|Chicken wings (above) and chocolate bread pudding (below) are among the offerings at CBS Scene at Patriot Place. (Photos by Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)|
This year the Super Bowl presents us with two choices: Embrace the Pats-free game and enjoy the sport of it, or pretend it isn't happening.
As you would expect, Patriot Place has the perfect option for those looking to do the former - CBS Scene, with more than 100 high-definition screens, some of them nearly as big as a football field. As you might not expect, the Foxborough dining-shopping-sporting-entertainment complex also offers a place where you can ignore sports altogether. Tastings Wine Bar & Bistro has one smallish flat-screen TV at the bar, and you can easily turn your back to it.
CBS Scene's strength is dressed-up bar food. For those who need wings while watching a game, they're here, if hidden inside a chichi white bowl. Coated in a sweet chili-garlic glaze, they're sticky, crispy, and juicy. (There's plenty of beer, of course, as well as cocktails that tend toward the bikini-tini end of things.)
Pizza? Yes, it's here too, good enough while it's hot, but then the crust turns to cardboard. You can get your classic cheese or pepperoni, but you've got options. The New England lobster pizza seems an iffy idea, but it works. A bite first reveals the richness of mascarpone, followed by plentiful pieces of nicely cooked lobster. The pie is drizzled in a light green sauce that tastes faintly of avocado. An even iffier idea is the Kobe cheese- burger pizza, a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. It's topped with ground beef (Kobe, though it tastes pretty much like Any Burger USA in this context), melted cheddar, tomatoes, "secret sauce," and chopped pickles. It looks like a pizza and tastes like a Big Mac, causing cognitive dissonance as you chew. "Some people would come here all the time just to eat this," one diner says, tucking into his second piece. Not me, but maybe you.
If you like your pizza to be pizza and your burgers to be burgers, there's a customizable 10-ouncer of Kobe beef (which has apparently gone the way of french fries and Belgian waffles; this is hormone- and antibiotic-free wagyu from Texas's Strube Ranch). It comes with tomato, lettuce, onion, and horseradish mayo; you can add cheddar, Swiss, blue cheese, bacon, mushrooms, and/or caramelized onions for $1 each. It comes with pub fries but you can substitute shoestrings that are incredibly satisfying to shovel in while they're hot, before they too turn to cardboard.
Both times we ordered burgers they arrived overdone; our server offered a replacement, then comped us a dessert, which the manager brought over. CBS Scene is a giant, glitzy sports bar, with a bit of "Jeffersons" memorabilia here and there, and the chance to watch "I Love Lucy," "The Brady Bunch," and "The Twilight Zone" on your own personal TV at your table. The counters change colors. It's a theme park in the guise of a restaurant, or vice versa (and I mean this in a good way - in terms of scale and sensory overload, the place is awesome). But when it comes to hospitality and service, there's nothing theme park-like about it. Servers are polite to teenagers, apologetic when things aren't right, and obliging when it comes to requests. (Of course, this was during a slow sports period; I make no promises for what happens on a crazy night.)
Likewise, the menu reaches beyond bar food; chef Brian Corbley formerly cooked at the Sherborn Inn. A club steak has great flavor and comes with buttery mashed potatoes and asparagus; the menu also offers New York strip steak, filet mignon, and grilled ribeye, all with some permutation of potato. If hitting the turf isn't enough for you, you can also have surf; $6 more gets you an add-on of shrimp scampi. Meatloaf is heavier on pork than many versions; the slices are grilled and topped with onion gravy that makes the dish taste like Salisbury steak. It also comes with mashed potatoes.
Not everything here is so manly. There are salads, seared tuna, pumpkin ravioli, pan-roasted cod in a sauce of curry and coconut milk. The fish is fairly tasteless, though it looks pretty with a julienne of snow peas sprinkled over it. Detracting from the presentation are whole, underdone fingerling potatoes, which in the broth look a bit like hippos trying to cool themselves by bathing: lumpy and not terribly pretty.
The signature bread pudding comes in a little skillet, where it sizzles in caramel sauce. Signature or no, it's trumped by a sundae of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, hot fudge, Marshmallow Fluff, and nut brittle, a skewer of toasted marshmallows planted in it like a flag of triumph. Coconut cheesecake beignets are not the way to go; the frying overcomes the cheesecake, and separate components of berry sorbet and berry dipping sauce seem imported from another dessert. There are a few fumbles, but foodwise, CBS Scene acquits itself better than a three-story shrine to televisions and testosterone might.
