By Pete Wayner
Life today hinges on the expected.
We don’t have time for surprises. When we finally have a free hour to engage both hands (and at least 50 percent of our attention) in a meal out, it only comes after an arduous, if familiar, routine. Mirror time. Closet time. Drive time. And then, the minefield that is the menu. Should you eat healthy or treat yourself? Is it a moral obligation to eat local or just an added star in your social crown? Should you be adventurous or relax squarely in the middle of your culinary comfort zone?
And that’s all before you unfurl your napkin.
The newly reformatted Chef’s Table at Good Luck solves this problem with a challenge: Surrender to the chef. Dan Martello metaphorically closes the menu in your face, offering only a folded piece of cardstock sealed with Good Luck’s logo and containing a cryptic list of handwritten seasonal ingredients. For example, the “menu” on July 1 read:
ARUGULA / TOMATOES / SWEET PEAS / SUMMER SQUASH / STRAWBERRIES
You usually don’t order tomatoes? Tough beans.
The 12-seat Chef’s Table is tucked, appropriately, between the clattering dishes of the kitchen and the jovial roar of the bar. This is not the regular menu, nor the regular dining experience. You can make a reservation for up to 12 people, but unlike before the new format (which started in June 2017) you’re seated with a number of strangers to fill the table. In our group, there were three couples who came separately and a group of six that knew each other. The twelve of us represented a diversity of age, race, nationality, gender, sexual orientation and accent; the table looked like a Thanksgiving promo by PBS. As we bit into the camarones (prawns) amuse-bouche, a kid with pink barrettes toddled around the table, clinging to her mother’s index fingers.
Orange sunlight faded to blue evening through the wall of windows adjacent to the table. As the flicker of votive candles on the tablecloth became more pronounced in the dimming light, so did the benefit of eating unexpected food with unexpected companions. Conversations that normally would have been dismissed - say, a Boomer giving his viewpoint on the general disregard for proper grammar among today’s youth - were heard out and shaped with response from others at the table. A joke about the chevre pasta covered in heirloom tomato confit “gnocchi-ing you out,” perhaps held buoyant by the wine pairing ($35), landed successfully among strangers.
This method works so well, in part, because if you spend $65 on a meal, delicious though it may be, you are a person who loves great food. Therefore, you already have something in common with your tablemates. Cue in-depth conversations about the local culinary landscape - where to eat, what farm-to-table really means in this region, and the worthiness of frosé. When someone bit into the crostini with arugula puree (one of four completely distinct arugula offerings on the first course) or expressed surprise and delight at the the pork tenderloin and summer squash dressed in sharp curry sauce, others around the table joined in their observations. You know that sensation, when something is surprisingly good - not just very good but profoundly good in an unexpected direction and it fills your mouth and nose and you just close your eyes and breathe? Your tablemates know that feeling, too.
The person who kicked us ‘out of the airplane door’ into new appetizing horizons is one of the friendliest faces in Rochester’s restaurant world, Good Luck’s event coordinator Meghann Ferreri. She welcomed every person to the table as if we were sitting in her own home; with the warmth and enthusiasm of someone honestly glad to see us. She unfolded the mysteries of the menu, reciting with practiced diction the nuances of each dish.
Meals today tend to resemble battle plans: rehearsed and refined for efficiency with ingredients that were researched, listed, purchased and prepped. With calendars and schedules commanding so much of life, it’s worth making time to sit for two or three hours among strangers turned friends, each one lifting that first forkful of the unknown.
These personal touches - a genuinely warm greeting, the unexpected enjoyment of eating with strangers, the mental release of simply coasting with the chef’s imagination from one plated delight to the next - refresh an otherwise demanding schedule.