Dinner at Menton: Look out, L'Espalier!
Much has already been written about the risks of opening a restaurant of any kind in the current economic climate, let alone one where the least expensive dining option, the prix fixe, is $95.
So Menton would need to have some (or all) of the attributes of Boston's already-established high-end restaurants, especially L'Espalier, to survive.
Does it? Well, let's see ...
Remember how I was all excited about Menton's butter soup? It isn't on the menu(!). I asked our server about it, and she noted that I wasn't the first to ask. So it's possible this will be available soon. Stay tuned.
We went with the four-course prix fixe, though by the end it was more like seven. We started with an amuse-bouche: a taste of parmesan pudding with young, fresh asparagus.
Oh, and we got our "first bread serving": a tiny, warm, buttery croissant drizzled with honey. (The second, of more traditional rolls — oatmeal, seven-grain, rosemary — came with the entrée.)
And then the appetizers. I had a foie gras terrine, served with muscat-infused grapes and walnuts.
And cubes of jellied something. They looked nice. They tasted nice, too.
The Boy had a fantastic winter salad that combined soft and crunchy, buttered and marinated, and a rainbow of color.
Next, The Boy chose the mullet, which essentially sat in a small pool of melted butter. But it also had fresh fava beans, so that makes it healthy.
And I went with light, airy egg custard with langoustines and a springy pea coulis.
Then the meat course. Mine was sweetbreads, slightly crisp outside and perfectly tender inside, on a bed of puréed carrot. With more carrot.
Apparently no vegetable gets out of the kitchen at Menton without being thoroughly and rigorously turned.
The Boy had a fabulous duck leg (which he described as "really salty, but good salty") on a bed of farro, balanced by a hunk of barely seared, buttery foie gras.
And then dessert — no, wait — first, a surprise cheese course!
Our server wheeled over a lorryload of interesting cheeses, and we chose three: Equinox, a hard goat cheese from the oldest cheese co-op in Vermont; Mil Ovejas, a sheep (obvy) cheese similar to Manchego; and Délice de Bourgogne, a buttery triple-cream cow.
To accompany, there were sourdough crackers, honey, cashews and the most fabulous, marmaladey, apricot chutney. And also a tiny taste of Maury, a French dessert wine that was similar to a port, but lighter and slightly tart, and went perfectly with both the triple-crème and the apricots.
Apparently this was to make up for the lack of butter soup; a nice, noteworthy customer-service gesture.
The couple at the next table also got cheeses and dessert wine. This may have been because they asked questions about the beautiful Zalto wine glasses; the server not only knew a ton about the stemware, but also brought out a selection for them to examine.
The moral here is to be inquisitive at Menton. Best outcome: you get cheese. Worst-case scenario: you learn something.
And then dessert. For me, rhubarb clafoutis. I'm so used to rhubarb being served as a highly sugared, stewed pulp that this was a lovely surprise; it was lightly cooked and held its innate tart crunch. And the scoop of orange-blossom cream was a nice touch.
The Boy, not usually one for chocolate, had a creamy chocolate-coffee parfait, which came with a warm, fragrant financier and a deep chocolate gelato.
But wait, there's more: a delicate glass bowl of teeny-tiny macaroons. Basil, black olive, vanilla, pink peppercorn. The last were the best.
On the food front, Menton is absolutely capable of holding its own against L'Espalier and the like. It's inventive without being outré; rich, but not overwhelming.
The attention to detail comes through not just in the plating of the food — shape and color is as important as flavor — but also in the presentation: sauces are poured at the table, rather than beforehand in the kitchen. While replenishing water, servers hold a cloth between guest and glass to prevent splashing.
The big difference between Menton and L'Espalier is in the noise level. Maybe we were just there on a particularly rowdy night, or perhaps we just got unlucky with the nearby table of older ladies, who were ploughing through the champagne choices while holding forth on flatulence, waxing, and lesbianism.
This says more about the atmosphere than the crowd. While L'Espalier is formal, hushed and genteel, Menton feels closer to Craigie: there's more energy and vibrance.