It is late summer, as hot and humid at 8 p.m. as it was in the middle of the day. A measure of the weather: Society on High’s alluring outdoor dining area is deserted. Even Bostonians, who drink patio season to the lees, are sticking with AC. We take a seat inside, and a server appears.
“Our special tonight is foie gras-stuffed pheasant with a tawny Port reduction,” she says.
Spit take. On a night like this, heavy excess is the last thing anyone would crave. It’s as if the people in the kitchen tried their hardest to come up with something no one would order.
The tone deafness is a sign of things to come.
Society on High debuted in June, a project from Ian Just, who opened Les Zygomates and Sorriso. Brian Benton, executive chef at both, fills the role here. The place looks stylish and shiny: a cozy dining area, plenty of mirrors, black-and-white tile, a curved bar. Entering, one is greeted by a dance beat, the dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh that often indicates a restaurant with concerns more pressing than food.
The menu looks nice enough. We have a selection of dishes in the sophisticated comfort food vein, with creative touches to liven up the roster: mussels and Caesar salad; seared scallops with gnocchi, kale, and bacon jam; grilled chicken thighs with warm orzo salad, feta, and spinach; and for dessert the likes of pie-in-a-jar and boozy floats.
The meal begins well, too. Caesar salad is Caesar salad, but the dressing here has real flavor, and there’s an actual anchovy draped beguilingly over the greens. Mussels, tender and grit-free, are served in a mellow broth of white wine and tomatoes with plenty of garlic and shallots. It’s good enough to drink.
Then things begin to fall apart. “I hate overdone pork,” a guest tells the server, contemplating ordering a grilled chop. “Me too,” he says. “That won’t happen.” “I mean, I really hate it. I want it a little pink.” “Absolutely.” He is an excellent server, knows the menu and food in general, sees to our every need, can answer our every question. Society on High’s pork chop doesn’t deserve him. It is overdone and overly salty. The promise of an enticingly Southern preparation — peach relish, black-eyed peas, collards — falls through. The relish is more sharp than sweet and scant at any rate, the peas and greens bland.
Scallops are more tortured than seared, their overcooked bodies shrinking inward, as if they can hide from the injustice by making themselves smaller. Their exteriors are gummy and hard. No amount of bacon jam could redeem them. Chicken thighs are rubbery and tasteless.
Grass-fed rib eye has plenty of flavor, but the whipped potatoes with which it is served have the damnedest texture, somehow overworked and yet still lumpy — a bit of nostalgia for childhood paste-eaters all grown up. The steak is $44. That ought, at least, to buy you passable potatoes. The best main course on the dinner menu is salmon, a bit dry but served with spring pea risotto, still full of flavor at the end of summer and nicely prepared. The one thing that is often gummy in restaurants here is just right.
Ordering from the bar menu isn’t a much better bet. Candied spare ribs are sticky and tender, but the flavor of the sauce is one-dimensional, salty without the balance of sweet or spicy. Calamari is fried in rice flour batter that is crunchy and thick rather than crisp and light. A burger is a good bet, topped with cheddar and bacon, although it is served much pinker than ordered; the accompanying fries are undercooked, too. And mini brioche rolls are filled with stingy amounts of lobster cooked into a dried-out substance, then drenched in butter as if that might fool you into thinking everything is fine here.
Society on High fares a bit better with dessert: People are forgiving when it comes to fudgy little cakes topped with (theoretically popcorn-flavored) ice cream. But there are limits. “The Elvis” is a puck of dry peanut butter cheesecake with caramelized bananas and a chocolate graham cracker crust, impaled by a piece of bacon. That gimmick is enough to convince us to order the thing, but not to eat more than a taste. And a float of Kentucky bourbon ale with bourbon peach ice cream is just gross, the flavors clashing, clots of ice cream floating to the surface as it melts.
What Society on High does have to offer: friendly bartenders and strong cocktails. The Herb Garden — gin, green Chartreuse, Maraschino liqueur, and cucumber — is as heady as it is refreshing. But an attempt to order the Sweet Brooklyn (orange vodka, green tea, and lemongrass-pomegranate syrup) fails: That and the Gidget, the other drink on the list made with a syrup (in this case hibiscus), are unavailable this evening, we are told.
The restaurant business is a competitive one, never more so than now, when diners’ opinions appear online as soon as a place soft-opens and people follow new projects as if it were a sport. So it is confusing when a restaurant opens its doors so far from ready for prime time, especially when it comes from experienced operators.
Someone has (had?) real ambitions for Society on High, with its fancy specials and creative cocktails. They aren’t being realized. The end result is about as satisfying as foie gras-stuffed pheasant on a sweltering summer night.
★★★★ Extraordinary ★★★Excellent ★★ Good ★ Fair (No stars) PoorDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.