Saturday, October 04, 2008

The new Sel de la Terre: Loud as he** in there

This week we went to check out the newest branch of Sel de la Terre, the (slightly) more affordable sister restaurant to L'Espalier. We like the original Sel, by the Boston Aquarium, for its relaxed elegance; it's a nice place for an intimate dinner. And while we've only been to the Natick branch for brunch, that location has the same atmosphere of grace and ease.

These adjectives were evidently not in the plans for the new Boylston Street branch of Sel de la Terre. This place is not meant for quiet tête-a-têtes or laid-back suppers. It's where you go to see and be seen—or, more accurately, to yell and be yelled at.

Here's the deal: it's one big open room. The floor is polished marble; the walls are exposed brick; the ceilings are high and open. Also open is the kitchen, from which, as you'd expect, comes a constant chorus of metal and sizzle and call-and-response.

So sound bounces off every surface, with nothing to baffle it. The noise level is high to the point of being obnoxious.

I figured out why I find this so annoying in restaurants: it makes me less able to concentrate on my food. Yes, of course I can multi-task and process more than one sensory input at a time. But I like being able to focus on the way ingredients play together; on the dance of flavors and textures; on how well the wine pairs with the food.

And frankly, I'd hope that a chef would want to support that desire. Why go to the trouble of crafting a carefully structured dish, of balancing notes and themes, if you then distract your diners? It's like asking people to admire a Seurat painting and then launching Nerf balls at their heads.

In The Boy's case, there were extra distractions: the air-conditioning vent in the ceiling above us was dripping condensation onto his head.

And that's before we encountered our waiter. He was one of a type: he tells you how wonderful everything on the menu is, even after you've ordered (please! You can stop selling now!). He asks what kind of water you prefer, and then forgets to bring it. He interrupts your conversation, rather than waiting for a pause, to ask questions ("How is everything? Awesome? Awesome!').

And perhaps the noise level also broke his focus, because he got the order wrong. He wrote down one thing but asked the kitchen for something entirely different.

Later, he came over with the cheese plate. One of the selections fell off the plate and onto a chair. He picked the cheese up, put it back on the plate, and proceeded to introduce the selections to us as though nothing had happened.

Now I know there's a reasonable chance that this plate was just for show, and that they had the serving cheeses somewhere in the back. But still, we passed.

This said, the food was good. The charcuterie included honey-drizzled foie gras terrine, which is a genius combination, and andouille sausage wrapped in bacon, as though someone had thought, You know, there's just not enough pork here. How could we add some more?

I had lavender-scented chicken breast—the chicken itself was a little dry (gasp!) and the floral note was so subtle as to be almost invisible, especially when contrasted with the bold, creamy, Serrano ham and squash risotto.

The Boy's pork chop, when it finally arrived, was juicy and delicious, seasoned with a lively five-spice blend and served with a tasty leek-and-potato cake.

Would we go back?

If this was the only Sel de la Terre in Boston, we'd give it a second chance; the quality of the cooking is high enough that we'd try again, perhaps at an earlier time (I assume it's less riotous early Sunday evening). But as we're already happy with the State Street branch, I think we'll keep that as our default. Their insanely good rosemary frites provide quite enough sensory overload.

I wrote a poem about the new Sel de la Terre. Wanna hear it? Goes like this:

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