Dining Out: Think Globally, Eat Locally
Many diners have the fantasy of being invited to a star chef's house for dinner, where he or she just fools around, tossing off marvelous dishes made with impeccable technique just for the pleasure of doing it. That fantasy can be realized in an unlikely location: the second floor of a 1970s-style building at the Concord depot, where at his Aïgo Bistro, Moncef Meddeb sends out dishes of immaculate food that demonstrate easy mastery, one after another.
Meddeb is certainly a Boston master. He opened the original L'Espalier on Boylston Street and made it a nationally acclaimed restaurant similar in feel to New York's Lutéce, then considered the best restaurant in the country. L'Espalier came to be synonymous with personalized haute cuisine served in a gracious and composed, luxurious setting, a meaning it still has under current owner Frank McClelland.
Tunisia and Morocco have always played a part in Meddeb's cooking, even if at L'Espalier the character was decidedly French. He was raised in Paris and Tunisia, came here to study, and stayed. After establishing himself as a national figure, Meddeb moved around a bit and in the early '90s opened Aïgo Bistro, a casual restaurant in Concord, where he settled. Ana Sortun (now of Oleana fame) first made her name as the chef there, and her Mediterranean fascination and ability to spotlight flavor surely owe much to Meddeb.
A few years ago, Meddeb himself took over the kitchen at Aïgo Bistro, and now dining there is like having your own private chef who has done the tour of the world's best restaurants and chosen to cook good food for you. The restaurant is decidedly unexpected—not just because the quality that awaits you is in the suburbs, but because of its simple setting, with wallboards painted in vaguely North African themes, cottage-cheese tile ceilings, bright lighting, and parking-lot views. The young servers look like they came from the high school, which means they're very nice. The feeling is friendly and warmly local.
But the menu is both cosmopolitan and up-to-the-minute. Three dishes in particular, modestly billed as first courses, would make most chefs want to go back to school, so sure is their execution and so good the results. The scallops with chanterelles and baby spinach ($13), for example, is composed of five fat white scallops seared a beautiful mahogany brown but still translucent in the middle, with tan chanterelles under a napping of beef jus. Every element comes together with spare perfection. The tea-smoked salmon ($11) is actually arctic char, a subtler-flavored, slightly less oily fish that takes beautifully to a very light, cool smoking with star anise and a delicate Earl Grey tea. It's large enough to make a wonderful cold supper; the only hint of an imbalance is the sesame oil in a vinaigrette over a salad of pickled cucumber, celery root, endive, and citrus.
(I'm not even mentioning the soups, which are so pure-tasting, simple, and thick with the goodness of long-cooked fresh vegetables that you'll think you've just wandered into a mom-and-pop bistro in a forgotten arrondissement. The leek-and-chestnut soup ($9), for example, was a combination that made unexpected sense, maybe because of the parsnip and potatoes that formed a creamy, lightly sweet bridge.) Foie gras with maple-glazed chestnuts ($18) is a very generous portion of custardy sautéed fresh foie gras—perhaps a bit too pink for my taste, but the best-flavored and cleanest-tasting foie gras dish I've had since Amanda Lydon cooked at Truc.
How can foie gras—the fattiest substance this side of pure marrow—taste so clean? That's Meddeb's mastery. He makes rich meats, delicate French herbs, and distinctive North African spices seem as if they always belonged together and enjoy each other's company. Take a special of pork short ribs ($24) made with the marbled, luscious Kurobuta (Berkshire) pork for which chefs are paying premiums these days. (And you should, too—like all Niman Ranch pork, it tastes much better.) Meddeb brushes the hefty ribs with pomegranate molasses, one of today's Mediterranean favorites, and adds clove and dried orange rind, frequent North African enhancements to meat. But then there are the French white wine, the New England maple syrup, and New England sides of Brussels sprouts and buttercup squash (which has better flavor than butternut, I think)—all more Massachusetts than Morocco. The meat was ever so slightly dry, but the whole plate was clearly the work of a chef who knows what ought to go with what. The duck breast brined in date molasses with chewy winter wheat and almond paste-stuffed dates ($26) was more Morocco than Massachusetts and a great-sounding dish, but the long and thick slices of pink meat were also dry the one night I could taste them.
I'm not sure how I've eaten in Boston for so long, and several times had his food, without realizing just how expert Meddeb is with fish. The scallops ($13) are a prime example, showing his (nouvelle-cuisine-influenced) savvy about matching seafood with meat. So is a hunk of tuna wrapped with bacon ($26)—an obvious pairing I've somehow never seen and one other chefs should steal (giving credit, of course). It looks like a big veal medallion and is meaty, but has the more authoritative flavor of tuna. The fat wedges of roasted peppers around the plate, cooked slowly in a red-wine sauce so as to retain their texture but acquire a luscious roasted flavor, made a seductive stew reminiscent of southwest France. Striped bass in a tagine rubbed with cumin and cilantro ($24) was the high point of the main courses I tried. Even the cilantro, an herb I usually loathe, tasted delicate with the fish and perfectly complemented the classic Middle Eastern green olives and preserved lemons. The currants in the couscous, the fragrant saffron in the sauce—it was an example of strong flavors that could have been too many, but in Meddeb's hands blended to a harmonious whole.
The wine list at Aïgo is made up of reasonably priced and interestingly selected bottles—the Château la Nerthe Châteauneuf-du-Pape, for example, which stood up to the varied main courses without dominating them. Desserts were nothing to remember—satisfactory mango and coconut sorbets ($8), a pale and much too cinnamony pumpkin crème brûlée ($8)—with the exception of crisp, not-greasy coconut tuiles I couldn't get enough of. But you don't really need dessert with food this good. You just need monthly, if not weekly, access to it from all points in and around Boston.