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T.W. Food & Craigie on Main -- Service is no match for the food

lipoff May 12, 2009 08:57 AM

I had the good fortune to dine at T.W. Food and Craigie on Main on successive nights this Saturday and Sunday, both at 8 PM,

The food experience at both restaurants were terrific and reminiscent of each other --- interesting, creative, seasonal, local, artisanal dishes. New England fare with global sensitivity, perhaps?

The scrambled egg appetizer at T.W. Food was rich and luscious, and the salted cod entree had a beautiful texture and an unusual set of flavors that really complemented the fish. The fish itself was reminiscent of a Chinese style, but with obviously Western accompaniments. I was really looking forward to the scotch and cigars dessert but it was uninteresting --- the tobacco flavor was barely detectable, and the scotch was very sweet. The fruit sorbets and peach ice cream were nothing special, my DC described them as "Trader Joe's" quality. But the appetizer and entree were excellent beyond fault.

The sablefish appetizer at Craigie on Main was interesting and had terrific flavors (especially the miniature flowers) but the fish itself was bit lacking. However, the skirt steak entree was one of the very best beef dishes I've ever had, combining multiple beef tastes (perfectly cooked skirt steak, beef tongue, and marrow) in a harmonious fashion. I tasted the terrifically light and sharp halibut as well. A side order of gently prepared fiddleheads was out-of-this-world. The sorbets of the evening, meyer lemon, mango and grapefruit were exquisite, and the candied kumquat, limequat and mandarinquat were an amazing touch. The tea --- both Jasmine and Earl Grey, at least --- were among the best cups of tea either of us has ever had in a restaurant.

So both restaurants had excellent, if not quite perfect, food, in a very pleasant setting and at a reasonable price for that level of food.

However, both restaurants served this food via atrocious, albeit well-meaning, service.

To be fair, both restaurants were full, but this does not justify the twenty-five minute wait between taking drink orders and reappearing at T.W. Food, or the twenty-one minute wait at Craigie Street. It doesn't justify bringing the wrong appetizer (Craigie), not refilling water glasses ever until prompted (T.W. Food), describing the sorbets incorrectly (Craigie), not bringing bread until prompted (T.W. Food), not describing dishes (or even announcing their names) when serving them (both), delivering french-press coffee before it was ready (T.W. Food), or (twice!) ten minute waits between asking whether I'd like another glass of tonic water and actually bringing the glass (Craigie), directing us to our table by pointing across the room while seating another party (T.W. Food), or upselling the wine by calling the Burgandy by the glass "unsophisticated" (Craigie). Interactions with the waitstaff at both restaurants were somewhat stilted, as if they hadn't worked in restaurants before yet neither was particularly young.

There was nothing malicious or ill-tempered about the service, just confusion and disarray. Craigie on Main definitely seemed more chaotic, with many servers running this way and that, and others loudly calling across the restaurant for "RUNNERS!" to pickup food from the open kitchen. T.W. Food is smaller and more subdued, but the service was even slower.

Both are very fine restaurants, with their craft of food at a very high level. Admittedly a Saturday night and a Mother's Day evening are not where service might be expected to shine, but both places ought to improve their service to match the excellent food.

I will also add that I was wary of T.W. Food from reading some other posts on this board, but the food was terrific and I won't hesitate to return I'd been to the Craigie Street Bistrot several times in the past, but not yet to their new location. I was expecting excellent food, and the food exceeded my high expectations.

  1. StriperGuy May 12, 2009 09:36 AM

    Nice thorough reviews.

    1. GretchenS May 12, 2009 09:56 AM

      Very nice, detailed reviews. Friends and I went to brunch at Craigie a couple of weekends ago, and I would say that our experience paralleled yours. Our food was just outstanding: there wasn't one single thing we felt could have been executed better, and that is very unusual for all of us, we're kinda picky. The service, though, although pleasant, was decidedly unpolished and awkward, with the server unsure of whether or not there were peppers in the corned beef hash and not offering to go and check, among other things. Still, we would all go back in a heartbeat, we all thought it was among the very best brunches we'd ever had, and very reasonably priced to boot.

      1. s
        Splendid Spatula May 12, 2009 10:06 AM

        I have to say I've found staff here to be good. I was there on Sunday, for brunch - certainly busy but no problems with service. Leisurely, yes. Unforgivably slow, no. The major challenge appeared to be navigating around large crowded tables. But they knew what they were talking about, and delivered it appropriately.

        Also ate there for dinner on a Thursday about four weeks ago, no problems - staff knew what they were talking about, what they were doing, and brought up plenty of delicious food in a timely manner.

