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Dining Out

Where’s the generosity?

One of the attractions of Restaurant Week seems in irregular supply, and if the hosts skimp on creativity, too, you leave wondering what was special

By Devra First
Globe Staff / March 24, 2010

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Restaurant Week (noun): 1. A twice-annual, two-week event featuring specially priced prix fixe menus: two-course lunches for $15.10, three-course lunches for $20.10, and three-course dinners for $33.10. 2. The Mason-Dixon line of restaurant-goers. Among those who like to eat out, few subjects divide so clearly. People either love it or they don’t.

The pro camp loves Restaurant Week for its value. It gets them to go out and try new places, places they’ve always wanted to go, places they can’t always afford. The con camp boycotts the event. It’s a mill, they argue: The restaurants bring you in and push you out as quickly as they can to maximize turnover and profits. The food is inferior, the menus limited.

Over the years, I’ve mostly fallen into the “avoid’’ camp. My perceptions of Restaurant Week largely date to its early years — the event kicked off in Boston in 2001. The local dining scene has changed just a little bit since then. Is Restaurant Week worth it? I wanted to find a current answer to that question.

To that end, I consumed a week’s worth of $33.10 dinners — six in total, as many places don’t offer the deal on Saturdays. I ate at varied restaurants in varied parts of town. Some were places I’d visit on my own. Others were places I’d probably never go. What did I find? Restaurant Week is worth it. Sometimes. In short, it’s a lot like eating out the rest of the year.

Meal No. 1: Mamma Maria
This romantic, two-story restaurant is like the North End version of the former L’Espalier. We’re seated in a porch-like side room that features bird murals on the wall and views of the rainy street. Because Mamma Maria’s Restaurant Week menu was not online, we have no idea what we’ll be eating. Presented with the menus, we are excited. All of Mamma Maria’s best dishes are here: The osso buco! The pappardelle with rabbit! Then we notice the tiny asterisks next to the dishes available at Restaurant Week prices: four appetizers, five entrees, and two desserts. No osso buco. No pappardelle.

Appetizers appear immediately. Arugula salad features red onions, a shower of hard cheese in fat shreds that appear pre-grated, and about two tangerine segments. It’s far from thrilling. A salumi plate features good, thin-sliced cold cuts in the prosciutto-and-salami vein.

Second courses are slower to arrive. There is an entire forest’s worth of fungi on the mushroom ravioli plate, but the pasta is gummy. Wild game agnolotti are more exciting, though “wild game’’ is used loosely. The dumplings are filled with oxtail, free-range wild boar, and lamb.

For dessert, pear tart is a giant mound of puff pastry that feels more like Vienna than Italy. Panna cotta has a bit too much gelatin, making it more stiff than wobbly, but it has good coffee flavor.

Mamma Maria’s Restaurant Week is worth it, if you’re in it for atmosphere. Your $33 includes a healthy serving of romantic decor and views. When it comes to food, I’d just as soon go a la carte and order fewer dishes.

Meal No. 2: B&G Oysters
The South End seafood spot is packed with neighborhood residents and budding captains of industry slurping up platters of oysters. Are we the only ones here for Restaurant Week?

If so, there are reasons. B&G isn’t about fine dining — it’s about a seat at the bar, a glass of wine, some super-fresh bivalves, maybe a lobster roll shared with a friend. Three courses aren’t a matter of course here. And they’re not a good deal: Restaurant Week choices are few, and portions are small (owner Barbara Lynch isn’t exactly known for gargantuan servings).

This menu, too, is not available online before we arrive, and again we’re presented with the regular menu. Restaurant Week is beginning to seem like a gambit, getting people in the door, then tempting them with better offerings. If we stick to the special menu, we won’t be having any oysters at B&G Oysters. Inevitably, we are tempted to order them a la carte. In a city full of oyster deals, you might think a place specializing in them would get in on the action.

Instead, for a first course, we’ve got a choice between black trumpet mushroom arancini and lobster bisque. The rice balls are overfried and need seasoning. When the bisque arrives, it’s very good, but it’s hard not to laugh: The tiny bowl is half full. I wonder what these dishes — made mainly from rice and available lobster parts — cost to make.

It’s possible to be frugal without seeming so. With the first course, B&G does not succeed.

The second course features swordfish saltimbocca and seafood gnocchi. The swordfish is a small piece, about the size of a deck of cards — a restaurant that actually follows dietary guidelines. It’s wrapped in prosciutto with sage leaves, then served with polenta and Brussels sprouts. The gnocchi are gummy, in a light, creamy sauce with a few clams and mussels wrested from their shells. It would look better and more generous if the shells were included.

For dessert, there’s panna cotta and a chocolate cake made with Harpoon Baltic Porter; a sprinkling of fleur de sel on the chocolate frosting is a nice touch.

Although our servers have been quite nice to us, we feel we lost out by trying this restaurant’s special menu. Participation in Restaurant Week isn’t mandatory. It feels like B&G’s heart isn’t in it.

