Happy-hour style and sustenance, if not destination fare
One could be forgiven for assuming any successful local restaurateur’s second or third venture would be an instant hit. We’ve seen raved-about launches by vets like Jody Adams (Trade), Jeremy Sewall (Island Creek Oyster Bar) and Michael Leviton (Area Four). Forthcoming spots from Craigie on Main’s Tony Maws, Oleana’s Ana Sortun and Bondir’s Jason Bond have food-scene followers practically camped out at construction sites. It’s jarring, then, to find a new spot not just lacking its older siblings’ sparkle, but sitting empty on a weekend evening two months after its debut. But so it goes with Society on High, the latest project from Ian Just, chef/owner of the jazz bar and brasserie Les Zygomates and trattoria Sorriso.
Occupying prime power-lunch and happy-hour territory, the FiDi newcomer dresses the part with a grayscale palette, tufted black banquettes, a white marble bar, flat-screens and metal-mesh light fixtures. At 6 pm on a Thursday, it’s full of necktied patrons sipping beer and munching fries at the bar, but they seem to disperse as the night wears on; unlike Les Zygomates, a low-key boite where regulars linger over dinner six nights a week, this feels like a glossy and efficient place for co-workers to catch a Wednesday-through-Friday buzz.
While the menu nods to trends, especially carnivorous ones (there’s even a bacon-laced cheesecake), it’s largely unchallenging. That’s not a fault, per se. A restaurant catering to a lunchtime and post-work crowd will likely win more favor with fancified burgers and Jim Beam than with farro and Fernet Branca. But so many dishes fall flat that it feels uninspired.
Poor seasoning and under- or over-cooking are frequent faults. Two bar-menu staples, steamed mussels ($14) and grilled clam flatbread ($13), were marred by tiny, rubbery shellfish. A squeeze of broiled lemon helped but didn’t save the mussels’ pallid white-wine-and-garlic broth, and the flatbread was flat-out flavorless, the promised lemon zest and hot oil undetectable amid a blanket of cheese. Fish tacos ($11) had mushy, bland tilapia cradled in too-large flour tortillas; the dish’s only kick came from sriracha-tinged aioli. Conversely, the lobster avocado “martini” (market price) suffered from seasoning overload, the creamy mousse’s citrus overtaking the sweetness of the awkwardly large lobster chunks.
Better were the bar and lunch menus’ fried Chesapeake Bay oyster po’boy ($14) and the Painted Hills burger ($13). The po’boy made good use of that sriracha aioli, the garlicky spice cutting the richness of the oysters’ fried coating. The towering burger, an inch-thick beef patty with thick-cut bacon and sharp Vermont cheddar, was juicy and terrific when properly cooked. (A first attempt at a medium-rare burger arrived with a raw, sticky center and had to be sent back.) It was topped with fried onions so feather-light and tasty they deserve a spot on the menu as a side. Hot oil may be the kitchen’s most reliable medium: Both plates come with superb fries tossed with parmesan and rosemary.
There are other moments of loveliness. A salad of baby iceberg wedges ($12) delivered a robust combo of roasted, chilled ripe tomatoes, crumbled Great Hill blue cheese and chewy chunks of smoky bacon over crisp lettuce. Buttery pan-seared scallops with bacon jam ($32) featured sweet, perfectly cooked meat complemented by vinegary black kale. (Leave the bland, leaden gnocchi on the plate.) The grilled pork chop ($28) was an impressive-looking bone-in cut topped with tangy peach-and-pepper relish. If not for the dull, under-salted sides of black-eyed peas and collard greens, it’d be an outstanding plate.
While staffers are smiling, they’re largely unhelpful with menu navigation. Can you tell us about the miso-glazed catfish? “It’s served as a filet.” What fruit is in the seasonal pie in a Mason jar? “I don’t know.” (And on delivery of the dish: “Let me know if you figure it out.” We guessed strawberry-rhubarb.)
The cocktail list favors the sweet-toothed, employing lots of cordials and flavored spirits like pomegranate vodka. Good—and less sugary—bets include the Herb Garden ($11), a refreshing, aromatic mix of gin, chartreuse and muddled cucumber. Other libations feel like afterthoughts; the staff provided little guidance for the wine and beer list, giving only alcohol contents, not brew styles, for the latter.
At press time, Society on High’s older siblings, Les Zygomates and Sorriso, were reportedly for sale. If the family is splitting, it may be especially unkind to judge one kid against the next. Still, we can’t help but wish Society on High expressed more of its brethren’s dominant traits—winning service, consistent cooking and ambiance you’d come back for night after night. For now, the occasional happy hour is where it’s at.
• Baby iceberg wedges
• Fried Chesapeake Bay oyster po'boy
• Painted Hills burger
• Pan-seared sea scallops
Hours: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 am-11 pm; Sat., 5 pm-12 am
Credit Cards: Yes
Parking: Free after 6 pm in the 99 High St. garage with validation
Liquor: Full Bar
Society on High | 99 High St., Boston | 857-350-4555 | societyboston.com