Sometimes affectation doesn't matter so much
by Robert Nadeau
Torch has many affectations, but the food is very good. This
makes up for the affectations, save one: no salt or pepper on the tables. The
presumption here is that the chef is a better judge of
salt and pepper amounts than the customers, and on several of our dishes he was
not. The chef's judgment must improve (in the direction of less salt), and it
would probably be easier if he dropped the no-seasonings-on-tables thing.
26 Charles Street (Beacon Hill), Boston
Open for dinner Tues-Thurs and Sun, 5-10 p.m., and Fri and Sat,
AE, DC, MC, Visa
Beer and wine
A second affectation, "Would you like mineral water or tap water?", is
harmless check-padding. The mineral water is still or bubbly San Pellegrino (so
much for a third affectation, the all-French wine list) at $6.50 a liter. The
waiter removes the warm bottle that sits on the table and opens a cold one.
Appetizers, however, are entirely and unaffectedly wonderful. Though the corn
soup ($9) is too salty (and quite peppery), the flavor of seasonal corn is
unmistakable, and the pancetta and small rock-shrimp nibbles are delectable
contrasts. Endive salad ($8) is shredded with bits of roasted walnut, bacon,
and chives. Each forkful bursts with flavor -- now I see the point of walnut
oil in salads! Sautéed calamari ($8) is somewhat Korean in style, with a
red-pepper sauce I can't get enough of. Those black dots in the calamari? Dried
sweet cherries, an idea totally out of left field, yet as smashingly effective
as a Fenway triple. This chef, Evan Deluty -- what minor league was he called
up from this summer? Sign this guy to a multi-year contract!
A number of expensive bistros these days lead with a strong flight of
appetizers, then coast through the entrées. This is not the case at
Torch. One member of our party was late, and we ordered him the monkfish with
white beans ($20; someone had to try it). Good kitchen technique is key
with this chunky fish, and chef Deluty (sounds like a third baseman, hard-nosed
fielder, clutch hitter: let's put him at third) got maximum flavor into and out
of that piece of monkfish. If there are two things that don't have a lot of
flavor and appear on a lot of trendy menus, one is monkfish and the other is
white beans. Given the trend away from sauces -- a trend intelligently ignored
by our man Deluty here -- monkfish with white beans could make for very dull
dining. Instead it was dynamite. The fish was gorgeous, with some kind of very
adroit wine sauce, and the underlying white beans were -- hand me one of those
clichés, Mike, need a pretty big one here -- to die for.
The chef's agent should have a little talk with him, however, about this
business of every dish having the word "with" in its name, as in "salmon tartar
[sic] with Japanese rice, wasabi, and soy reduction." I know we are in the
postmodern era, and it is very po-mo to deconstruct the names of dishes into
basic ingredients. But when every single dish is named
something-with-three-other-things, the subversion of our hierarchy of
expectations is so severe that some people Will Not Be Able to Order Dinner.
One exception: the platter of cheeses.
On to the roast chicken with polenta ($17). Deluty here has good chicken, good
technique, and a bit of spice rub -- the only difficulty being the excess salt.
The polenta, however, is superb, and so is the peeled and cut-up asparagus.
Vegetarian couscous with carrots ($16) will distress some fans of couscous,
since it is heavily spiced with ginger. For those of the Jae's Generation,
however, this is exactly how food is supposed to taste, and the surprise is
that the carrots (and some more of that stealth asparagus) are fully cooked.
There are also some fans of couscous who have studied Paula Wolfert carefully
and expect the couscous to be light and fluffy, much as Julia Child persuaded a
generation that coq au vin should taste like bacon.
The all-French wine list with not-all-French food is not a major handicap, but
one affectation does not justify several others. For example, if people are
going to order Chateau de la Terriere '97 ($28) with their food, it is an
affectation for the list to describe it as a Brouilly and from the gamay grape,
when the crucial piece of information for many people is that it is from
Beaujolais. Another good thing might be to write that it is a very well-made
and somewhat serious Beaujolais, more in the character of a light red Burgundy.
Again, there is a crowd that delights in remembering where Brouilly is, that
Mentou-Salon is like Sancerre, and so on, but these are the people who, by
January, will be staying home and drinking their fine wines, talking about
their summer homes in Barnstable County. Also, there's a lot of better French
rosé around than '98 Chateau Pêche Redon ($24) from Languedoc and
the grenache grape. It is a pretty color, and it is clean, but it is not real
Dessert was the only course with any letdown, and it wasn't large.
Crème brûlée ($7) was just fine, despite nodding to
outmoded (Mediterranean) fashion with both lemon and cinnamon. Turns out
both is almost as good as either, so long as you keep some of that
toasted-marshmallow caramel crust on top. However, a mixed-berry tart "with
vanilla bean" ($7) and a caramelized banana tart "with chocolate mousse" ($7)
were so loosely devised one could not keep a mouthful on the fork. This is what
comes of po-mo deconstruction of desserts. Tarts used to be glued with pastry
cream or syrup or marzipan, but that was constraining. Now the berries and
bananas are liberated from the pastry shell and are free to roam onto the table
-- and one's lap. A very large napkin is needed for post-structuralist tarts.
That said, "with chocolate mousse" is always better than "with vanilla bean,"
and there was nothing tricky about the chocolate mousse. Eating the mousse with
caramelized bananas and tart shell was a treat, and Grandpa will get most of it
where it belongs.
The room is decently pretty, without the sumptuary expenses we are seeing in
so many restaurant-mausoleums these days. It's more than fashionably loud, with
wood floors, sheet-copper wainscoting, plum walls, and windows with a bit of
velvet draping and some plastic abraded to look like milky glass. Votive
candles and full bottles of Bordeaux line up on a chair rail around the room.
It's the '90s with Louis Armstrong singing and a reduction of shrine and San
Pellegrino. Service was a little silly around the wine -- pouring a very, very
slow teaspoon of, y'know, rosé -- but otherwise was accurate and
Robert Nadeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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