Two restaurants open in one neighborhood within weeks of each other, aiming to become indispensable local hangouts. Can they both succeed?
First, we have Worden Hall, a comfortable home away from home from the team behind Five Horses Tavern in Davis Square and the South End. It is cozy, brick-walled, with big light fixtures of angled glass and metal and a bar topped in shiny pennies. There is a theme — Saratoga Springs, the hometown of partner Dylan Welsh — but the restaurant doesn't hit you over the head with it. Its name is a salute to the Worden Hotel there, and one wall features a mural of a racetrack. Worden Hall's logo is also a racing horse.
Executive chef Tim McQuinn has worked at places including the Merchant, Banq, and Craigie on Main. With executive sous chefs Milton Barahona and Bill Nurse, he creates a menu at Worden Hall that seems inspired more by Chicago than upstate New York.
It kicks off with the Kobe beef Chi Town Dog, which has about as much in common with actual Chicago-style hot dogs as it does with Kobe beef served in Japan. It is a rich link topped in Napa cabbage slaw and a spill of pickled mustard seeds, with sriracha mustard added for nose-clearing measure. It's a decadent snack, but not the sort of thing you'd eat if you were a homesick Chicagoan. The deep-dish pies are, however: puffy rounds of dough, crusts browned and curling over bright tomato sauce, islands of creamy melted mozzarella, and leaves of basil. In addition to the Margherita, pies also come topped with grilled eggplant, ricotta, and olives, or soppressata, garlic sausage, and broccoli rabe.
Worden Hall could operate on the strengths of this pizza alone. But it swiftly moves on to impress in other ways. First, with appetizers: Polenta fries are everything you want in a bar bite. In fact, they are everything you want in polenta fries and often don't get — crisp exteriors, creamy interiors, the right amount of salt, a sprinkling of grana padano, and two flavor-packed sauces to swipe each bite through, a deeply smoky tomato sauce and a mellow black-garlic aioli.
Smoked lamb ribs, tender and succulent, are dusted in spices, topped with a salad of cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta, drizzled in kalamata vinaigrette and dolloped with tzatziki. It's the modernized take on Greek food several new restaurants in town are focusing on. McQuinn breezes in, makes the shot, and moves on. It's fall in New England, so how about soup? The one on offer combines celery root and Honeycrisp apples, a silky-smooth emulsification perfectly balanced with sherry vinegar, a mound of shaved cabbage and crisped pork belly at its center. It's cozy and autumnal, sure. It's also elegant enough to appear at most any high-end restaurant in town.
So let's hit the deli. It's silly that Worden Hall's sandwich menu is headed "spuckies," leading one to believe these will all be variants on a sub with a certain kind of roll. They aren't. That doesn't take anything away from the excellent house-smoked pastrami, served on grilled Iggy's rye with beer cheese, mustard, and pickles. It comes with a side of curly fries or greens, but Worden Hall makes the leap and lets you order half and half. Now was that so hard?
Then the menu moves on to more upscale bistro fare — grilled swordfish with smoky eggplant puree, topped with a pert salad of shaved fennel and citrus segments; roasted beef shoulder tender, a cut that is juicy and medium rare, with a flavorful crust, served with grilled broccolini, potatoes, maitake and king oyster mushrooms, red wine jus, and horseradish crema. It needs more horseradish, and the mushrooms are undercooked, but it's still pretty grand.
It's impressive that the kitchen succeeds in so many modes. A good dessert seems almost too much to ask for, yet the strawberry-rhubarb ice cream sandwich delivers: tart-sweet ice cream on a brown butter and ginger cookie that brings it into season. A server volunteers to have it split four ways so everyone at the table gets a piece. Another server notices a sandwich ordered with half-greens, half-fries only arrives with the fries; he whisks it away and brings a new one. At the bar, as at Five Horses, there are more than three dozen beers on tap, and even more kinds of whiskey; the bartenders make a good cocktail. The place is also directly across from the Broadway T. If you live in South Boston and this isn't your new regular, you might want to reconsider.
