Some of you may have read my post last week about Google dining. I was fortunate enough to be asked to have lunch on the Google campus, and while I was there, Google was incredibly accommodating. They set up a time for me to interview Scott Giambastiani, one of their Executive Chefs, and tour some of the Google cafés. But what was the food like? Eclectic, fresh, and small. Let me explain.
When I first walked onto the Google campus, I have to admit my expectations were pretty high. My friends Carol and Dan had filled me with stories of wonderful lunches they'd had there, including one day where they were met with heaping trays full of shucked oysters, buffet tables stacked with cracked crab, and mountains of shrimp. Yet although I didn't find a "Seafood Friday Extravaganza," as Dan and Carol dubbed that wonderful lunch they had a while back, I still had a more than decent meal and was impressed with the varied selection of dishes available and the quality of ingredients, not to mention the sheer abundance of food.
After sitting at a table outside with Scott, we journeyed inside the Big Table café for lunch. Now there seem to be two types of cafés at Google: themed and cafeteria style. Big Table is the latter. It's a general all purpose eating facility that offers a varied menu and doesn't really cater to any particular taste. Unlike Google's Mexican taqueria or Spanish tapas café, Big Table has a diverse array of foods available for every taste.
Before I discuss the actual food, I should mention that Google has a small-plate philosophy. There are no heaping portions at Google. Sure they offer burgers and fries (albeit grass-fed beef burgers with organic potato fries), but the burgers come as small sliders and the fries are on proportionally-sized plates. The idea is for people to try a variety of dishes when eating, instead of gorging themselves on only one or two large items. The chefs are also hoping diners will eat a more varied diet. It seemed that in the midst of all the Google plenty, the chefs themselves advocate an aura of restraint: take what you need; include some vegetables to go with your meat; have an apple or banana; and try something you've never eaten before.
The first thing I noticed after getting my tray and silverware was a sushi bar to my left. Growing up in the sticks outside of San Diego, I didn't even try sushi until I was in college, but when I did, I immediately fell in love. I therefore made a beeline to the sushi queue. While I waited for my turn, I noticed the sushi chef hard at work, cutting up pieces of salmon and eel to create fresh rolls. He seemed just as adept at his job as the guy behind the counter at my local sushi restaurant. Everything seemed to be made on the spot and I was impressed that Big Table hadn't resorted to making a bunch of rolls earlier in the day so they'd have a stock on hand for the lunch rush. All the rolls seemed to be made fresh, right where the crowds could watch as they grabbed their small plates. Next to the sushi counter was a selection of regular and low-sodium soy sauce, along with wasabi and what looked (and tasted) like homemade pickled ginger.
After leaving the Sushi counter, the world was literally my oyster. Laid out before me were barbecued pork sliders and a variety of salads to go with them, Indian curries, pizzas, Asian rolls, calamari, meat-stuffed artichokes with a breaded topping, an enormous salad bar, soups, and other items that I just passed by in the whirlwind of food. I grabbed items here and there, completely skipping the curries as the line was outrageously long and headed to the beverage area.
Normally the drinks in a cafeteria aren't remarkable, but of course at Google, even beverages get their moment in the sun. There seemed to be two main drink areas that on first glance seemed de rigueur, but not for long. Alongside the iced tea and apple juice sat a vat of lovely organic raspberry tea that was refreshing and sweet without being cloying, as juice teas often are. The soda fountain, meanwhile, was also unique. Instead of the normal "Coke," "Pepsi," and "A&W," there was "Cola," "Diet Cola," "Root Beer" and so on, but with the clever inclusion of a short ingredients list for each. So instead of just grabbing a Coke, you were faced with the words "Sweetened with Cane Sugar" beneath, reminding you that your beverage of choice is laden with sucrose, although not the normal Beelzebub corn syrup.
Okay, now I’m actually going to tell you how the food tasted.
The sushi was great. The fish tasted fresh and the rice was sticky but not gummy. My friend Carol said she got a tough piece of salmon in her roll, but my salmon and eel were both tender and delicious. The barbecued pork sliders were decent, but I have to admit they weren't the best, or even great. This may be due to the fact that I like my barbecued pork laden in a tangy cider vinegar sauce and these had a sweet barbecue topping, but they were still good and I ate my entire sandwich. The stuffed artichokes were the least desirable item on my plate. The beef inside was just too dense and overwhelmed the sweet meat of the vegetable, and the tomato sauce on top was nothing of note and also detracted from the flavors of the dish. The pizza was better than your standard fare -- cheesy and with a crisp crust -- but not in the same league as what you'd find at Pizzeria Delfina or Pizzaiolo.
What impressed me most on my plate were the salads. The greens were fresh and crisp, the beets were sweet and earthy, the carrots perfectly blanched, and the dressings subtle in taste. Overall, I would rate the food as equivalent to what you would find in a two-star restaurant. That said, it was quite good for a workplace café. Dan and Carol both insisted they have often had better meals at Google, so maybe I was just there on an off day. Whatever the case, if my meal was the norm, those Googlers are pretty lucky to get such a variety of organic and freshly-prepared food for free. If I worked at Google, I would happily eat at Big Table or its equivalent every day with a big smile on my face.
After we were done eating, Carol and I perused the dessert area, but didn't see anything too enticing. I was hoping to find a good cookie, but as none were available, I tried the brownie which had an odd flavor (I thought maybe it had peanut butter in it, but Carol thought it was made of carob). I was a little surprised the dessert at Big Table was lackluster as we had already enjoyed some wonderful mini-banana cream tarts before lunch while touring another café. The tarts' crusts were flaky and crisp and the cream filling had a sweet banana flavor with a luscious texture. Everything a mini tart should be.
On the way out, Carol and I stopped by Slice, the smoothie bar. She got a Mangolicious while I asked for a Banana Split. Behind the counter, a café worker whipped up smoothies and poured them into glasses for anyone interested. The mango drink had a bright and fruity mango taste, while my smoothie had fresh coconut and chocolate flavors to accent the bananas. Both were lip smacking.
In each café, the focus really did seem to be on using local and organic foods that are in season, and the cleanup was equally green. Each restaurant has an area where you return your trays, compost your compostables, recycle your recyclables, and plant your reusable plates and silverware on a conveyor belt to be washed in the back. I also noticed the trash seemed relatively empty, which was impressive given the number of people having lunch at the café where we dined.
My overall impression was that serving that many people is a huge undertaking, yet everything seemed to run with a smooth efficiency. I was happy to see an overall emphasis on healthy eating and the choice to serve organic and local foods didn't seem like a sham. Most importantly, the food was fresh and tasty. So if you're thinking of applying for a job at Google, put some extra effort into your resume. The banana cream tarts are worth it.