Concerning culinary schools, I've been on both sides of the lectern. The moment I remember most vividly as a student occurred at the Culinary Institute of America, when my teacher picked up a bowl of hollandaise sauce I had just finished making and hurled it against the kitchen wall. My transgression? I'd been working from right-to-left instead of left-to-right as we'd been instructed. My note of distinction as chef/instructor at the French Culinary Institute was being the sole member of the teaching staff who didn't speak French.
With these fond memories in mind as my guests and I arrived at Johnson & Wales University's London Tavern, I said, "This is going to be fun." The front section of the restaurant does vaguely resemble a tavern, mostly because it's dominated by a bar. It also contains a smattering of small dining tables and lounge area. The main dining room, however, looks more like a recreation hall in a low-rent retirement home, the only thematic link to a tavern being that it is as drab as a rainy London afternoon.
Between a low ceiling and cheaply tiled floor are ten tables or so that, on an initial visit, were topped with white linen and dying white roses; the second time around they were adorned with unlit candles and pools of dried, melted wax. One wall is covered in floor-to-ceiling white drapes with green bunting, the other three burgundy-red walls display, respectively: three garage-sale quality paintings (two portraits and a stiff equestrian scene), windows facing a pretty outdoor dining area, and windows offering a breathtaking vista of the valet-parking podium -- good seats should Her Majesty the Queen's limousine unexpectedly arrive.
The first thing I can tell you about culinary-school restaurants is that inconsistency is consistent -- one night your foie gras might be silky smooth, the next time chopped liver. It's to be expected when students switch stations each night, and the entire dining room and kitchen crew turn over every semester. Except this isn't the case at London Tavern, whose staff is composed of the school's graduates, supplemented by, as a waitress confided, "anywhere from one to ten students." Consistency, as it turns out, is the very least of this tavern's problems.
Executive chef Thomas Riordan is a J&W grad, and perhaps was fond of taking naps during menu-planning classes. As with the décor, there is nothing London-tavernish about the cuisine. You might suppose the listing of fish and chips would fit the bill, but even this solitary connection is sabotaged by its description as New England-style (no doubt in a parallel universe there exists a Johnson & Wales restaurant called "New England Tavern" serving fish and chips London-style). The rest of the short compendium of foodstuffs is composed of burgers, bar snacks, and a global mishmash of misconceived culinary concoctions that are shockingly outdated. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, this is not a menu to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown aside with great force.
Soups are conch chowder and French onion, the latter with light, sherry-infused flavor, undercaramelized onions, a pale rather than bronzed gruyere crust, and soggy croutons. Fried calamari, one of a half-dozen starters, consisted of uniformly sized rings, sans tentacles, a sign the squid had been purchased precut, likely from Sysco, so at least it matched the silverware. A "spicy chili garlic sauce" squirted across the calamari was sriracha, the Tabasco of Thailand. I have a bottle of the stuff in my fridge and use it quite often, but the fiery nature dictates it being served on the side; for many diners it will simply be too hot to enjoy. The astute reader will correctly ascertain that the "honey ginger sriracha sauce" accompanying a crisp Thai vegetable roll is the same drizzle applied to the squid, but with the addition of honey and ginger. Yet another piquant sauce, this one derived from ancho chilis, accompanied a colossal crabcake that was moist and tasty, if mostly breading. Caesar salad barely made the grade; ghostly pale croutons on top did not.
A burger, turkey wrap, and some sandwiches underline the notion of this being a tavern, not a fine-dining establishment. Quite frankly the décor and the luncheonette chatter of the waiters were enough to get that point across. Still there are eight "serious" main courses for, I guess, the sophisticated tavern trawler. One such dish, tenderloin au poivre with white mushrooms and Jack Daniels cream sauce, featured a thick, perkily peppered cut of beef filet, neatly if not crisply seared to a rosy medium rare as requested. The sauce was a cream-of-mushroom affair with so little whiskey that a Mormon could partake of it without guilt. A small clump of sautéed spinach and three halved, roasted new potatoes supplemented the meat and released an oil slick into the sauce.
Other entrées include baby back ribs; pan-seared salmon with tamarind-brown sugar glaze; fresh fettuccini with sautéed shrimp, spinach, and a couple of mushroom slices in a sprightly red pepper sauce; and jerk chicken, the breast juicy and vigorously dusted with spice but draped in a clashing vanilla demi-glace. Alongside the bird were roasted pencil asparagus spears and sweet plantain mash that straddled the line between being caramelized and burned. Rounding out the roster is the fish and chips mentioned earlier, four pieces of Atlantic cod crisply crusted in golden beer batter. You'll have to ask for malt vinegar -- New Englanders prefer tartar sauce, which London Tavern translates to pickle-flecked mayonnaise.
Dessert selections are as unimaginative as everything else, though pot de crme, a French custard, was aptly rich and dense, and key lime pie capped with whipped cream was pleasingly puckery. Bailey's chocolate crme brùlée sounded mildly enticing, but they were sold out.
Good people open bad restaurants. Good cooking schools, as a rule, do not. That's because these dining establishments serve as the institution's public face, a place where diners can thrill to the cutting-edge skills of a future generation of chefs -- and judge the school accordingly. Having London Tavern serve as a showcase for a culinary institute is like using Ronald McDonald as poster boy for PETA.
Not all is hopeless: Johnson & Wales can turn lemons into lemonade. I mean literally, take lemons and turn them into lemonade so there's a noncarbonated, nonalcoholic beverage other than water. Then they can wipe the walls clean: Choose students interested in restaurant design to lead a remodeling effort (or pick students with no interest in design whatsoever -- believe me, they've got nothing to lose). Seek student input for composing a menu that reflects what's going on in the restaurant world of today, not fifteen years ago. Improve the humdrum wine list by adding a few boutique vintners. Have the pastry department devise desserts more compelling than key lime pie. Food and wine service need an upgrade as well. In short, use the "practicum facility" for what it's intended -- to impart to students, in a real-time, real-life manner, the knowledge and skills they'll need once they graduate and enter the industry. (Hint: Most professional chefs are rarely required to prepare turkey wraps.)
The alternative, of course, is to leave London Tavern as-is, which can also be viable as a learning tool. The place serves as an exemplary, all-encompassing model for everything you should not do when operating a restaurant.
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