From Farm to Table, Journeyman is a Gentle Joyride
In a quiet little kitchen, down a quiet little street, a couple of quiet(ish) chefs are making a big, bold impact when it comes to flavor. It’s worth a detour to Somerville, Massachusetts, to experience the way Diana Kudayarova and Tse Wei Lim translate the farm-to-table movement into a leisurely, culinary trip.
The married chef duo left academia to open Journeyman, so you might imagine their embrace of farm-to-table is academic. Nope. It’s all about the taste. Before opening almost four years ago, they visited local farms for extensive side-by-side taste-testing. “You could tell looking at the pasture how good the beef would be,” explains Chef Kudayarova. “Was there a variety of plants? When the cows’ diet wasn’t that varied, the flavor wasn’t as nuanced.” By the time Journeyman opened, the chefs believed that what’s right and what’s delicious go hand in hand – and were ready to weave this approach into a dreamy dining experience.
FOCUS ON THE JOURNEY…AND THEN THE DESTINATION
There are two journeys at Journeyman: the one before you get there, and the one that starts when you arrive. Keeping the journey of the food products to the kitchen short is the foundation of the farm-to-table with chefs focusing on what’s local and in season rather than trucking and flying in products from afar. The result? The most flavorful ingredients – which become the most flavorful dishes. Chef Kudayarova still remembers the melons of 2010 from Grateful Farm in Franklin, Massachusetts. “It was a really hot summer,” she says wistfully, closing her eyes. “A fantastic year for peaches, and off the chart for melons.” It was also the year they opened Journeyman. The melons had such a high sugar content, she could just puree them to make sorbet – no added sweetening required. “It was a poignant moment. We made about five quarts of sorbet, and the season was done by the time we opened in September. If I could do it again...”
As the farm-to-table movement grows in popularity, devoted chefs are looking for a closer and closer connection to the farms and farmers – some even becoming farmers themselves. Chef Kudayarova’s go-to farms and producers are mostly very, very small. Like her octogenarian lamb producer, Ellen, who lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts (a bucolic, affluent suburb west of the city), and raises just about two dozen lambs each year. “We want to visit and see and talk to our farmers,” says Chef Kudayarova. “And build a relationship.”
The second journey is the culinary trip Journeyman diners take. The restaurant has always featured a tasting-only menu - poetic flights of food with or without liquor pairings. There were once five to six tasting options – today it’s just herbivore or omnivore (though Chef Kudayarova warmly accommodates dietary restrictions). “Every choice we take away is to maintain more control and provide the best experience for diners,” explains front-of-house manager Brandon Yates. Journeyman is about your openness to culinary adventure, going along for the ride, and all its delicious twists and turns.
A ROAD LESS TRAVELED - AND MORE DELICIOUS
Though Journeyman is one of the most respected restaurants around, there’s no dramatic entrance. You arrive at what looks like a back door, with a simple, wrought iron sign, ushered in by the smells of bread and bacon. But first you have to find the place, which is part of the fun, kicking things off with a sense of discovery and magic. (Not so magical, you say? It’s in the heart of Somerville’s Union Square, just off the main thoroughfare, Washington Street.)
Before service begins at 5:30 p.m., there’s a hushed intensity as the chefs quietly prep together, the silence broken only by the clinking of metal spoons and cheery servers’ arrivals. The decor is quiet too - just organic materials that feel like an ode to farm living. Floor-to-ceiling greenery lining the front window. Walls of rough-hewn brick. An oversized “canvas” of striated wood, bolted on with rustic metal hardware. And scant tables evoke what you’d find in simple schoolhouse.
SLOW AND TASTY WINS THE RACE
When the curtain rises on dinner, don’t expect a big, loud production. Journeyman doesn’t play music. And even when fully booked, staggered seatings (because of the coursing) leave some tables empty. Seeing the chefs work with such precision in the open kitchen also makes you want to speak softly. (This isn’t the place to bicker with your significant other.) Fortunately, the warm, down-to-earth wait staff counters the stiffness. And so do the drinks. Like the food, cocktails feature local ingredients and unexpected pairings. Their popularity led the owners to open the adjoining Backbar, an under-the-radar drinks and snacks outpost entered though an unassuming door by the coat rack.
There’s no printed guide of what’s to come. Clearly, Journeyman loves to surprise guests – and its playful, surprising moments shine among the nine (small) courses. A play on bagels and lox features sous-vide salmon on a caper tomato compote with a schmear of smoked crème fraîche and spring onion gel, beside an airy gougère shaped into a mini bagel with “everything” spice. Steak is another winner – perfectly cooked, grassfed, locally-sourced beef sirloin crusted with vegetable ash and seaweed, alongside torched artichokes, braised leeks, black garlic puree and–wait for it–squid ink and bone marrow biscuits. These lush little nuggets look like coal but are clearly for good boys and girls, melting with salty, buttery lushness. After the meal ends (protractedly - dessert gets a prelude and a followup of housemade mini-sweets), Journeyman sends you off with a printed card of the dishes you ate. So while there’s no map on this journey, the folks at Journeyman know you’ll have fun relishing where you’ve been.
Journeyman: 9 Sanborn Ct, Somerville, MA. Tasting menu $85, Alcohol Pairing $140. As always, don't drink and zip. Or come for the Four for Forty: Tasting Menu $40, Alcohol Pairing $30, available after 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday. Book a couple weeks in advance for prime time.