedly hisses, “I’m going to have to go to Chinatown after this!’’ I speak from experience.

One night the platter includes chewy pig ear terrine, head cheese, miso rillettes, and pork liver pate, with pickled fennel and shallots, two mustards, and spicy yuzu kosho, a paste made from chilies and Japanese citrus. At a three-course tasting, a group polishes it off, then inhales dinner: carrot soup with rye bread ice cream; pork belly and lentils for the meat eaters, squash agnolotti for the vegetarians; and a wild dessert of sesame cake, sesame butter cookies, blueberry sorbet, and smoked banana puree. We also consume double helpings of bread, mop our plates, indulge in an extra cheese course before dessert, and are glad for every bite.

When Journeyman is good, it is very, very good. A recent seven-course tasting with wine pairings shows the restaurant’s sparkling potential.

It begins with an amuse-bouche, an agnolotto of pork rillettes that bursts in the mouth, fatty and essential. Then there is a salad of sauteed spinach with cubes of assorted root vegetables and a touch of carrot yogurt, strewn artfully across the plate. It’s followed by halibut ceviche draped over barley risotto flavored with bacon and leeks, the cool fish and warm, chewy grains offering contrast.

The next dish is beautifully composed, a tangle of seaweed, two clams in their shells, roasted squash, fish eggs, crisp sea beans, and butternut panna cotta as golden as egg yolks. The flavors are unexpected, the textures exciting. It has the element of “huh, whodathunkit’’ surprise that characterizes much of Journeyman’s food.

Next, Maine shrimp risotto. It’s a bit repetitive after the barley, but it showcases the seasonal ingredient in elemental fashion. The bright pink shrimp are served raw. There’s no need to mess with them.

What can anyone do with foie gras that hasn’t been done? This: make it into a terrine, freeze it, then shave it messily over a plate. The foie gras begins like a savory ice cream, its richness tempered by the thinness of the shreds. As it warms, its flavor expands, and it becomes a different preparation altogether. Smoked milk foam and chestnuts complete the dish.

The last savory course features slices of flavorful, pink sirloin, deeply crusty and salty on the edges. It’s served with black rice, seared endive, braised oxtail, and a bit of huckleberry sauce. By this point in a tasting menu, particularly after foie gras, I am usually spent. This is so delicious I eat every bite.

Dessert is quince sorbet with butter cake, chestnut mousse, matcha custard, and candied chestnuts. Though the cake is dense and dry, the dish makes the world of restaurants serving molten chocolate cheesecake brulee seem very far away.

Every meal at Journeyman also includes a palate cleanser (this night a mind-blowing lime jelly with jasmine rice sorbet and elderflower foam) and mignardises (honey cake, chocolate cookies, and a spoonful of lemon cream).

Wine pairings often offer selections that simply complement the food. Here, they go further, enhancing the flavors, bringing out new dimensions in the dishes. (Journeyman’s regular wine list is artisanal, obscure, and intriguing; it has been revised since my last visit.) “Wine’’ is used loosely. We receive pear cider, milk punch, and rose-hibiscus beer, as well as vermouth, furmint, nebbiolo, and a sherry-style wine made from zinfandel and syrah. Each selection is clever and surprising, just like dinner. The meal takes four hours, and it is a tour de force, the kind of performance that leaves the audience weeping and on its feet at the end.

With risks taken and ingredients always in motion, however, there is plenty of room for failure. A five-course tasting one night is a disaster. We arrive hungry, become ravenous, then cranky, then weepy, and then our first course comes. Our server won’t let us order the bottle of txakoli that would cheer us as we wait for the next course, informing us it will clash with the tiny bites of squash in the dish. (It would have been gone long before the food arrives.) A vegetarian course is replaced unannounced, the substitution simply arriving at the table. Pork loin is served with a giant band of fat and skin; the fat hasn’t crisped properly, and the skin is too hard to cut through. The center of the meat is nearly raw. Each plate of pork is served this way — it doesn’t seem like a mistake, it seems like a choice, like everything the Journeyman team does. This is just a bad one. Everyone leaves grumpy and unsatisfied.

Journeyman is charming and potentially infuriating. It isn’t like anything else — in spirit, it perhaps most closely approaches Japanese kaiseki, a cuisine that is also art. The length of the meals can be exhausting. Dinner doesn’t come cheap. Servers are sweet, lovely people, but they are amateurs. And every time I eat here, I hear someone telling the chefs it’s the best meal they’ve ever had.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

JOURNEYMAN

9 Sanborn Court, Somerville. 617-718-2333. www.journey manrestaurant.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Three-course menu $39; wine pairing $25. Five-course menu $65; wine pairing $45. Seven-course menu $85; wine pairing $65. Charcuterie $15.

Hours Wed-Sun 5:30-10 p.m. (Also Mondays as of Jan. 10.)

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest

Charcuterie, squash, foie gras, sirloin, wine pairings.

Ratings

  • 4 Stars Extraordinary
  • 3 Stars Excellent
  • 2 Stars Good
  • 1 Star Fair
  • No Stars Poor