April 27, 2006

The Lunch Theory

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I love trying new restaurants, particularly those that appeal to the quality, not the quantity aspect of dining. Alas, eating at new restaurants can be risky: the menu description doesn’t always match up to the reality of the dish. Many times, I’ve ordered “light,” “fresh” entrees that are really swimming in butter or cracked out of a can. Particularly for college students without substantial income, it’s quite disappointing to invest $50 in a sub-par dinner. I have found a solution to the “new restaurant investment” problem: go for lunch instead. If the lunch is good, then go back for dinner. If the lunch stinks, then you’re only out $15 instead of $50. I decided to test my theory on the latest addition to Ithaca’s fine dining scene: Watercress.

The restaurant itself is located close to Pyramid Mall, in the old Billy Bob Jack’s building – the interior is unrecognizable. The minute you walk in, your ears are greeted with the sounds of flowing water and mellow guitar melodies. After entering the dining room, you’ll notice the body attached to the guitar: that’s right, live music at lunchtime. The dining room has a modern Tuscan feel with warm faux terra-cotta walls and burnt orange accents. The flowy white curtains that drape the windows, combined with the cushy leather chairs, modern art, and flora in the center, impart a garden-esque atmosphere.

Unfortunately, the service at Watercress was horrible. Having only one waitress to single-handedly act as hostess, server and waiter’s assistant during peak lunch hours is absolutely ridiculous. It took over two hours for our party of four to order, eat and pay. Apart from providing a snail’s paced luncheon, another function of one person serving nine tables simultaneously is sloppy service. Our drink orders were never taken. One person in my party ordered a salmon entrée and received a chicken wrap instead. I ordered a white chocolate molten cake that was supposed to take 15 minutes to bake. 15 minutes later, the server emerged cakeless with the message that the kitchen had run out of that particular dessert.

Yet after such horrible service, I walked out of Watercress with a smile on my face. How is this possible, you ask? The quality, presentation, and portion of food were absolutely incredible. The menu carries a “Mediterranean Rim” theme, and the stand-out feature is definitely the blending of flavors. The house salad, a combination of red cabbage, romaine and spinach, was laced with a light balsamic and topped with plantain chips: the combination of the crunchy chips with the crisp greens had a fabulous texture. The French fry appetizer was not the garden-variety potato strip, but thick-sliced whole potato wedges, served with a bright, sweet pesto aioli.

All of the bread at Watercress is prepared by an in-house baker. The burger was juicy and well-seasoned as any burger should be, but steak sandwich was a surprise. Rather than thin slices of steak on bread, this sandwich boasted cubes of grilled-to-order, melt-in-your mouth steak paired with mushrooms and havarti cheese. Watercress also features lunch portioned entrees on its afternoon menu: the salmon encrusted with Dijon was served with perfectly cooked Israeli couscous (larger grain than Moroccan couscous). I ordered a curry-infused chicken wrap, which would have been delightful had “curry-infused” not translated into “drenched in curried mayonnaise.” The chicken itself was moist and fresh, and the wrap was grilled perfectly. Unfortunately, I happen to be someone who avoids ordering mayonnaise-based sandwiches; the menu should have provided a more cautionary description.

We ordered dessert half-heartedly, not expecting much from a restaurant that doesn’t advertise its dessert menu. Even the names of the dessert were foreboding – “lemon cloud tart” was reminiscent of frozen lemon icebox pie. We couldn’t have been more mistaken. The lemon cloud tart was not a hunk of pie, but a petite tartlet with a home-made hazelnut crust. The filling was a creamy, satisfying blend of lemon curd and crème fraiche: no lemon pudding in sight. The tart was adorned with sweet raspberries and encircled with a pool of thick, rich, intense crème anglaise.

So, after going to a four-course lunch at a restaurant that had carefully planned ambiance, live music and a theme, you can imagine why we thought we had blown our budget by the end of the meal. There shouldn’t have been any worrying – the tab came to $13 a person. The theory worked: lunch is a great way to eat out at a reasonable price. Did part two of my theory work: is lunch a good way to draw in future clientele? Let’s just say that after lunching at Watercress, I’ll be back for dinner.

Archived article by Anna Fishman