Dining Out: Evening Star
If Le Soir were in the South End, it would be packed every night. But it's in Newton Highlands. And, actually, it is packed – at least it was on several recent visits, including unlikely weeknights.
I'll put it another way: If Le Soir were in the middle of town, it would be far better known and on everyone's list for a lovely, if not quite memorable, meal. I don't mean that as a putdown. Knowing you'll enjoy dinner, confident that there will be no jarring notes and that the service will be excellent, is a gift; knowing how to deliver that is a recipe for long-lasting success. Le Soir is a find.
As I said, it's been found. The people at the quietly plush tables looked as if they'd been there before. It reminds me of Hamersley's Bistro, which any night of the week is likely to have mostly repeat customers who know to hold on to a good thing when they see it.
Mark Allen came to town six years ago as the Ritz-Carlton Dining Room's youngest chef ever (the real Ritz, I mean – the one that just reopened, thank goodness) and the first American to have the job at that. Guided in Phoenix by Alessandro Stratta, a pioneer of New American cuisine who worked with several French greats, Allen then opened his own restaurant in the Napa Valley before coming to the Ritz. Hiring Allen seemed to be the Ritz's attempt to revitalize a menu and a room that never really accommodated innovation or exoticism. At the battleship Ritz, Allen did a nice job of balancing the classics with a few mild modernizations.
His training and experience left Allen well placed to serve a prosperous suburban clientele. Allen's large storefront space in the attractive village center of Newton Highlands feels a bit like a Bloomingdale's showroom, with its cream-colored walls, mahogany-framed mirrors, and botanical prints, and big French provincial breakfronts made to look old. As with the menu, the impression you remember is of clean, understated comfort.
Allen's food is well thought out and carefully made. I immediately wanted to order several dishes I was not surprised to learn had been on the menu since the day Le Soir opened, a little over a year ago. One was an adaptation of a dish Allen had already worked out at the Ritz: lobster and fennel profiterole with whipped dill cream ($12 – a good $5 cheaper than it was at the Ritz, Allen told me). Pretty, like much of Allen's food, it looks like a parchment-colored stuffed pepper in a cream-puff pastry shell. The lobster chunks are sweet-flavored, but the impressive part is the fennel braised in homemade lobster stock cooked down to a glaze.
A similar approach distinguishes a cauliflower velouté with a silken texture, delicate and uncabbagy flavor, and a welcome garnish of sautéed chanterelles and butter-sautéed croutons.
A vol-au-vent with a square of pan-fried country ham and several kinds of sautéed wild mushrooms ($12) made a pretty box, but the slightly tough homemade puff pastry was too chewy combined with the ham and mushroom pieces – all of them chewy, too. In this and other cases attention to presentation got in the way.
Slow-cooked rabbit potpie ($23), the best main course – another dish that has been on the menu since the first day – also has a bit of unnecessary pastry, a puff pastry lid that gets the “pie” into the name. It's really a superb rabbit braise, with a deep-flavored sauce and tender baby carrots, parsnips, and salsify. I hope Allen makes a lamb navarin – the French lamb stew that looks simple but requires real technique – once spring lamb arrives at John Dewar, his meat supplier in Newton Centre.
The other signature entrée is just right: monkfish pan-roasted with carrots, lardons, and potato purée ($23). The menu calls it a whole fish, but in fact it's a bone-in steak, decorously head- and tailless. Meaty monkfish goes perfectly with rendered bacon nuggets. None of the other main courses I tried had this unforced, natural rightness. The good pork chop ($25), for instance, lost its way with the addition of lobster medallions.
These are minor qualms. The service, under the multilingual general manager, Andrea Luca Rossi, could hardly be improved upon. The wine list is solid and gently priced, with a similar approach to the one Allen takes: good value for good wines. The list is all French and American, but with the advice of the staff you'll find something to suit, and for not too much money.
Allen gave himself the luxury of hiring a pastry chef, one with another impressive local pedigree: David James, whose work I liked at Harvest (I didn't try it at his next stop, No. 9 Park) but admire more here. The handmade puff pastry is impressive, though it could be a bit lighter. There's the obligatory chocolate dessert: milk chocolate semifreddo ($8), too cold and hard as everywhere else these days, but smooth and satisfying, layered with impressively thin coconut florentines. The fruit cobbler ($9) is lovely – a huge portion served in a wide baking pan and always on the menu. It can easily serve two. James told me he was amazed at how many people polish it off by themselves after dinner. I wasn't amazed. I was just wondering which fruit would be under the bubbling, light, sconelike crust the next time I visit.