Dining Out: Lumière

After 11 years, Michael Leviton’s Newton bistro still feels fresh — and has far better focus.

WHEN NEIGHBORHOOD RESTAURANTS find their groove, getting better and surer as time goes on, that’s cause for celebration. Lumière, celebrated chef Michael Leviton’s first — and now only — restaurant, opened across from the West Newton Cinema in 1999, at a time when there was hardly any serious cooking happening in Newton. No wonder the bistro, with its elegant mixture of French and New American fare, immediately attracted well-dressed locals (and not the slightly scruffier moviegoers its location would suggest).

[sidebar]More than a decade later, there still isn’t much ambitious cooking going on in Newton. And Leviton — who this year received his sixth consecutive “Best Chef: Northeast” nomination from the venerable James Beard Foundation — has become a chef of deeper, broader skills, with a commitment to locally and sustainably raised produce and meat. For a time, he branched out into more-casual food at the short-lived Persephone, part of a huge and odd clothing store/brasserie combo in Fort Point Channel. I liked, and miss, his approach there, and recently returned to Lumière mostly to enjoy myself — it’s a very pleasant place to eat — and to see what Leviton had learned from Persephone.

I found a great deal to be pleased with, along with a confident cook at the top of his game. The main change I noticed was a sifting-out of some of the French-y (but not truly French) frills I objected to when I first reviewed the restaurant. Leviton comes by them naturally, having trained in New York at Le Bernardin, with media darling Eric Ripert, and at Le Cirque, with Daniel Boulud. His technique is now more focused on the kind of clarity that marks the best, purest French cooking. And his activities on behalf of the Chefs Collaborative, a national group of sustainability-minded chefs, have helped him develop the kind of personal relationships with farmers that inevitably bring a real understanding of ingredients. (Lumière’s menu changes almost daily, depending on what’s available from Leviton’s purveyors.)

The two best dishes from recent dinners were both classically French and wonderfully simple: a first course of braised morels with shallots, thyme, and mushroom jus ($15), and three cuts of Vermont veal with turnips, peas, and carrots ($35). The morels, from the Pacific Northwest, were a potent taste of spring. Inspired by the season, I came in craving asparagus, chervil, and fines herbes — and Leviton’s menu didn’t disappoint. All of them duly appeared and were presented respectfully, even lovingly.

So, too, was the veal. Artisan-raised veal is a point of controversy in the food world, because lovers of true, crate-raised French veal prefer pure-white, chicken-y meat. They dismiss the kind artisans raise, which comes from animals that have access to the outdoors and pasture for grazing, interfering with the pure-white color. Leviton’s meat was perfectly white and tender but had great flavor — something seldom encountered in French-style veal — especially the loin, which Leviton roasts plain to a perfect pink. Braised pieces of shoulder were as tender as osso buco. I thought the accompanying bratwurst a bit overseasoned, but overall the trio made an impeccable dish.