Dining Out: The French Connection

Sel de la Terre debuted before its time—four and a half years ago, just as the Big Dig was bringing daily chaos to its front door. Imagine having a big pit surrounded by constantly shifting Jersey barriers outside your plate-glass windows, and never being quite sure where the street would end up.

But Sel de la Terre rode out the storm, and the restaurant, which began as one more expensive brasserie in a city already sated with southern French bistros, today occupies a practically singular niche, supplying disciplined, nicely turned-out bistro classics that hew close to their French roots at a time when French food is getting harder to find.

More important, Sel de la Terre is a completely home-grown restaurant, and it feels almost uniquely adult—comfortable and un-stuffy, with a reassuring calm. It's a serene place to eat, even if the Big Dig won't quite quit. The food, too, follows its own bent, and in four and a half years it has matured enough to have a night-to-night consistency it lacked at the start. Sel de la Terre will be very ready for crowds once the waterfront is finally woven back together with the rest of the city.

Funny thing about French food: It comes and goes in fashion, but chefs trained and steeped in it won't let it go. Sel de la Terre's Geoff Gardner traveled extensively in Provence before working closely with Frank McClelland at L'Espalier—his partner in Sel de la Terre—and southern France is still his inspiration. The pervasive rosemary and garlic in his dishes is evidence of this, along with a combination of butter and olive oil that makes for complex, deeply flavored French sauces.

Gardner does like butter and sauces that have wine and long-cooked-down meat stock at the base. He told me he uses a lot of court bouillon, too, meaning light vegetable stock with something acidic like vinegar or white wine. But there's little that's light about his food. He's after substance and satisfaction, and the style he has evolved is both solid and satisfying.

That style certainly goes with the décor. The comfort and solidity struck me more forcefully now than when Sel de la Terre first opened, perhaps because a number of gimmicky and plain prefab-looking restaurants have opened since. Sel deserves a local evening audience it might not get, perfectly positioned as it is for visitors and downtown businesspeople (it's open for lunch). It should draw the well-heeled suburbanites invading the South End and Leather District whose instinct is to stay on Tremont Street.

The service tries, but doesn't quite, match the décor: friendly, with a professional demeanor, but a bit uncertain and uneven. Plates get cleared too soon, waiters and waitresses disappear, bread and water requests sometimes go forgotten. Yet our servers were knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the food (a bit less so about the wine, and the mostly French list is interesting, well-priced, and rewarding). And they brought all three tapas—like petits goûters as a gift when our party deliberately lingered over wine before ordering. (I wasn't recognized, the chef later confirmed.) Just $5 each, these are little plates of either French olives or two spreads designed, Gardner told me, to show off the breads: an eggplant-goat cheese purée with olive oil, and a tomato confit, which is a slow-roasted tomato that just holds its shape but is completely spreadable, suffused with olive oil and seasoned with aged balsamic vinegar.

Truth be told, it's worth making a meal of the bread and anything that goes with it, like the fine French butter Sel serves, or the lush goûters. When Sel de la Terre opened, it made a big deal of the breads made by head baker Michael Rhoads. That fanfare was premature. Bread takes time, and it's a passion of both Gardner and Rhoads. About two years ago I did a double take tasting Rhoads's baguette, which equals or betters what I consider to be New York's best baguette (from the Belgian chain le Pain Quotidien), and my favorite Boston baguette, Clear Flour Bread's ancienne French. Rhoads's is for sale every day at the pleasant little bakery and sandwich shop at the front of Sel de la Terre. Not every bread is perfect, but the olive bread is addictive, the rye often exceptional.

Gardner has become consistent with time, that hallmark of professionalism. I'll never warm to quite so rich a cuisine, but I do admire his skill, and when he goes for simplicity the results can be splendid. An artichoke soup with herb ricotta crostini—$10, like all of the first courses—is a dream of a French soup, which concentrates the essence of a vegetable and amplifies it with a lashing of cream. Fibrous artichokes are a technical challenge, and they can be bitter rather than sweet, but at two dinners the flavor and velvet consistency of the soup were exemplary. The other notable specialty of the chef is charcuterie, which Gardner varies by season and whim; I was especially taken with a chicken boudin rolled in toasted crushed pistachios.

Entrées (all $24) are just a bit too complicated for my taste. But that French touch can work its magic, for example, with duck breast of a size and meatiness that made me keep thinking it was lamb, even after I finished the entire, generous plate. The powerful rosemary and garlic abetted the confusion, but it was the huge, tender breast (from Long Island, and usually sold for Peking duck, Gardner told me) that did it. And I had to finish the buttery—as in, a lot of butter—hash of fresh corn, diced potato, and chanterelles, which mixed mesmerizingly with the Madeira-fortified duck sauce. Guests at several meals were more taken than I with the grilled black Angus ribeye steak frites; I found the meat unremarkable, and the shoestring fries sprinkled with rosemary and kosher salt unmemorable. The red wine-shallot sauce, I must admit, was expert and awfully good with the fries.

Non-French and really remarkable were Gardner's lemon-herb gnocchi, big as pillow mints. They looked to be oversized and probably tough, in a sauce that appeared bland and too creamy. In fact, they were wonderful, the sauce full of delicate fava bean flavor and of just the right, light-coating consistency. The steak frites will bring my guests back; the duck and the gnocchi will call to me.

The desserts (each $7) won't. They're not up to the best of either Gardner or Rhoads, with big underbaked cookies and almost flavorless ice cream and a general paucity of flavor. But the chocolate bombe with vanilla cherries will satisfy the chocolate-needy. I'd recommend pretending you're a French child just home from school and ordering a baguette with butter and sugar. While you're at it, dip it in a big cappuccino or café au lait. That will truly evoke France, north or Midi. I'd recommend it, in fact, any time, any day.