I eat in summer restaurants, but I don’t review them very often. They’re not open most months, and usually seem to have a whole different staff and attitude each year. But the limited season also keeps summer restaurants within the reach of semi-amateur chefs and owners, and it can make for a more intense focus. That’s very much the case with Chester Restaurant in Provincetown, now in its fifth summer. It shares a lineage with Chillingsworth in Brewster, Front Street and Napi’s in Provincetown, and the ’60s and ’70s Méditerranée in Truro as a summer feasting spot that outdoes the big-city bistros in " nouvelle American " cuisine. There’s lots to love on the current menu, and several things I’d love to see copied around the South End.
One truly stunning appetizer is the cucumber-honeydew soup with local lobster ($11). This is a cold and creamy soup with full cucumber flavor (possibly reinforced with borage, an herb that tastes like cucumber), creatively reinforced by the melon and a dash of cumin. Cumin with cucumber is new to me, but it seems a natural combination, and doesn’t evoke memories of cumin in curry or chili dishes. The lobster is a disk of fresh, minced meat at the center, a garnish more than a dominating flavor.
Beet " Tartare " ($9) is another challenge to Boston chefs. The beets are chopped, formed into a cylindrical cake, and subtly flavored with capers. It’s like something you might eat at Mantra, but here it is garnished with tiny, lemony beet leaves.
A fig-and-blue-cheese tart ($12) turns into a rhapsody of caramelized onions. This small, rich " appetizer " is for big eaters. Chester Chowder ($9) has real seafood broth. It’s sweeter than some, with scallops, kale, and leeks, but never loses sight of the sea. The house salad ($8) features the usual field greens, with a better-than-usual dressing and an unusual crouton spread with Camembert.
Perhaps the most typical main dish is local scallops ($27) with fresh spinach and wild mushrooms — typical because it has another sweet sauce, a balsamic reduction. White-bean cassoulet ($19) is the vegetarian dinner, but otherwise so true to the original French casserole that I kept forgetting and looking for nuggets of garlic sausage or cured duck. The garlic must be added to the beans early and often, and the nuggets turn out to be eggplant or portobello mushroom.
If meat is your meat, the free-range stuffed chicken ($23) is both brilliant and subtle. The stuffing of ham and blue cheese comes off more as an enrichment than as stuffing. If you could marinate chicken with cheese and ham and not overdo it, it would taste like this. The piece of boned breast with attached wing " handle " is kept tender and juicy as well. The garnish of plain, thin beans and mashed potatoes balances well with the chicken. A veal chop ($32) is nicely grilled, an inch thick, and served simply with steak-cut potatoes and a little mint salsa. Seared tuna ($28) would divert quite a few red-meat lovers, as it is cut into thick angled pieces and kept mostly rare. This isn’t an innovative dish any more, but Chester does it well, with an accompanying ratatouille and sautéed potatoes cut like the ratatouille vegetables.
Chester’s wine list is important and very interesting. The prices accelerate, but the $20 bottles are quite well selected, and there are lots of half bottles. I couldn’t resist the idea of an Oregon riesling, 1999 " Eroica " ($42), made jointly by the Ste. Michelle winery and Dr. Loosen. The aroma of tropical fruits is impressive, but the rather light flavor and dry finish seems a kind of compromise style between the crispness of Dr. Loosen’s German wines and heavier American rieslings. Despite the spritzy feel in the mouth, I think this wine lacks acidity and may have tasted better a year ago. A retreat to the 2000 merlot of Gérard Bertrand ($20) found us a clean, dry, French red that isn’t bad even with seafood. Decaf ($2) is very good, but tea is served with hot water in a china pot, tea bag in the cup. If you put the bag into the pot, you may get well-brewed tea, but if you do the obvious and pour hot water into the cup, you generally won’t.
Desserts are quite good. The stars are the homemade sorbets and ice creams ($8), especially the guava sorbet, which has a strawberry color but a very distinctive flavor, and the roast-almond ice cream. The other flavor options, sold-out our night, are Thai ginger ice cream and passion-fruit sorbet.
You also get the almond ice cream with " Scharffen Berger molten chocolate cake " ($8). The cake is room temperature, but flavored to melt the heart of any chocolate lover, and it’s garnished all in almond: the ice cream, a bit of almond-brittle candy, and an almond tuile cookie. Frozen coconut mousse ($8) is reinforced with browned, grated coconut, and garnished with rum-soaked blueberries and strawberries. Summer-fruit-and-berry crumble ($8) is apples and blueberries with nice pastry " crumbles " and ice cream. My only disappointment was the order-ahead " fresh California cherry tart " ($8). Not enough butter, not enough cherry flavor. Might be better with Michigan sour cherries in a week or two.
With the check comes a plate of little anise cookies shaped like Chester, who is an Airedale. The pre-appetizer is a single, very savory cracker. Service at Chester is very good; the staff was patient with our difficulties parking and assembling our party. This comes at a price for groups, as a 20 percent tip is automatically added to the bill for parties of five or more.
The rooms are yellow with maroon accents and a little wood. By candlelight the effect is ochre and mellow. The music is jazz, with even some Eydie Gorme in Spanish.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com