Gem: A Hidden Bauble in Downtown Boston

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Posted March 11, 2014 by Heather Kapplow in Dining Downtown: Restaurant Reviews
The bar and lounge at Gem offers a variety of different drinks

Not all that glitters is gold, they say, but at Gem, there is no shortage of gold. Or red.

Here, rich brocade carpet, plush upholstered seating, and elaborate, romantic ornamental lighting all add up to “Italian” in the cinematic rather than ethnic sense of the word.

I climb a small stairwell in a heavily draped entryway to be greeted by a friendly hostess in a black leather bustier. Did I want to dine or sit at the bar? I glance at the long marble bar but find it to be a little intimidating—it is completely deserted at opening time on a Saturday night—so I opt for the dining room instead. They call it a dining room, but it is more like a parlor. Even though at least half of the 10 or so tables are occupied, talk is muffled by the heavy furnishings, and the ambient light has a slightly golden cast to it from the bottles of amber liquid that line each windowsill.

The service here is wonderful. My waitress is smart, informative, and thoughtful. Water is brought to me immediately, followed by bread and a plate of really good briny olives in a dish of flavorful olive oil with a swirl of balsamic vinegar. The olive oil is so good that I imagine someone must have had to smuggle it into the United States. I can’t imagine Italy allowing it out of the country any other way.

Opt to sit at the bar or the dining area when eating at Gem

Opt to sit at the bar or the dining area when eating at Gem. Image courtesy of Gem Restaurant & Lounge, bnegvenues and Elevate Communications

I order a Riff Raff, a refreshing take on a Dark and Stormy featuring Sailor Jerry rum, citrus, ginger beer, and lime agave. I have no idea what lime agave is—casual Internet research has not turned up anything definitive—but it’s a refreshing drink, icy and not overly sweet nor strong.

On the menu, the appetizers all read as high-end interpretations of traditional bar food. My expectations are low, but I find the fried artichokes a lot lighter than expected—the batter is closer to tempura than the more traditional Italian breadcrumb style I was predicting. The artichokes themselves are tangy and flavorful, and the deep-fried basil is perfectly produced. I’m a little jealous—all of my attempts at deep-fried basil leaves have either burned or turned soggy.

As a main course, I order the Chicken Under a Brick. Again, there’s a lot more flavor here than I expect. The meal is a bit heavy for my tastes, and the juiciness seems to come more from the richness of the preparation rather than from the meat itself. Still, it’s very, very tasty. The marsala jus (which is a bit more of a gravy than a jus) is delicious, and the polenta, which was more integrated with the jus than many other restaurants would serve it, worked really well that way. The polenta was the lightest element of the dish, which is unusual. It was on the fluffy side, with a hint of cheese and an even stronger hint of rosemary.

I’m guessing that very few people come to Gem for the food. This is not because the food isn’t decent or because the dining room isn’t a pretty cozy place to be on a cold night, but because Gem’s main clientele is its nightclub crowd, who had not yet arrived when I visited.

Instead, I found a comfortable, slightly older crowd, mainly couples, enjoying a relatively quiet early-evening meal that ended the same wonderful way for each of us—with the old-world charm of a complimentary limoncello. I’m a sucker for limoncello, so the ending tipped my review from neutral to pretty happy. Is this the most avant-garde food in Boston? No. Is it composed of the most hoity-toity, all-natural ingredients in town? No. But it’s not simply food for soaking up liquor, either. And the service is good. And there’s limoncello at the end. Check around, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else in Boston who is going to give you that.

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