Dining Out: Menton
At her new Fort Point restaurant, Barbara Lynch takes diners for an exhilarating, expensive ride.
THE FIRST TIME I HAD DINNER at Menton, it was so good I stopped taking notes after the second course. The dish was langoustines — true scampi, that sweet cross between shrimp and lobster — wrapped in finely shredded phyllo, served over a bright sauce of fresh peas, and topped with a few thin slices of pickled rhubarb and green-topaz dots of pumpkinseed oil. The langoustines were crisp outside and soft inside, the peas and rhubarb messengers of spring. Here was technique and inventiveness at the service of impeccable ingredients.
[sidebar]And then there were the flourishes, the kinds of studied details that define luxury dining. Three types of homemade bread were stellar; a round of fresh-baked mini honey croissants came to the table with great ceremony. By the time the mignardises — button-size macarons with surprise ingredients like basil and black sesame — arrived, I was convinced I’d eaten the most expert, refined dinner I’d had in Boston since Jean-Georges Vongerichten made his astonishing debut at the old Lafayette Hotel in 1985. It was practically flawless.
Then I went back, and neither of the two subsequent dinners reached the heights of the first. It wasn’t just because I was tasting the same dishes I’d had before, or that the first-time thrill was fading. (Menton offers two prix-fixe tasting menus, one a four-course meal with a choice of three or four items per course, the other a nine-course parade of set dishes. I focused on the shorter menu, so I wound up tasting almost everything three times.)
Obviously the restaurant, which opened in Fort Point in April, is still settling in. But the inconsistencies in execution are surprising, and they’re not what you’d expect from a restaurant whose prices — $95 for the four-course menu, $145 for the nine-course — make it the most expensive in town (and this is without wine; the suggested pairings for the nine-course menu cost $105).
Still, Menton is a remarkable debut, one of the most ambitious restaurants to open anywhere in the country this year. It’s an extremely assured establishment operating at a very high level, the kind of place that takes lots of staff and pricey equipment but doesn’t rely, to my relief, on too much of the molecular gastronomy that is producing an increasingly tired bag of special-effect tricks. I say this as a nonmember of the Barbara Lynch cult, and an intermittent fan of the chef’s restaurants (which now number five, plus cocktail bar Drink and demonstration kitchen Stir). My admiration of her business savvy and eye for design has been unwavering. But I’m put off by the odd excess of butter at Sportello, and No. 9 Park has always struck me as needlessly fancy.
Menton is elegant without calling attention to itself. The design, by Cheryl and Jeffrey Katz, is subdued and luxurious, with dove-gray and wood-veneer panels and a wall of gray brocade patterned in a Chinese cityscape. Together, the décor choices all say, “Put me up next to anything in New York” and “Consider me for a Michelin star.” The ideas in the mainly French menu — Menton is named for a town on the Italy-France border — are moderately daring without being really challenging, the presentation careful. And much of the food is as good to eat as it is elegant.
Who knew, for example, how meaty fresh hearts of palm could be when they’re roasted, or what a fine pairing they’d make with the first fat asparagus of the season? Executive chef Colin Lynch did. (Asked whether he’s related to Barbara, he has a snappy comeback: “If I was, I’d have risen a lot faster.”) Of the other first courses, terrine of duck foie gras — a thick slice with a dot of sweet wine gelée — was the only real failure. The underseasoned terrine was like a cross between mayonnaise and whipped butter, the gelée cloying. The dish was pretty, but seemed contrived.
The second-course options featured the most gems, starting with those langoustines. At one dinner, a velouté with English peas, chanterelles, and a dollop of curry yogurt and mint was marvelously potent and springlike. A square of halibut “en croute” was crusted with a butter-crisped wafer of sourdough bread in place of the skin, a clever idea that worked, as did the fresh fava purée and maitake mushrooms underneath. And yet. One night the fava purée was emerald green, the seasonings perfect; another night it was watery and all salt. The velouté was similarly uneven: Its texture varied between a thick, creamy vichyssoise and a barely thickened broth. Soft-shell crabs showed the oddest variation — light and crisp one night, greasy and leaden the next.
The third courses were more consistent, if less interesting, and stood as lessons in sauce technique. Satiny, deep-flavored jus accented the lamb with black garlic, as well as the foie gras-stuffed quail. I didn’t find the flavor of either the meat or the vegetables noteworthy, but I did go through one main like a thresher: “duet of rabbit.” It’s really rabbit three ways, the star being a round mini tart of confit leg meat mixed with sweetbreads, wrapped in cabbage, and then baked in homemade puff pastry. It’s called a pithiviers, and it was fantastic. So was the teeny-tiny rack, with frenched legs you’ll find either adorable or nauseating, depending on your pet-rabbit associations. The terrinelike combination of poached loin and puréed shoulder meat, though, was disturbingly undercooked, becoming progressively pinker at each dinner until I had no desire to take a bite.
Menton’s desserts are mostly up to the same standard of inventiveness and skill. This is where molecular tricks turned up in the greatest profusion, as in strawberries dehydrated and crushed to a powder, then baked into tuiles for a deconstructed shortcake spritzed with lime foam. (Foam? Please.) The standouts were a chocolate ganache draped in a sinuous curve, served with peppermint foam and peanut ice cream; and a small lemon tart with mint purée, blackberries, and yogurt sorbet. Words can barely describe the perfection of the tart’s lemon-curd filling, or the crackling shell. Many people dream of the ideal lemon tart, me included. This is cheaper than a trip to Paris.
But it’s not cheap — dinner for two, including wine, can easily cost $350, and far more if you go for nine courses. Is Menton worth the money? Yes, opening inconsistencies and all. It’s major, and will be the Important Meal destination for a long time. I hope the kitchen irons out the glitches, and that it shows a bit more imagination with the main courses. But my first dinner experience brought on the kind of magic-carpet exhilaration you feel at a great restaurant. True, I came down to earth a few times at later meals. But I’m looking forward to soaring again.