The Big Deals

SO THERE YOU ARE, a Brahmin in the mid-19th century, and you’ve got a problem: In spite of all Dad’s tirades about ostentation and frivolous spending, you’ve somehow developed a soft spot for cassia, that rare and deep-flavored spice those blasted Forbes boys keep bringing back from their voyages to China. You desperately want to quit the habit, but the flavoring’s aromatic effects on your morning porridge have you emptying your wallet again and again. And every time you do, you tell yourself this: Some foods are just worth the sacrifice — of money, of course, but also of that whole Yankee frugality thing Father keeps going on about. What you have no way of knowing is that a century and a half later, this argument will continue to live at the center of your descendants’ hearts, minds, and stomachs.

[sidebar]Now, as much as in the 1840s, we worship the concept of value — of paying not a penny more than what something is worth. Admittedly, that’s an elusive and subjective notion — one that extends beyond food and into every area of our lives. Then again, food just may be the only thing we care about enough (with the possible exception of sports) to throw caution to the wind. But the question of which foods are worth our money is a lot more complicated now than it was for our ancestors.

Back in the day, they didn’t have nearly the number of incredible restaurants or the bountiful selection of retail foods (local and otherwise) that we do now. Which means our temptation to spend has skyrocketed — whether on a world-class $250 prix fixe that changes our life, or a fantastic $7 burrito that makes our day a little better.

So yes, times have certainly changed. But in the frugality realm? Not so much. Our good old Yankee thrift still lingers — a constant dread that if we pay even a few dollars too much for something, we’ll have been taken for chumps.

But what we’re concerning ourselves with here is value — not parsimony. “Cheap eats” —  that Ross-and-Rachel throwback concept — too often amounts to how to spend as little as possible. McDonald’s may be a bargain, but few of us see it as a temple of value; around here we don’t eat crappy, inexpensive food to survive. We want food that at the end of the day thrills us. Jolts us alive. Makes us happy. And we’ll pay for it.

So if the value of that happiness is highly subjective, as all happiness ultimately is, how do you determine what’s real value to you? How much would Proust have paid for his madeleines? How much of your Brahmin sensibility would you have sacrificed for the cassia that made your breakfast worth getting out of bed for? 

Before answering, consider that getting your money’s worth is as much about the dining experience, which is to say the emotional experience, as it is about the food itself. Maybe it’s the buzz of scoring the best table in the house, or the thrill of being cared for by five servers, that makes for money well spent. It could simply be the familiar vibe of a neighborhood bistro that’s worth paying for over and over. Or maybe it’s just the way a certain atmosphere brings out the best in a particular cluster of family or friends. Sometimes we’re spending our money just to be introduced to something we’ve never tasted before. (Pass the morel, amaretto gel, and black-truffle soup, could you?)

Talking to Dante de Magistris about all of this, he mentions a curious phenomenon he’s observed as the chef-owner of two very different eateries — fine-dining Cambridge restaurant Dante, and the casual Belmont spot Il Casale. “Our sfizi [mini appetizers] at Dante are $5 each,” he says. “At Il Casale they’re $6. But because Dante is thought of as expensive or upscale, you hear people complain that the sfizi are too expensive, but at Il Casale they don’t. It’s all about perception — and the way you feel when you walk in the door.”

Ken Oringer, who owns casual restaurants (Toro, Coppa, and La Verdad) as well as tony fine-dining spots (Clio and KO Prime), has noticed a related concept. At Toro and La Verdad, both of which have partylike atmospheres, the spending proposition is far less per check than at Clio or Oringer’s upscale steakhouse, KO Prime — but they’re constantly packed, and diners wind up spending plenty because they visit again and again. “A lot of people say Bostonians don’t like to spend money in restaurants,” he says. “I don’t think that’s true. People have no problem spending for things they think are quality, and that they love.”

