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 ate—or, really, anyone who just enjoys reading cookbooks—will be excited by Kitchen, Scott Herritt’s eccentric, lovable new restaurant in the South End. For food-history buffs, it’s a dream restaurant, one that answers the question, How did those foods I’ve only read about actually taste? Herritt uses recipes from a wide variety of sources—Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery, the original 1931 edition of The Joy of Cooking, the writings of James Beard and M.F.K. Fisher—to present a kind of cavalcade of American cuisine: western pork and beans; high-style dishes a Vanderbilt would have ordered at Delmonico’s, in New York; the sole meunière that changed Julia Child’s life.
But even if none of that interests you, even if all you’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 that’s both thought-provoking and very good.
You don’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. It’s certainly interesting, for example, that the mussel soup Billi Bi was invented at Maxim’s, in Paris, and named for the American customer William B. Leeds, but all you need to know is that Herritt’s rendition is a superior mussel stew ($14) with a touch of saffron and a beautifully smooth, not-too-creamy broth. You don’t have to concern yourself with the fact that the scallops wrapped in bacon ($14) are inspired by the original Joy of Cooking (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? They’re good, fresh scallops wrapped in good, not-too-strong applewood-smoked bacon.
Two other reasons to go are dishes that can appear off-putting as they’re presented on the menu but are excellent nonetheless. The first is the least greasy and possibly most satisfying take on buffalo wings you’ll ever have—tender and lean frogs’ 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 “mock turtle” 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 “under glass” ($15) is the most curious and arresting. It’s a superior sauté 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 experience—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 Herritt’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 won’t learn much from it—or from the servers—unless you ask, and even then their answers won’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: It’s nice that the bread is heated to order, and that when it comes it’s a fresh homemade dinner roll with good butter, but it’s less nice that the server doesn’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 it’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 there’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 Coppa’s and Il Casale’s in moist, porky excellence. The baked beans are terrific, too—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 Gruyère and Comté cheeses. The gnocchi (“Parisian”-style, a cream-puff dough piped into rounds) soak up the sauce like fresh bread, and the whole entrée arrives at the table browned and bubbling hot. It’s almost pure butter—a meal that would warm Julia Child’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. “Hamburg steak” ($19) was another misfire—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 LeBlanc’s grandmother’s recipe, fried to order and served over a fruit purée with vanilla sauce; and a looser-than-usual crème brûlée ($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: “We try to do everything by hand.” At a time when most chefs want to buy the highest-tech new toys, I’d like to see some of them—and our city—take this parallel track. This isn’t fascinating, avant-garde food you’re glad just to have tried once. This is true sustenance—the food you want to keep coming back for.
Kitchen, 560 Tremont St., Boston, 617-695-1250, kitchenbostonmass.com.
Other Menu Highlights:
Cake doughnuts, $9
Buffalo frogs’ legs, $12
Bacon-wrapped scallops, $14
Critic Corby Kummer—an editor at The Atlantic and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food—has been reviewing Greater Boston’s top restaurants in our pages since 1997.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2012/10/restaurant-review-kitchen-south-end/