I do, however, have a Frida Kahlo, a luscious potable teeming with sweet-tart blackberry pulp, which is distraction enough from the visual reminders everywhere of my absent food. The room, thanks to the audacious and glowing blood-crimson paint on the ceiling, looks like the inside of a steak. This is compounded by the view of the open kitchen, where the “bone-in filets” spit and pop on the grill. It might as well be encased in glass, though, since the state-of-the-art ventilation system means you can't smell a thing being cooked.
Soon, however, my glass is empty, my stomach is rumbling, and the waitress is still missing in action. When she reappears (at 74 minutes) with a smile (but no apology), she sets down a rib-eye, a steak with chimichurri sauce, and an impressive-looking grilled tenderloin churrasco with truffled potato cake, gorgonzola cream, shiitake glaze, and a wonderfully smelly Cabrales cheese. All the beef was ordered rare, but one arrives well done, and one is cold.
Bonfire is steakhouse-by-way-of-Disney. From the flaming matchstick on the sign outside to the expensive and showy (but occasionally careless) dishes, from the oddly odorless grilled meat to the tourists' cameras documenting it all, it's the gastronomic equivalent of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad — a rickety roller coaster that just happens to be inside a steak. And it's but one of the most hyped rides in the culinary amusement park that is the new Park Square.
Remember when Park Square was that awkward enclave of nothingness, that void behind the Park Plaza Hotel? No one went there, except to cut across to the Theater District. When they did, the journey almost always ended with the question: “Are we lost?” Years ago, I used to catch the bus back to college in front of the tattered and depressing building that now houses the spiffed-up Boston Renaissance Charter School.
I'd wait alongside the scattered cement blocks and wonder — cluelessly, perhaps, but in earnest — if the bus didn't show, how I would ever find my way back to Boston. Talk about urban renewal. Five years ago, this area was home to a total of 3 restaurants; now it boasts 18. Within the last two years, an epicurean tsunami has washed through, filling the empty storefronts. Restaurant heavyweights including Legal Sea Foods, the Olive Group, and P. F. Chang's China Bistro have invested millions in new, moved, or refurbished locations, and started marketing the neighborhood as a “restaurant row” — the place, they hope, to eat and be seen eating.
It seems to be working. Cultures collide nightly in the area now considered the Square, split by the Park Plaza and Statler Office Building, and actually more like a rectangle cracked in half. It's a magnet for urban sophisticates out for cocktails, tourists staying at the area's hotels, suburbanites in town for some theater, and celebrities who bunk at the Four Seasons. (After their Saturday night Springsteen show at Fenway, Little Steven and guest performer Peter Wolf took over Via Matta, while Bruce himself held court at the Bristol Lounge.)
That very diversity is reflected in the area's restaurants. Looking for some red-sauce Italian? Got it. Ambitious Northern Italian? Got that, too. Uppity New American? Check. American steakhouse? Sure. Seafood? Irish pub? Upscale lounge snacks? Chinese? Fast French food? It's all here.
But. But. Does any of that actually make this the neighborhood to go to for good food, when such a high percentage of the options here are local branches of national restaurant conglomerates? The food court at the mall has diversity, too, but is that food any good? Then there are the locally based chains: They may offer a slightly more personal touch, but there's no guarantee their big-name or first-string chefs won't be off at other locations (as Todd English was on my visit to Bonfire). On the other hand, chains do not by definition bad meals make.
There was only one way to find out. In the same spirit of gluttony that once drove GQ restaurant critic Alan Richman to eat at every restaurant but one on New York's food-saturated 55th Street, I would eat my way through Park Square in search of a genuinely good meal. That may be nothing compared to the 45 restaurants Richman sampled, but let me tell you: Even counting the happy surprises my search unearthed, it wasn't pretty. After Bonfire, P. F. Chang's China Bistro seemed a promising next stop, if only because I went there expecting so very little. Besides, I was curious about the whole “bistro” thing. Webster's defines bistro as “a small bar or tavern.” How could a Scottsdale, Arizona-based chain with 93 locations qualify? In Boston, Chang's is best known for getting theatergoing throngs fed and out the door before the curtain goes up (a specialty of the entire neighborhood, in fact): There's nothing small or intimate about it.
