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Sep 19, 2010 09:24 PM

craigie whim on a whim

Went to the chef's whim for the first time this evening. Dining after 21:00 as a family would normally be a no no, but with my wife and daughter out of town, I took the opportunity to give this a go. It also gave me a chance to check out the service issues posted on a recent thread, since I had not dined at Craigie for some months.

My reservation was for 21:30, and I showed up just after 21:20. When the reservation was being confirmed yesterday, I was asked if I would like to sit at the 'chef's table', overlooking the kitchen. Since I was dining alone, I said yes. So when I arrived, I was asked if I would mind sitting at the bar since I was early -- and so I could order a drink. I became concerned that my table wasn't ready, and asked when it might be cleared -- at which point the maitre d' said the table _was_ ready, but they like to start the whim service 'bang on time'. I thought this was a cheap ploy to get me to order a drink, and when I looked non-plussed, they did seat me promptly.

Both upon entry, and several times after I sat (when I was eventually asked for my order), I was asked if I wanted the 'standard six course' or 'abbreviated 4 course', the latter said with some disdain. I asked for the 4 course anyway, at which point I was asked which sides I wanted -- the bone marrow or zucchini something. Since I was aware of this upsell scam from the other thread, I just paused, and after a while, the waitress, seemed to crack and confessed that there was a $10 charge/side. At no time was I told the different prices for the 2 'whims' on offer, nor did I ask, since I had already checked it out beforehand. In fact, the whole upselling thing was rather a bore, since it reared its head throughout the meal.

A rather substantial bread basket was brought, and then a server brought me "the first course": which was a tiny portion of squid cut into thin strips. To be fair, it was exquisitely delicious, all half a mouthful of it. The next course, a hamachi sashimi was sl. more substantial, about 2 mouthfuls, but by this time I was getting concerned that the 'abbreviated' meal really was second class in comparison, and I was going to leave hungry -- so I started munching down the sl. stale bread. The third course was 2 large prawns, with a mango salsa or something. I was re-assured that the shrimp were from the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida, and not from the gulf, which I smirked at. Unlike most shrimp I've eaten the last few years, these were really flavourful and meaty. I devoured them, and mopped up the meagre sauce with bread, thinking I'm paying about $10/ mouthful for this meal!

When they put out a meat knife for the next course, I wondered whether the 'first course' of the squid was rather an amuse bouche, and slowed down on the bread basket. This next course was a duo of veal -- what looked like loin and sweet-breads. This was a complex dish with all sorts of ingredients to it -- it took about 10 minutes to assemble, with 4 different chefs adding a small piece here and there. And it was delicious. By this time, the annoyances were starting to fade, and the food, rightly was taking centre stage.

The final, dessert course, was grits with ice-cream and raspberries. I'm not really into dessert, and less so into grains for my dessert, but it was again, very tasty, surprisingly so. By this time I was full. Satisfyingly full. Although the bone-marrow looked wonderful, I'm glad I passed it up, because it would have been too much (even without all the extra bread). All in all, the meal came to just over $60, including tax and tip, with a 'mocktail' and a tea thrown in, which I thought was good value.

Annoyances: the whole pretentious thing. You're given a card and pencil to write your own 'notes' on the meal, which I did, since there was little else to amuse me. I also planned my week ahead, but still, it's a bit much. The whole 'whim' idea is sold that that chef decides what to cook for _you_ that evening, but in reality, everyone got the same thing -- it was regimented very much like a factory line, and explained possibly, in part, the reluctance to have me seated early. I would rather they call it a fixed price meal with no choices and no substitutions, and let you have a menu. The air of mystique isn't really required.
Secondly, the upselling was really too much. I've dined at pretty fancy places, and paid many times the price of this meal, but never felt I was a second class citizen for ordering less than the most expensive menu except for here. It was irritating to say the least. The service itself was fine -- my water glass was filled frequently, even the butter was replenished without needing to ask. But it was all a bit perfunctory. The servers asked how I thought each course was, but weren't really waiting to hear the answer, just ticking a box. I'm not asking to be their best friend, but especially when I've dined alone at upscale establishments, unless it's clear I'm not in the mood to talk, there has been rather more engagement with the staff, which is part of the fun.

