Not Your Average Joe's
You've got a stone-hearth oven. Now use it.
by Robert Nadeau
The menu asks, "Who is Joe & why is the food so
good?" I have my doubts that there is a Joe, and perhaps the best answer to the
second question is: "It just seems that way because it's relatively
cheap." To judge from a couple of visits to the Watertown location of this
mini-chain, some of the food, alas, is not-your-average because it is
below-your-average. Enough of it is above average, though, to make this a good
"training wheels" restaurant for young diners working their ways up to
more-pretentious neo-bistros. And if NYAJ's would just make better use of the
stone-hearth oven at the center of the restaurant, there would be a whole new
answer for that second question. I mean, if I had a 700-degree oven in my
house, I'd do everything in it.
Not Your Average Joe's |
55 Main Street (Watertown Square), Watertown
Open Mon-Sat, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
All credit cards
Street-level access via rear parking lot
One thing they do use the oven for is a superb, heavy Tuscan bread. It's
served with rather ordinary oil, suitably improved with a lot of garlic and
some red-pepper flakes. If I had the oven to make bread this good, I would
serve a lot of stews, but this kind of restaurant never serves stew. Stew
drips, and the young target audience likes not to look dripped upon.
One of the reasons I am convinced there is no real Joe is that his presence
would provoke more menu puns, like "Nacho Average Joe's." There are no nachos
on the current menu. There is, however, a delicious version of coconut shrimp
($7.50). Six shrimp, dipped in shredded coconut and fried on skewers, are
prettily served with the skewers radiating from a half of a pretty good navel
orange. (Given the price of navel oranges this year, I ate it happily.) They
aren't enormous shrimp, but six is a fine count, the frying is grease-free, and
the dip of marmalade laced with hot peppers is just about perfect.
Soup of the day ($3.25) on one visit was a gazpacho flavored with coriander
and hot pepper; it was above average for June, but below average for August.
Caesar salad ($3.75/$7.95) is one of those postmodern jobs with one big crouton
and an "asiago tuile" -- the salad's total cheese ration gathered into a thin,
triangular wafer. But the thing you want to take out of the mix is the dressing
-- though it had some anchovy flavor, the pre-dressed romaine lettuce was
already wilted at an early dinner. The "average house" salad ($3.25/$4.95) with
the dressing served on the side is a better deal; for another two dollars, the
"not your average house" gets you baby greens instead of iceberg lettuce, and a
In addition to the bread, NYAJ's uses the oven for thin-crust pizzas that have
innumerable topping permutations. After trying the basic "Joe Schmo"
($5.95/$8.95), with "mozzarella, tomato sauce, chopped garlic, and herbs," I
can report that the crust comes out with an excellent crunch but not much
flavor, despite a bit of char on the bottom. And the tomato sauce is too sweet.
Even the young target audience can tell when pizza's not quite right, so this
is an important area in which to do some research.
"Dry-rubbed half roast chicken" ($10.95) is the kind of dish many critics use
as a litmus test for chefs these days. Those critics will not like this
restaurant if they get a chicken like mine: no spice rub, no herbal flavors, no
crust or crispy skin at all, and no taste of the promised marinade. The meat
was tender and juicy, but not very flavorful. Obvious suggestion: use the
marinade, use the dry rub, roast the chickens in that fancy oven. If not: use a
free-range or kosher chicken with more intrinsic flavor, and charge more. Also,
the spinach served underneath wasn't "sautéed" as promised -- although I
enjoyed the raw spinach leaves, some cooked by the hot chicken and flavored by
its juices. And no problem with the garlic mashed potatoes.
A special on sirloin tips that I ordered medium-rare came medium-well. I still
liked those mashed potatoes, and the al dente green beans were also good,
but I couldn't discern much grilled flavor -- so maybe they should make this
dish in that oven.
"Vegetable stir-fry" ($8.95) indicates that Joe is below average when it comes
to vegetarian food. Ask around -- underdone broccoli is cool, but underdone
eggplant isn't. Let's say that the standard for this kind of platter -- six
vegetables served on soba (Japanese buckwheat spaghetti) -- is set by
Despite a good flavor of ginger and sesame, this doesn't even approach the
NYAJ's has a fairly extensive list of draft microbrews, although you can skip
the UFO hefeweizen ($3.95 a pint). This light wheat beer served with lemon
would be suitable summer drinking if it didn't have a spoiled aftertaste.
Stronger ales are safer on draft, is Nadeau's rule. Joe's root beer ($2.50) is
bottled and rather sweet, like IBA. Joe's ginger beer ($2.50), also bottled, is
not as biting as Jamaican versions.
Desserts are large and sweet, and not all of them involve ice cream, which
places them somewhere between real dating-bar food and gourmet-pizza-chain
desserts. The chocolate torte ($4.95) is an entirely serviceable wedge of
fudge, although I didn't find many of the "sun-dried cherries soaked in brandy"
that the menu led me to expect. Real chocolate people won't mind.
Fresh fruit and sorbet ($3.95) fell badly short, however, and this is just the
sort of thing that will be ordered by the person who is already disappointed by
the vegetable stir-fry. The fresh ripe seasonal fruit was pineapple, which
is seasonal, but was not very ripe. I had an excellent supermarket
pineapple at home, so I know it could have happened. In June, there are also
good berries, nectarines, and kiwis. The sorbet flavor of the day was red wine,
hardly the best one can do on any day in summer.
The room in Watertown has a lot of style, once one accepts that it's loud,
multicolored, and open. The ceilings are high, the floor joists are painted
silver-gray, and the brick walls are painted in shades from the '50s: lime
green, brick orange, yellow. The hanging lamps are also intense hues: cobalt
blue, purple, chrome yellow, green, bright orange. There is a lot of simple
iron sculpture: stick figures for decoration, cut-out table jacks for the
pizza. Cherry-wood trim on the tables is a nod to renewable resources; the
walls are covered simply, with five tall hanging mirrors in wood frames.
We noted some service problems, but several servers were obviously new, and
training was being given on the job. One night, the lapse between main dishes
and dessert was so long that we had to cancel dessert and leave. Plates were
not cleared well, either. (I've been seeing a lot of this lately; it may be the
point at which overtaxed servers begin to calculate that they can skip a step.)
Of course, one could say, "It's a dating bar. Get us our drinks and something
salty, and we'll entertain ourselves." But this won't work for the many kinds
of diners these restaurants need to please in order to survive in the suburbs
(not to mention in Watertown Square, near Stellina and La Casa de Pedro). That
kids' menu isn't an afterthought; it was a forethought. And with a little more
thought (repeat after me: "It's the oven, stupid"), Not Your Average Joe's
could be well above average, with branches from here to Lake Wobegon.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at email@example.com.
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