        1. p
          panda681 May 12, 2009 10:35 AM

          I also ate at Craigie on Mother's day, both my husband and I had the pre-fixe. We especially like the pork in all its various forms, including cured pork belly on white asparagus, and the pork 2 ways entree. I really liked the other appetizer which was lobster ragout with mushrooms and asparagus. The poached egg added just the right amount of richness to the rest of the dish. All together, every dish had a perfect balance of flavors and textures, like the smoky fish amuse that came with tiny potato chips. Being students, this is the best restaurant we have ever eaten at in Boston area, and the food definitely lived up to the expectations I had from reading about it here.

          As for the service, overall I thought it was excellent. We arrived around 6:30 so it was about half full for the first 30 min we were there. But the waiter was very good at explaining the menu to us first-timers. Also being pregnant, he suggested I let the bartender whip me up a mocktail. Both of my drinks were amazing, but my favorite was fresh pineapple juice, rhubarb juice, ginger beer and bitters. I am still dreaming about that drink! And since I couldn't have the dessert wine that came with the pre-fixe he took the mocktails off our bill. My husband also asked for a suggestion for a glass of wine to go with his entree and the waiter brought over a taste of two different ones to let him try. Again, maybe we are unaccustomed to such good service since we don't normally eat at such nice places, but I thought that was really helpful instead of just telling him the name of two possible choices and letting him choose. The only slow part was the wait between the amuse and appetizer, but they apologized profusely for the delay and we were happy to munch the delicious bread and drink our drinks.

          Again, thanks to the Boston hounds for all the reviews of Craigie, it was a fantastic place to go for our rare splurge.

          1. SuperFineSugar May 12, 2009 11:38 AM

            Wow. I think you have a right to expect good service, but I can't help but wonder if your view of the service under your mighty magnifying glass is just going to mar what would have been a very good experience. TW Food always brings the coffee out that way. It gives you the chance to decide just how strongly you like it brewed. I like that about dining there. Bringing a wrong appetizer can happen. Did they whisk it away? Could it have belonged to the table next to you? That's such a tiny mistake, I wouldn't have even thought twice about it, unless by that you meant everyone at the table had their app and one was wrong and that diner had to wait for it. Hard to say by your post. Describing sorbets incorrectly? How exactly? Did they leave out a major ingredient? Craigie's open kitchen is just that. An open kitchen. You will hear how things play out during the night. For many of us, that's a plus, not a negative.

            I'm happy to see reviews on places, and to hear different experiences good and bad, but I think your review was harsher than it needed to be, and frankly, phrases like: amazing touch; excellent, if not quite perfect, pleasant setting, atrocious, albeit well-meaning service, reminicent of Chinese -- don't tell me anything, and are the kind of restaurant reviewing that makes me wrinkle my nose.

            6 Replies
            1. re: SuperFineSugar
              yumyum May 12, 2009 12:00 PM

              I disagree. Accidents do happen, but a series of service snafus can really detract from an otherwise great dining experience. I haven't eaten at TWFood but have been to Craigie on Main and the service at CoM was a tad scattered, with multiple servers sometimes describing the food, sometimes not, sometimes knowing what the rillettes of the day was, perhaps not. Always happy to run back to the kitchen to clarify but you would hope they'd just know. The excellence in the kitchen needs to be paired with excellence in the front of the house.

              Full disclosure: I've met lipoff and know this poster to be extremely gracious and polite in dining situations -- someone who might *notice* poor service but would never be an ass about it to the waitstaff or bartender. So I welcome this report.

              1. re: SuperFineSugar
                lipoff May 12, 2009 02:37 PM

                Thanks yumyum. =)

                Panda, I don't think it has anything to do with being accustomed to anything --- it sounds like you had just wonderful service, full stop. We had wonderful food, but didn't have wonderful service at the same place on the same night.

                It seems like others have had better service on other nights, and I hope to experience that myself again in the future.

                But SuperFineSugar, I felt like I was kvetching a bit while writing up the review myself, except that each place had so many little foibles that were really out of place for such fine food.

                Let me put it another way: my DC on Saturday night and my mother on Sunday night both commented on the lengthy delay between taking our drink orders and bringing us anything. While not exactly the two most patient people in the world, neither is out of line. Both had a very negative impression before the first bite arrived. Subsequent service didn't quell that. That both restaurants managed to be liked by them is a testament to the food. Service is important. It's not as important to me as the food, but it is important, especially for a special occasion.

                To clarify:

                Of course, bringing a wrong appetizer can happen. But it wasn't described when it was brought, someone's attention had to be gotten, and asked if it was mackerel or pork. He wasn't sure. He got another waiter, he knew it was pork and not mackerel (no kidding!), and brought the right one in a couple minutes.