However, the food really was very good. The squid, the shrimp and the veal in particular.

But cost aside, the lack of real warmth from the staff make it difficult for it contend as a place one would like to go as a regular.


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  1. We were walking the dog yesterday and faced with a busy day following a equally busy post vacation week. A special treat was in order, so we called Craigie and found they had a table for us if we could come over quickly. We did and had a lovely brunch that really made up for our hectic return to Boston.

    From the phone call to the exit, our service was warm and professional. While not weekly customers, we do have regular Craigie cravings and some of the staff may recognize us. I know my name is in their system because I often reserve via open table.

    Because of limitations on what I can eat we have not done a tasting menu. I just know I could never get through one. Yesterday my heroic husband had to bail me out and finish my panino.

    While I would love to watch the kitchen, I've never opted for that chef's counter. I'm wondering if it is easy for the servers to really stay engaged with a diner sitting there. The passage behind you is busy and crowded, the other servers are gathered on either side. When the kitchen is busy, I suspect it is a bit loud there as well.

    But, I may have to try it one of these days. We often eat at the bar. How have other hounds who have dined at the chef counter felt about the service there vs the bar or dining room?

    My Craigie news note from yesterday was that they have switched out the shoestring fries for a great rendition of steak fries- medium thick cut, perfectly seasoned and irresistible.

    photo here:


    Craigie on Main
    853 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02139

    8 Replies
    1. re: BostonZest

      my impression is that the service is better at the chef's counter and the bar than the dining room e.g. they are more disposed to slip you an extra amuse or small dish compliments of the chef. that being said, i've never had any issues with the service in the dining room.

      1. re: barleywino

        I like Craigie; I go there twice a month. I find the service very good, and I have not had a problem with up-selling. When the waitstaff is busy and Craigie is almost invariably busy, I understand why they do not linger.

        That said, the chef is stiff and unbending about procedure, much more so than at most upscale french restaurants. But i have never had a problem with service.

        1. re: cambridgedoctpr

          Do you really eat there 24 times a year? I'm impressed. (Note to self: cultivate cambridgedoctpr.) How many years have you done this?

          1. re: FoodDabbler

            I just started doing hitting Craigie it will probably taper off though it is short walk from where i live. I think that i did hit Jean Georges in NYC 24 times in the last year though that will also taper off.

      2. re: BostonZest

        That's really good news about the fries, I thought the shoetring ones were the weakest part of the menu, personal preference I know, but there it is...

        1. re: GretchenS

          Had the new fries tonight, could not disagree with you more. I LOVED those shoestring fries, these were just like any other ole steak fry - it's hard to do fries that thick in a way that's memorable. As you say, personal pref though, I'm generally partial to thinner fries.

        2. re: BostonZest

          My experiences for brunch have always been v. positive. I think it's the best brunch in town, no question, that I've had. And unlike celeriac, never had an issue with the upselling at brunch.

          My experiences were not so terrible that "I'll never go again", not even close. However, it was not a uniformly wonderful affair. The food was very good, occasionally very, very good. But if I were to dine alone there again, I'll just take a book with me.

          Once I'd made the 4 course choice, it wasn't mentioned again. But until the point of making the choice, I distinctly got the impression that it was deemed inferior. The only other experience that comes close to it (in fact that experience was worse) was at the Dorchester Grill in London, c. 1990. My friend and I, both students, were dining there (I'd saved up, he was rich) and perhaps a combination of our age, and that I ordered the prix fixe, made the waiter really sneer at us. Avoided the Dorchester for about 5 years after that (all is well now, I'm happy to report!).


          1. re: trueblu

            i would not like it if a waiter sneered at me for anything but truly awful behavior on my part.

            It is called the service industry. I have never had that problem at Craigie, but I go for the food not for banter with the wait staff. If they bring the food on a timely basis that is fine; I am easily pleased.

        3. My wife have done the whim twice and each time we just got asked if we wanted the six-course or four-course meal (and chose the four-course), and I don't think we got asked about sides. Maybe they did list the six-course choice first, but I didn't feel like I was being pressured to order the six-course choice any more than when I choose tap water instead of bottled. Maybe it's a per-waiter thing.

