The taste of [insert Boston neighborhood here]

BY ALEX SUNDSTROM

For those of you who fantasize about growing up, becoming lawyers and attending charity functions, the Taste of [insert Boston neighborhood] events aren’t a bad way to get started. The annual Taste of the South End raises money for AIDS research; the 2004 event blazed on despite mounds of snow Tuesday night.

The Taste of the South End takes place in the Cyclorama, an old, cavernous building on Tremont Street. Presumably because it’s an AIDS benefit, the staff includes characters like Randolph Gucci-$penazlot, a bald man who wandered around in white penis-hugging tights and a blue velvet coat, or the vivacious drag queen Valeria Turbulance[sic]. A band reminiscent of a Will Ferrell-Ana Gasteyer duet on Saturday Night live warbles various campy songs, and the silent auction features CDs such as that of cabaret singer Pamela Enders.

Of course, most people dropping $75 on a ticket are more interested in the unlimited wine and the stalls of 35-odd restaurants and other hangers-on (like Whole Foods and Starbucks). Each stall offered a sample of a dish or two. Here the fare was just a bit disappointing, given that many of the restaurants here hit the $30-40 range for entrees easily, yet aren’t offering much that’s interesting. There were some standouts: B&G Oysters, a new oyster bar created by famed No. 9 Park chef Barbara Lynch, featured extremely fresh raw oysters bursting with salt water and excellent poached shrimp with guacamole. Hammersley’s Bistro chef Gordon Hammersley justified his reputation as an artist with fowl by perfectly pan-roasting duck breast to medium-rare and serving bites of it with a nice apple chutney. Addis Red Sea shone with flavorful and spicy Ethiopian chicken curry. The Claremont Cafe’s lamb stew and white beans made them one of the few who bothered to cook something seasonal.

Most vendors, however, seemed to think they should dumb-down their food for the general public. At least four places, for example, served some variety of mediocre pulled pork, with coleslaw and a roll or cornbread. It’s not clear why pork is so fashionable – perhaps chefs like to think of themselves as being able to glibly improve on tradition. One chef at the recently opened Union, for example, noted that although their pork was smoked for a mere half-hour, it had lots of additional added-value through a brown sugar glaze. Alas, the pork came out tasting like a cloying sloppy joe – there’s no substitite for long, slow smoking. Rouge, a self-styled Southern place with a chef who graduated from Ole Miss, produced a specimen with better flavor, although it was still a bit dry.

Other offerings were also duplicated for no clear reason – there were a number of pate on french bread samples, ranging from the fairly pedestrian pork rillette at the Butcher Shop stand to a deliciously creamy rendition at Dedo Lounge. Both Bomboa and Masa gave out bland tamales.

Another unfortunate change that may have been made to please crowds was the extreme sweetness of desserts. Mistral, best know for its $44 preparation of sole, served up very tart miniature key lime pie that was just a bit too sweet, but Finale’s lemon curd was completely inedible, and Gallia ruined a perfectly good piece of carrot cake with a dollop of sugar-laced homemade mascarpone. The Tremont 647/Sister Sorel table gave out samples of a pineapple-infused vodka drink that was teeth-chatteringly sweet. It does taste a bit like Kool-Aid, however, and there is no checking of ID, so Boston’s youth may want to mark their calendars for the 2005 Taste of the South End.

If my $75 cures AIDS, the available food selection was probably worth it. Otherwise, one could get a better experience by wandering around the South End and sitting down at the bar of half a dozen of these restaurants – getting those B&G oysters for $2 a pop, trying an appetizer at the Claremont Cafe, and so forth. But as methods of giving to charity go, who wouldn’t prefer to skip the public interest auction for something with drag queens, wine and pate?

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