But I can’t relax because there’s a train wreck happening in front of my eyes. The waiter is struggling to open a bottle of wine. This has been going on for nearly seven minutes. He has finally defeated the bottle’s lead wrapper, and now he’s wrangling the cork. He’s managed to get his corkscrew halfway in, but he seems unsure of what to do next. He keeps repositioning his grip to create the illusion that he’s actually doing something.
This episode goes on so long that I’ve become uncomfortable. I’m not sure what to do. Should I grab the bottle and take control? How long can I pretend not to notice? I reach for a piece of bread and slather it in slow motion with butter. It’s delicious but no help. I try engaging my partner with conversation but neither of us can focus on the words coming out of our own mouths.
Any second now I expect the waiter to remove his shoe and slap its heel against the bottom of the bottle. The spa music continues.
Finally, another waiter realizes what’s happening and runs to the rescue. He deftly removes the cork and pours a stream of wine into my glass, which I promptly empty in a single gulp.
The dining room is mostly empty. Besides ours, only two other tables are occupied at 8 p.m. on a Wednesday. It’s a similar story on Saturday. The atmosphere is lovely, though, if only someone would dim the lights a little.
Journeyman’s Food & Drink opened in March inside the Hotel Fullerton, a generic-looking motel snuggled against an offramp of the 91 freeway in a industrial park near Anaheim.
It strikes me as an odd place for an ambitious restaurant such as this. Chef Zachary Geerson formerly cooked at Tempo Urban Kitchen in Brea, where he mixed ice cream at the table using liquid nitrogen. He has since upped his game. He’s now chasing a modernist vision unmatched by any chef currently running his or her own restaurant in Orange County. The spa music, the sci-fi-Western tool belts, the spherifications and dehydrations… it’s all part of this dream.
Geerson’s food is not simple. It is scientific and cerebral but also artistic and fleeting, like edible philosophy. This is tweezer food that involves hours if not days of advance prep, yet the memories of it do not linger nearly as long as they should. The kitchen makes its own butter, bakes its own breads and dehydrates all manner of citrus for beautiful cocktail garnishes. Time is but a concept here. Even when the dining room sits naked, the lags between courses can stretch to nearly 30 minutes. I can’t imagine how the kitchen might handle the crush should this restaurant ever to fill to capacity.
The hours are punctuated with flashes of genius, like when nubs of ginger-flavored curd are paired with charred baby leeks and served in a cool green-tea dashi. Or when fresh, hand-shucked peas slither across one’s tongue alongside silken orbs of buttermilk.
Most dishes employ familiar techniques of molecular gastronomy. Vegetables are pureed, freeze-dried and turned into powders, some of which are meant to look like dirt. Mushrooms are transformed into merengues. Onions become gossamer-thin tuiles to be served with dessert. Asparagus gets reincarnated as ice cream, as does wasabi. Not all of those things are delicious.
Geerson has a nifty trick in which he convinces buttermilk to resemble teardrops of burrata. These quivering buttermilk orbs are utterly superb when paired with spring’s freshest peas and cracker-like serrano ham. The exact same orbs are equally delicious when served for dessert with blackberries and herbs.
I’ve tasted almost every dish that’s been available. And while most of what I’ve eaten has been good, never have I wondered to myself, “Why is this restaurant not full?”
It’s hard to dine at Journeyman’s without mentally comparing it with places like Vespertine in Culver City, Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, Alinea in Chicago, or Tippling Club in Singapore and so on. Except this place doesn’t yet deserve such comparison.
To pull off a feat like those takes more than merely an idealistic vision and an angel of a benefactor. Ballet doesn’t happen in a bouncy house. Right now this place still feels like the first episode of a brand new season of “Dancing with the Stars,” the point at which many of the cast are clumsy and downright cringeworthy despite the choreographer’s best intentions.
By its own admission, Journeyman’s strives for the extraordinary, for transcendence. I have no doubt that Geerson will someday hit it big. And when the future comes, I’ll be happy that I witnessed one of his rehearsals.
Journeyman’s Food & Drink
Rating: 2 stars
Where: 1500 S. Raymond Ave., Fullerton
Hours: Tuesday – Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday -Saturday, 5:30-11:30 p.m.
Don’t miss: Smoked salmon roe; peas and buttermilk; citrus and dill
What to skip: Smoked potato; tuna with spiced carrot
Best place to sit: Banquette
About the noise: Serene and contemplative
County health inspection: No serious violations since opening. However the restaurant shares a kitchen with Citizen Kitchen, whose permit was suspended in January for cockroach infestation.
Cost: Set price of $75 for 4 courses (guests choose from a selection); wine pairing, $50.
What the stars mean
0 = poor, unacceptable
1 = fair, with some noteworthy qualities
2 = good, solid, above average
3 = excellent, memorable, well above norm
4 = world class, extraordinary in every detail
Reviews are based on multiple visits. Ratings reflect the reviewer’s overall reaction to food, ambience and service.
This article originally appeared in the Orange County Register. To view more of my work for the Register, check out the archives. For more dining and travel inspiration, I invite you to follow me and join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.