I have mixed feelings about Boston’s Restaurant Week. Granted, there’s no denying that the twelve days provide a great opportunity for diners to try some of the area’s restaurants, especially with their more wallet-friendly prix fixe menus — $33.08 for a three-course dinner and $22.08 for a three-course lunch. With restaurants like Gaslight, T.W. Food, B&G Oysters and Great Bay taking part, it’s no wonder that reservations can be tricky to come by.
At the same time, are Restaurant Week reservations worth it? After all, what you will be eating will by no means be an accurate representation of an establishment’s food. The menu is oftentimes so pared down as to only offer two options of entrées and three of each appetizer and dessert. If you’re hoping to try a restaurant’s signature dish, chances are you’ll be out of luck. If the limited menu choices aren’t enough to dissuade you, consider this: service. A crowded, boisterous dining room with too few frazzled waitstaff is fun for exactly no one.
This past Thursday night Keith and I were invited to dinner — a Restaurant Week dinner — at Boston Public in Louis Boston by some friends. In spite of my opinion on the matter, we said yes, as a long time had passed without seeing Lexi, Terence, Kyle and JD. I was running a little behind schedule because of delays on the red line, which stressed me out because I have this paranoia that I’m always late (this may or may not be true). In spite of my unpunctuality flustering me, it didn’t prevent me from noticing a few things.
First of all, the menu was on the strange side — Keith had located an online copy prior to dinner, and we had all dissected it. The menu we received when we sat down was a bit different, happily. Earlier in the day, we had been quite indignant about the number of supplemental fees so it was gratifying to see that the fourteen-ounce sirloin ($17 supplemental charge) and the Angus filet ($15 supplemental charge) were omitted. However, we saw there was a new appetizer: Buffalo mozzarella with tomatoes, for an additional five dollars.
Now, that was frustrating (an extra five dollars for mozzarella?!) but it didn’t compare with our affecting, artificial waiter. When we were making our wine selections, he spoke to our group as though we knew nothing about wine. The menu offered two choices in wine flights, one for $20.08 and another for $30.08; both JD and Lexi expressed interest in the first, but here the waiter did something that I especially did not appreciate. He gave truly one of the hardest sells I’ve seen on the pricier wine flight, and I’m sad to say my friends went for it.
In spite of all that, I was pleased with my appetizer of crab wontons, which also came with a fantastic chartreuse green dipping sauce. I sampled the sauce first — tangy and familiar, something about it kept my fork moving from mouth to dish until it was all but gone. I tried dragging a wonton through the sauce but honestly, they were both at their best alone. The wonton was crisp, crunchy and deliciously crabby, without even the slightest hint of oiliness.
(When I asked the server about the green sauce, he said, “It’s sort of like an herb mayo.” To which I replied, “Oh? What herbs?” His response was, “Whatever’s available.”)
The rest of the party didn’t fare so well with their starters. Keith and Terence ordered the chicken spring roll, which Keith found incredibly lackluster; Kyle thought his shortrib potstickers, which JD and Lexi had both also selected, were overly greasy. Presentation-wise, the potstickers arrived in an overlarge bowl, with the crescent-shaped dumplings barely covering its bottom.
I had been torn as to what to select for my entrée. After all, Boston Public fancies itself a steakhouse (an Asian steakhouse, I should say) but the menu we received only had one beef entrée: skirt steak, a notoriously cheap and tough cut. Now, I have nothing against cheap cuts; after all, a skirt steak is at its most flavorful when braised. This skirt steak, however, was to be grilled and served with a red wine sauce. Already hesitant, I asked our server his opinion.
“I kind of hate salmon,” he said. When he saw my expression at this, he quickly added, “But other people really seem to like it.”
While it was the worst endorsement I’ve heard, Kyle and I both decided to risk the salmon — probably the best I’ve taken. Even though I’ve never liked dried Umeboshi plums (though I liked the misspelling of plum on the menu) the combination of the sauce and the palm sugar glaze gave the fish a very nice subtle sweetness. The flavors also complimented the sautéed bok choy layered underneath the salmon, leaving me extremely happy with my choice.
Again, the other members of my group weren’t as pleased with their selections. All had gone with the skirt steak, which arrived on ridiculously small plates barely the size of the steaks themselves. The red wine sauce gave the appearance of a bloody, bloody wreck of a steak; the melting pat of butter placed atop the meat didn’t do anything at all of change that. I stole a piece from Keith’s plate — it was as rubbery as squid, and not nearly as fun to eat. Also, it left me wondering exactly where the Asian influence lay. The steak had been prepared in the most basic fashion with essentially a red wine jus; I may not be an expert in the kitchen, but I had been under the impression that a jus is French.
To add even more indignity, the others’ entrées were literally just meat. Luckily Keith and I had decided to spilt a side dish, and ordered the potato purée. Almost all of us ended up scraping some of it onto our plates.
For dessert, I was the only one to deviate from choosing the blueberry shortcake, opting instead for the vanilla panna cotta with raspberry sauce. It was genuinely a forgettable dish. In this case and this case alone, Keith’s selection surpassed mine with ease. The shortcake would have been a nice, simple dish, but the addition of lemon took it beyond basic and into something much more interesting.
At the end of dinner, I think I was the only one to not have any complaints about the food. I was sad that the same couldn’t be said of my fellow diners, but I was pleased nevertheless. Until… the bill arrived. The restaurant had added a 21% gratuity to our check. It was an absolutely perfect farce. I am all for rewarding excellent service, but I also am for the right to decide whether or not such service was received. In this case, it was most certainly not; an 18% tip would have been undeserved.
While we were reaching grudgingly for our wallets, I noticed a patron across the room pouring her martini out of its signature glass and into a lowball. Odd, I thought, but considered that maybe she didn’t like martini glasses. I’ve been known to knock over a few with a clumsy elbow, so I could understand if perhaps she preferred something a bit more stable. Outside, Keith told us how the table next to us had ordered cocktails; after a delay, the hostess had informed them that the bar was out of martini glasses, and asked if they would object to their drinks being served in white wine glasses. It made me wonder, had someone asked the woman in the other room for her glass back? Before I could think about this some more, Keith and Kyle said that they had walked past several customers unhappily arguing with their servers.
Is it cheering to know that we weren’t the only ones displeased with our evening? Of course not. No one likes to receive a bill for almost four hundred dollars after a highly uneven and mostly disappointing meal. At the same time, it was comforting to learn that we were not alone.
234 Berkeley Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116