Hay Market, from an outside point of view, is a welcome and necessary addition to the south bay restaurant scene. Farm to table, local product, daily changing menu, communal tables? Yes, please. Sign me up. I don’t care that I have to walk around Willow Glen for nearly an hour for a table. It’s exciting, something that feels loaned out from San Francisco or Berkeley, a bit of a sore thumb compared to downtown Willow Glen’s chain restaurants and sushi bars.
But there’s a lot more to a restaurant than a concept. I think the celebration started a bit prematurely. They fill up fast, which is to be expected, and as they don’t take reservations, it’s up to you to decide if you want to wait as long as it takes for space at one of the three high top communal tables. Should you choose to wait, an amuse bouche for the table (tiny breadsticks with a slightly bland chile dipping sauce) and two menus are offered (and presented on a blackboard along the wall), one, an eclectic wine list with for the most part, fair pricing, and the main menu on a clipboard (cute touch), with a handful of offerings; a few different starters, five or six main courses, a couple of sides and desserts.
I usually don’t mind a small menu, in fact I generally prefer it; a larger, all-encompassing menu is harder to execute properly. And a constantly-changing menu allows for seasonality and absolute freshness of ingredients. But because of the inconsistency, it’s harder to comment on particular dishes. The “hot pocket” vegetable empanada-style appetizer is just alright, the dough a little overworked but vegetables cooked and seasoned nicely. The dipping sauce, a thinner aioli-type of sauce (I say type because it’s very thin) is decent, with tamarind notes, but also rather bland. The dish comes with a devilled egg and a handful of pumpkin seeds, a somewhat boggling combination (although the egg was good).
The duck liver risotto is delicious, creamy, al dente rice with hints of sherry and nice little chunks of liver all throughout. Especially for the price, this is one of the highlights of this particular menu. Another high point is the braised short rib, adorably served in a tiny cast-iron skillet, tender and seasoned well; should you order it, don’t expect a red wine demi-glace sauce but a cleaner, more beefy taste and presentation. The portion size is a bit small for the price but because the sides are separate, it seems the menu is definitely catering to the sharing crowds.
The game hen with a parsley puree is decidedly unimpressive; slightly overcooked, tasting like nearly nothing but parsley, making for a dry, grassy bite. The braised pork shank, though exciting to order, is overwhelmingly salty; the briny barbecue sauce it floats in nearly inedibly so. The flank steak special with chimichurri sauce is cooked to a nice mid rare and flavorful (although perhaps a bit heavy-handed with the cumin), bites of smoky poblano pepper running all throughout, but sprinkled with a white melted cheese which hardens into a strange, plasticky mess on top. The cheese almost seemed like an afterthought—an amateur move that, in the mind, transformed the plate to almost a fajita-style carne asada plate. Pass the tortillas. No, really.
The BLT that had gained fame in the Yelp department also disappoints. Although I’m a fan of ciabatta, it did not work in this case, making for an unpleasantly dense, dry vehicle for super-thinly sliced tomatoes, haphazardly thrown on mixed greens, a watery aioli (maybe the same sauce with the hot pockets?) and cold bacon. The bacon that everyone’s talking about, the bacon that chef and owner Joe Cirone’s own father smokes himself, is cold. Like it’s been made in the morning. A special ingredient, one of the restaurant’s staples, should be treated as such. When one thinks about the simple goodness of a BLT, one thinks of soft, toasty bread, creamy mayonnaise, crisp lettuce, a big, fresh bite of tomato, and the warm goodness of maybe one too many slices of bacon, residual oils dripping into the rest of the sandwich. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke. And Joe, it ain’t broke.
To say the food doesn’t blow you away is an understatement. Although they boast the changing menu, there were no seasonal notes on the menu at all, which one would think would at least be reflected in the sides; pork and beans (really?), a single ear of corn (last I checked, it wasn’t summer anymore), and kale mashed potatoes, which were the highlight of the sides, with lots of flavor but also overworked, lending a gummy quality to each bite.
And the desserts, a chocolate cake and a plum clafouti, are both just okay. The chocolate cake is a little boring and the frosting doesn’t taste like much of anything. The clafouti is cooked well but the lemon curd overpowers. They aren’t bad, they just aren’t memorable.
Everything about the place is hipster chic. And it’s quite a concept. I enjoy the upscale farmer design concept and big screen TVs playing obscure films with no sound and indie music playing. I get a kick out of the little jar of cookies and temporary Hay Market tattoos that come with the check. I’m not so into the blasé, uninterested service, ironic, faux-peasant menu concept (is there any way to elevate pork and beans?), the boasting of local farms and seasonality that doesn’t back itself up (nowhere on the menu are you told where the meat or produce comes from). Hay Market, live up to your own buzzwords!
But sure, for inexperienced palates and excited food newbies, it’s probably the best place in town. But the food is not there yet. On both trips to Hay Market, the chef was in the front of house, in normal clothes, socializing with customers rather than cooking. I don’t doubt that Cirone’s got his chops; hell, he’s cooked with David Kinch, Stephan Pyles and even David Burke. But for a restaurant that’s barely two months old, it’s too early to be leaving his kitchen so often. Mistakes are being made. And in the end, we won’t be paying for them.
1185 Lincoln Ave.
Willow Glen, CA
For more food, wine and San Jose restaurants, follow me on Twitter!