Restaurant Review: Lumière in Newton

After 11 years, Michael Leviton’s Newton bistro still feels fresh — and has far better focus.

Photograph by Keller + Keller.

Photograph by Keller + Keller.

When neighborhood restaurants find their groove, getting better and surer as time goes on, that’s cause for celebration. Lumière, celebrated chef Michael Leviton’s first — and now only — restaurant, opened across from the West Newton Cinema in 1999, at a time when there was hardly any serious cooking happening in Newton. No wonder the bistro, with its elegant mixture of French and New American fare, immediately attracted well-dressed locals (and not the slightly scruffier moviegoers its location would suggest).

[sidebar]More than a decade later, there still isn’t much ambitious cooking going on in Newton. And Leviton — who this year received his sixth consecutive “Best Chef: Northeast” nomination from the venerable James Beard Foundation — has become a chef of deeper, broader skills, with a commitment to locally and sustainably raised produce and meat. For a time, he branched out into more-casual food at the short-lived Persephone, part of a huge and odd clothing store/brasserie combo in Fort Point Channel. I liked, and miss, his approach there, and recently returned to Lumière mostly to enjoy myself — it’s a very pleasant place to eat — and to see what Leviton had learned from Persephone.

I found a great deal to be pleased with, along with a confident cook at the top of his game. The main change I noticed was a sifting-out of some of the French-y (but not truly French) frills I objected to when I first reviewed the restaurant. Leviton comes by them naturally, having trained in New York at Le Bernardin, with media darling Eric Ripert, and at Le Cirque, with Daniel Boulud. His technique is now more focused on the kind of clarity that marks the best, purest French cooking. And his activities on behalf of the Chefs Collaborative, a national group of sustainability-minded chefs, have helped him develop the kind of personal relationships with farmers that inevitably bring a real understanding of ingredients. (Lumière’s menu changes almost daily, depending on what’s available from Leviton’s purveyors.)

The two best dishes from recent dinners were both classically French and wonderfully simple: a first course of braised morels with shallots, thyme, and mushroom jus ($15), and three cuts of Vermont veal with turnips, peas, and carrots ($35). The morels, from the Pacific Northwest, were a potent taste of spring. Inspired by the season, I came in craving asparagus, chervil, and fines herbes — and Leviton’s menu didn’t disappoint. All of them duly appeared and were presented respectfully, even lovingly.

So, too, was the veal. Artisan-raised veal is a point of controversy in the food world, because lovers of true, crate-raised French veal prefer pure-white, chicken-y meat. They dismiss the kind artisans raise, which comes from animals that have access to the outdoors and pasture for grazing, interfering with the pure-white color. Leviton’s meat was perfectly white and tender but had great flavor — something seldom encountered in French-style veal — especially the loin, which Leviton roasts plain to a perfect pink. Braised pieces of shoulder were as tender as osso buco. I thought the accompanying bratwurst a bit overseasoned, but overall the trio made an impeccable dish.

I’ve had my differences with Leviton over beef, and after having tried more of the grass-fed variety at Lumière, I still have them. A hanger steak ($29) was low on flavor and slightly tough — the endemic problem with grass-fed beef that you’re not supposed to notice. Cubes of the same beef braised in a red-wine reduction with vegetables at another dinner, though, were fine.

In general, the meat is more successful than the fish. I always want to like local cod, particularly when it’s from Gloucester and the name of the boat appears on the menu (Amanda Leigh, Harvest Moon). But here it was plain dull, even as a nice big chunk seared with the skin on and drizzled with herb-shallot oil ($27). An appetizer of brandade fritters with a base of home-cured salt cod and a sauce of rubbery roasted tomatoes and black olives, with roasted garlic aioli ($12), had an odd, bitter aftertaste, and it didn’t make me like the cod any better. The skin on the wild Maryland striped bass ($30) was very good, however, and both fish entrées were rescued by the vegetables: chunks of roasted asparagus and succulent maitake mushrooms (with the cod), and a terrific barigoule of baby artichokes braised in wine and vegetable stock (with the bass).

Chicken, though, brings out the best in Leviton, who manages to coax more flavor from it than any chef in recent memory. His chicken dishes stand up to any chef’s meat dishes, anywhere in Boston. The usual boring breast, pan-roasted and served with asparagus, baby artichokes, and spring-dug parsnip purée, was an exemplary bargain during Restaurant Week. (Admittedly, no reviewer wants to write about prix fixe Restaurant Week menus. But I happened to eat at Lumière on the weekend between the two Restaurant Weeks, and Leviton had understandably decided to keep going with what he had on hand.) A regular-menu dish of chicken thighs, braised in a double chicken stock and served with the same purée, spring onions, and morels ($25), could hardly be improved upon.

The best appetizer during Restaurant Week makes me want to see Leviton keep exploring the gutsy fare he did at Persephone: pork ribs, deep fried and glazed with a fabulously rich, concentrated pork stock so sweet and red it seemed Chinese (though the chef told me the sole seasoning was salt and pepper). If Leviton does go back to running a second restaurant, I hope those ribs, which hold their own against the gloppiest beef ribs you’ve tried, are the first thing he puts on the menu.

The best desserts focus mostly on, again, local ingredients: Sophia’s homemade Greek yogurt, which was layered with apricot compote during Restaurant Week and used in a pretty perfect panna cotta with mango, pineapple, and candied cashews on the regular menu ($10).

Simple ingredients at the service of expertly made, memorably flavored, elegant dishes: That’s what I most admire at Lumière. If you haven’t been back in a while, either, fix that soon. Newton may not have a lot of serious chefs, but it can still lay claim to one of the most dedicated.

1293 Washington St. Newton, 617-244-9199,