                The waiter described the sorbets on the menu as grapefruit, mango and yogurt and they turned out to be grapefruit, mango and meyer lemon. As it turns out, meyer lemon was terrific, and the dish was better than what the waiter described, but I almost didn't order it because of this.

                I could go on. Any individual error is fine --- nothing can be perfect. But there was too much wrong at both places. I wanted to catalog all the foibles to explain why the service came up short.

                1. re: lipoff
                  p
                  pollystyrene May 12, 2009 10:14 PM

                  And you did an excellent job of it...if not quite perfect. I thought the reviews were informative and moderate. There are some posts I don't give much credence to because of the tone, but yours isn't one of them. It seems SuperFineSugar might have read your reviews with too mighty a magnifying glass.

                  Your experiences are yet another example of what a crapshoot dining out can be. For folks like Panda and me, for whom going to a place like Craigie is a rare splurge, it's helpful to read as many perspectives as possible before we role the dice.

                  1. re: pollystyrene
                    SuperFineSugar May 13, 2009 09:22 PM

                    My point was that some of the things lipoff saw as negative, I absolutely saw as positives. And that much of the review used descriptions that were not helpful. Dining can absolutely be a crapshoot, but looking for absolute perfection is not that realistic. Maybe I look for too little? I don't know.

                    1. re: SuperFineSugar
                      lipoff May 13, 2009 10:08 PM

                      I think one can disagree about whether the coffee should be brought over ready or not, although I find it hard to judge how much longer to brew it if I don't know the coffee, don't know the water, and most of all, don't know how long its already been steeping. I find it amusing that I had to time a minute on my stopwatch before pressing the French press plunger.

                      And I like an open-kitchen just fine, but I can do without 20-year old waitresses yelling for "RUNNERS!" across the room.

                      I'm sorry my review makes you wrinkle your nose --- that's why Chowhound is so great, because many people have different styles.

                      But for fun, I'm going to explain exactly what I meant by the phrases you highlighted. I find this a little amusing, because I think what I meant was fairly obvious if you do me the courtesy of assuming that I actually did mean something, and wasn't adding empty adjectives. If you read my other posts, I have a pretty consistent style.

                      Here goes:

                      By "amazing touch" I mean that while most restaurants would just plate three sorbets and let them stand by themselves, Craigie on Main added a few candied, unusual citrus fruits that complemented the sorbets nicely, making for an amazing (i.e. unexpected and delightful) touch (i.e. little addition) to the dish.

                      By "excellent, if not quite perfect" I mean that at both T.W. Food and Craigie on Main, I enjoyed an excellent meal but one course at each place wasn't excellent -- the dessert at T.W. Food and the appetizer at Craigie on Main. So the food wasn't perfect, but it was excellent.

                      By "atrocious, albeit well-meaning service" I mean that the service was atrocious, but not because the waiter had a bad attitude, was mean or obstinate, but despite being well-meaning, were unable, for whatever reason, to deliver competent and organized service. I then go on to describe exactly how a bunch of missed details added up to sub-par service experience.

                      By "reminiscent of Chinese" I mean that serving fish, salted and poached in the manner that T.W. Food did, reminded me and my DC of the texture and tastes of some Chinese preparations, although the main ingredient (cod) and the accompaniments (sliced potato, beets, orange and olives) were very local. It reminded both of us so strongly of a Chinese style that we described it as xian2 er2 bu4 ni4 (approximate translation: richly salted but not too much).

                      1. re: lipoff
                        Joanie May 14, 2009 05:14 AM

                        You're gone above and beyond the call of duty explaining your thoughts. You're entitled to your opinion and I for one had no problem understanding your various phrases and thought they were descriptive enough.

              2. k
                kristinayee May 12, 2009 12:51 PM

                I have had complete opposite experiences concerning service at Craigie. We have been twice within the last month, both on weekend nights, and were seated promptly. Each time the service was attentive. In a previous posting about my Craigie experience, I described how our server even offered (and delivered) a fully customized menu of the specific dishes that we got in our tasting menu (which differs slightly by the table and is therefore not a standard printout). Yes, each dish may be served by a different server or even multiple ones at the same time, but I never found that to be a problem. Our bread was brought quickly, our water glasses refilled and all the dishes accurately described.

                I am disheartened that people have had bad experiences, but it's not something that I have personally experienced.