Ah, but you were looking to avoid bad "fumble" puns? Just a few feet away from CBS Scene, you'll find Tastings. The only thing out of the ordinary happening here on Feb. 1 is Sunday brunch; it's the first week the wine bar and bistro is offering it. Here you'll find Tuesday-night tastings and special menus pairing food and wine. This isn't the kind of place that holds an unveiling party for the Pats cheerleaders' swimsuit calendar and video - on Sept. 11. (Really, CBS Scene?)
Atmospherically, Tastings is the opposite of the sports bar across the way: warm and cozy, with burgundy walls, hardwood floors, and a soundtrack that traverses from Stevie Wonder to Jack Johnson to jazz. If CBS Scene is where men go to be dudes, this is where their wives hang out in the meantime.
Tastings, at least theoretically, is a small-plates restaurant. These are really more like medium plates. There's a bit of a Spanish bent, with a healthy dose of America thrown in. In keeping with the name, there are tastings of New England cheeses, oysters, bruschette, and beef; flights of wine sport hardy-har titles such as "pinot evil" and "chards of class." The list is lighter on the wines of Spain than you might expect, with January's featured wines mostly from France, Italy, and California (with an Israeli sauvignon blanc blend thrown in). Bottles are on the inexpensive side, with about half priced in the $20s and $30s. Flights of three generous pours run $12-$15.
The kitchen paces delivery of dishes perfectly, though puts them in a slightly strange order. You'd think oysters would come before the requisite macaroni and cheese, for example, but the pasta arrives first. It's a great version with sharp cheddar and plentiful truffle slices, if perhaps a bit heavy on the crumb topping.
It's followed by a hash of winter vegetables - carrots, potatoes, fennel, and tiny golden beets - roasted just tender enough, crisp at the edges and soft in the center; the dish is topped with a perfectly poached farm egg, simple but elegant. Then a "progressive oyster tasting" - the oysters aren't the best we've ever had, but they're presented creatively: two with lemon, two with creme fraiche and black caviar, and two out of their shells in little shooters of strange but interesting yuzu-and-cucumber soda. Then fried chickpeas, doused with a lot of paprika; they'd make a good snack to munch before the other food arrives.
Wild boar meatballs come on a plate with a mozzarella-stuffed arancino. The meat is spiced unexpectedly with cinnamon, set off by a smoky tomato sauce; the rice ball has a nicely crisped outside, but it's not hot enough on the inside for the cheese to melt. It's disappointing to cut into it expecting stretchy cheese, only to see a little cube of mozzarella fall plop on the plate.
Served on a triangular plate, the beef tasting comprises a very caper-y tartare; seared Kobe beef that's oversalted - the exception at Tastings, where the seasoning tends to be spot on - but comes with complementary truffle butter; and a braised short rib that sits on Boursin polenta. An excellent version of paella then arrives on a rectangular plate (trying to fit the different-shaped plates on the table with assorted wine glasses from wine flights is like playing culinary Tetris). The rice is seasoned with saffron and paprika, and laden with perfectly cooked shrimp, mussels, calamari, and baby octopi. Braised Berkshire pork shank is as delicious as it is impressive-looking, plated vertically on the bone and surrounded by butter beans, chunks of bacon, and almond milk foam, which tastes like smoothie base on its own but somehow works with the rest of the dish. An orange-scented gremolata pulls the dish together and lifts it with a hit of bright flavor.
Dessert could use a little work, though there's a nice selection of port and dessert wine. A chocolate tasting includes an "urchin" - a hard, spiny truffle that lacks taste - a pleasant meringue, and a white chocolate and cranberry risotto that's truly weird. Goat cheesecake is more cheese than cake, salty and goaty, with a hint of rosemary. The texture is gooey, as if it contains too much cornstarch.
It's a lovely meal, nonetheless. The servers are friendly and solicitous; chef Richard Garcia says hello to the guests at each table and asks how everything is. It seems more than a gesture; he just changed the menu and genuinely wants to know. Tastings is the only independent restaurant in Patriot Place, fighting the likes of Davio's, Skipjack's, and Five Guys Burgers for diners. It deserves them, and a permanent place at the table.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.