The question that ultimately determines value, then, isn’t, “What is this certain food worth?” But rather, “What is it worth to me?” There are modern-day, cassialike splurges all around us. To find them, we sent our writers — everyone from longtime food editors to political junkies who prefer to eat nothing fancy — across town on personal quests to find the foodstuffs for which they’ll gladly open their wallets. Dig in.

Suckling Pig :: Troquet, $39
Don’t take this the wrong way, but there are a lot of pigs in this city. Some come wholly dressed; others in the form of pork chops. And then, for the brave, there are the big, fat, meaty heads. My pig — the version that allows me to indulge in the whole animal without paying $50 per plate (an average around town) — is the roast suckling specimen found at Troquet. The dish features a hunk of thigh or shoulder, which chef Scott Hebert cures, then confits, and finally pan-roasts à la minute to create a crackling, caramelized skin. The saddle and loin are turned into porchetta, and the rillette — feet, cheeks, and neck blended with a brunoise of carrot, cornichon, and whole-grain mustard — is rendered into a pressed rectangle of flaky, gamey goodness. Nothing is wasted, not even the bones, which make a stock that’s swept across the plate — a finishing touch I’m happy to put my money into. 140 Boylston St., Boston, 617-695-9463, — Naomi Kooker

Toscanini’s :: Ice Cream, $5.50
I’ve been the victim of brain freeze at just about every ice cream shop in town. So when a craving for frozen custard strikes (which it does almost every Friday night), I forgo the half-gallon of Hood and can of Reddi-wip for two unadorned scoops from my all-time favorite spot: Toscanini’s. Why is this place a deal? Owner Gus Rancatore’s confections aren’t merely ice creams. They’re works of art. This shop’s flavor variety is unrivaled, from the famous burnt caramel and the refreshing khulfee — nuts, cardamom, and oftentimes saffron — to the mind-altering brown butter/brown sugar/brownie (a.k.a. B3), a confluence of dominating dessert forces. Then there’s the texture — thick, silky, delectably creamy. Rancatore produces them all on site, with impeccable ingredients — chocolate by Callebaut and Cacao Barry, leaves of fresh mint and tarragon grown in Dartmouth by Eva’s Garden, and locally sourced honey. He even whips his own cream to boot. Add it all up, and I’m happy to part with $5 and change. One scoop, $4.25; two scoops, $5.50; 899 Main St., Cambridge, 617-491-5877, — Brittany Jasnoff   

Arirang House :: Korean Lunch Buffet, $9
A buffet, if it does its job, leaves you disgusted: disgusted with how much you ate, disgusted with how you now feel. But at the Back Bay’s Arirang House, I manage to eat like a glutton without feeling like one. The steamed broccoli, the seaweed salad — options I don’t see at my other buffet haunts — complement the heavier choices, such as the grilled meats. You leave the place with the air of a well-fed, moderately healthy person. Who just got an incredible deal. 162 Massachusetts Ave., Boston, 617-536-1277. — Paul Kix  

Matt Murphy’s :: Dinner for Two, $30 per person
At the end of a workday, when my pregnant belly is screaming for sustenance and the family budget is busted thanks to baby gear, relief for my husband and me is found in a window-side banquette at Matt Murphy’s Pub. This fish and chippie recently got a glossy new coat of paint (noise-reducing ceiling panels in an Irish pub — really?), but the staffers haven’t lost their genial manner. Here we get what feels like a $100 dinner for just under $30 each. We can take the edge off with phyllo-bound, house-ground sausage rolls, a mini crock of the tavern’s maple-laced baked beans, and comforting shepherd’s pie. Occasionally we’ll tackle the delicate puff-pastry tartlet, which brims with wild mushrooms and tangy goat cheese. We even stretch our dollar with one of the massive desserts (two spoons, please), knowing it will be worth every penny. 14 Harvard St., Brookline, 617-232-0188, — Erin Byers Murray  


Bread Pudding :: Eastern Standard, $8
Gooey. Crackly. Caramelly. Bread pudding is a marvel that deserves plenty of adjectives. But at Eastern Standard, where pastry chef Jennifer Luna douses the treat in butterscotch and serves it for less than the price of an equally sweet cocktail, it deserves an entire love sonnet. Maybe it’s the salted caramel forming a generous pool on the plate, or the way the homemade praline ice cream melts over the top — whatever it is, all it takes is one bite deliciously enhanced with a crunchy Florentine cookie, and I’m smitten. 528 Commonwealth Ave., Boston, 617-532-9100, — B. J.