Meal No. 3: Sibling Rivalry
Down the road from B&G, Sibling Rivalry is a world away. Its Restaurant Week menu feels very generous. And our waiter, possibly the friendliest man alive, is eager for us to be full: He keeps telling us which dishes are the biggest. The menu offers 13 appetizer choices, eight main courses, and six desserts. There are several off-menu specials, plus a Restaurant Week tasting of three wines for $18. Sibling Rivalry regularly does a $39.99 prix fixe, so it has practice.

We start with fried squid, which is served with a Vietnamese-style salad and a very fish sauce-y dipping sauce. The flavors could be sharper, but it’s quite good. Lamb brik, a version of the Tunisian dish, features a savory filling of ground meat with golden raisins and a poached egg. It’s in pastry unfortunately reminiscent of an egg roll skin. A special of roasted chicken in sherry cream sauce over egg noodles is super-tasty comfort food. Scallops are over-seared but still taste sweet and fresh. The accompaniment of a mashed potato-stuffed chili relleno is strange, however. Dessert is lackluster: lemon pound cake that’s more like 10-pound cake, served with blueberries that taste like the insides of frozen blintzes. Chocolate profiteroles are dry and hard.

Still, this is a lot of pretty good food for the money, served with genuine warmth. When we don’t finish everything on our plates, our waiter pouts like a worried grandma. “Is everything OK?’’ It is, and we don’t doubt that he really cares about the answer.

Meal No. 4: Sorellina
The food here doesn’t feel like Restaurant Week. (Perhaps that’s why our waiter, asked to recommend a bottle of wine that’s a good value, keeps suggesting $180 bottles.) There are four choices for appetizers and entrees, and three for desserts. Most of them sound like things we’d order if they were offered on a regular menu.

A standout appetizer combines tender grilled calamari, Sardinian couscous, and a bit of red pepper broth. It’s delicious. White bean soup tastes great, flavored with smoked pork shoulder, but the texture is gooey and uniform. Main courses include a giant piece of sirloin, grilled to perfect medium rare. No one would complain about this portion size. Pappardelle with braised lamb ragu is a great dish, with the pasta the star of the show. This dish is probably not terribly expensive to create, but it’s good enough that you don’t think about that as you eat.

For dessert, affogato (gelato with espresso) is a good option, coffee included. It’s creamy, rich, and luxurious, served with a little macaroon.

The food isn’t as compelling as Sorellina’s non-Restaurant Week offerings, but on ordinary nights you won’t get out of here for less than $40, and that’s without dessert.

Meal No. 5: Capital Grille
If you want to feel like you’re living the good life for less, this is the place to go. It feels special, with oil paintings, dark wood, velvet curtains, and plenty of nooks. Servers are courtly, with personal business cards and accents. Their motto appears to be: Whatever you want you shall have, for $33.10 or $310.

The Restaurant Week menu is more generous than those offered by other area steakhouses. For main courses, they offer what steakhouse diners want: clam chowder, Caesar salad. Entree choices are filet mignon, dry-aged sirloin, double-cut lamb rib chops, and salmon. The cuts of meat are only slightly smaller than those on the regular menu. The filet, for instance, is 8 ounces rather than 10.

The chowder is rich and full of clams. The Caesar has no visible anchovies, but it’s got great garlicky dressing and plenty of cheese. The filet mignon comes with a beautiful crust that makes all the difference with this super-tender, not-always-flavorful cut. And dry-aged sirloin tastes, well, like dry-aged sirloin. Very good creamed spinach and mashed potatoes are served family style.

Dessert features crowd pleasers: a brownie-like chocolate espresso cake, a classic creme brulee.

Oh, and the valet is complimentary.

Win!

Meal No. 6: Masona Grill
This quintessential neighborhood place is a good value on most nights. Restaurant Week is simply more of the same. There are seven first courses, eight second courses, and three desserts to choose from. Three of the main courses, however, involve surcharges of $3 or $5. C’mon, that’s cheating!

But the place is so cute, we forgive it. It’s done up in wood and warm colors, walls hung with chalkboards and paintings. The menu combines Latin flavors and comfort food, so you find the likes of black bean soup and Sicilian calamari salad, paella and chicken Milanese. Portions are hearty.

Shrimp ceviche is very good, featuring fresh shrimp, lime, cilantro, and sweet potatoes. Argentine steak is a giant serving, and it costs $5 extra. On Restaurant Week, with people showing up for low prices, it might be better to serve a smaller piece of meat without the surcharge. It’s cooked nicely and served with zippy chimichurri and really good fries. Paella is a good version with plenty of mussels, clams, shrimp, and chorizo; many people are ordering it. But the best entree is grilled pork tenderloin, tender and moist and served a bit pink. It’s accompanied by black beans in a bit of their muddy broth, sweet plantains, and garlicky sauteed greens. It’s really, really good.

So is dessert, which includes big slices of banana cake layered with chocolate frosting and tres leches cake. Not just a good deal, Masona Grill is a sweet one, too.

Establishments participating in Restaurant Week offer specially priced meals through Friday. For a complete list of restaurants, go to www.bostonusa.com/restaurantweek.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

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