Dining Out: Troquet

Rediscovering a wine lover’s haven — and a culinary talent — in the Theater District.

By my second dinner at Troquet, I knew the experience wasn’t a fluke. These were two of the most assured meals I’d had in Boston, with direct, balanced, complex flavors that seemed simple but aren’t easy to achieve. I thought I could easily be in a two-star Michelin restaurant, and the fact that most of the dishes at Troquet — which built its reputation on pairing wine with food — are designed to be wine-friendly only heightened the impression. Why have we heard so little about it all these years? And where have I been?

Actually, I knew exactly where I’d been: leaving Troquet to my wine-maven friends, who book important dinners with fellow wine snobs there. When I reviewed Troquet a few months after it opened in 2001, I was more impressed with the wine selection and the service of co-owner Chris Campbell, a longtime wine enthusiast who had lived and worked in Burgundy, than I was by the food of chef and co-owner Scott Hebert. The place struck me as a shoebox of a restaurant, shoehorned into an unlikely block in the Theater District. The small-plates menu made for forgettable food that didn’t distract much from the wine selection, which I took to be its purpose. The somewhat stark décor seemed then, as it still does, an afterthought.

Things changed. A few years after the restaurant opened, the upstairs space became available, and the sit-down area moved up a flight to airier, quieter quarters with views of the Common. Small plates were replaced by full-size dishes. Hebert blossomed as a cook, developing his already solid French technique and relying on strictly seasonal specials that might only be on the menu for a couple of days. The once-grimy Theater District, upgraded by Emerson College, the Ritz towers, and the W hotel, has even become something of a dining destination.

The food still takes second place to the wine. Each menu item comes with wine suggestions from a numbered list, but I’d recommend asking Campbell or one of the well-trained staffers for advice. You’ll learn a lot, and you won’t need to spend more than you’d like; the challenge of a budget brings out their creativity. Yet you’ll be rewarded for a splurge: The great wine selection (and value on high-end bottles), my wine-savviest friend told me, has made Troquet an open secret around the country. (Campbell explained that as prices go up, his markup goes down, meaning that bottles over $100 are the best value.) It has also become a favorite among Boston wine insiders for regular tasting dinners; the boys’-night-out table next to ours one evening, for example, was littered with champagne bottles that had been wrapped to obscure the labels.

My budget didn’t allow for big splurges. But I sure got to taste some great wines at our first dinner, when we lucked into a rare basement-clearing wine sale, with odd bottles lined up on tables downstairs for diners to shop for as if at an auction. At a second dinner we put ourselves in Campbell’s hands, and learned stuff we could use in the future: in this case, that a non–designated Sancerre from a Sancerre-making house in the Loire, Blondeau, is every bit as good as an official Sancerre, and a lot cheaper. Like the best wine experts, Campbell is completely modest, approachable, and enthusiastic.