My name is Doug Wykstra, and this is some of the stuff I've read and watched.
So I’ve been more sporadic on the updates than I hoped, largely a result of sleeping too little, being surprisingly unproductive, and the usual conference grind that tends to take way more time than I expect without fail every year. Tomorrow I begin the grading grind, and that often does the same thing.
Also, I’ve been trying to write more fiction- the local MFA program is having a short fiction contest, with a 1000-word limit on stories, so I’ve been trying to shift the 1000-word goal for these entries over to 1000 words of fiction a night. It hasn’t been happening so far, though, which just reminds me why I never got into the fiction game- I’m unforgivably lazy.
But I’m coming back, partly because I’m done with rough drafts, partly because the fiction wasn’t coming, partly because I don’t want to respond to any of my e-mail just yet, mostly because I just need to keep this up. And I’m going to diversify the content of this blog by trying something I’ve never really attempted before: a restaurant review.
A few things to keep in mind: I am totally unqualified for this. I have never worked in the restaurant business beyond a single summer where I bussed tables at a restaurant/bar combo owned by a family friend, meaning I’m sadly untrained in the top job market for English majors. I am not a connoisseur or even a foodie; I semi-regularly consume fast food and don’t think it tastes too bad. One day when I’m stuck for a topic, I will probably write a piece extolling the culinary virtues of the McDonald’s double cheeseburger. And I’m cheap as hell, so I won’t be looking at too many cuts of steak here.
That said, I do enjoy well-cooked food, and it doesn’t take any kind of expert to get a feel for a restaurant’s ambiance and service. I think I approach eating at most places less like a restaurant critic and more like a hungry person who wants to get a decent amount of good-tasting food for a low price, which is closer to how most restaurant patrons approach the experience (restaurant patrons who read reviews before deciding on a restaurant are another matter, but I probably scared them off when I mentioned McDonalds). So I’m just recording my own experiences here, which are naturally circumscribed by the type of person I choose to be. And above all, I’m lucky enough to live in a city like Tucson, AZ, which is big enough to support some excellent cooks and a diverse range of restaurants, but small enough that it doesn’t have many places with 8-month wait lists, 200-dollar meals, or sommeliers that give you lip when you order cheap Australian wine. It’s a city with a hundred secretly awesome spots just waiting to be discovered.
The place I visited on Saturday seems to have already been discovered by most of the people who are into the Tucson restaurant scene, but it was more of a longstanding curiosity to me. Less than a mile north of my apartment, the Wild Garlic Grill had sprung from the ruins of a building I never paid much attention to, but the presence of a professional-looking restaurant, with a large sign touting the presence of a chef I had never heard of, was enough to grab my attention, especially on a stretch of 1st Avenue that most would charitably describe as “seedy.” After a few weeks of curiosity, I decided to head out on a whim and see what the place was like.
I don’t know if this says something good or bad about me, but I keep a “dating book,” where I can write down good ideas for various types of dates, and briefly look at how well they worked out. I have issues with spontaneity, so a record of pre-set plans and plan reviews (as well as ideas on how to dress, conversation topics, reflections on those, etc) can really help me out. I bring this up only to say that Wild Garlic Grill is going in my dating book, and would go there for ambiance alone. The place gives off a sense of being impressive and high-class while maintaining a charming workmanlike quality, largely due to the prominence of the kitchen, which seems to jut out into the middle of the restaurant, and is visible from nearly every table. The bar even faces directly into the kitchen, almost like it’s designed for Hell’s Kitchen fans who want to see an episode live. The business cards for the restaurant place Chef Steven Shultz prominently on them, and it’s clear that this place is designed with the people making your food in mind as much as the people who consume it. The open kitchen and constant noise coming from it do a great job of loosening up the atmosphere, making all the dark wood furniture and white tablecloths seem less stifling than they would with a lower sound level. It struck me immediately as a great first date location, not as nerve-racking as a black tie dinner, but definitely classier than T.G.I. Friday’s during happy hour (which stands as the single worst date suggestion I ever got from a friend. Of course, he’s been in a successful relationship for several years now, so maybe I’m the one who’s crazy).