          As far as the whim idea being "the chef decides what to cook for _you_", I never got the idea that it was anything but the chef's choices for the evening as a whole, made for everyone. On the other hand I just looked at the description on the webpage and can see where one could get the idea that it would be a bit more personal.

          One small issue I have with Craigie's whims & tastings that you shared is not being quite sure how many more courses are coming up, since the advertised number of courses is more of a lower bound.

          I agree that the card and pencil thing is pretty silly.

          2 Replies
          1. re: dfan

            When they started the whim at the original location, it was actually a much more random affair and there was less of the "everyone ordering it getting the same thing" feel. Their original argument (if true and not just a cute story) when they only offered it on Sunday nights after 9pm was that they were closed on Monday and wanted to clear out the kitchen of all the food.

            So one really could go and get a dish on the menu that evening then something off the menu, and the person participating in the whim at the table next to you got something a bit different.

            Having participated in a number of occasions both at Craigie St. and on Main (where they've expanded it to several nights--so the cute story can't be true), I'll agree with the OP that it seems much more like any other prix fixe just without the choices.

            1. re: Canadian Tuxedo

              By coincidence a co-worker just asked me a Craigie-related question which brought us around to the Whim.

              On their website it seems they just list it as occurring on Sunday nights, but I know that in the not-to-distant past they had expanded it to a few days during the week.

              Have they scaled it back or is the Whim available on a non-Sunday night? I ask not thinking anyone will answer the phone there right now...

          2. My last two experiences at Craigie couldn't have been more different service wise. In one instance the server was very inexperienced and while perfectly pleasant made many mistakes. My most recent experience, however, could not have been better. Our waitress never tried to "up sell" anything, discussed each course with my DC with great interest, went back to the kitchen several times to ask about obscure points, and made us feel totally welcome and special. And the food was great too!

            1. I have to say that I, also, have not enjoyed the service at Craigie and experienced some fairly bald upselling. In particular, at brunch one day the server at the bar was pushing the 3 course prix fixe really hard, basically saying that it was stupid not to get it. Which it wasn't. I didn't want a 3 course brunch.

              2 Replies
              1. re: celeriac

                you have hit the nail-on-the- head!! the ''whim'' is really just a set prix-fixe... we have tried this 3 times[twice at urging of skeptical friends] the first time on craigie street[ and yes, they were trying to off load the items that aren't to keep til tuesday] and twice[with mentioned friends] at craigie on main[ where its just an idea of the past-and yes, everyone gets the same items, unless you are friends with the chef- one time we were with people who were- the other[ 5 days later] we werent. the difference was unbelievable!
                we only urge people to sit in the bar area-- even if they try to seat you in the main dining room. the atmosphere of up-selling is much less invasive.. you must make a reservation to do this though. we feel the service is superior in this area as well.
                we feel 50/50 here. food is good to great-no subs though- and service is ok to good... does this justify the price.? we will take Hungry Mother at a personal 90/10 ratio--- Salts at 90/10 too.

                Hungry Mother
                Cambridge, MA, Cambridge, MA

                1. re: kewpie

                  Perhaps my having only eaten in the main dining room twice (once was the six course tasting at the kitchen stools), would explain the lack of upsell I have ever had at Craigie, or service issues of any kind. As for the Whim, at the old Craigie, it really was a Sunday night way to clean out the kitchen. We did it twice there, and were served mostly different courses from one another, as well as from nearby tables. I'd say only 13rd of the dishes were the same. It's not like that anymore.

                  I think the best way to do Craigie is get a table on the bar side, or sit at the bar, and order one bar app, plus two main menu apps, one app and the burger, or the six course tasting. I've liked every entree I've ordered or tasted, but I think he really shines on the bar menu and apps menu , especially the crispy fried pig tails, and apps like the tempura cod cheeks, ragout of egg and meat/poultry/offal, and roasted bone marrow. My wife, who is not a vegetarian, had the vegetarian tasting once and loved it. I tasted most of the courses, and they were excellent. The food charge is lessened this way, so you can buy more cocktails, another strength of Craigie, especially if you sit AT the bar. Carrie and Paul are top notch people as well as top notch bartenders, and the Northern Lights, is still one of the finest cocktails in town.