Restaurant Review: Kitchen in the South End
Scott Herritt's new South End restaurant is a welcome glimpse into the past.
Anybody who enjoys poring over our regional culinary history to understand how people once ateâ€”or, really, anyone who just enjoys reading cookbooksâ€”will be excited by Kitchen, Scott Herrittâ€™s eccentric, lovable new restaurant in the South End. For food-history buffs, itâ€™s a dream restaurant, one that answers the question, How did those foods Iâ€™ve only read about actually taste? Herritt uses recipes from a wide variety of sourcesâ€”Hannah Glasseâ€™s Art of Cookery, the original 1931 edition of The Joy of Cooking, the writings of James Beard and M.F.K. Fisherâ€”to present a kind of cavalcade of American cuisine: western pork and beans; high-style dishes a Vanderbilt would have ordered at Delmonicoâ€™s, in New York; the sole meuniĂ¨re that changed Julia Childâ€™s life.
But even if none of that interests you, even if all youâ€™re after is a great meal, you should still eat at Kitchen, located in a semi-basement that has housed successive independent restaurants, most recently Pops. Herritt is producing food thatâ€™s both thought-provoking and very good.
You donâ€™t have to care about the provenance of the food served here (though each dish is dated on the menu, usually from when it first became popular) to enjoy it. Itâ€™s certainly interesting, for example, that the mussel soup Billi Bi was invented at Maximâ€™s, in Paris, and named for the American customer William B. Leeds, but all you need to know is that Herrittâ€™s rendition is a superior mussel stew ($14) with a touch of saffron and a beautifully smooth, not-too-creamy broth. You donâ€™t have to concern yourself with the fact that the scallops wrapped in bacon ($14) are inspired by the original Joy of CookingÂ (which suggests cooking fish on a plank), or that here the wood flavor comes from pork belly braised with actual wood chips, and scallops that at the last minute are heated on a wooden plate. All you need to know? Theyâ€™re good, fresh scallops wrapped in good,Â not-too-strong applewood-smoked bacon.
Two other reasons to go are dishes that can appear off-putting as theyâ€™re presented on the menu but are excellent nonetheless. The first is the least greasy and possibly most satisfying take on buffalo wings youâ€™ll ever haveâ€”tender and lean frogsâ€™ legs ($12) dipped in coarse bread crumbs, fried a mahogany brown, and served with a cayenne-heavy homemade hot sauce, carrot slaw, and, of course, chunks of blue cheese. The second is a great beef â€śmock turtleâ€ť soup ($12) with a deep-flavored, thick broth good enough to be a gravy, shards of fall-off-the-bone-soft meat, and a medley of carrots, potatoes, and peas.
Of all the presentations, though, mushrooms â€śunder glassâ€ť ($15) is the most curious and arresting. Itâ€™s a superior sautĂ© of wild mushrooms on homemade brioche toast, mixed with crumbled house-made cheddar and served under a high glass cloche that looks like something from a 19th-century specimen lab. The lifting of the bell-shaped cover makes for a heady olfactory experienceâ€”too heady, actually, owing to insufficiently burned-off alcohol from the white wine that Herritt sprinkles over the mushrooms and cheddar at the last minute. The glass is Herrittâ€™s tribute to the fancy pheasant recipes that have appeared in The Virginia Housewife and James Beard cookbooks. Ultimately, it fails. But it fails in an interesting, ambitious way that makes you wonder what his next historical adventure will be.
Beyond the dates on the menu, you wonâ€™t learn much from itâ€”or from the serversâ€”unless you ask, and even then their answers wonâ€™t necessarily match what Herritt says. True, nobody wants to read a Wikipedia entry on a menu, but a bit more background would help. Another glitch: Itâ€™s nice that the bread is heated to order, and that when it comes itâ€™s a fresh homemade dinner roll with good butter, but itâ€™s less nice that the server doesnâ€™t tell you this, and that even if she encouragingly puts butter on the table, the bread might not come until the first courses do.
Main courses are mixed. Roast half chicken with alfalfa and clover hay ($22) sounds pretty odd, but itâ€™s inspired by the French tradition of cooking meat (ham, usually) in hay, which sweetens it and insulates it for long cooking. Herritt uses the hay to stuff a brined chicken, and the result is moist, sweet roast meat with a buttery, intensely flavored pan-juice reduction enhanced by strong chicken stock. And then thereâ€™s the pork and beans ($23), a dish that features slow-cooked pork ribs and shoulder as well as an offal meatball that joins the ranks of Coppaâ€™s and Il Casaleâ€™s in moist, porky excellence. The baked beans are terrific, tooâ€”firm but cooked through, and naturally sweet from the pork stock rather than from the usual molasses.
Two showstopper dishes, taken from classical Gilded Age cooking, are expensive, luxurious successes. Tournedos Rossini ($34) is worth ordering less for the unremarkable foie-gras crouton and faint-flavored black truffle than for the big piece of beef tenderloin, expertly cooked so it remains almost fork-soft but not mushy, with a rich madeira sauce. The lobster thermidor ($32), a long out-of-fashion dish, makes a welcome reappearance and is the triumph of the menu: a generous six ounces of lobster meat paired with spinach, garlic, and flour-egg gnocchi and baked in a loose cream sauce with grated GruyĂ¨re and ComtĂ© cheeses. The gnocchi (â€śParisianâ€ť-style, a cream-puff dough piped into rounds) soak up the sauce like fresh bread, and the whole entrĂ©e arrives at the table browned and bubbling hot. Itâ€™s almost pure butterâ€”a meal that would warm Julia Childâ€™s heart.
The Child-inspired sole ($24), however, would fail to convert her to the wonders of cooking. Unlike the glorious dish that made Meryl Streep swoon in Julie & Julia, this one was mealy, soggy, cool, dull of flavor, and pallid beige of hue. â€śHamburg steakâ€ť ($19) was another misfireâ€”house-ground chuck cooked in an oval patty as hamburgers originally were, but terribly salty and a little gristly, with shoestring fries that were underbrowned.
Desserts are also eclectic, and two were very good: balls of cake doughnuts ($9), made from chef de cuisine Eric LeBlancâ€™s grandmotherâ€™s recipe, fried to order and served over a fruit purĂ©e with vanilla sauce; and a looser-than-usual crĂ¨me brĂ»lĂ©e ($8, no longer on the menu) with a darker-than-usual caramel cover, accompanied by caramelized figs.
Kitchen is a touching, lovely meeting of old and new. When I asked Herritt how he got the Billi Bi to have such a silky vichyssoise-like texture, he said the cooks pushed it through a sieve a couple of times. Same with the sauce for the lobster thermidor: â€śWe try to do everything by hand.â€ť At a time when most chefs want to buy the highest-tech new toys, Iâ€™d like to see some of themâ€”and our cityâ€”take this parallel track. This isnâ€™t fascinating, avant-garde food youâ€™re glad just to have tried once. This is true sustenanceâ€”the food you want to keep coming back for.
Kitchen, 560 Tremont St., Boston, 617-695-1250,Â kitchenbostonmass.com.
Other Menu Highlights:
Cake doughnuts, $9
Buffalo frogsâ€™ legs, $12
Bacon-wrapped scallops, $14
Critic Corby Kummerâ€”an editor atÂ The AtlanticÂ and author ofÂ The Pleasures of Slow Foodâ€”has been reviewing Greater Bostonâ€™s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/10/restaurant-review-kitchen-south-end/