Dining Out: Journeyman Review

WHETHER OR NOT YOU ENJOY Journeyman comes down to this: how much you like being told what to eat, and if you believe in dinner as performance art — watching the creative process unfold with every course. Whether or not, that is, you are happy to enter someone else’s imagination and accept what that imagination has dreamed up.

Tse Wei Lim and Diana Kudajarova, the husband-and-wife chef-owners, want you to enjoy spending an evening in their hands. That means surrendering to the menu they’ve devised for the week, making no choices beyond “omnivore” or “vegetarian”; three ($39), five ($65), or seven ($85) courses; and set beverage pairings ($25, $45, and $65) or wine by the glass. (They also offer wines by the bottle; spirits, apertifs, and digestifs by the glass; bottled beers; cocktails; house-made sodas; and teas and coffees, which are all a la carte.)

The story of Journeyman is appealing on paper — or rather, on the couple’s blog, which detailed the inevitably expensive, delay-ridden months of converting an airy space in Union Square from a pasta-sauce factory to a restaurant. The two have also written about visiting with farmers and conducting “pork-off” tastings. About repairing the front wall of windows and planting a vertical garden for the kitchen. About buying equipment. (“I like saying Hobart. Try it! You’ll see!”) It was impossible not to be swept up in Lim and Kudajarova’s excitement as they built to the long-anticipated opening in September.

A pity, then, that such enthusiasm and warmth don’t translate to dining at Journeyman. Or at least they didn’t when I tried the menus from two different weeks in the dead of winter. Could it have been the cold weather that made cooking to the local-seasonal ethic the owners embrace a near impossibility? Or the endless questions that flummoxed our well-meaning server, who frequently confused orders and, rather than answer those questions, retreated behind Journeyman’s intent that the menu “conceal and reveal” surprises on the plate? All of the above, perhaps. But I left with the impression that what the constant reworking of complicated, multilayered dishes really conceals and reveals is a couple teaching themselves how to cook.

Control-freak, retrograde, what-you-see-is-what-you-get literalist I may be. But the most exciting and memorable meal I’ve had in recent years was at Grant Achatz’s Alinea in Chicago, where the menu format and three-word dish listings — which veil bold experimentation — seem to be the model for Journeyman. I’m sure the young chefs, as technique-minded as they are, would never dare compare themselves with Achatz. How he came to be so bold, though, is telling: He worked for four years at the French Laundry, and could follow each rule to the letter before breaking it — a requisite of the form.

But back to the Journeyman experience. A few of the dishes had wonderful flavor — revelatory, even. Lamb shoulder braised for hours until spoon-tender, served with a bright-flavored green herb sauce, was succulent, and the pairing with Parisian gnocchi — not potato, but a cheesy cream-puff batter piped into boiling water and then crisped in butter — was so good I wanted a double portion. The green sauce on the lamb, made with lots of fresh herbs, wasn’t loosened with enough oil to keep it from seeming grassy, but it enlivened the dish. Thick-cut duck breast had extraordinary flavor — it could have doubled for filet mignon, except with far better taste—and was stunning, topped with a huge home-pickled watermelon radish. The crisp acidity of the pickle against the steaky duck, and the sweetness of Gilfeather turnip purée, made for another noteworthy plate.

See more photos of Journeyman dishes.

  • Howard

    Perhaps the problem for Mr. Kummer, after a long and estimable career in the food trade, is that he has finally succumbed to his own hype. Whereas he thinks, condescendingly, the owners of Journeyman

  • J

    Did this review have to adopt such a bitchy tone? Yikes.

  • mike

    I’ve been following the reviews of this restaurant since I poked my head in one of the first nights they had opened. I wanted to welcome them to my neighborhood, and wish them well. I have never been greeted so coldly at the door to an empty dining room. Then the reviews of three hour/three course dinners? Count me out. I give them credit for passion, but Corby you know nonsense when you see it!