Will you be having the chicken, the salmon, or the pasta?
That was the question during the former Restaurant Week, an event whose timely death came this month. It has been remade as Dine Out Boston.
Restaurant Week was born in 2001 and lived a full life, winning friends, influencing people, and serving its community. It offered consumers value and an opportunity to try restaurants they otherwise might not have. It brought restaurants business and created buzz. But toward the end, its $38 three-course dinner was outdated. With so many restaurants gravitating toward lower pricing, and discount sites like Groupon on the scene, it was no longer the same sweet deal. It also constrained chefs, who couldn’t offer expensive ingredients without losing money. Often the food just wasn’t that interesting. And Restaurant Week had become kind of a pest. It was always there, growing longer and more frequent, until it felt like Restaurant Year.
Dine Out Boston saw its inaugural run March 16-21 and 23-28. The retooling now means dinner for $28, $33, or $38 and lunch for $15, $20, or $25. There is no set number of courses, giving restaurants more flexibility. Is Dine Out Boston a fix? Let’s take it for a spin and find out.
We begin with the standby, the $38 dinner. Rialto, in Harvard Square, serves the traditional three-course meal. It is the perfect Dine Out Boston destination: Here is the chance to indulge Champagne tastes on a Prosecco budget. Yet if I hadn’t come for the event, I never would have known it existed. The list of dishes is tucked discreetly at the back of the menu, and our server doesn’t mention the promotion. Opening the menu, in fact, I am faced with a different prix fixe offer: four courses inspired by Piedmont for $75. It sounds divine.
That menu includes luxurious ingredients like truffles and foie gras, not-for-everyone preparations like veal tartare, and out-of-the-box compositions. It leaves me pining for nebbiolo-braised pork cheeks with braised chicories, sweet pepper, white beans, garum, kumquats, and crispy skin: It’s an entree! It’s a food poem! It’s $34 on the regular menu, so there’s little chance of finding it for Dine Out Boston.
The menu I am here for is prettily written, too. Up first: spring lettuces with pea shoots, radishes, mint, and ricotta salata; smooth potato-leek soup with prosciutto, creme fraiche, and green garlic; or vegetable antipasti with Fiore di Nonno mozzarella, eggplant caponata, peppers, cauliflower, walnuts, and salsa verde. So, basically, soup or salad, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The soup is perfectly pleasant and, indeed, smooth as billed (you can practically feel someone straining for a sexy adjective here). The antipasti plate is an artful combination of tastes and textures, more interesting than I would have predicted.
For the main course, I find seafood stew with fregola; vegetable lasagna with pine nuts, sunchokes, asparagus, and more; and rigatoni Bolognese, that eternal crowd-pleaser. The seafood stew is a tidy portion of nicely cooked monkfish, shrimp, squid, mussels, and clams in aromatic tomato-lobster broth. And the Bolognese is a brilliant version, a blend of veal, beef, and pork brightened by oregano and citrus. The first dish resembles a $13 fisherman’s soup on Rialto’s regular menu, while Bolognese appears on the bar menu for $14. Rialto’s regular entrees average out to $36. These are the economics of the $38 three-course menu.
Desserts are creative, welcome at any time but particularly during Dine Out Boston. There are maple-pecan profiteroles, passion-fruit and ginger baked Alaska, and a more-standard yogurt panna cotta with blood orange-rhubarb compote. It’s a sweet end to a good meal, if not a mind-blowing one. Rialto regularly offers a menu of three courses for $40, and the Dine Out dishes compare favorably. But would this dinner bring me back to the restaurant? Yes, to the bar, for that excellent Bolognese.
Next I head to the Boston branch of Elephant Walk, for its $33 three-course dinner. I’m drawn by the variety of the menu: The French-Cambodian restaurant proves a chef’s creativity need not be compromised by price.
There are three choices for the first course. Namya is an inhalable concoction of rice noodles, fresh herbs, and a complex, wonderful sauce that incorporates ground catfish, lemongrass and galangal, coconut milk and chiles, and the funky fermented fish paste prahok. Squid ink vermicelli are oddly dense, but they are served in flavorful lobster broth with mussels, shrimp, radish, and leeks. A kale salad with sesame-soy-lemon vinaigrette is sprinkled with cacao nibs for an intriguing crunch.
