Gem Restaurant & Lounge, the latest project from Big Night Entertainment Group (Red Lantern, Shrine), bills itself as “a fusion of gastro-lounge and ultra exclusive supper club.” Although a dress code is not spelled out, the restaurant claims to have a very strict one: Entry will be denied, says its website, to anyone who does not meet “management dress satisfaction.”
Will you be allowed in? Will your outfit make the cut? It’s time to find out.
Climb a flight of stairs to a small, plush space decorated in the rococo style of a bordello catering to Francophiles who haven’t been to France in a few decades. High red velvet banquettes line the mosaic floor. Chairs and tables are covered in thick, paisley fabrics. There are wood screens with cut-out Moroccan patterns. Male employees sport leather aprons, what the models would wear in a stable boy-themed GQ shoot. Women are in corsets that hoist their flesh toward the fringed chandeliers.
Gem sends mixed messages. It asks guests to dress appropriately and staffers to wear lingerie. It requires “extremely limited” reservations to be made by e-mail by noon on the day one wishes to dine; upon arrival, half the tables are empty. Even so, failure to specify a preference for the quiet dining area can result in dinner at a red velvet banquette by the bar. At an ordained hour, dance music roars from speakers located just above one’s head, with the ferocity of a suddenly unmuzzled tiger. A television is on, and during a big Celtics game, men in jeans provide a sports-bar soundtrack of cheers and groans. Women wear anything from black suits to thigh-skimming, gut-sucking white lace peplum minidresses and heels one could use as kebab skewers. Gem can be truly outrageous.
Big Night Entertainment is aptly named — generally, the group creates big restaurants that feel like nightspots, where one might canoodle, party, or, come to think of it, eat. Gem pours that same atmosphere into a cozy package. If it doesn’t feel exclusive, well, establishments that are truly exclusive rarely describe themselves as such. They don’t need to.
Hopes for a good meal diminish when customers having dinner are in the minority. The food is better than one might expect, thanks in part to executive chef Kevin Long, a busy man with the new Empire on the way to the waterfront this summer. Dishes are at least palatable, and occasionally quite good.
The kitchen’s palate skews sweet, and dishes that should be savory are sometimes cloying. Quesadillas filled with duck confit, Gruyere, onions, and salsa are oddly sugary. One of the restaurant’s signature main dishes is a pressed crisp chicken with Marsala jus. It comes from Hingham’s Tosca, where Long also presides. On some nights, the skin is indeed crisp, the meat juicy. On others, it’s a flabbier bird, topped with wilted, unappealing greens. Either way, the Marsala overwhelms, sweet beyond the usual powers of the fortified wine. The spicing of a beef and boar Bolognese makes penne taste like pumpkin pie.
Roasted sea bass with miso and pea shoots is gummy, herbed fries with truffle butter greasy and in need of salt. A cheeseburger with caramelized onions requested medium arrives well past well done. This will never be the problem with a tuna sashimi sandwich, a gem of an idea: a soft bun piled with strips of raw fish sprinkled with sesame and enriched with soy-flavored mayonnaise. Avocado lends more creaminess, and there is cucumber for crunch.
Comfort food is where Gem shines. Macaroni and cheese is mild but luxurious, served in a gratin dish, topped with golden bread crumbs. Tater tots are crisp bites with an interior that is more pureed than riced; they come with Russian dressing on the side.
More elegant is lobster chowder, a coral soup enhanced with bacon, so rich one can’t eat the whole large serving alone. Resting atop the bowl is a skewer of tempura lobster, crisp and golden. Shrimp and grits, another first course, can easily serve as a meal. It is the best thing on the menu: creamy grits topped with tender, sweet shrimp, just cooked through. Bites of pickled watermelon rind are a sweet-sour surprise.
Dessert could be called “variations on a theme of custard,” or “what can be accomplished in a kitchen the size of a closet.” One might find a fine creme brulee with too-tart cranberry compote on the side, or an ordinary chocolate parfait. This is a place, after all, where customers having dinner are in the minority. The bartenders, then, ought to be up to snuff. They are. Many of the house cocktails share the dishes’ enthusiasm for sugar. But a Sazerac is just right — one whiff and you’re in New Orleans. And servers are gracious, attentive, and well informed about Gem’s food and drink.
Big Night has worked hard to create an atmosphere at Gem, all plush and padding. In the ladies’ room, the illusion is shattered. It is cramped and basic — impossible to reach the sink without setting off the motion-triggered towel dispenser. For two people to pass each other, they practically have to do-si-do. “This is the worst bathroom experience I have ever had in a restaurant!” a patron yells one evening in frustration from the confines of a stall.
She recovers, spotted later in the bar area, languorously oozing into the personal space of a drinking companion. Gem doesn’t feel exclusive. But it’s not a bad place for a big night on a small scale.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.