I was definitely underdressed, having just gotten back from a hike without changing, and the host let me know this by seating my at the bar, and insisting I take a seat next to the only other person in the restaurant who was wearing an University of Arizona T-shirt. But other than this slightly snooty but otherwise totally understandable seating arrangement, everyone was very friendly, refilled my water glass regularly, and never pushed too hard to get me to order off the wine list, which was good, as I was walking into this restaurant under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Unanticipated expenses had left me a little light on cash that week. How light? I had 50 bucks in my checking account, and that was going to have to last me 6 days. So when I looked at the menu, cost-effectiveness was foremost in my mind. Fortunately, the prices were all downright reasonable. I chose a $10 burger meal, on the admittedly thin argument that a restaurant with a fancy cook needed to be tested on its ability to not screw up something basic like a burger. To keep things adventurous, I ordered the potato salad instead of the fries. Adventure!
Waiting for my food, I inadvertently stumbled upon one of the downfalls of this kitchen-centered restaurant style. It was entertaining watching the cooks go about their business, moving from dish to dish, putting saucepans on the stove and not feeling the need to stand by watching them until the dishes within are done cooking, and putting out dishes at an impressive speed. Dishes that had to come out together would go into a warming shelf until all of them were prepared. I was slowly coming to understand some of the systems within the kitchen, when I noticed someone putting the finishing touches on a burger with potato salad. Then, just as everything was arranged on the plate just so- the cook noticed something on his counter was out of order, or wasn’t being put in at the proper time, or something. Either way, he waved his assistants over, and my burger went into the warming shelf- and stayed there for the next several minutes while the chef lectured his staff, and they went back to their stations, picking up whatever work had come onto their counters in the meantime. My dish was forgotten, and I had to sit and watch it, afraid to even complain because of how busy everybody looked.
I’m sure this sort of thing happens all the time in restaurant kitchens, but it’s almost traumatizing to have it happen in front of your very eyes, and feel like you can’t say anything. Fortunately it didn’t last too long, and my burger came off the shelf still reasonably warm, albeit with a little more moisture than was healthy for the lower bun.
Like I said, my primary concern with the burger was that the cook not mess up a basic staple of slightly upscale restaurants. Not only had he not messed up the burger, he had turned it into a bacon cheeseburger, which is the best possible thing you can do to a burger. I’m not going to pretend like I can tell cheap ground beef from expensive, but the meat tasted good, and had a satisfying crust on it. It was a little dark for medium rare, but I attributed that to the time it spent on the warming shelf. The vegetables were all hamburger standards, but the lettuce was mixed greens, and the pickle was a whole wedge rather than those little chips. The bun was a roll that would have been a decent meal by itself. So there was no messing with what makes a burger good, and an attention to top-quality ingredients that pushed it past the normal. Top marks.
The potato salad was quite good as well, and different from any other potato salad I’d had before- it seemed to rely less on mayonnaise and more on mustard and spices. The best touch was the potato- rather than mix everything together, they put half a baked potato on the plate, mashed it down, and spooned the potato salad dressing over the top. It didn’t seem to affect the flavor, but it was one of those aesthetic touches that really made the meal special.
Again, I was trying to get out of this experience spending as little as possible, so that was pretty much the whole experience. Anyway, the burger and potato were big enough that I didn’t feel like I could have eaten much more anyway. I paid in cash, left a decent tip, and walked back home in nighttime Arizona air that was already displaying the unwillingness to cool characteristic of late spring. A satisfying experience all around.
I did bring a copy of Middlemarch and read it while I ate. Everyone seemed okay with that. It’s a difficult read. More on it later, hopefully this week.
The bathrooms are one-person-at-a-time and dimly lit, but that’s probably to be expected given the small size of the building and the newness of the restaurant. It still has that exciting fly-by-night quality that suggests that the menu was the only thing the owner had fully figured out.
One thing I didn’t do justice to in the review is how small the whole restaurant is, and what a marvelous use of space it accomplishes. The kitchen-centric design is as much a necessity of the tiny square footage as it is a conscious choice. There’s also a closed-off patio nearly as big as the indoor section of the restaurant, which suggests that the restaurant couldn’t get much bigger without needing to expand the kitchen too.
I really hope this restaurant gets over the one-year mark that takes down so many startup eateries. I’m really getting tired of taking girls downtown for dates all the time.