>> Wednesday, November 07, 2012
Some of you may know that I made a brief "cameo" on Kitchen Nightmares on the first episode of the season when Gordon Ramsey came to Boston to "fix" La Galleria 33 in the North End. We weren't allowed to talk about our experiences until the week of the airing of the show. Now that the show has aired, I will share with you my actual experience that night.
It was early May, 2012. I had just won Saveur's "Best Food Blog Award" for Restaurant/Dining. Soon after, I received an interesting email from one of the producers at FOX.
"Would you be interested in dining on camera for this episode, and giving us your thoughts on the food/changes as Chef Ramsay's surprise guest?"
Surprise guest? Really??
I was intrigued, but also a bit anxious. I had searched around on the internet, and saw that another food blogger from Rhode Island had gotten criticized quite a bit by the public after they featured her heavily on one of the shows.
Nevertheless, I agreed and asked three friends to join me (Bryan was away on business at the time).
The moment we arrived, we knew this would be no ordinary dinner.
My friend Loren holding up the waiver forms. Chia Chi Sun and Peter Sun in the back.
First, there was a huge line outside the restaurant. Word had gotten out that Gordon Ramsey was filming in Boston, and reservations that night were open to the public (if you could nab one). There was an initial line to "check in", where we all signed our lives away on multiple waiver forms (essentially, they can do whatever they want with your image with no compensation to you).
Furthermore, as a media member, I had to promise to keep everything top secret until now, basically.
They did not want to overwhelm the kitchen all at once, so they only let people enter in small waves to emulate what a real restaurant would be like.
After about thirty minutes waiting outside in the wet rain, our names were called. We'd been lucky. Some folks waited well over an hour in the rain.
We stepped inside.
"Welcome to La Galleria 33."
The two owners, Lisa and Rita, stood at the front of the house. The environment was warm, quaint, and really cozy.
I told one of the producers, "this is really, really nice! I love the exposed brick. It really makes it cozy."
"Wait! Can you repeat that for the camera? That's perfect."
It wasn't until later that I realized why they loved my statement. Gordon Ramsey had torn down all this artwork to expose the brick. I had inadvertently said exactly what they wanted to hear.
I repeated it for the camera, though that particular statement didn't make it onto the show.
There were cameras everywhere - a huge one in front of the restaurant, multiple cameramen walking around the dining room, a hanging boom mic dangling over our heads. It was almost comical, in fact.
It was hard to act naturally when the cameras and microphones were hovering over us, but we tried.
What I didn't realize until later was that our table was bugged! The "plant" on our table actually had a microphone wire coming out of it, and there was a huge security-type camera pointed at us the entire time. If you watch the show carefully, you can tell which shots are taken with the "security" type cameras. They are usually lower quality and everything is a bit distorted in a weird, fish-eye, spherical kind of way.
Scene from Kitchen Nightmares where Jen is trying the arancini and says,"It's fried perfectly. I like it."
The restaurant coordinator, holding a clipboard in one hand and sporting a headset, came up to our table and warmly welcomed us to the restaurant.
"Thank you so much for coming here tonight. I want you guys to be honest. Really tell us what you think. Any feedback would be really helpful to the restaurant. Enjoy!"
A friendly and sweet waitress named Sarah (who became a major character in the show), handed us our menus and told us about the new small plates concept as well as the "special" that day, the branzino. We ordered a variety of dishes (including two orders of the branzino), as well as a bottle of wine.
The meal did not start out well.
The bread arrived. It was comically hard. Peter had trouble biting it, and I had a really hard time pulling it apart.
The wine was reasonably priced (we got a $50 bottle), and the wine list had a nice variety of lower price choices. Sarah, in her nervousness, forgot to pour Peter his glass of wine. Not a huge deal, but it was a bit funny.
Shortly afterwards, Sarah came by and offered us an appetizer "compliments of the chef."
It was a small plate of Cheese Agnolotti with Pesto. Unfortunately, this was one of the most awful dishes of the night. Although the flavor of the pesto was reasonably good, the entire dish was much too oily. Furthermore, the homemade agnolottis were not evenly cooked. Some were not yet done and had pretty hard skins. Others were OK. We did not finish it. For me, it was just too oily.
Thankfully, the Basil Arancini was much better. An unusual shape, these arancinis (deep, fried risotto balls) were square, sort of like a deck of cards, and green inside (from the basil).
"It's perfectly fried. I liked it." I said. Not surprisingly, this was the only statement of mine that made it onto the actual show.
I did think it was perfectly fried. The execution was good, and the dish was fun to eat. My friend Loren thought that the heavier breading (which oddly reminded him of frozen chicken patties), overpowered the subtleties of the risotto. I agree that it's harder to taste the nuances of the basil flavor. Nevertheless, the dish is enjoyable to eat, even if it's not exactly that authentic.