And there are seven dishes to choose from for the main course, all far from the chicken-salmon-pasta axis of ennui. We find grilled trout with guajillo chile-garlic butter, smoky and fragrant, with bright wild lime rice and pickled vegetables. The flavors work so well together it is hard to stop eating. Or seared pork tenderloin medallions with cider reduction, slow-cooked Savoy cabbage, mashed potatoes, and roasted pear. It’s comforting, but it’s far from boring. Not every dish works as well: Short ribs braised in white wine are both comforting and boring, and tofu in caramel sauce is so bland it is almost flavorless.
For dessert: garden-variety chocolate truffle cake with raspberry sauce, fruit and cardamom ice cream with no cardamom flavor, and a sweet, tangy passion-fruit mousse in a crisp almond pastry crust. It’s not the strongest course, but I’ve just eaten namya and trout. I barely mind. And I definitely wouldn’t mind returning to Elephant Walk, a restaurant I hadn’t visited in years.
The $28 dinner seems designed for places like Cinquecento in the South End. Loud, fun, and stylish, it is a destination for drinks with friends or a casual plate of pasta. Our server seems surprised when we order from the Dine Out Boston menu. Maybe that’s because it’s not the kind of place many come for a traditional three-course meal. Maybe it’s because the offerings on the regular menu are in many cases more enticing.
The Dine Out menu includes a salad that causes deja vu, nearly identical to the one at Rialto. There is a thick soup of tender borlotti beans, filling and dull. And there is a winner, bresaola with figs, balsamic, and arugula, the delicate cured beef pairing perfectly with the fruit.
For the second course, spaghetti with pesto, asparagus, and truffled pecorino is mushy but tasty. Grilled swordfish is overcooked, with too-sweet caponata, olives, and not enough caper vinaigrette. It needs acid. Surprisingly good: that old cliche, roast chicken, served with mushroom panzanella. The bird is oversalted, but the meat is juicy and the skin crisp, and the bread salad satisfies.
Dessert is a lemon olive oil cake that turns out to be the sort of squishy baked good that might come out of a box. Chocolate panna cotta with dark, syrupy Amarena cherries is better. But sticking with the regular menu might be the best choice of all, so you don’t have to pine for the likes of fried artichokes and bucatini alla carbonara.
Or head to the South End’s other end at lunchtime, where Toro’s $25 Dine Out offering lets you sample signature tapas without the evening crowds. The menu allows one pincho and two tapas per person. For the same meal off the regular menu, you might spend more than $30, and that would be without dessert (churros or Manchego). There are nine pinchos to choose from and 23 tapas. Your old favorites are here: dates stuffed with almonds and blue cheese and wrapped in Serrano ham, garlic shrimp, pimientos del padron, the grilled corn smothered in lime and cheese that is a house specialty. Giant roasted bones filled with marrow, with radish-citrus salad and oxtail marmalade, come with a $2 surcharge. It feels like cheating, but the dish is damn good. Don’t blame me for your late-afternoon food coma.
Dine Out Boston is a step in the right direction. It offers consumers a markdown and lets lower-priced restaurants participate, both good things. For it to be a true success, chefs and customers need to embrace it anew. Excitement needs to be back on the table. Why not turn the event on its head? Next time around, add yet another option, a higher-priced one that lets chefs flex — say, a $75 menu like the one that sounds so good at Rialto. Diners are more discerning than ever. We don’t just want value. We want vision, as well.
RIALTO 1 Bennett St., Harvard Square, Cambridge. 617-661-5050. www.rialto-restaurant.com.
ELEPHANT WALK 900 Beacon St., Fenway, Boston. 617-247-1500. (Also has a Cambridge location.) www.elephantwalk.com.
CINQUECENTO 500 Harrison Ave., South End, Boston. 617-338-9500. www.cinquecentoboston.com.
TORO 1704 Washington St., South End, Boston. 617-536-4300. www.toro-restaurant.com.Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.