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No surprises -- but a romantic, classic, French night outChanterelle Bistro
226 Newbury Street, Boston (Back Bay), 262-8988
Hours: Sun - Mon, 5:30 to 9 p.m., Tues - Sat, 5:30 to 11 p.m.
Handicap access: down several steps from street level
Beer and wine; MC, DC, Visa, AE
by Stephen Heuser
To judge from the clientele Chanterelle seems to have got the necessary Newbury Street balancing act down pretty well. On a recent Thursday night we ate near a middle-aged couple talking real estate with their daughter; a pair of well-dressed guys on a serious date; and some young Euro couples out for an evening. They may have been drawn in by the name: the rare, woodsy chanterelle evokes the subtlest kind of French country cooking, and sets an inviting tone.
The space it invites you to is tiny, just below street level, and warm: oak wainscoting, low yellow lighting, Impressionist prints, booths upholstered with tapestry from the dark end of the Laura Ashley spectrum. Chanterelle doesn't hold more than 28 people, and the tables aren't crowded in. Even with a full house, we felt like we could have a personal conversation without being overheard.
Were there in fact any chanterelles to be had? Not really: they appeared on only one dish, in a sauce for salmon, although owner Barbara Russell assured me that come summer, when they're less expensive, we'll be in for a virtual chanterelle fest. I couldn't help thinking that the chanterelle might even be a bit exotic for the context: this isn't an adventurous French restaurant (it's pitched to people who think "white" when they see the word "mushroom") -- and the too-sudden appearance of a flaring, yellow, $20-a-pound fungus might alarm some of the patrons.
So in the absence of a particularly mushroomy appetizer, we scanned the menu and hit on the brandade de morue ($6), a warm mousse of potato and salt cod that arrived in a ramekin tucked into a cute basket . The brandade was none the worse for being a bit starchy, with more of the plainness of potato than the tang of salt cod. Alongside were a mescluny arrangement of mixed greens and some lovely niçoise olives, with a few round croûtes for the spreading.
A salade d'epinards ($5) was also satisfying, spinach leaves lightly dressed with a gentle vinaigrette, garnished with roasted red peppers, warm cubes of new potato, and sautéed quarters of white mushroom. Moules farcies ($6), a plate of stuffed mussels, was a surprise in two ways. First, in a season where I've seen a succession of bowls of ever-larger mussels, these seemed almost miniature. Second, the menu described them as "stuffed with shallots, garlic, and herbs," but examined in person they certainly had spinach in them, as well as what might have been romano cheese; they arrived, like the brandade, on a bed of leafy greens.
The pâté de foie de canard ($5) -- duck-liver pâté-- had a country feel, a bit rough in texture, with capers mixed in, served in a little dish surrounded by more niçoise olives, dressed mesclun greens, and gherkins.
On a given night, Chanterelle's entrees all come with the same set of vegetables, which lends power to the charge that there's something formulaic about the conception of the food here. Russell, the owner, laughs about "breaking the bistro rule" of insistent variety. The two nights I went recently, each plate came with a pile of skin-in mashed red potatoes, a neat row of crisp green beans, some form of squash, a baked fennel bulb (an engaging choice), and an herbal exclamation point on top: one night a sprig of rosemary, one night thyme. An entree of canard aux fruits secs ($16) -- duck slices in a red-wine reduction sauce with dried apricots and other fruit -- was cooked pretty well through, but still tender, with a few spots of pink. The sweetish sauce leaked across the plate and was absorbed, to delicious effect, by the potatoes and the winter squash purée.
The salmon dish -- saumon aux chanterelles ($17) -- was a filet of fish poached to a conservatively light pink, and accompanied by the sole claim to a chanterelle presence, although it was hard to draw a bead on any particular mushroom in the generally rich and earthy cream sauce.
The tournedos au poivre didn't disappoint our expectations for a filet: two medallions cooked to a lovely rareness, topped with dollops of Dijon-mustard spread. The mustard's zing was a bit conspicuous against the reduction sauce on the plate, but it was nice to have a dish with some kick. The vegetables? The same, although a baked red onion half made an appearance next to the fennel, and the squash that night came solid rather than mashed. A plate of crèpes forestières ($14) -- the "forestières" in the name suggesting mushrooms foraged by woodsmen -- had pieces of nicely sautéed chicken and a sauce that hinted at richer mushrooms than the ones we found sliced onto the crèpes, which were shiitake and white button.
Desserts were consistent, rich, and -- like almost all the food at Chanterelle -- entirely reminiscent of what I might have ordered at a French restaurant growing up. Terrine glacée au chocolat ($5) was three slices of frozen chocolate terrine in a pool of deep-red raspberry sauce on a frozen plate; the mousse au chocolat ($5) was a surprisingly light-textured swirl of dark and white chocolate mousses, and the crèpes maison ($6) were great fun to look at and to eat: artfully twirled-up crepes filled with red berries and cream, set in a wash of the same raspberry coulis as in the terrine.
The wines on the list are all French, modest both in price and in character; service was solicitous without being obtrusive, in keeping with the soft jazz on the sound system. Chanterelle doesn't offer many surprises, but I suspect that most of the patrons leave with the feeling that they've discovered Their Little Spot.