The Big Deals
Our hungry researchers attack the city in search of the ultimate dining bargains—from high-to lowbrow, and everything in between.
Cheese :: Von Trapp Farmstead, $10.98 per half pound
My first taste of Oma cheese came early last summer, and the cravings have been constant ever since. I catch myself daydreaming about the potent interior, butter-rich and supple, rendered from raw cow’s milk (Jerseys, mostly, that are all grass-fed) in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. Remove a wedge from your fridge, unwrap it on the kitchen counter, then ignore it for an hour. The funked-up aroma will rise to glory, forcing you to sit up and pay attention. That first bite has the curious essence of sweet-savory ice cream, the texture of silk and velvet stitched together, and a finish that lingers before departing without warning. Your palate feels like it’s been left in the dust of a luxury high-speed train — thrilled to have been a part of the action, but longing for another ride. And the cost of a ticket, if you eat the same as I do per sitting, is about the same as two rides on the T. Also Available at Formaggio Kitchen, 244 Huron Ave., Cambridge, 617-354-4750, formaggiokitchen.com. — Alexandra Hall
Prix-Fixe Menu :: L’Espalier, $250 per person
Anyone who’s ever laid napkin to lap in L’Espalier’s splendid dining room knows that few gustatory experiences rival chef Frank McClelland’s 10-plus-course prix-fixe dinners. The ever-changing menu is epic beyond reckoning: vintage Taittinger paired with salmon boudin; oat-crusted lamb with 2006 Domaine Giraud Châteauneuf-du-Pape; foie gras with salted caramel sauce and green-almond foam. And the whole thing gets even better when it’s experienced in the restaurant’s kitchen. That’s where the private chef’s table awaits, glowing with votives, smack between the meat and seafood stations. A waiter, dedicated exclusively to your table, is ready to meet every demand. Meanwhile, the kitchen is part well-oiled machine, part intricate ballet — and you’re at the epicenter. The meat chef hollers to the garde manger. The pastry chef chucks a pan so close, you can guess at its contents. Chef McClelland wanders over to show you the eggs, which will arrive minutes later set with blini, béchamel, and a shower of black-truffle shavings. Clearly, this isn’t bargain fare…but for sheer value? Even at $250 per person (and thousands of calories), it’s a worthy splurge. There are special-occasion meals, after all, and then there are meals to remember for decades. $130 additional for vintner pairings; 774 Boylston St., Boston, 617-262-3023, lespalier.com. — A. H.
Pickles :: Root Cellar Preserve, $6.49
A pickle fan, I am not. I remove them from sandwiches (unless it’s a Cubano). They annoy me on burgers (a distraction from that sacred formula: meat + cheese + tomato). So why am I willing to pony up $6.49 for a jar of Root Cellar Preserves pickles? That’s easy: Because these are no mass-produced affair (the tiny company is based in Wellesley) — a fact made obvious by the intense, soaring flavors. A mishmash of thickly sliced, nearly translucent cukes, cauliflower, banana peppers, and red bells swims in a hot-sweet brine loaded with garlic, salt, and enough sugar to make it just a tad sticky — plus dashes of turmeric and an infusion of heat from the peppers. They’re a revelation on cheese plates — almost chutneylike — and on salads. But even plain, they’ve been known to improve my mood. And for that, I’d pay double — again and again. rootcellarpreserves.com. — A. H.
Locavore Dish :: T. W. Food, $26
I like to know where my tomatoes were grown, my eggs were laid, and my pork chop once grazed. But I don’t like how much I have to throw down for these locally acquired treats, because rarely does it actually fit my budget. So for a dish sourced almost entirely from the Bay State — for less than what I’d pay for the ingredients at the market — I make my way to T. W. Food. The pastas, especially, put me at ease, specifically the cannelloni, which chef Tim Wiechmann kneads with flour made from wheat cultivated in Massachusetts and wraps around Maine lobster; the whole thing then gets topped with mussels from the South Shore or Concord-grown squash. It’s a rich, satisfying, and practically carbon-footprint-free plate. 377 Walden St., Cambridge, 617-864-4745, twfoodrestaurant.com. — E. B. M.
Winsor Dim Sum Café :: Dim Sum Feast, $2.75 and up
When my football-playing 18-year-old godson (who fancies himself a gourmet) is hungry and in my charge, we make a beeline to Chinatown. Finding an inexpensive, delicious meal there is like shooting carp in a tank. He doesn’t mind the servers rolling up their metal hot boxes and interrupting conversations to entice us with their offerings. I do. That’s why when it’s my choice, we go to Winsor Dim Sum Café, where the feast is civil and I find culinary artistry for a low price. This small, second-floor restaurant has loads of options, so you can get what you want at your leisure, and the food is — get this — made to order. Winsor’s version of the trendy, hot-broth-filled dumpling xiao long bao is always good (some days stellar), and the shrimp-and-chive dumplings are things of beauty. And I make sure to save room for the pan-fried rice noodles with XO sauce, an umami-sublime dish of seared gnocchi-like threads tossed with a heap of ground pork, scallions, and bean sprouts. 10 Tyler St., Boston, 617-338-1688. — A. B. C.