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Urbane and Francophile, a bistro for a fallen ageLes Zygomates
129 South Street, Boston; 542-5108
Hours: Lunch: Mon - Fri, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Dinner: Sun - Thu, 6 to 10:30 p.m.; Fri and Sat, 6 to 11:30 p.m.
Handicap access: up several steps from street level
AE, CB, DC, MC, Vi
by Stephen Heuser
With a zinc bar, looming wine racks, and the black-and-white tiled floor of a Parisian brasserie, Les Zygomates (the word isn't in my pocket French dictionary, but it apparently refers to the facial muscles that pull your cheeks up into a smile) is an outpost of untempered Francophilia in a city whose culinary momentum tends to come from another, more boot-shaped Mediterranean country. Citified French cooking may be denser and more predictable than the Northern Italian themes on which so many local chefs improvise, but the change is welcome: for every seafood risotto that turned out to be soupy rice with some squid on top, for every pasta dish you've had that didn't seem like more than the sum of its olives, artichoke hearts, and roasted red peppers, there's a rich, salty, unapologetic nugget of Gallicism like vol-au-vent waiting to be eaten.
The vol-au-vent in question is one of three hot appetizers at Les Zygomates. It's browned sweetbreads in a pastry shell -- square, with a little twisted flourish at one of the corners -- sitting in a rich beefy gravy ($7). Not everyone relishes the prospect of eating cow thymus, but the sweetbreats are a treat, with a mild organ taste and a fine firm texture.
The one organ I can think of that's even milder than sweetbreads was on the menu as an appetizer special recently: foie gras, served as a terrine rather than a pâté, which meant a rectangular slice of pressed liver chunks, with four tiny croûtes. The foie gras looked small at first, surrounded by an expanse of white plate and some undressed frisée, but proved rich and filling enough. The four accompanying croûtes look small and were. The foie gras was velvety and glorious, but its $13 price tag -- only $6 less than the entire prix-fixe dinner offered Sunday through Thursday nights -- was a bit of a surprise, especially considering that our server (a bit attitude-enhanced, I'm afraid) didn't bother announcing the prices as he described the specials.
Once we ran out of croûtes, we spread our foie gras on the slices of sourdough bread regularly delivered to our table, plucked with tongs out of a wandering breadbasket. Zygomates is full of these idiosyncratic touches; another is heavy white china bearing the restaurant logo: a little neckerchiefed Frenchman on the trot, wine bottle in one hand and baguette in the other. Counterweight to that fetching cutesiness is the decidedly uncute music: the deep, fat groove of MC Solaar interspersed with le jazz hot.
For a bit of lightness, we turned to the salad of mache ($7), a leafy green like watercress, impeccably fresh and served with crumbled bits of a mild gorgonzola and a light, oily vinaigrette. A potato-garlic soup special ($5) was mellow and taupe-colored, lightly grainy, with bits of chopped chive.
Although the waiter recommended a venison special, I ordered the venison rack off the menu ($19.50). The game was surprisingly tender, so much so that for the few minutes before my knife arrived (it was a busy night) I was tempted to push into it with the side of my fork. Rare and delicately marbled with fat, the meat achieved particular interest where crisped on edges, and came in a reduction sauce that hinted at wine and beef broth. Alongside were peppery braised cabbage, a little round gratin of potatoes, and a scoop of plain carrot purée.
We approached the poached lobster with some trepidation -- ordering lobster in sauce never seems like the right idea in New England -- but the dish did a good job preserving the meat's gentle sweetness, in a light, creamy sauce with a garnish of purple basil. Arranged around the plate were fiddleheads, garlicked and peppered; strips of roasted fennel; and two small cakes of grated potato, crisped brown on the outside like hash.
Both of the poultry dishes we tried were gratifyingly tender. The classic duck à l'orange ($16), though not as rare as I'd ordered it, was moist, crisped on the outside, and surprisingly lean. The vegetables were similar to those that came with the venison, with stewed eggplant where the cabbage had been. A special of baby chicken ($19) was also moist and pleasing, with a crispy little drumstick and thigh, but its gravy was nowhere near as special as the description of the dish (truffled sauce and foie gras butter) had led us to expect.
The kind of haute richness we'd anticipated from the truffles didn't show up until dessert. The chocolate fondant ($6.50) was an ultra-rich slice of wonderfully gooey dark chocolate surrounded by a raspberry sauce suspended decoratively in glaze, and a single mint leaf. And the tulipe de sorbet ($6.50), with a scoop each of lemon and mango, was what sorbet is all about: dense, viscous, tart -- and served in the grown-up version of a waffle cone: an almond pastry shell, billowing out more like a big poppy than a tulip.
A cheese plate ($8.50) appeared as a profusion of nature's goodies: berries, apple slices, walnuts, grapes; even greens with a light fruity vinaigrette. And three cheeses, chosen by the kitchen. Our server had a bit of trouble telling us what they were; we decided we were eating a mild blue cheese, a monastery cheese of some sort, and maybe a sheep's-milk.
Les Zygomates also styles itself a wine bar, and its selection of wines is duly impressive, listed in rough order from light to full-bodied. It's all available by the bottle, by the glass, and by the "taste," which is a two-ounce sample. A tasting trip through the list alone could take up a whole night -- and it wouldn't be a bad one, I thought, sitting at a window table with a view of the art galleries across the street.
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