Burger :: The Butcher Shop, $18
I’m a lover of great burgers. But I’m no snob — I enjoy a paper-wrapped, politically incorrect version as much as one served on fine china. But for a burger deal, it has to be the hand-ground one at the Butcher Shop, which, even at $18 a pop, is gastronomically worth it. This badass bundle of pasture-raised prime beef requires two hands. The exquisite bun (courtesy of Hi-Rise Bakery) is light yet sturdy brioche, and the meat-to-bread ratio is just right. The burger arrives medium-rare and well rested (meaning the bottom of the bun is not soaked with leaking juice). Butcher Jonathan Sellitto’s secret? He adds butter during the grinding process. I’ve considered stacking the accompanying crispy onion rings into the burger, too, but why gild a lily? 552 Tremont St., Boston, 617-423-4800, — Annie B. Copps

Pizza :: Posto, $14.95
A large pepperoni from my local mom-and-pop makes me a happy girl. But I’ll eagerly shell out a few more bucks to set up at Posto for a Neapolitan thin-crust, wood-fired pizza covered in kale, caramelized onions, and smoked bacon. Each 10-inch pie starts with dough made from refined Caputo double-zero flour (what they use in Italy) and fresh cake yeast, thrown together for a long, cold fermentation to give the crust that soft, chewy edge. The cheese, a fior di latte, is made daily. But the clincher is the local farm-fresh egg dropped onto the center of the pizza before it slides into the 900-degree brick oven for no more than 90 seconds. The blistering, slightly charred crust and over-easy yolk might break tradition, but this is one meal that won’t break the bank. 187 Elm St., Somerville, 617-625-0600, — N. K.  

Chacarero Sandwich :: La Mamma, $8.75
Sure, everyone knows Chacarero, the Downtown Crossing staple that serves up its eponymous Chilean sandwiches. It’s all right, I guess. But if you want the best chacarero — one full of greasy goodness made with straight-from-the-oven bread — go to La Mamma in Allston. Okay, it’s odd that there are two separate “specialties of the house” sections. But a bright spot on the menu is the small selection of Chilean sandwiches. The pizza oven (which most of the other guys don’t have) bakes the delicious, doughy bun, which, because it’s steaming hot, just plain makes the sandwich. And at $8.75 it’s a steal, since it’s big enough to share. Though I probably never would. 190A Brighton Ave., Allston, 617-783-1661, — Jason Schwartz

Burrito :: El Pelón, $6.50
The burrito, sadly, is the siren song of dining value. It shimmers up there on the menu board like some kind of beacon of thrift at just $4.50…but then leaves you shattered at the register when you discover that the guacamole, sour cream, and house-special salsa have pushed your outlay north of eight bucks. So where do I spend this much on a collection of simple ingredients and still feel like I’m getting a deal? At El Pelón, where it’s always the pescado for me, with its base model price of $6.50. I add the guac for 75 cents and the complimentary homemade hot sauce, and beat it out of there feeling like I’ve taken them for a ride. 2197 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton, 617-779-9090, — John Wolfson

Cocktail :: Rendezvous, $10
“Student budget” doesn’t have to mean cheap vodka. I prefer to spend my precious drinking funds on a cocktail made with care, which is why I save my dimes for a “Nehru” at the dimly lit, relaxed Rendezvous. The house-made lemon-cardamom syrup gets mixed with saffron-infused gin and orange bitters for a stellar tipple, one that’s served with a side of good conversation, courtesy of the charming barkeeps. 502 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, 617-576-1900, — Katherine Brooks 

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, — 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, — 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. — 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, — 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.

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