By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
But absent the touchy-feely food politics and trendy appearance, at heart the Kitchen is just another bistro, another neighborhood place that isn't really in it entirely for the neighborhood, another classy-casual, fancy-smart boîte du jour presenting a board of reconsidered classics that were tired the moment they were conceived.
Sure, the food looks pretty. It looks rustic when it ought to, arts modernes when it should. The peekytoe crab salad with avocado came dressed with a simple slice of lime, the plate lined with cut rounds of grilled baguette. The fig and prosciutto plate was a mess -- but a careful mess -- of beautiful, pale pink prosciutto cut paper-thin and fatty, black Mission figs quartered and scattered, a lace of fine olive oil, and a tiny jungle of organic (read: spotty) bitter greens mounded up along the back of the plain white plate. A bowl of fish stew looked ready for a Gourmetcover shot, with its bias-cut spears of grill-marked crostini crossed just so.
Unfortunately, that peekytoe salad had abused its star ingredient by burying the shredded crab in a heavy remoulade that pointlessly disguised every flavor but the smeary slickness of fresh avocado, so that spreading it on the toasted baguette was like eating an open-faced mayonnaise sandwich. While the prosciutto was excellent -- cut properly, generously portioned, well-sourced and touched only with that drizzle of oil -- the Mission figs were past their prime, lovely to look at but too soft, too mushy and without that seedy crunch and heavy-sweet clover-honey flavor that makes them, at their best, a prize of surpassing delicacy. And the fish stew? I blame my fawning server, a good guy who gave excellent, thoughtful service, answered every question put to him -- correctly, no less -- and generally did his job with speed and grace. But he was nuts for this stew, mentioned it maybe five times while I was trying to decide what to have, really pushedthe stew and probably would have dumped some into a doggie bag and tucked it in my back pocket when I wasn't looking if I didn't order it. So I did, and that was a mistake.
Fish stew: $22
Braised pork: $20
Prosciutto and figs: $8
Crab salad: $8
$33 prix fixe every night (Dishes — and prices — change daily)
Imagine cold, chunky tomato soup slorked out of the can and into a sauté pan. Imagine the big pieces of tomato solids, the pasty-sweet smell. Now add to that a handful of seafoods (calamari rings, little bay scallops, irregularly sized chunks of flaky white fish), some cayenne pepper, a dollop of last night's leftover pizza sauce, an unbalanced mix of whatever you have in the spice rack. Now heat everything together (guaranteeing that the calamari is going to be overdone and chewy, the scallops perfect, and the fish somewhere in between, depending on the size of the pieces), garnish and serve lukewarm. At the first spoonful, the cold tomato soup image leapt immediately to mind. The rest of the grim comparison came later.
Before knowing anything about the combined pedigrees of Musk and Matheson, I would have said the Kitchen was a brilliant space struggling through course after course of amateurish mistakes. I would've said that there was not much fun in this food, not a lot of depth and that it all seemed overwhelmingly flat. Now that I do know who these guys are, my opinion isn't much changed -- but I'm a lot more puzzled as to why the place isn't any better. The Kitchen's crew is trying, but displays far more heart than talent. The tomato broth was a good example of where this galley goes wrong. It was flavorful, but just not flavored well. This flaw seemed to ameliorate the longer the soup sat -- with time, the spikes and barbs of competing spices mellowed, taking on some of the oiliness of the fish and smoothing over into something decent -- but by then, it didn't much matter. I'd rather have a dish that's perfect at the first taste, then goes to crap, than one that takes ten minutes to find its legs. All the broth needed was a couple more minutes on the heat. All the fish needed was someone who understood the tricky chemistry of slow-cooking seafood. But that someone didn't appear to be in the Kitchen.
If that someone were there, I wouldn't have gotten an asparagus risotto whose most qualifying characteristic was that it was green. The charcuterie and cheese plates would have been less perfunctory. And that someone certainly would have realized that the braised pork with fennel in a sweet bucolic reduction of apples and fried potatoes, topped with a creamed parsley sauce and dressed with candied figs and cherries, would have worked better had there been snow flying outside instead of an air temperature locked solid at 78 degrees. But what the hell: Christmas in July.
The Kitchen's packaging is undeniably wonderful. The space looks perfect, and the smell coming from the open kitchen is a great mishmash of a dozen ethnic stinks that couldn't possibly come from any galley other than one doing Kumomoto oysters with ginger vinaigrette here, simple tarragon chicken there, and who knows, maybe a holiday goose as well. But what's inside all the packaging isn't worth the effort. Not yet. While none of the food creating those smells is terrible, none of it is terribly inspired, either.
Still, I'll be back in the Kitchen one day soon. This place has too much potential, too much ambition, not to give it another try. But the next time I come, I'm bringing a couple extra bucks for the guy with the cat-and-dog act next door.