After having dinner over the weekend at the new restaurant at the Burlington Marriott, I have some good news, some bad news, and some neutral news, all based on the same statement: I have seen the future, and it is Summer Winter.
This has very little to do with the future of food itself; the cooking was virtually as safe and familiar as could be. This is all about concept: I feel like the Summer Winter concept is poised to sweep across America as the latest fad in high-end chain dining.
The restaurant is a sprawling behemoth on the first floor of the Burlington Marriott. While the hotel is no dump, it is aging and a bit ho-hum; the restaurant, however, looks significantly nicer than anything in the rest of the building, decked out as a sort of modern steakhouse with dark woods, copper-topped tables, naturalistic stone, frosted glass, and stainless steel.
And prominently placed just outside the windows is the storied year-round greenhouse that has generated so much to-do. Ironically, considering the size of both the restaurant and the hype of this centerpiece, the greenhouse is a surprisingly small building. According to the staff, it's large enough to grow all their own herbs and some of their salad greens, but they have no intention of (or space for) planting any big game vegetables. Which brings me to...
Expertly prepared, pricey, totally safe and rather boring American food, with just enough exotic-sounding ingredients to give the chow-phobic the impression they're on a food safari. The menu is large and a little confusing, with lots of small sections: appetizers, oysters, "small bites", mains, grilled mains, sauces, starches, and sides.
Appetizers - nice Atlantic oyster selection served with classic takes on mignonette and cocktail sauce. We also grabbed several selections from the small bites bar, which are neat little dishes of cold, easy-to-make-in-bulk nibbles. Of these, my favorite was the tasty house made seasonal pickles, which sported a mildly Asian, sunomono-y tang. Both the roasted garlic spread with flatbread and the white beans with chorizo were exactly what one might expect, well-prepared without the slightest hint of anything new or different. Bread basket had an oat roll, a large slice of puffy white bread, and a piece of foccaccia, all served at room temperature, none notably good or bad. We didn't try any cheeses, but they were all local to MA and well-known, such as Great Hill Blue.
Mains - most entrees are plainly prepared meats, to be served with your choice of starch and "dipping sauce", strongly reminding me of Vesta Dipping Grill in Denver, CO (www.vestagrill.com ). Clark's mom's paprika roasted duck for two was perfectly cooked, quite tender with just a shade of pink on the meat, very light on the paprika. The "numb and hot sauce", while not particularly hot, was bright, gingery, and tasty, and went surprisingly nicely with the duck. The harissa sauce wasn't so hot, literally or figuratively, providing a flat, bell-peppery taste that didn't work particularly well either on its own or with the duck. Potato and yam gratin was rich and very good; hominy cakes tasted like hominy cakes. The steaks, fries, and rings we glimpsed on the tables next to us all looked like some of the best I'd seen around town, and our dining neighbors seemed exceptionally happy with their choices.
Dessert - the chocolate and caramel sampler for two was pretty lame, a rather uninspired trio of a dry-ish chocolate brownie, a chocolate mousse, and little chocolate caramel cookie discs. Nothing blatantly bad, but just not worth the calories.
Professional through and through, if anything a little over-attentive. I was amazed how slick the operation was considering they opened just a week ago. Apparently, the staff had been on-site and training for the previous month, and it showed.
Steep, but not stratospheric. Oysters were $17/half dozen or $31/dozen. Mains (with one starch and one sauce included) ranged from the very high $20s through the $30s. Desserts hovered around $10. Most wines were well under $100, with a handful of expensive brand names for those wanting to demonstrate that they've heard of Chateau D'Yquem and have the funds to buy a bottle.
This is by no means a bold-letter chow destination, but perhaps a worthy compromise when dining out with the unadventurous, but well-heeled. The small-ish greenhouse and international flavor list seem to be trying to latch onto the low-food-mile and exotic ingredient crazes by paying lip service without any sacrifice or risk. The whole concept strongly reminds me of a slightly fancier version of Houston's, and like Houston's, I could easily see Summer Winter being replicated across the country as the latest in upscale dining; it doesn't take much imagination to envision Marriott putting a Summer Winter in any number of its hotels across the country or even the globe.
I can't help but look at the greenhouse and see missed opportunity. When I first heard about the Summer Winter concept, I pictured a sprawling year-round greenhouse for a small, focused restaurant, rather than a small, focused greenhouse for a sprawling restaurant. I realize that Arrows comes much closer to this idea, and I love the notion of a similar restaurant nearby. So to all you restaurateurs out there: there's an untapped market for this in Boston -- build it and we'll come!