One of the best dishes of the night was the Chicken Liver Crostini. We all thought that this appetizer was perfectly executed. The topping was not too "livery", making it more friendly to those like me who don't particularly care for the flavor of liver.
The coordinator stopped by again.
"How is it so far?"
He had been working very closely with me up to that point, wanting to know when I was going to tweet, what I was going to tweet, etc.
We gave a ton of honest but very constructive feedback. I mentioned the weaknesses of the agnolotti, and praised the chicken liver crostini. We gave specific feedback regarding various aspects of the dishes we had tried.
He looked a tad nervous. He asked if we could only tweet publicly our positive comments. These people are really trying hard to turn things around. "We really want to help this restaurant out."
So much for true reality TV.
It's understandable, though. It's their first day trying to execute a brand new menu with a new concept. They are on camera. Gordon Ramsay is yelling at them. It's not surprising that the staff is super, super nervous.
Not Entrees, but "Small Plates"
We started with the Cioppino, a fragrant seafood stew. Although the flavors of the stew were pretty tasty, the seafood was unfortunately overcooked and suffered a bit in texture.
My friend Peter ordered the Chicken Marsala. He thought the chicken breast was very tender, likely achieved from being pounded so thin.
"It's good, though the sauce does not really taste like marsala. It tastes more like chicken with sauce." (whatever that means, maybe chicken jus?). Overall, Peter said he enjoyed the dish and that, for $15 in the North End, it's not bad at all.
My friend Chia Chi ordered the Linguini with Clam Sauce. The fresh, homemade pasta was cooked a decent al dente (within acceptable range, though I personally though it could be just a tad more al dente). Peter and Loren wished the noodle strands were longer (for some reason they were all cut in half). Everyone agreed that the flavor of the clam sauce was excellent, and they were generous with the amount of chopped clams. Peter thought the clams were fresh, although Loren was convinced they were canned (no proof, though if they had used real clams in shells then it would have be indisputable).
The Gnocchi was another winner. Nice, pillowy soft, it had fantastic texture. The tomato sauce had pretty good flavor, and our most critical friend, Loren, actually said he would consider coming here for this dish. Though I liked the texture, I personally thought the sauce was a tad salty and not particularly deep in flavor.
I ordered the Asparagus risotto with Black Truffle. We all thought the black truffle must be missing - there was absolutely no black truffle flavor. The risotto was cooked just a tad under (with a slight crunch in the middle), and the dish was a bit soupy. There was inconsistency in execution, because the same risotto that was later served with the branzino was perfectly cooked.
Speaking of the branzino, the Branzino over Asparagus Risotto ($24) was the daily special. The risotto was perfectly cooked, though the dish was a bit boring in flavor because the asparagus was merely blanched, not roasted or grilled. The branzino was a bit undersalted and overcooked, though the skin was nicely seared. It was unlike most branzinos I've seen in Italian restaurants because we were only served the filet, not the entire fish.
We had wanted to get two orders of the branzino. Because they had run out, the chef recommended that we get the Porchetta ($24) instead. It was little dry, though it was properly salted.
Similarly, the Olive oil cake with Fruit was solid. The tartness of the berries offered a nice contrast to the spongy and light olive oil cake.
At the end of the day, standouts were Chicken Liver Crostini, Liguini with Clam Sauce, and the Gnocchi. The Chicken Marsala and Basil Arancini are nontraditional, but still enjoyable to eat. Desserts are pretty good. The risotto is hit or miss, and the meat dishes are probably their weakness.
Overall, they seem to execute basic pastas well (although I'm still not sure why the agnolotti failed so much!)
We briefly met Gordon Ramsay. I shook his hand and said "nice to meet you." All he said was "sorry about the branzino" and then he ran off. I thought he was apologizing because it was overcooked, but Loren thinks it's because they had run out. That makes more sense, I guess.
Service was understandably slow, but I think this restaurant has promise. They were able to execute some of the dishes quite well. They just need to keep working at it, getting their act together so they can consistently put out good dishes.
Walking out the first time in the show. We actually did not visit the restaurant twice, though in the show you see us walking out after the initial "bad" dinner as well as the relaunch dinner. In fact, we only went to the relaunch dinner. I guess there were just good "exiting" shots of us.
Have I gone back?
Not since May. It's really hard when there are so many excellent options in the North End. If La Galleria 33 were down the street from me in the Harvard/Porter Square area (where there's such a dearth of Italian restaurants), I'd probably go pretty frequently. However, if I'm making the trek all the way out to the North End, right now, it's not my top choice.
Having said that, their prices are pretty reasonable, and I like the idea of small plates for those of us who don't like to eat that much.
After watching the show, I kind of feel like I know these owners, and I really do hope they succeed. They've made major improvements already, and hopefully it can only get better from here.
Our group walking out of the restaurant - the closing scene of the entire show was us saying good-by and walking out.
Credit: Thanks to Fox for providing the images of the food and of me dining at the restuarant. There are also three screenshots from the TV show.