                1. o
                  oniontears May 12, 2009 01:30 PM

                  I have to disagree with the OP. The weekend before I dined at Craigie on a Friday, then TW on Monday since my mom was in town for a visit. Despite the initial discomfort of waiting at the bar with all the other bar folks jockeying for a spot, the meal itself was perhaps the best I've had in years and I attribute some of that to the service. They were so attentive that at one point I was taking in the room decor and the waiter rushed over thinking I was signaling him with my gaze. In addition, his knowledge of wine was fantastic and we were extremely happy with the service. My mom and I had the 6 course tasting, and she was wowed in only the way a San Francisco foodie could be at the pace of the meal and the sequencing of the dishes. Tony Maws himself brought out our squab dish. We were not thrilled with the seafood sausage course, but found everything else to be superb.

                  TW on the other hand was solid food-wise, but the service was atrocious. I noticed that two other tables kept having to call over the two waitresses and they were often just standing near the kitchen chatting with each other. I also thought their fiddlehead salad was overdressed and their desserts like Jello pudding cups (I, too, had the scotch and cigars). However the meal was redeemed during the main entree where my tenderloin and beef cheeks were outstanding and very well sized. My mom's cold smoked lamb was also very well done. Also their larder options are tasty and interesting. Did you notice that the vegetables they use are often just raw greens tossed with a vinagrette? I found that to be unimaginative.

                  All in all, Craigie far outshined TW, but at $39 TW can make a very decent mid-week meal.

                  1. Pia May 13, 2009 06:05 AM

                    We had great service at Craigie on a recent trip. It was 9 p.m. on a weekday -- the restaurant seemed pretty full, but not crowded. The thing that sticks out in my mind is that when my husband accidentally knocked a glass full of red wine on the floor and it shattered, our waiter ran over, asked if we were okay or needed anything, and cleaned it up while the manager handed us his card and offered to pay for any dry-cleaning. We would never take them up on it since it was our fault, but I was surprised and impressed. Everything was cleaned up and back to normal in about a minute, and the waiter didn't say another word about it. (We left an extra-big tip to make up for the mess.)

                    1. Bob Dobalina May 13, 2009 06:15 AM

                      My 0.02 - Recently was DOWNsold a bottle of wine at Craigie, once the server saw we were not really in the market for a $70 bottle. Had a very nice bottle at $40.

                      1. k
                        kimfair1 May 13, 2009 10:46 AM

                        I've had generally excellent service at Craigie (both the new and old spots), but can't comment on TW Food since we haven't been there yet. I can say that one problem getting cocktails there could be how busy the bartenders were. We recently went on my birthday and sat at the bar. There was a party of 15 in the restaurant and they all ordered drinks. Tom and two other barkeeps did their best to keep up, but since each cocktail had multiple ingredients, it took a while to get them out. This caused those drinks as well as other orders for both the restaurant and bar to back up.

                        1. kobuta May 13, 2009 12:26 PM

                          I'll also chime in with a Craigie's service was excellent for my meal. We had a 10-course tasting too, so we were there for 3 hours! The servers were always enthusiastic and attentive, and a complement to the great food.

                          1. Bob Dobalina May 14, 2009 05:50 AM

                            This whole thread deserves a friggin James Beard nomination...

                            1. steinpilz May 14, 2009 07:16 AM

                              How were the fiddleheads prepared?

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: steinpilz
                                lipoff May 14, 2009 09:40 AM

                                Very simply, they appeared stir-fried in a modicum of oil and a little salt. They were absolutely delicious.

                                1. re: lipoff
                                  steinpilz May 17, 2009 06:59 PM

                                  Thanks for your reply. The salt is the key to this simple prep IMO, I used mustard oil (as you hadn't mentioned what they used) and it turned out pretty damn good. Much better than my previous tries with bacon etc.... Thanks again!

                              2. m
                                maggie may May 18, 2009 01:21 AM

                                I had dinner with two companions at Craigie on Main last thursdays and found both food and service to be eccellent. In fact the whole experience was so seamless it was remarkable, I felt so pampered I am still floating on air!

                                1. WineAG May 22, 2009 11:26 AM

                                  There's been much reported on Craigie... of course one of the Boston area's great spots for food lovers, so let's talk about TW Food. I believe that TW Food is one of the most innovative and exciting places around. I find the service adequate... most importantly they have a great attitude there... they aim to please. Part of the charm is the small, unassuming nature of the place. They have a limited staff and as you say, it's all about the food. The service I've received has been good... no really long waits. The chef is doing some of the best food in town at prices that are a bargain for what he's doing. For those who haven't been... go if you're into innovative high quality cuisine and prepare to be amazed at how wonderful the place is. Miniscule wine list but VERY fairly priced and there's always something you'll find to please.
                                  Very special and we're lucky to find this true husband and wife "labor of love" and true dedication to cuisine in our midst.

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