Here’s a great new restaurant, already jammed on weekends, which looks like a fairly bad idea on paper. Chef-owner Mark Allen, the former chef at the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room, announced a classic-French-cuisine theme for Le Soir in Newton Highlands. Despite the success of fellow Newton restaurant Lumière, there’s no solid evidence that people will support an expensive suburban restaurant of conservative style. Its very location was the site of Mateo’s, a nice but expensive Italian restaurant that couldn’t make it go. Allen is coming in with a lot more overhead and a less-populist concept, in a declared recession.
But the food is really delicious, and that makes all the difference. Le Soir is not really a bistro in the French sense, because the service and food (and prices) are those of a restaurant. Only the somewhat plain and loud rooms suggest a bistro.
Things start auspiciously with liver pâté, as well as butter and a basket with a wheat roll and slices of rye loaf. " Winter-vegetable salad, walnut-crusted goat cheese, molasses, and roasted-shallot vinaigrette " ($9) has an inedible name, but is a wonderful appetizer. The winter vegetables are carrot, beet, and salsify. Each is cooked, but left with some crunch. The goat cheese, which often dominates such salads, is mild, and there’s just enough to inflect the roots. There are a few greens, as though to help " finish " the dressing. It doesn’t try for a knockout, but it sets the diner up for a knockout entrée.
Crab-and-leek blintz ($11) isn’t exactly a kosher name, but the little blini-ful of seafood heaven is full of flavor, and the underlying shredded-celery-root salad is clean-tasting and refreshing. Our only weak appetizer was cassoulet terrine ($11), which really did attempt to make a cold, jellied slice (like a terrine) of the traditional soulful bean stew (the cassoulet) of Southwest France. Eating flageolets (French shell beans that retain some green-bean flavor) in cold jelly is weird, although the garlic sausage and confit-duck nuggets aren’t at all bad cold. The whole — and the confit subassembly — are wrapped in cabbage as a visual pun on the way a terrine is wrapped in fat, but the best part of this appetizer is a bacon-y salad of mixed greens on the side.
Allen gives prominent billing to pastry chef David James and features him early with the slow-cooked rabbit pot pie ($22). The boned rabbit is in a savory stew, and only a little of it dries out, but the big story in every bite is the fabulous puff pastry on top of this pie.
For all-around satisfaction, I was most impressed with pan-roasted monkfish ($22). Chef Allen works with a bone-in tail section that he cuts like a T-bone chop, but he has some technique to roast up the meat to a texture as delicate as halibut or hake; many other kitchens stress a tougher, lobster-like texture in monkfish. Backing up the delicate texture is a reinforced savory flavor that draws on bacon lardons, nuggets of carrot that taste as rich as bacon, and whole cloves of roasted garlic with a terrific burst of flavor. With this comes a tiny copper sauteuse of " pomme purée " — whipped potatoes.
Unlike monkfish, lamb shank ($25) is already a can’t-miss, flavorful piece of meat. Allen adds an interesting whiff of confit spices, possibly including allspice. The underlying white beans are traditional, as is the copper sauteuse of buttery chard. Little copper saucepans hold the side dishes, of which roasted-garlic mushrooms ($6) are just that, mostly shiitake and oyster mushrooms with a good balance of woodsy flavors and garlic.
Half the wine list at Le Soir draws on the chef’s eight years in the Napa Valley, while the other half is French. Bottles and wines by the glass aren’t the usual suspects, and they aren’t cheap, either. My glass of Sancerre Le Clos ($8) suggested that the California ideal might extend to the French wines, as this usually austere Loire Valley wine has some of the pineapple aroma of the wilder California sauvignon blancs.
Tea ($2) is nicely made, and French press coffee ($8 for a large pot for two people) is very, very good. A decaf espresso ($2.50) — the hardest coffee form to get right — is bitter and burnt-tasting.
Our dessert star was the winter cobbler with crème fraîche ($6). The filling of tart apples and a few cranberries is well answered by the slightly sour whipped cream, but the crust in the middle is the memorable part. The most elaborate dessert, lemon-poppy-seed vacherin ($6), is perhaps too visual to eat: it looks like a dessert from another planet. A vacherin generally fills two meringue cakes with cream, but this version is elongated into a vertical cylinder composed mostly of lemon cream with disks of meringue at the ends and an extra one of burnt sugar, as on top of a crème brûlée. The poppy seeds are even more vertical, embedded in three stretched wafers as wide as tongue depressors. So you never really can taste lemon and poppy seed together. And then there’s the people’s choice, chocolate glazed doughnuts ($7). As Dave Barry used to say, I’m not making this up. Out comes an oversize plate with a small pile of ... chocolate-glazed-doughnut holes in some pastry cream. On the side are a couple of tiny scoops of coffee gelato, with tuile wafers interleaved. It looks postmodern, almost post-food, but tastes like ... chocolate doughnuts.
Service at Le Soir, on a packed Friday night, was excellent, with several servers seamlessly handling our orders. Between courses the chef visited each table, a custom I’ve seldom seen outside Michelin-starred restaurants in France. Clearly the kitchen is as highly staffed and organized as the dining room. Despite some effort, the dining room is as loud as it was before renovations, and maybe louder, as people have a lot more to talk about. Most of the wall art is framed mirrors; oddly, they make the room seem smaller. Nondescript old paintings would probably do the job better. There’s something about Le Soir that wants to be French and old.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com