Yet my meal at Chang's proved itself dependably edible, if perfunctory. Ushered past the enormous Chinese mural that hangs above the bar (I seem to remember something similar at the Epcot China Pavilion), I stayed close to the hostess, who wove among oncoming servers with the self-assurance of Mario Andretti. The dining room's dÈcor was equally cartoonish, with huge lamps overhead that look like golden mu shu pancakes.
Call me suggestible, but that's just what I ordered: mu shu chicken. It was devoid of flavor, and the dish's tiny nuggets of chicken were overwhelmed by the sweet, seemingly unspiced sauce. I watched and waited while our server folded (or, more accurately, crumpled) the pancakes tableside. By the time he handed them over, they were room temperature. Other dishes made me happier: The pan-fried dumplings had a chewy, soft texture packed with a sweet (but, again, bland) shrimp filling. Few entrÈes ring in at more than $15, which is something the masses obviously appreciate. The otherwise very attentive staff left rice clumps strewn all over the table between courses, but when you're in the kind of a rush most diners here are, such casualties of decorum are inevitable.
Things got worse, if more entertaining, at my next stop: Maggiano's Little Italy. The look was straight from a Prego commercial: red-checkered tablecloths, fake grapes, dusty wine casks, Rat Pack classics piped in over the stereo, servers in uncomfortable-looking black ties and aprons, and a carved-wood bar straight from The Godfather movies. But this is no first-generation mom-and-pop operation: This is hard-core corporate enterprise, with nearly 30 branches nationwide, based in Chicago and built to gorge as many people each night as possible on cheap pasta and cheaper wine. As I waited for my table, Dean Martin was rudely interrupted. And interrupted again. Every 30 seconds or so, it happened, no matter what music was playing. It went something like this: “When the moon hits your eye . . . ” “Turner, party of six, Turner, party of six.” ” . . . pizza pie, that's amore.”
Once we were seated at the table, an appetizer of bruschetta arrived with pretty good garlicky, fresh tomatoes in huge cubes, but on soggy wedges of bread. A plate of fried mozzarella was but a slab of congealed cheese with watery marinara. By the time the entrÈes arrived, I was downright depressed. The angel hair pasta with shrimp arrabiata was hardly redeeming: It mixed pure, gloppy, too-spicy tomato paste with flavorless herbs. The “homemade gnocchi” was gummy and came in an astringent sauce. Puddles of oil formed on it within minutes. Homemade? Sure, if your home happens to be a warehouse in New Jersey.
I knew this national chain would be formula-based, but who could have reckoned that said formula would be (1) Take all the care and love out of Italian food; (2) Fit in as many tables and as much stereotypical dÈcor in one room as possible; and (3) Charge bottom-of-the-barrel prices?
As I left, I took a look around the cavernous space and noted that there were at least 100 people in the restaurant. And no one else looked annoyed. Maybe the world really is a place made for gourmands — not gourmets. Either way, as yet another table began singing “Happy Birthday” and popping balloons, I fled elsewhere for dessert.
Finale, a local, dessert-centric chain dreamed up by some Harvard MBAs, sits in the center of Park Square. The room, with its cushy banquettes, has an uncanny sense of occasion. You want to love this place, and many of the desserts make that possible. The molten chocolate cake, for example, lived up to the three Ds of its deliciousness: deep, dark, and dense.
