I’m still trying to convince myself that the Nightingale is as great as it feels. Maybe it’s the background jazz vocals on the first misty nights of fall. Maybe it’s the selection of dishes that are just hip enough, just expensive enough, and, well, just right for right now. Quite possibly it’s the surprisingly short list of wines by the glass that seem to have a common style as bright as the chartreuse walls. Maybe it’s even the play of expectations after the great cheap food and maximalist décor of the Delux Café under the same ownership. Or the residual vibes from when Hamersley’s Bistro inhabited this space.
But the Nightingale is cool where the Delux and Hamersley’s are hot, understated where they are not, almost a blank table on which you project your personal sense of elegance.
Food begins simply with a breadbasket of focaccia as rich and smooth as challah, with just a dash of rosemary, and slices of wheat loaf that almost whisper " order something with gravy. " The most stunning appetizer I tried was a wild-mushroom tart ($8). It was a flat wedge of pie, but each bite was dense with woodsy flavor, and the pastry was excellent, as was a mesclun salad on the side. The actual mesclun salad ($6) was just as good, only larger, and served with a large piece of toast spread with goat cheese.
A layered terrine of salmon and scallops ($9) is lovely, although better if you choose bites of the white (scallop) or pink (salmon) areas of the slice. The scallop section was a little rubbery, but wonderfully flavored, while the salmon was a little starchier, but again distinctively flavored. Horseradish mayonnaise is good both ways, as is the side salad. The familiar salad of beets and apples ($7) is wonderfully dressed with a light vinaigrette. I prefer beets baked rather than boiled, but the dressing carries the beet wedges, the matchstick slices of Granny Smith apple, the excellent blue-cheese crumbles, and lots of greenery.
In many ways the perfect entrée is the creamy polenta with wild-mushroom ragout and butternut squash ($16). We had this on our second misty night, and it was all comfort. The polenta is creamy (and cheesy), more like a grits soufflé than polenta, and the mushroom stew is savory enough to banish all thoughts of meat (well, maybe just a quick fantasy about lamb shanks). Slices of squash are treated as a vegetable, not a dessert, with the resulting flavor leaning more toward summer squash than pumpkin pie.
Roasted halibut ($18) is another great platter. The halibut seems to be grilled in chunks, as it has a meaty, slightly charred flavor. But it’s served in an excellent broth, influenced by several slices of braised fennel and some fingerling potatoes. Back to the breadbasket! Seared skate wing ($17) is right there, a nicely breaded and broiled skate wing, on the bone — or rather, cartilage — but easily eaten and delectable, somewhere between fish and shellfish in flavor. The kitchen poured on a lot capers, which are traditional, but somewhat over-salted for the dish, which comes with irresistible roast potatoes and stewed chard. Braised veal osso buco ($19) needed only more time together, as the veal was falling-off-the-bone tender, the carrots and potatoes were lovely, the chard was much better, but the sauce didn’t pull it together.
All these entrées are assisted by a shockingly short list of six wines by the glass, none of which are sold as bottles. (The bottle list looks very unusual and good, also.) The wines that surprised me were 2000 Lurton " Les Salices " merlot ($6) and 2001 Chateau Haut Rian white Bordeaux ($6). The Lurton shows the application of California technology to regions of France that haven’t been famous for fine wines, with a resulting wine full of fruit and distinctively merlot character. I later tried the Lurton " Les Salices " chardonnay ($6), which was even more like a California " fighting varietal " of the ’70s and ’80s. It had a pineapple note in the nose, and a little oak at the bottom of the flavor, although the mid-flavor was not as impressive. Chateau Haut Rian is a low-level property in Bordeaux that managed a very Californian intensity of fruit in the excellent 2001 vintage — this is the original of California fumé blanc, coming to resemble the grandchild but with more structure to stand up to food. When you see this in a store, buy a case, because it’s an ideal wine with contemporary food.
All the wines at the Nightingale benefit from being poured into large tulip glasses. Tea ($3) is served correctly in a strainer and china pot, and a Chinese green we tried was excellent. On the other hand, I had a dreadful cup of thin, burnt decaf ($2.25). This could be fixed easily by stocking decaf beans for press coffee ($3.50).
Desserts seem equally enchanting, judging by the cranberry-bread pudding ($7) and cinnamon panna cotta ($7). The former is as light and crispy as French toast, with relatively few (and raisined) cranberries (fine by me) and maple syrup, and a lot of crème fraîche. The latter was a refined disc of delicately flavored white, garnished with spice cookies and a chutney of autumn fruits. In the land of the Nightingale, autumn brings raisins and orange peel, it seems.
Service at the Nightingale was quite good, although our pre-theater dinner hour did not test it with large crowds. They’ll be there soon, however. The décor is effectively minimal — chartreuse walls, with one large, complementary abstract painting. Really, the décor is Tremont Street through the space's large windows, though you must ignore the open kitchen. That open kitchen was part of the fun when Gordon Hamersley was back there in his baseball cap, but it’s just loud and distracting now.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com