Lansdowne. I can’t even remember the last time I drove through the center of the old town. Many things have changed; a few things have not. The Episcopal church is for sale. But the antique auction is still there. And so is the giant sycamore that used to grow out of the foundation of a house. The house, however, is now gone. A park replaces it. But that takes me to the purpose of my visit, the Sycamore restaurant. Yelp posters seem to rave about it. So, I thought we’d give it a try. They offered a $29 Sunday tasting menu. I like tasting menu for new restaurants. And even, if they don’t offer one, my dinner companions and I create our own and we ask for sharing plates. We arrive on time. The reservations I made through Open Table did not go through. Nonetheless, it wasn’t crowded and they seated us immediately. The room was golden autumn warm: reds and oranges. Yellow walnut tables, no clothes line the hug banquettes along the wall. The tables are very close. You can hear every conversation distinctly. The music, a bit too loud, doesn’t do too much to keep the high decibel talking down to a modest level. We heard every detail of the car accident recounted at the other end of the dining room.
The wait staff graciously attended us. The printed menu might have been a bit more appealing and certainly a bit clearer. While the regular items were listed on the opening fold, the tasting menus for which we had come peaked out of small print in small paragraphs on the back page. The tasting menu requirement is that all persons at the table must participate. This seemed not only reasonable but what we had come for. The three of us wanted to share and taste. And here was the big mistake. The question is, was the mistake ours or Sycamore’s. Was this to be a tasting and sharing menu?
When we made our choice known, the affable waitress intoned her memorized liens. The tasting menu selection might be anything. Some things might be on the menu, others not. Some dishes might be singular; others might be the same for the three of us. The server, young, and outgoing, but not always clear, seemed to have the menu more memorized than understood. Then too, in the din of the Sycamore, her pronouncements on our fare are less than distinct. Nonetheless, in our own enthusiasm to try the Sycamore menu, we smile and agree with great anticipation of what may appear on our table. As a Japanese diner might say to a Sushi master “we are in your hands.” And, much to our dismay, so we were.
I must say that shortly after making our choice our waiter brought us a delightful “amuse bouche:” a delicate Asian spoon of fennel, mandarin orange and balsamic.” The spoonful was imaginative and a sparkling invitation to dine. But dining was not an immediate follow. We waited. And then we waited. And we waited some more. This “grand pause” was the overture to the evening’s table ballet.
Now, I don’t like to be rushed at a restaurant. I don’t like courses being served too quickly. I like to mellow between courses with friendly banter. But to mellow is not to stagnate. We waited for very long breaks between courses: very long.
Finally the first course arrived. Three dishes: a lone scallop, a lone clam fritter and a bowl of pasta (what I think are called lumache.) Now, this is a tasting menu. And, remember, to request this menu all persons at the table must participate. Well, how can three people taste one scallop, one fritter and a serving of pasta that is barely one cup? Well, we carved them down as best we could. But how much can you taste and savor in barely a forkful?
Then, we waited again. We waited. And, we waited. Finally our most pleasant waitress brought the three samples of what I would think were main courses. The first was a serving of bass that was very delicate. While the portion was again small, we did manage to divide it into three. Then there was crepe. I cannot say too much for this creation. The texture was so heavy that the starch leached visibly into the sauce and turned it somewhat white.
By this time, I was starving: not just for something in my stomach but for the desire to taste what I came to this restaurant for. After waiting yet another inordinate stretch our server brought is “something not on the menu.” It was a stew: in fact, three servings of the same stew. This time we each had an appropriate size serving. Things were looking up. But, the moment the platters touched the tables, my childhood returned. I was with my mother at the Horn and Hardart Automat. I put the coin in the brass fixture machine, the glass door opened, and I had a deep green glazed thick ceramic bowl of stew. The aroma was without comparison. Then when my fork and my teeth met the stew, the memory became real in the overcooked carrots and completely shapeless dissolved meat. With the dish my stomach hunger was somewhat satisfied, but my culinary hunger remained insatiate.
“How is it going?” our server questioned? “Oh, just fine,” we all chimed in unison. (How we lie because we are taught to be polite and because we haven’t the “hutzpah” to retort with honesty.) “Great,” she said, “because you have more to come.” Well, what could it be? And, then, yet again, we waited. At length our server returned with a board of cheese and olives. No problem there. I love both. But, it was also very clear from the droplets and dark air shadows on the cheese slices that this cheese board was set up some time before it was served.
When the cheese disappeared we sat again for the now accustomed wait. Finally, dessert approached: a chocolate ginger bread cake with vanilla ice cream. I must say that for the first time, the size of the cake was appropriate for three people. But, while the service was a tasting menu for three in keeping with Sycamore’s conditions there were only two dollops of ice cream on the cake.
I would also note that at each service change we had to ask for a clean plate and for new cutlery. Bread was not replenished and only given meagerly upon request. Each new piece of bread was cut into three thin slices.
For a restaurant in a low rent area that charges city prices there might be many improvements.
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