The Tip Tap Room sounds like the most nostalgic restaurant in town, the kind of place where hep cats drink Old Fashioneds and listen to big-band music. In reality, it might be the most literal: It specializes in tips (steak, turkey, and beyond) and taps (from Anchor Steam to Widmer black IPA). But its secret, unbilled strength is game.
Each night, chef Brian Poe offers a special featuring meat that doesn’t often appear on local menus: antelope meatloaf, venison osso buco, goat chops, elk burgers. Ordering something like kangaroo marinated in ginger, whiskey, and coffee might be a stunt for a diner showing off for pals, or a checkmark on the life list of a food obsessive bent on consuming off-the-beaten-path ingredients.
Whatever frisson it offers, it is likely one of the best things coming out of the kitchen that night. A recent offering, rack of antelope ribs, is not the tailgate finger food we expect. These are more like braised short ribs, with an oilier texture and a mild flavor, served with pumpkin puree. Forks are required. Knives are unnecessary. A wild game cassoulet is a Noah’s ark of a dish, incorporating yak, ostrich, pheasant, venison, elk, and more, along with tender beans. The rich, dark sauce that binds it all together is reminiscent of Bourguignon. “This is holiday food,” one diner exclaims, and indeed it would be perfect on a cold New Year’s Eve, special but still comforting.
Poe is a visible presence at the Tip Tap Room, chatting amiably in his chef’s whites. He is also behind Poe’s Kitchen at the Rattlesnake and Estelle’s, which will serve Southern food in the South End and is expected to open in December. Eric Gburski, formerly of East Coast Grill, is also involved in that project, and there’s a kindred sensibility among Poe’s restaurants and the Cambridge institution, with big flavors taking precedence over precision and finesse. Poe starts with basics and elaborates on them in interesting, over-the-top ways — macaroni and cheese that incorporates spicy Taza chocolate, bacon, and smoked chilies at Poe’s Kitchen, for instance. He wants to create places that are fun to be, and he keeps prices low.
That’s swell, and his food can be, too. For example, his riff on potato skins, which he tops with fried oysters, beer-cheese sauce, pickled serrano salsa, and seven kinds of bacon (which, given the location, are referred to as “seven-bacon tips”). “What kinds of bacon are they?” one diner asks the waitress, who begins to list them, then gives up. There are too many. Aside from bacon taxonomy, she, like all of the servers here, knows her stuff — both in terms of the menu and waitressing in general. It may be a casual place, but the Tip Tap Room doesn’t shirk on service.
Or a dish called “cheese & cracklins,” in which balls of goat cheese are fried and topped with pieces of prosciutto crisped in duck fat. Beneath the cheese balls are grilled asparagus (tips, of course) and a carrot-ginger sauce that would play better with the rest of the dish if it weren’t served icebox cold. Then there are swordfish tips, meaty chunks nicely grilled, served with tapenade-flavored mashed potatoes and green beans, garnished with tomatoes, peppers, and more. The plates can seem exuberant and generous or just messy, depending on the dish.
Not everything is quite so busy. A saute of snap peas and shiitake mushrooms with grilled bok choy and tofu in sesame-soy vinaigrette is pleasantly pared back. Chicken is marinated in lemon, lime, and yuzu, served with rice. It looks Greek but tastes vaguely Asian. And the best tips are the classic: steak, with a fine char, juicy, with potatoes pungent with horseradish.
Potatoes at the Tip Tap Room are treated as a blank canvas — goat cheese potatoes and creamed corn potatoes are also on the menu. They can also be an Achilles’ heel, gummy and gluey. For the most part, they’d be better plain, with the incorporated flavoring separated out and served as a side or a sauce.
On some nights it’s easier to overlook their consistency — the meats are grilled perfectly, and the beer flows. In addition to more than 20 regular choices on tap, the Tip Tap Room has rotating selections from breweries around the country and several keg offerings. There are also more than 50 additional bottled beers, a succinct wine list, and (sometimes watery) cocktails that often, like the food, are embroidered-upon basics: cucumber-lavender gimlets, blood orange caipirinhas, watermelon margaritas.
Other nights, the food is cooked less precisely. Boar meatballs, an appetizer, are too lean, although the ginger-cilantro-garlic broth in which they are served is excellent for dunking bread. The lamb tips are dry. Even the steak burger with veal demi-glace and A1 aioli is overdone and bland. (There are also lamb and turkey burgers.) Value is always relative. Sometimes, spending $30 per person for dinner at a restaurant seems like a deal. Others, it doesn’t feel worth it at all. When it’s the same restaurant both times, something is awry.
Dessert is also a mixed bag. Lemon souffle turns out to be more of a semifreddo, but it’s refreshingly tart, topped with lavender streusel. Blackberry and white chocolate bread pudding is a mess, a sweet, smushy blob. A special one night, featuring apple “tips,” takes the place’s shtick one step too far. Tofu tips I can roll with. Tomato tips? That’s overtipping.
Fortunately for the Tip Tap Room, its Beacon Hill location is tops, making it a magnet for young professionals, hospital workers, and the pre- and post-Celtics crowd. On a Friday night, postgrad frat brothers and their beautiful, dressed-up girls take over the tables. It’s the taps they seem most interested in. The Tip Tap Room could probably get away with serving generic pub grub. Poe is not interested. His effort and creativity are to be appreciated even on nights when the place is off its game.Devra First can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.