Over the years I've learned the lesson from dollars spent on mediocre dining that price and value are frequently unrelated in white tablecloth restaurants, that cost has no bearing on quality and memorability, and that fine dining can be more boring than satisfying. I am rarely impressed when I go out to eat and have learned to manage my expectations. I've switched my dining dollars away from contemporary cuisine to traditional ethnic eats, something both my wallet and stomach can bear. This is, to be fair, a function not only of that hard lesson won but of my own temporary poverty, borne by two layoffs in 2008.
Since I usually don't spend money on fine dining, especially during these lean times, it was curiosity and the need for a final goodbye Boston meal that motivated me to make a reservation for a Monday night at Menton, Barbara Lynch's new fine dining restaurant next to her spiffy Italian lunch counter, Sportello and her equally spiffy, if crowded, mixology cocktail bar, Drink. With prices starting at $95 for a four course prix fixe and $145 for the chef's tasting menu, we knew we were going to be spending more than usual for a dinner for two. But we're an enterprising family, and we raised funds for our dinner by throwing a gala yard sale and selling our unloved countertop appliances and bric-a-brac to neighbors and readers of Craigslist. We could also justify the meal as a celebration: in a few short days I will be leaving Boston yet again and heading to Chicago to start a new job there in exactly one week from today.
Armed with a handful of bills and an empty stomach, Mom and I made our way to Menton after finding a parking spot on the street, our first happy moment of the evening. When we walked in at six, the dining room was empty, bright, and pleasantly spare. It is a room of lines; there's hardly a curve to be seen except in a few light fixtures and a glass covered dish holding, tonight at least, meyer lemons. There's a certain simple masculinity to the room as well, with thick curved wood chairs painted black, brown wood panels, and subtle earth tones dominating the room. The dining room isn't particularly ostentatious or showy but it does feel comfortable, if a bit loud when fully occupied.
Ordinarily, if I were blogging about a dining experience, I would have photographed each dish. But blogging completely slipped my mind and not only did I arrive at Menton without a camera, my camera phone was almost out of power and ended up dying a mere three courses into my meal. I didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed that I couldn't document the courses that followed, as they were all spectacularly well-made. The food is not showy, nor is it pushing boundaries or overly intellectualized (you don't need to be told how to eat it or what its motivation is or what the chef was thinking when he, yes, it is always a he, conceptualized it); but it is, without a doubt, beautiful and executed almost flawlessly, with every component of a dish carefully thought out executed without reliance on gimmicks or technology, a significant feat in an era of technomotional cooking and diner lust for novelty (the cannonical cooking of Ferran Adria and his followers) or comfort (the all things meat craze). There's very little gimmickry here: the food is what it is, which, again, is impressive. That said, many dishes did include 'pearls' - small spherified drops of flavors and ingredients that were surprisingly complementary to the dishes they were used in and not the focus of the plate. The kitchen showed remarkable restraint.
I'd like to share my meal with you. Although the menu shows 9 courses, there were actually 12, including two amuse buche (a butter soup with snails and clams knocked my socks off, as my dad would say, and a foie gras mousse served with pickled nameko and a lovely veloute) and a surprisingly palate-cleansing intermezzo unlike any I've had before (verjus sorbet, a caramel foam, a black pepper sable):
Every item on every plate had its place; there was very little extraneous or unnecessary, save for the condiments on the cheese plate, which were placed slightly haphazardly, something only noticeable because every other plate had such intention and delicateness. There was hardly a miss the entire evening; almost every dish was seasoned correctly, allowing flavors to shine on each dish. The only time I noticed too much salt was on a confit quail leg. I didn't really care for the lovely breakfast radishes that had been cooked and served as a garnish with my squab. I have yet to have a cooked radish that deserves a place on my plate, as they are, for the most part, too watery, unpleasantly so, when cooked. But that's a minor quibble, and hardly enough to reduce the enjoyment of a flawlessly prepared squab, which they presented to me, head on, before they took it back to the kitchen for carving.
We spent nearly 4 hours at Menton with our food, our servers (including the utterly professional and knowledgeable Paige, who patiently fielded our questions about her life in the restaurant industry and her background), and the restaurant staff (thank you Alec for showing us the kitchen and explaining how it was designed). The pace was leisurely and conversational; we never felt rushed and the kitchen was very accommodating of our needs.
One thing happened to us at the outset of our meal that has never happened before: I was recognized. Apparently Menton's PR manager recognized my name as a blogger who had written about their restaurant Sportello before, and the restaurant group's Operations Manager. Eli, introduced himself to me before our first course arrived. Cake and Commerce is not a restaurant blog, but I do write about things I like (and only things I like - last year I was invited to several restaurant blogger events but lost my place on the list after I refused to blog about the mediocre dining experience. I just didn't see the point of reviewing a place that was less than stellar). Sometimes that thing is a restaurant. Tonight that thing is Menton. I'd be lying if I didn't say that being recognized didn't improve the experience; we did get a bit of the VIP treatment, something I haven't experienced in a restaurant since I left the kitchen in 1999.
I'd go on, but it is late, I'm tired, and know that tomorrow I'll be in full food hangover mode. Maybe then I'll have the energy to talk about how surprised I was that our Burgundy paired so well with the foie grass stuffed Vermont quail or how much I loved my mother's dessert, or how much I loved the Vieux Carre cocktail I drank as an aperitif.
I leave Boston knowing that there is a high end restaurant I'd willingly go to again. Which is something I never thought I'd be able to say.