First Bite: Gem

This Downtown Crossing debut aims for glitz, but ends up lackluster.

Quesadilla

(Photo by Glenn Scott.)

The owners want very much for you to know that this is a stylish place. “Welcome to the opulence of Gem,” reads the website for the new Province Street restaurant and lounge. There’s a forceful dress-code statement (one that apparently doesn’t preclude the corsets worn by all of the female bartenders). There’s a valet. The décor is nouveau bordello, with plush red seating, fringed lampshades, dim lighting, and lots of glossy black paint.

But style doesn’t always mean good taste, and Gem has all the subtlety of Paris Hilton. As with many a stumbling starlet, a pleasing appearance can hide flaws. On one recent visit, we watched a velvet banquette nearly collapse under a patron. The drink menu is supposedly anchored by classic cocktails, but more than half of them rely on cloying flavored spirits. They’re party-girl drinks, and some, including the Star Ruby (pink-grapefruit-flavored Belvedere, Aperol, and citrus, $12), arrive with soft-drink-style straws, as though they’re meant to be guzzled. Ordering craftier drinks like the Sazerac (an actual classic, $12) yields better results.

Food is equally hit-and-miss. A griddled quesadilla filled with confit duck, Gruyère, corn salsa, and cilantro ($12, pictured above) was oily and tasted nothing of duck. The $10 “two-way wedge” was an unremarkable iceberg and Bibb salad with onions, tomatoes, and Stilton dressing. And the $15 shrimp and grits was a failure: soupy, far too sweet, and comically oversize. Roasted sea bass ($29), a mushy, bland lump of miso-glazed fish atop a “pea leaf” salad (more stems than greens), was such a dud that we ate just the potato purée underneath. Better options include juicy pressed chicken in a cast-iron pan ($25) — a simple dish borrowed from Gem’s sister restaurant Tosca, in Hingham — and tender Wagyu hanger steak cooked to a perfect medium-rare and served with addictive fries (a $38 splurge).

But who comes to a lounge for roast chicken or steak and fries? Not us. We just might come back for the great take on tater tots ($8), however, a trendy side that rarely wows us. With crisp potato shreds, green onions, and creamy Russian dressing, these ones are a fine snack to nibble alongside a classic cocktail — a Gibson or a Vesper, perhaps? Fortunately for Gem, they’re not bad with vanilla vodka, either.

Gem, 42 Province St., Boston, 617-482-1213, gemboston.com.

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