I had one quibble: the cost. Particularly the $30 price tag on the chocolate tasting platter for two. I'm aware this is a dish meant to be shared, but for that much money, all of its ingredients should be outstanding. They weren't. The chocolate-covered caramel was, indeed, terrific — rich and redolent of butterscotch. But the spongy white chocolate risotto had no detectable flavor. (I don't care if white chocolate isn't really chocolate: Use a high-quality kind like El Rey, and it can still turn out delectable.) A chocolate-lime mousse was fine, but weak on the lime and texturally more like whipped cream than mousse. Finale and its Harvard B-School founders earned a B-minus — not worth the financial or caloric splurge.
By now, I needed a bone tossed my way — a sure-fire snack that would at least not disappoint. So I went to the place so many before me have gone to find solace: the plush Bristol Lounge at the Four Seasons. The lounge's burger has earned a justified following, and the bartenders know how to make a real martini — chilled to its core, smooth as silk, and with little burn.
I downed mine while looking out at the Square from its northernmost corner, kept company by a shrimp cocktail of five plump critters, chilled, sweet, and meaty. (This view has since disappeared, the windows in the Bristol closed off by a new addition.) With a squirt from the lemon wedge and a dollop of cocktail sauce, the shrimp restored me. I drained my last sip of martini, brought my elegant interlude to a close, and turned back to the mean streets.
My next stop would be a gem. Just on the cusp of Bay Village, tucked into a tiny inlet off the Square, Mario's used to be something of a gay Cheers — a cozy place with plenty of regulars from the neighborhood and a staff of funny waiters and hosts. Now it has reopened with a snazzy facelift and a new name — DÍdo Lounge & Bistro — and it's a looker: wide-framed rustic mirrors in brushed neutrals, a sleek back-lit bar, gold-dotted banquettes, mosaic glass candleholders in warm ocher, white, and garnet hues.
My competent but self-deprecating waiter, Jason, kind of a flamboyant Woody Allen (except young, cute, and still funny), carefully lowered an overflowing cantaloupe martini while explaining that he had a “nervous condition.” Without ceremony, I slurped it right up — it tasted like a melted Jolly Rancher, with a smooth balance of sweet and tart. Then came a truly delectable “fig and pig” sandwich — pork, sliced fig, and gooey Cacio de Roma cheese on feather-light focaccia, covered in a thick forest of fries, each one salty and crisped to an almost caramel sweetness. (The accompanying slaw was too heavy on the vinegar.) I ate every last bit, and though I was perfectly satiated, I couldn't resist ordering dessert. A sampling of homemade chocolates was intriguing, and most of the five that came on the plate were great. A deep caramel was chewy and smooth; the white chocolate-filled white chocolate square was a bore; and the raspberry-dark chocolate cone was terrific — creamy but not overly sweet, and cut with the bitterness of dark chocolate. And at $4 compared to Finale's $30 platter, it was a bargain.
My respite from chainland was short. Next, I visited a seafood restaurant most tourists seem to think is New England-themed, even though it's part of a company based in Oregon with more than 50 branches nationwide. The atmosphere is Old School. No, make that Ye Olde Schoole — a studied attempt at mixing citified refinement and fishing camp casual.
Guests who enter McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant are greeted by two stuffed pheasants facing off, dramatically illuminated by a spotlight. I found myself wondering about their strategic placement at the entrance to a seafood restaurant: the struggle for supremacy between surf and turf? A reference to the neighborhood subplot, the competition between McCormick & Schmick's and Legal Sea Foods, just across the street? A subtle reminder to try the chicken wings in the adjacent bar, a dimly lit place where tourists in acid wash were throwing back Irish coffees?
Whatever the answer to the mystery of the pheasants, it was forgotten upon one taste of the seafood, which was actually quite good. Oysters from all over New England came on an icy tray, briny and sweet, each with a slightly different taste of the sea. It's tough to ruin a steamed lobster, and here they didn't: This one was tender and full-flavored — almost enough to distract me from the ruckus at the nearby table of 20 or so Mary Kay saleswomen from Long Island, most of whom apparently had been downing cosmos since their arrival. I wondered if the same kind of revelry was taking place at the nearby branch of Legal.
