Sel de la Terre
There's something to be said for sequels
by Stephen Heuser
The name means "salt of the earth," and if naming a
restaurant "salt of the earth" in French sounds like a joke, or at least a bit
of oxymoronic wit, I think that's the idea.
Sel de la Terre |
255 State Street (Aquarium), Boston
Open daily for lunch, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., and for dinner, 5:30-10 p.m.;
bakery open Mon-Fri, 7:30 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sat and Sun, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
AE, DC, Disc, MC, Visa
Smoking at bar
Sel de la Terre is the new lower-end restaurant from the city's highest-end
chef, Frank McClelland. His main venue, L'Espalier, is known for delivering
note-perfect $65 (and up) prix fixe dinners in the elegant rooms of a Back Bay
townhouse. For the new joint he installed L'Espalier sous-chef Geoff Gardner in
the kitchen, hired hotshot decorator Peter Niemitz to do the interior, and
opened last month amid much hoo-hah, surrounded by the saline air of Central
Wharf and the manic construction of the Big Dig.
As you can imagine, the poor cousin of a place like L'Espalier isn't exactly
impoverished. It's a pretty space with a flagstone floor, French doors between
rooms, and acres of dark wood. Splashed across one back wall is a jaunty mural
of houses climbing a French village street, and the art is duplicated on the
cover of each menu. The real cityscape outside, which these days consists
mostly of earth-moving equipment, is obscured by a gauzy white curtain.
In the prix fixe spirit, every appetizer here is $8, every entrée $21,
every dessert $7. This felt like a gimmick at first, but I quickly realized it
was a wonderful idea: once you surrender yourself to the price, you don't have
to worry about whether you can afford the steak or just the chicken.
In keeping with the name, the food here is Provençal: salt-of-the-earth
French cooking. It's also very, very good. This is a big restaurant, built to
provision the city's mounting armies of businessmen and tourists, but the
kitchen is consistent in a way you don't often expect in a new place. And right
from the top, the menu delivers a genuine, if ineffable, pleasure: everything
sounds great. Truffled artichoke soup; game-bird pâté; onion,
spinach, and bacon tart . . . just reading the list of starters,
you're reminded why French cooking is a big deal. It pushes a primal button.
Foodies will appreciate the idea behind the "condiments du jour," a variant on
tapas that appears at the top of the menu. For $5 you get a neat little
partitioned white dish with three bread toppings; you use a small silver spoon
to anoint slices of dense whole-grain bread with a tapénade of mushroom,
or a hummus with chunks of red pepper, or a ratatouille. Another bread topping
was the "tomato confit" ($5), a plate of olive oil surrounding half a tomato
slow-braised to the point of spreadability. The result, served cold, was one of
the best things I have ever put on bread: all by itself the oil was salty and
garlicky, with overtones of thyme and rosemary, and a deep sweetness leaching
in from the tomato.
An appetizer of artichoke soup came in a rustic earthenware pot, almost too hot
to eat; it was thin in texture and noticeably truffly in taste. A big skillet
of mussels held only nine mussels -- you start to see how they do okay with
this $8-appetizer thing -- but they were sweet and tender, steaming in a broth
thick with shallots. The game-bird pâté is the sort of Continental
goodie you don't see on restaurant menus very often: a slice of delicious, mild
pâté in pastry crust, served with sliced cornichons and a nearly
electric chutney that tasted twice as strong as anything else we ate here.
That chutney might not have jumped out at a modern restaurant that thrives on
intensity, but the kitchen here favors full-flavored wholes over single
striking moments. What I remember most about the entrées -- and this was
true of half the dishes I tried -- was the amazing richness of gravy. A leg and
breast of chicken, served with sunchokes and pieces of spicy sausage and peeled
asparagus spears, sat in a bacony pan gravy, deep and salty with the flavor of
deglazed meat. Similarly, a paillard of veal -- two slices of meat pounded,
like scaloppine, till tender -- came in the kind of lovely sauce you want to
dip your bread into. The veal was under a blanket of polenta, which in turn was
under a mélange of carrots and onions and napa cabbage: kind of a slaw
None of the food has a particularly "touched" look: the idea is that you're
getting country dishes in an urbane setting. Two pieces of pork loin were
crusted with spices (cumin stood out), alongside lentils highlighted with
pieces of stewed apple, peach, and melting foie gras. The fanciest-looking
thing we tried was the braised halibut, a thick fillet of white fish set over a
"salade niçoise" of green beans, potatoes, and onions. The fish was
sprinkled with parsley and red peppercorns, giving it a Christmassy look,
though the palette of flavors was light, marine, and anything but wintry.
The pastry chef at Sel de la Terre hails from Napa, and specifically from the
French Laundry, which some reviewers have called the best restaurant in the
country. But the desserts weren't the flights of fancy you might expect from
such a high-flying lineage: a "bête noir," the obligatory ultra-chocolate
dessert, was a dense slice of flourless cake with three slices of stewed
cherry. A coconut cake had a grainy texture that seemed very much in keeping
with the culinary aesthetic, though it did sit in a rather modern (and rather
non-Provençal) passion-fruit sauce. The most avant-garde thing was
honeydew soup: a summery green sauce of melon around a sweet panna cotta, all
topped with shavings of cantaloupe.
The wine list
is a pretty impressive affair: someone took the trouble to amass
a wide roster of French and Californian wines, priced mostly in the $20s and
$30s. The organization is a bit tricky if you're not a wine expert, but whites
and reds both seem to be listed from light to weighty. Wines by the glass are
$6 to $8.
Sel de la Terre is a little hard to find, right by the Aquarium T but cut off
from its logical downtown clientele by Atlantic Avenue, which flops around like
a wet hose. In a way, opening here is like making a bet on the city: if you
build it, will they cross the nation's largest public-works project to come?
Stephen Heuser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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