Dining Out: Beacon Hill Bistro
Beacon Hill Bistro conjures a fantasy of a first-class dining car. But chef Benjamin Knack needs to keep the kitchen on the rails and the service on schedule.
I want to like Beacon Hill Bistro. First, it's right in my neighborhood. Second, it looks terrific, like the kind of place you want to eat at often. Third, it was forced to close for seven weeks this winter after the fiercest of the fierce storms burst a pipe and instantly qualified it for the 2005 comeback award. As spring was finally making itself known, the restaurant reopened with the same chef, Benjamin Knack, who had spent the down time planning a series of ambitious wine dinners and packing the French-New American menu with soothing classics and spring-is-here specials.
The long, rectangular room is like a fantasy of a first-class train car from the old Orient Express days: banquettes running the length of both sides, dark mahogany paneling, soothing beige walls, bright-but-not-too-bright sconces, snappy black and white mosaic tiles on the floor, and windows with views of the ever-fashionable Charles Street traffic. (Diners can see out but passersby can't see in, thanks to strategically placed etched-glass panels.)
The restaurant is on the ground floor of the boutique Beacon Hill Hotel, which comprises two townhouses near the corner of Beacon Street. On any evening you're likely to see locals enjoying a quiet evening, tourists attracted to the Parisian yet clearly Bostonian welcoming atmosphere, and business travelers quietly reading a newspaper from the selection neatly hung on bamboo poles. Service is well-meaning but the place feels understaffed, so you have real trouble getting anyone's attention, and the greeter was absent when my guests and I arrived on more than one visit.
The menu is simple and seductive, the ingredients good, the technique classic French and thought out. The problem is that the dishes and technique are often too thought out, and the results uneven. I dined more frequently than usual here to be sure my impressions were right and to give most menu items several tries. Some things I'd be pleased to have again and again. But many others would make me wonder if I'd be getting something soggy or crisp, something judiciously seasoned or extremely salty.
Let's start with the reliables. The Chantenay carrot soup with ginger and curried shrimp ($8) made excellent use of an heirloom carrot whose flavor can be as vivid as its brilliant color or woody and dull. Here it tasted as fresh and bright as it looked, and the ginger and curry were subtle flavor enhancers. The roasted beet salad with mint, farmer's cheese, and almond vinaigrette ($7.50) was another winter champion, elegantly conceived and executed, the beets sliced very thin and served in a triangular layered cake that, Knack told me, is baked with eggs, shallots, and crème fraîche. I couldn't tell they'd been baked with anything (they're served cold), or that the soft ingot of fresh farmer's cheese on top had been puréed with a slightly smoky Spanish cheese. I just knew I wanted to order this salad every time I visited and that all the flavors worked together very nicely. I also liked the roast quail with frisé, walnuts, apples, and bacon ($9), and found the quail particularly meaty (farmed in Vermont, the chef told me) and the marinade well made, with soy, ginger, garlic, and lemon in equilibrium. But the meat was a touch rubbery. And the seared scallops and crab cake with uni butter ($13) were oddly conceived: The scallops were dry and dull, the crab cake underflavored and oily, the uni hardly discernible.
Main courses are where things start to go seriously out of whack. The chicken breast with potato puré, wild mushrooms, and cèpe broth ($18.50) had a flavor-layered mushroom sauce too salty from soy; the breast itself, though perfectly moist and with good flavor, was somewhat salty one night and inedibly so another. The very buttery whipped potato purée was richly appealing both nights, though. Salmon with panko-crusted asparagus and warm white bean salad ($19.50) was another puzzle, the fish firm but not overcooked one night, dry and too done another. The crumb-coated asparagus stalks were an odd idea that read soggy on the palate and not crisp outside and soft inside, as the chef might have imagined. The white bean salad tasted fine with the salmon but was unrelated to the asparagus and made for an overall oily effect.
Knack lives up to his name when it comes to spaetzle and gnocchi, both of them egg doughs (spaetzle with flour, gnocchi with potato) that need to be mixed with a light hand and simmered just until firm and no longer. His Irish mother loved cooking, he told me, and learned the trick of turning out good spaetzle to please his German father. The spaetzle, served with osso buco and Swiss chard ($21), caught my eye immediately with the pert little corkscrew shapes and intriguing butter-browned ends. They were great—a bit crunchy but softly resilient, with lovely herbed flavor. These showed the most impressive technique, I thought, with better results than any of the rather elaborate sauces whose preparation Knack told me is based on laborious French technique he learned at a New York cooking school. Gnocchi with spring peas, truffles, and ricotta salata ($19) were in a sauce too buttery for my taste (that line is easy to cross in my book), but the chicken-stock sauce base was pure flavored and well seasoned, and the gnocchi were similarly soft and satisfying. I'd love these in a tomato sauce, and I'd have those spaetzle with anything—something preferably more authoritative than the temptingly browned but wan-tasting osso buco.
Desserts bring Knack up to firmer ground, because he had long training, and in fact began at this restaurant, as a pastry chef. The tarts on the dessert cart (also reminiscent of a train) look to be made with impeccable technique—a pear tart ($6.50) with beautifully browned, absolutely even pear slices in a bed of golden, puffy frangipane (almond and egg paste) and a lemon tart ($6.50) with a shiny bright layer of Meyer lemon curd and thin, perfectly browned and shaped scalloped crust. Each lives up to its appearance— almost. The tarts are made on average every other day, Knack told me, and on alternating dinners had the stale taste and texture of having been refrigerated. But the chocolate mousse torte ($6.50) was as lush and chocolatey as anyone could want, and when Knack's tarts were fresh, they were wonderful—and really did make us feel we were on a first-class train, serenely rolling along Charles Street.