But I had had enough of chains, so I headed instead to Davio's, the supersized Northern Italian spot that moved to Park Square from Newbury. At 9,000 square feet, this new restaurant looks out to the rest of Park Square through 18-foot windows. The interior is easy on the eyes, too: Extra-wide columns reach up around the room, and domed lights give off a warm, dim glow. The front left corner of the restaurant is a lounge, separated from the dining area by a pretty wooden bar that rises overhead in an arc like a church altar. Unfortunately, it doesn't entirely contain the bar's denizens. Seated at a booth nearby, I was constantly interrupted by a woman in Levi's who insisted, while sitting on her boyfriend's lap, on shouting to her friends a few seats away.
Service is swift, and then some. I had barely dug into an eggplant dip (candy-sweet, rich, and addictive) when a plate of gnocchi came, scattered with mushroom slices and several planes of pecorino, and resting in a broth laced with truffle oil. It was perfectly textured — light and pillowy — and melted almost immediately on the tongue. But its flavor fell flat, the bland sauce in dire need of more truffle oil or at least a stronger base. An order of scallops, in a red pepper sauce over a runny pea risotto, were undercooked, more bitter than sweet, and slightly acidic.
Remarkably better Italian lies just across the street. Two summers ago, Via Matta assumed the space formerly occupied by legendary chef Lydia Shire's Pignoli, and to much fanfare. That opening arguably started the momentum that would make Park Square the restaurant capital it has become.
Certainly none of the fanfare has died down. On the night of my visit, the room was hopping with locals, not tourists, and was as noisy as ever. (The only thing that moves faster than sound in the main dining room is co-owner Christopher Myers, who charms and flirts his way around the room wearing a white suit and looking very much like the lead singer for Yes.)
My waiter, a Rowan Atkinson look-alike without the slapstick, knew his stuff. I ordered pork loin Milanese, but sensing I was famished, he politely warned me it would take about 40 minutes to cook, and steered me instead toward the mezzaluna of pork, which was creamy, perfectly al dente, and smoky from a napping of rich brown butter, sage, and cherry tomatoes.
Chef Luis Morales's food lives up to the simply but intensely flavored authentic Italian he aims it to be, but in the context of the rest of the establishment — the self-consciously stylish room, for example, and the privileged crowd that fills it — it's about as unpretentious as expensive minimalist design. On the other hand, if this is the worst thing I can say about the place, I know I've had a damned fine meal.
The Disney vibe was omni-present. Maybe it was the corporate undercurrent. Maybe it was the tourists, who, like hungry paparazzi, always seemed to be waiting around a corner, cameras at the ready. Whatever it was, I will say this: Those similarities didn't always mean impersonal service. Certainly not at Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar.
In that large and attractive main dining room set with candlelit, white linen-covered tables, the server instantly appeared. She liked to talk. About everything: how the wine list is organized; how the meats are aged; how they're served on plates heated to 350 degrees; how during her first week of work at Fleming's, she fell and gave herself a black eye. She also liked to offer options, but not the usual kinds of options you're offered in a normal dining experience, since the answers would be clear to better-trained waitstaffs. After I ordered a second glass of wine, for example, she asked, “Do you want me to bring you a new wineglass?” Or, after my butter knife was taken away, “Do you want me to bring you a new butter knife?”