Blocks away at Coppersmith, the patio is at capacity on an unseasonably warm night, young men in backward ball caps spill out of a stretch Hummer and file inside, and patrons inexplicably pass a stuffed version of Ted, the creepy bear from the eponymous movie, around the restaurant. The space is stunning. Once the Dahlquist Manufacturing Co., specializing in copper fabrication, it is a vast, open room of brick and pipes and expansive windows, with two food trucks parked permanently within, housing part of the kitchen. There is a roof deck with an Airstream trailer for a bar, and a cafe area. The noise is maximal. Conversation is a guessing game. "Which dessert sounds good to you?" I holler at a friend, pointing to the appropriate part of the menu. "Sure, I'll have a few bites!" she yells cheerfully, nodding her head.
It's hard for anything to feel coherent amid the festivities. People are clearly having a good time, and the staff struggles gamely in the din, maintaining smiles that seem genuine.
But the food isn't boosting the mood. Executive chef Chris Henry worked at the South End Buttery and in various capacities with the Barbara Lynch Gruppo. The menu has creative touches — paella turned into arancini, Buffalo-style cauliflower — along with crowd-pleasing staples like burgers and roast chicken. But things fall apart in the delivery.
In the case of the arancini, I'm being literal. Half the spheres are intact, the other half a crumbled mess. They are fried to a perfect golden-brown, but the rice is dry and the seafood chewy. Fried pig tails pop in a metal dish atop brown paper, topped with slivers of red chile and sprigs of cilantro. But they are fatty and unevenly cooked, and beyond salty, doused in fish sauce. Our roasted beets never even arrive.
The best thing on the menu is the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich, topped with pimento cheese, pickled green tomatoes, and corn chow-chow, a mash-up of Southern flavors on one bun. The burger looks promising, two towering patties topped with cheddar; add bacon, egg, and/or bone marrow for an additional fee. Ordered medium-rare, it arrives well done, the meat tasting like old grease. It is the worst burger I've had in a long time. Seared scallops with cauliflower puree, quinoa, and grapefruit segments is the kind of clean bistro dish it's hard not to like — unless, of course, the scallops (nicely seared, I should note) taste as though they've been cooked in the leftover burger grease. Not so clean. I can't imagine what happened to the half-chicken, described to us as "chef's favorite." It looks as though it has been flayed, and every drop of moisture drained from its flesh. I salute the person who — optimistically, desperately — garnishes it with an elegant frill of microgreens before sending it out.
For dessert there is a sticky bun bread pudding with bacon, bourbon caramel, and pecan brittle. The bacon is chewy and overwhelming; the brittle tastes off. It resists the pressure of teeth and utensils so ably perhaps it could be repurposed in something useful: Bike locks? Gerbil cages? A rectangular chocolate dessert arrives tinged with what looks like freezer burn, although accompaniments of toasted marshmallow fluff and dulce de leche are appealing.
The Coppersmith cider punch contains bourbon, chile liqueur, cider, and more; it is watery and weak. The Old New Fashioned, made with black walnut bitters, isn't any more successful. But there is wine, along with a dozen beers on tap, and more in bottles and cans. Did I mention how genuinely sweet the staff is?
Coppersmith wants to be a neighborhood restaurant, a "foodie playground," a good time, a community hub. It succeeds on the social front. Come here for a party. For dinner, head to Worden Hall.
★ ★ ½
22 West Broadway, South Boston, 617-752-4206, www.wordenhall.com.All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $8-$15. Hot dogs $7. Spuckies $13-$16. Deep dish pies $20. Entrees $18-$28. Desserts $8.
Hours Mon-Wed 11:30-1 a.m., Thu-Fri 11:30-2 a.m., Sat-Sun 10:30-2 a.m. (Food served until 11:30 p.m.)
Noise level Conversational.
What to order Celery root and apple soup, polenta fries, lamb ribs, Margherita deep dish pie, roasted beef shoulder tender, strawberry-rhubarb ice cream sandwich.
40 West 3rd St., South Boston, 617-658-3452, www.copper
smithboston.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.
Prices Appetizers $8-$12. Entrees $12-$28. Desserts $8.
Hours Tue-Fri 4 p.m.-1 a.m., Sat-Sun 11-1 a.m.
Noise level Don't even try.
What to order Buttermilk fried chicken sandwich.
★ ★ ★ ★ Extraordinary
★ ★ ★ Excellent | ★ ★ Good
★ Fair | (No stars) Poor