Dining Out: Menton
At her new Fort Point restaurant, Barbara Lynch takes diners for an exhilarating, expensive ride.
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.