Restaurant Review: Boston Chops in the South End
A new steakhouse comes to the South End.
I walked into Boston Chops, the self-titled “urban steak bistro” in the former Banq/Ginger Park space, with an admitted chip on my shoulder—a birch-plywood chip. I couldn’t help but mourn the loss of the most distinctive interior of any Boston restaurant in two or three decades: No one who dined among the Nordic stalactites will forget it. But maybe Boston Chops’ dark, medieval-banquet-hall-in-Vegas décor will succeed where Banq and Ginger Park failed—failed, I’d argue, because their well-priced, often wonderful Singaporean and Thai street food was too unusual for such a big space, and that spellbinding design didn’t give the slightest hint of what kind of cuisine you might be in for.
The ambiance at Boston Chops, on the other hand, says meat. Whereas the Met Club and Morton’s aim for bland businessman’s lounge, and Smith & Wollensky and Grill 23 for Gilded Age extravagance, Boston Chops is more urban, with its exposed brick and wrought-iron bars on the newly uncovered high windows. It’s also deliberately masculine—think dark tufted-leather banquettes and dark wooden tables without tablecloths. The location, however, is an odd choice for a big steakhouse—an upscale, self-consciously hip neighborhood doesn’t seem like the first place you’d go to close the deal over a fat-marbled rib-eye and an icy martini.
Co-owners Brian Piccini and Chris Coombs (who also runs the kitchen )—the team behind the successful Dbar, in Dorchester, and Deuxave, in the Back Bay—say that they saw a business opportunity for a steakhouse in an area that lacked one. Perhaps they were looking to attract the kinds of sleek crowds that have made the nearby restaurants Gaslight and Cinquecento such loud successes. After my three meals at Boston Chops, however, it was tough to pinpoint exactly who the restaurant will appeal to. One night the customers seemed like suburbanites, prosperous and unflashy; another night, the noisy, beer-swilling businessmen you’d see at Grill 23; another night, the fastidiously dressed, mostly gay South Enders who have been the neighborhood’s bread and butter.
It’s also tough to pinpoint what will be coming out of the kitchen—because it isn’t consistent, particularly when it comes to beef, the supposed star of the show. The steak portion of the menu is divided into à la carte cuts, composed entrées, and variations of steak frites. First tip: Try the bone-in cuts, which usually have better flavor and certainly did here. The single best piece of meat I had was the 10-ounce bone-in tenderloin ($39), so juicy, tender, and full of beef flavor that I had to start gnawing on the bone before I finished the meat. Though it had a nicely black exterior, there was no crust: Coombs believes the main sin of steakhouses is burning everything under the guise of char, and as a result all of his cuts are pan-roasted or grilled over gas. The tenderloin was a trip to steak heaven.
So was the prime grilled flat-iron steak frites ($24). This had been a shot in the dark, as two servers had declared the best steak frites option to be the rib-eye roll steak. A neatly sliced low rectangle of medium-rare meat, the flat-iron was everything sliced beef should be—not beautifully tender, perhaps, but beautifully full of flavor.
Go beyond the flat-iron steak and the bone-in tenderloin, though, and things get dicier. The hanger steak frites ($25) was tough, sliced too thick, and had hardly any flavor at all. And that rib-eye roll steak? It was unexpectedly tender when cooked medium, but a very dull piece of beef for $29.
There were glimpses of the glitzy theater one expects from a steakhouse in some of the presentations: Puffy popovers, served in lieu of bread, arrived in shiny metal measuring cups; unlimited frites were delivered tableside from a large copper bowl; and à la carte cuts of beef were served in dramatic, unsliced form, so large their oval plates barely contained them. But all too often, the showmanship overshadowed the food. The frites—which are bought, rather than made in house—were served cool and too blond to have much flavor, as were the onion rings. After using a steak knife to do battle with a 14-ounce New York strip ($43), we thought, All that work for a slightly dry, slightly tough piece of meat? And some presentations were just plain odd, like in the case of the nicely lacquered, tender braised short ribs ($29), a huge 14-ounce piece of meat atop a huge, heavy raft of sour-cream mashed potatoes with carrots, mushrooms, and cipollini onions.
Some of the best items on the menu aren’t even steak. The deeply classical onion soup ($11), for example, showcases Coombs’s strong interest in technique. Hard-sautéed herb-roasted wild mushrooms ($9), meanwhile, made anything they were served beside better. Farmed cremini mushrooms prepared the same way were also the star of a plate of grilled herb-marinated beef heart ($10).
Yes, beef heart. Order it while your tablemates are in the bathroom, tell them it’s London broil, and they’ll be seduced by the rosy slices in a wonderfully piquant marinade. Also not to be missed is the brined, braised, and grilled tongue ($11), which resembles pastrami in both appearance and taste. And though it’s not classic steakhouse fare, the wild-mushroom cavatelli ($26) was, along with the flat-iron, one of the best dishes, and further proof of Coombs’s skill with fungi.
Do splurge calorically on desserts (all $12), typically not worth it at a steakhouse. Boston Chops, however, is offering the first non-clichéd molten chocolate cake since Jean-Georges Vongerichten invented the dish one 1980s night by mistake: a high dome with a marvelously sugar-crusted, light cake exterior, and just a slightly oozing chocolate core.
If only everything were this good, and as good as some of the mains, I’d be certain Coombs and Piccini have another winner on their hands. In spite of the bumpy menu, crowds are already pouring in. Given the team’s track record, I’m willing to bet on their future success.
1375 Washington St., Boston, 617-227-5011, bostonchops.com.
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/restaurants/article/2013/07/30/restaurant-review-boston-chops-south-end/