Dining Out: Bistro du Midi
More great seafood comes to Boston. Only this time, it’s by way of Provence
Interestingly, Bistro du Midi features mostly Mediterranean, not New England, fish. The English owners, who sent the chef on a speed-eating tour of Provence last August, decided to import a slew of Mediterranean fish every day (much of it from the exemplary Browne Trading Company, just up the coast in Portland and one of the country’s best purveyors). So Sisca serves the first truly Provençal bouillabaisse ($27) I can remember having in Boston. It’s got the right Pernod-and-fennel-flavored broth with a literal backbone of fish, and the dish’s proportions show authentic Provençal frugality: Served in the appropriate quantity, bouillabaisse broth is somewhere between a sauce and a soup. Sisca’s version also has a huge amount of perfectly seared fish fillets on top. It’s a real luxury, and worth the price. Sisca throws New England a bone by occasionally offering a shellfish variation with mussels, clams, calamari, and prawns. The broth is much thinner and less interesting than in the classic; it’s a seafood stew, not a bouillabaisse, but still a good one.
Sea bass, one of the Mediterranean imports (it’s loup de mer, not the familiar striper), is stellar as a grilled entrée ($24) with similar fennel and Pernod flavorings, plus citrus and more-aggressive herbs like rosemary and thyme in a “virgin sauce.” Neat name, no? Sauce vierge, more or less a vinaigrette, became popular with 1970s cuisine minceur and was taken up by Sisca’s Le Bernardin boss, Eric Ripert. Sisca adds fresh lemon and orange segments; the citrus flesh seductively flecks the richly flavored bass.
I’d like to say that Sisca got the south of France on his whirlwind tour the way he got fish at Le Bernardin. But I didn’t see as much evidence as I’d hoped to. He’s enthusiastic about charcuterie, and better at it than he is at the meat entrées. Fillet of beef ($28) was positively anemic, and not much helped by a wan sauce. Venison tenderloin with quince, root vegetables, and chestnuts, a promising-sounding dish, tasted like cardboard, and the quince was inedibly hard and undercooked. Venison can be a red-meat revelation, but this was a disappointment (and at $32, an expensive one).
The appetizers were surprisingly variable, with two dud versions of Mediterranean standbys: an oily pissaladière ($11) with a thin, soggy crust and undercaramelized onions, and an unimpressive salad niçoise ($15). The salad’s house-confit tuna had almost no flavor; opening a can would have been so much better, and cheaper. But braised octopus ($11) with a garlicky, herby marinade seemed expert and fresh, with eggplant caviar and sun-dried tomatoes lending real Provençal flavor. Dried tomatoes in a butter sauce gave the same Provençal hint to meaty prawns ($17). And chestnut soup ($8) showed a kind of French mastery that would be the envy of any cook. Why didn’t everything else? It’s baffling unevenness from a promising cook who’s been given an enviable chance to make his name.