Dining Out: Raising the Bar
A stellar new wine and cheese bar has slipped into the Theater District. Its moderately ambitious dinner menu is still in tryouts, but a few of the appetizers are first-rate—and the wine is even better.
It's not surprising that the wine list at Troquet would be of such high interest and quality. These are the very bottles from the Boston area's defining wine restaurant of the past decade: Uva, which brought people to the upper reaches of Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton until Chris and Diane Campbell, the husband-and-wife team that ran it, sold it a year and a half ago. The location was eccentric for what were among the city's most notable wine tastings and events, and the Campbells wanted to move inbound.
The welcome is warm in the downtown space they found, a few doors from the Colonial Theatre. On a recent Friday night when the long, narrow, ochre-lit room was about three-quarters filled with diners—a good sign, given that it was 9 p.m., right in the middle of theater performances—Chris Campbell cheerfully encouraged me to stroll through. I was there to refresh my memory of the décor, and Campbell saw me having a close look at the round cheese tray on a counter opposite the long open kitchen in the back. “That's Vacherin Mont d'Or,” he said of an oozing well of honey-colored cheese in a round wooden box. “It's in season right now, only a few months a year. The cheese is wrapped in aromatic birch bark. You eat it with a spoon.” He also saw me peering curiously at a high narrow round of warm straw-colored cheese that looked slightly crumbly. “That's Persille de Tignes,” he said. “Handcrafted goat's milk cheese from the Pyrénées, in France. And this,” he said, pointing to a pillow-shaped medium-height round of putty-colored cheese, “is Pointu Gaborit. It's a goat's milk cheese from the Loire Valley. And we always have Epoisses. You eat that with a spoon, too. It's washed with marc—that's brandy made with the leftovers from winemaking, you know, the stalks and stems. They make it in Burgundy.”
He turned to scan the busy cooks on the line, just as one of them was putting a plate of something oval, brown, and interesting, topped with browned baby carrots, practically in front of the host's nose. “Those are our veal cheeks,” he said. “Soft, simmered in wine a long time.” He had intended to direct my attention to the wine cooler behind the cook, with dozens of bottles of opened wine being featured by the glass. “There are some Burgundies,” he told me. “We serve them at 58 degrees. If red wine gets too warm, you're overpowered by the alcohol fumes.”
Campbell had been equally welcoming on previous visits, perhaps reflecting his midwestern upbringing and his background in the hospitality business (his parents owned a restaurant in Northville, outside Detroit), but I was struck again by his sheer love of his cheeses and the wines he has collected. He's a particular fan of Burgundy, where he worked arranging hot-air-balloon tours, plying well-heeled tourists with food and wine when they came back to earth. The restaurant is friendly, too, with big, cheery French posters; shiny black banquettes; and comfortable no-nonsense wooden chairs. Table spacing is generous enough that at one of my dinners, a modest birthday party, 10 people could mostly hear each other.
At that dinner, Campbell had passed a tough test: Three people liked dry white wines, three liked sweet, and we wanted to order just one bottle. He cut the Gordian knot by steering us to an Italian wine none of us had heard of, a Farina Bianco di Custoza, blending two grapes. This was from a wine list with the heft of a book—not from a pretentious leather binding, but from the number of options. Campbell has put an abbreviated list of two dozen whites and two dozen reds by the glass conveniently matched to the dishes they complement in the middle of the single-page menu. Each wine is available to taste in either two- or four-ounce portions. A separate wine list has nearly 300 wines by the bottle for diners who would like a bit more choice. He pleased the warring white-wine factions and passed our test with flying colors, considering the bottle cost $25.
That's much less than many of the other wines, of course, but also less than what many of the entrées cost. And therein lie my reservations: I wasn't as impressed as I'd hoped to be by the food, and the entrées are a bit expensive. The provenance of the chef, Scott Hebert, is promising. He last worked as chef de cuisine at Veritas, the New York City restaurant with a mega-wine list and a reputation for wine-friendly food. Apparently, though, his definition of “wine-friendly” is high salt and sauces with wine reductions. A major part of this philosophy is less disputable: no excessive acid in the sauces, wine vinegar rather than citrus, and no excessive pepper to kill the palate. Perhaps the salt is an attempt to forestall blandness, not a danger considering the quality of the ingredients.
I can't think it's an attempt to get diners to run up the wine tab—although it can mount pretty fast if tasters order by the glass.
Certainly Hebert knows how to cook. I admired his sauce-making technique, especially in two long-cooked beef dishes that really are wine-friendly: braised oxtail “canneloni” with a shallot and mushroom marmalade ($11) and the dish that line cook thrust toward Campbell—veal cheeks with parsnip purée, glazed carrots, and rosemary gremolata ($26), a resinous variation of the Northern Italian garnish with lemon peel and oil. The menu calls it simply “tender braised veal,” worried, probably, that diners will avoid something called “cheeks.” The melting, cartilaginous meat, caramelized and soft enough to be eaten with a spoon, has flavor as rich and wonderful as the texture. It's easily the best entrée.
I also liked my other favorite dish because of the texture, this time the crunch of a chopped-hazelnut coating of warm and soft goat cheese dipped into tempura batter and deep-fried ($9), and served as an appetizer. And I was impressed with a wild mushroom tart ($11) with a soft quail egg on the top. The fresh-sautéed chanterelle and porcini mushrooms and shredded fontina cheese over a disk of homemade puff pastry was the expert work of Natalia, Hebert's wife and Troquet's pastry chef.
These make a persuasive argument that Campbell might have kept to his original idea, which he told me was to offer many appetizers and cheeses with his carefully transported wine collection. The other main courses varied in doneness (undercooked, tough monkfish on the bone, later changed to off-the-bone for surer cooking); richness (Hebert whisks room-temperature butter into several of the sauces with an emulsion blender, creating the foamy appearance and texture that was popular in New York five years ago, but which distressed several of my guests); and especially saltiness.
Then there's that cheese, cheese of perfect ripeness that would bring me in every night and which is quite well priced ($9 for a selection of three, $16 for six). Campbell served an unpaid three-month apprenticeship at Formaggio Kitchen just to learn about cheese. He says working in one of the country's best cheese purveyors only showed him how much he has to learn. We can all benefit from his already impressive cheese mastery and his continual wine quests—and drop in at Troquet for cheerfully and expertly guided pre- or post-theater tutorials.