Dining Out: Aujourd'hui
Jerome Legras might be the most interesting import to our culinary shores since Thomas John landed at Mantra as if from another planet. Where John brought a new fusion of French and Indian foods to the exotic Mantra (before moving on to his current gig as a corporate chef at Au Bon Pain), Legras brings Boston a fusion of classical French and Japanese food. It's not as new as John's, but it is similar in the exacting technique and rigorous training apparent in the execution of every dish—and in the vast staff of minions required to produce each one.
The style is appropriately elaborate for the reopening of Aujourd'hui, the ocean liner of a restaurant that cruises serenely above the Public Garden. The renovation has resulted in an improved bar that seems less of the antechamber it was, having incorporated a former private dining room that hogged the view. Otherwise, though, the changes have made what was a room with an air of restrained festivity darker and more somber. It's as if only dinners following board meetings will take place here. The same disturbing darkening has happened at the Ritz, too. Why are our grandest dames donning widows' weeds?
Legras is bringing Parisian fashion to what remains a very American room. His thoughtful, occasionally playful food would be very much in keeping with a starred, avant-garde restaurant in the French capital. He draws expertly on multilayered French sauces and Asian precision while emphasizing presentation and the red-hot Catalan fascination with puréeing everything imaginable and running it through a spritzer.
He has earned the right to combine all these influences: Legras grew up in the Loire Valley, where his mother was a cook for a Belgian prince in a grand chateau; he began the classic restaurant apprenticeship at 15; he was exposed to the vivid flavors of Catalonia while working at a restaurant near Perpignan; he worked in every station of the sumptuously refurbished George V Hotel when it became the Four Seasons Paris flagship in 1999; and he spent a year and a half in Japan in the kitchen of another Four Seasons.
Legras's worldly style is not a very comfortable match for Aujourd'hui. I can't imagine that the board members and splendidly silver-haired brokerage-ad retirees are particularly eager to find apricot-colored soft-shell crab foam on their appetizer plates. And I admit that it took me several meals to get into Legras's groove, which is cerebral, fascinated with what he's finding in New England, eager to devise signature dishes. Once I did, I found much to admire. His food, I fear, falls into the category of more interesting and accomplished than good.
About the soft-shell crab mousse with lobster consommé, osetra caviar, and lemon-thyme sorbet ($18), the less said the better for Aujourd'hui loyalists. A newcomer to New England's kitchens is delighted by soft-shell crabs and may want to try something other than the standard “fry-it” approach. Fair enough. But Boston might not be ready for savory, gelatin-enhanced foams to get farther center stage than the edges of plates on which they've been appearing. Green pea soup with shallot flan, langoustine, and crustacean oil ($13) was mysteriously available well into the fall, long after the season had passed on the East Coast. The flavor was pure and intense, with a judicious amount of cream to smooth and carry the sweetness and starch. But the presence of the soup on the menu indicated a carefree disregard for seasons.
So did the best appetizer — roasted asparagus with morels and Parmesan cheesecake ($15). It's hard to go wrong with roasting vegetables to intensify their flavor, although, true to his heritage, Legras immerses them in butter. (“For me, it's all butter,” he said when I asked if there was any olive oil in the dish.) But asparagus in the fall? “It's from Mexico,” Legras told me.
Oh, well. With some of Legras's main courses, it's silly to cavil. Rack of lamb with stuffed zucchini blossom, quinoa, and tomato tatin is expensive at $37, but unexceptionable—unctuous, good meat that will satisfy any red-meat lover (and even those who shy away from it). The vegetables served with it are delicate but robust, with the welcome South American touch of quinoa, an underused grain as seductive as fine couscous. Horseradish-crusted halibut with fava bean ragout, porcini, and roasted-fish jus ($36) shows off one of New England's finest fish, which Legras understandably said reminded him of turbot; the horseradish crust adds just the right pungency and crunch to a meaty fish tranche roasted with garlic and thyme. The fava bean ragout and mushroom sauté were mild and forgettable, but the fish was terrific.
I wish I could say the same of the American sturgeon. I always leap at sturgeon, an even closer turbot analogue in my mind, with compact flesh and great flavor. On two tastings, Legras managed to turn it into squares of linoleum, albeit prettily white ones slathered with American caviar, sadly unexceptional in flavor and mushy in texture (sad because it's becoming less and less politically correct to eat any non-American caviar). This is Legras's clear attempt at a signature dish, and it could become one if he gets the texture of the fish right.
It could be a signature mostly because Legras is simply great with butter sauces. I can't remember tasting a finer beurre blanc, with singing acidity, lightly foamy but coating texture, full of subtle but authoritative flavor. I wanted to drag every single thing on everyone else's plate through it, to remind myself of what a great French sauce can taste like.
Legras has great technique and the superlative service of Aujourd'hui to back him, along with the exemplary and very expensive wine list. Eating there is still a special occasion. Now it's a somewhat adventurous one, too. I'm not sure the restaurant's natural audience is ready for this adventure—but I'm glad that the hotel, and Legras, are bringing us new ideas and new imagination. Perhaps Public Garden cruisers will soon include gold heads among the silver.