The menu is comprised mostly of steakhouse staples — the carpaccio, the shrimp cocktail, the chopped salad — but some are more reminiscent of the Cheesecake Factory. There was salmon crusted with chopped nuts and rosemary, and scallops wrapped in bacon in a buttery citrus sauce. Some items are just '80s throwbacks updated for a Super Bowl party — the breaded and fried brie, for instance, paired with a jalape'o pepper jelly. The rib-eye, however, is a terrific cut — succulent, deeply marbled, and cooked exactly medium rare, as ordered — with a velvety bÈarnaise. The sides, sold separately, aren't bad when kept classic. But then there are the onion rings, deep-fried in a breading batter that obscures the onions' clean sweetness and silky texture. They arrive in an imposing tower of two stacks — about nine rings, tottering nearly a foot high. At an average depth of an inch and a half, each seems more hubcap than onion ring. Then there's the accompanying chipotle chile mayonnaise, the likes of which I've rarely seen outside of Family Circle. To recap: The steak is stellar. But the sides are ridiculous — more like junk food than dinner, and all just too much to stomach.
There were many, many other meals along the way. There was dry shepherd's pie and a quickly drawn, prematurely served pint at M. J. O'Connor's; there were children spilling Chunky Monkey on their shirts at Ben & Jerry's, and girls spilling out of the sides of their low-rise pants and hobbling like injured foals on stilettos at Whiskey Park. At Legal Sea Foods, there was a gorgeous raw bar platter, full of meaty crustaceans and mollusks, which I'd go back for anytime. Formal tea time at Swan's Court in the Park Plaza lured elderly couples with precious miniature salmon sandwiches, while the post-work cocktail hour at Flash's lounge brought twentysomethings in for absurdly strong martinis. There were backpack-toting tourists calculating their calories on the nutritional computer at Au Bon Pain, where I ate harvest pumpkin soup (210 calories) and a dense wheat roll (240). But this was all, I will admit now, practice: a dress rehearsal for the new place I'd been dying to size up from day one.
Excelsior, currently the city's hottest reservation, was in reality freezing cold. I arrived on the early side of dinner — about 6:30 — and was escorted up the wine tower-flanked elevator, across the luminous, masculine dining room, and seated near a chilly vent. I grappled with my menu, which is the size of Old Testament tablets but covered in a very fabulous, very orange faux lizard skin. I was tempted to steal it and have it reworked into a handbag.
I was also tempted to steal the food. The appetizers represented varying degrees of greatness. The hamachi was fresh and sweet inside, and seared to a delicate crispiness out. As good as that was, the corn pudding was even better. The custard blended beautifully with the woody mushrooms and nuggets of sweet corn. I've always secretly believed in dessert as a first course, and this nearly qualifies. The main courses were, for the most part, superb. Celebrity chef Lydia Shire has always had a knack for cooking pork (as evidenced by her erstwhile restaurant Pignoli with its pig motif), and the Niman Ranch pork chop is no exception. It comes nearly three inches thick and stacked with moist, pink meat. Famous, too, is her way with lobster. The hacked lobster tails were slightly mushy one night, but firm, moist, and plump on another. Their steep price, $39, leaves little room for such variations.
The experience was almost faultless. Almost. There were no lags between courses and no attitude, and the sommelier offered solid guidance on wine selection. When I finally remarked about the chill, the heat was turned right up. But one thing distracted from the food: All throughout dinner, a photo shoot was under way at a neighboring table. The spotlights and the blinding flash of the photographer were just plain bothersome. Perhaps it was a little reminder of the intense spotlight Excelsior — and all of Park Square, for that matter — is under.
Taken as a whole, this culinary quest was like a trip to Epcot. After eating Chinese, Irish, steak, Italian, a Cuban sandwich, a pork chop, seafood, onion rings, ice cream, cake, and ice-cream cake, I walked away from this assignment feeling the way you feel after a long day at Disney World: tired, hot, overcharged, trampled by the crowds, and a little dizzy. Were there any good meals? Sure. Two or three, in fact — including at Via Matta, DÍdo Lounge & Bistro, and Excelsior, where — if nothing else — there weren't any packs of Michigan tourists. But in the end, are the heavy lights of a professional photographer all that much better? Maybe putting up with that spotlight is just what postmodern eating has become: Restaurants, to survive, feel they have to rely on theatrics.