From a food perspective, a city’s worth should be measured by its brunch. For years we’ve overlooked Springfield but with Chefs Michael Mina and Adam Sobel introducing Cal Mare’s brunch menu this past January, they have made a destination out of an option.
Mass Foodies focuses a lot of its content in the Heart of the Commonwealth—arguably focusing on Worcester and its neighboring towns. A lot of this is natural, if not involuntary, after Worcester seems to have to defend itself from the “big city in the east.” Regardless, Worcester is reaping the benefits from immense investments in the city and to say that we need Boston’s once vibrant culinary scene would be hyperbole. However, having played defense for so many years, we sometimes forget not to turn into the bully we’re trying to overcome. This became most apparent after a recent visit to the “Wild West.” Sorry, Springfield, we pulled a Boston.
Let’s dive in. First, Springfield’s major presence is MGM casino. Anyone having ever attended a casino knows that, outside of Las Vegas, the casino’s business is getting customers onto the gaming floor by any means possible; food and entertainment is usually secondary. MGM Springfield, from the get-go, has focused on becoming a community within the city. By embracing the historic architecture, partnering with existing organizations, and upgrading city infrastructure, it put its money where its mouth is. This is apparent with the food options within the casino, all having street access to allow non-gamblers to quickly pop-in for lunch, dinner, or… brunch.
Cal Mare is not a new concept. Tried and true, Cal Mare Springfield is a sister restaurant to California’s original name sake and offers the same focused menu…. coastal Italian. It’s easy for any diner, casual or professional, to rag on Italian—it’s the only food category that a simple dish like lasagna, can be made countless ways without straying from its generally accepted definition.
To experience the range of flavors, brunch at Cal Mare should be shared with friends. One might easily consume just a starter and main dish to be full, but with such an extensive menu there are options that shouldn’t be overlooked. To start, our party of four began with the sweet Atlantic Oysters, half-shelled with limoncello mignonette and a Calabrian cocktail sauce; Yellowfin tuna Tartare which had a beautiful spice from the Tonnato sauce and pickled hot pepper which balanced with the savory of capers; the Little Gem Greens, which were simply mind blowing that such small, delicate portions could pack such flavor—the truffle vinaigrette played beautifully with the familiar flavor and texture of onion dip and parmesan; and ended with the Roman Sweet Buns which was a meal unto itself, a modern take to the sweet bun that, again, combines a complex level of flavors and textures as the whipped Mascarpone balanced the Nutella, highlighted through a salted caramel. To cleanse the palates from the wide range of starters, the house granola and yogurt was a beautiful way to subdue everything with a calming, smooth, orange blossom honey. While not everyone can get behind “family style,” starting brunch with a spread like this is a sure way to experience Chef Mina and Sobel’s culinary depth.
As for the main courses, there were two that really stood out from the rest. Although a brick pressed chicken is something found on many menus, its usage of chickpea and Pancetta offered a round experience that, when topped with fried sage, brought out flavors that you might not always expect from a dish of this nature. The second main course that is of note is the Italian Cheeseburger. The safest, American-looking meal on the menu, it is most likely the most approachable regarding preconceived notions of what to expect. While its plating was insignificant (burger, bun, fries, ketchup), the burger itself was not. With giardiniera replacing an American relish, and a spicy aioli made from combining garlic, olive oil, Calabrian Chili, and emulsified with egg replacing an American condiment; combined with a striking provolone, replacing an American cheese (you get the picture). The Italian Cheeseburger pushed the envelope when it comes to taking something “safe and standard” and elevating it to something that you’d be hard pressed to finish despite being full from the starters. Add sides of crispy smashed potatoes and bacon to ensure your taste buds go into overdrive.
Springfield has a reputation. Reputations are very hard to overcome. When you have corporations as large as MGM investing so much into such a small footprint, it should be noticed. While naysayers will never stop trolling the numbers, it’s vital to understand that what the city of Springfield has done with MGM goes beyond opening a casino—it’s created a community. And, like anything Italian, community revolves around food. With Cal Mare’s brunch, Springfield is serious. Sorry we treated you the same way Boston treats Worcester.