Menton is Boston chef-restaurateur Barbara Lynch’s latest fine dining venture. The website mentions that it is “a blend of French discipline and Italian passion,” and while I’m not particularly fond of Italian cuisine, I was curious to see how the tasting menu would manage to balance both sensibilities. The critical response has been quite effusive and since opening in 2010, the restaurant has been showered with accolades; it has been awarded 5 diamonds from AAA, 5 stars from the Forbes Travel Guide, and was a James Beard Finalist for Best New Restaurant. It is also part of the Relais and Chateaux guide. I figured that Menton would be interesting because while it is new, the chef-owner is probably the best-known chef in the city. With this in mind, I ambitiously scheduled the Chef’s Tasting on the same day as my extended lunch tasting at L’Espalier.
Menton is located in the Fort Point neighborhood and while I understand the area is up-and-coming, the stately façade still felt a bit out of place. With an early, 6:00 reservation I was the first diner to arrive and was seated in a nice window-side two-top in the corner. The dining room is fairly small, although tables are spaced far apart, as they should be for a restaurant of their price point. I was immediately taken by the décor, particularly the way it manufactures a sense of stately Boston elegance; the black wooden chairs and light fixtures were classy, and the chandelier a dramatic centerpiece.
Immediately after seating, I was greeted by the sommelier, who also doubled as my captain. His obsequious demeanor rubbed me the wrong way; he mentioned that he has worked for Barbara Lynch for 9 years now (having been at No. 9 Park previously) and while his admiration for Lynch was evident, his blatantly sycophantic conduct (grinning from ear to ear, glowingly referring to Lynch as “Barbara”) wasn’t very genuine. To his credit, though, he was aware of my scallop allergy and that I had noted in my reservation that I would be ordering the Chef’s Tasting. Menton is following the lead of some avant-garde restaurants in that the extended tasting has an open-ended structure; the diner is presented with a template of ingredients and mentions whether any of them are disagreeable. I requested a substitute for the “Heritage Pork” and with that, the meal began.
The canapés portion of the menu set a sloppy tone that would continue for the rest of the meal. There were six canapés (presented one after the other) and three of them were brought before I’d even had the chance to consume the previous one. The staff seemed to have difficulty communicating amongst one another concerning my completion of each offering. Consequently, the pacing made it quite difficult to engage with the meal on my terms—clearly, they have little consideration for those of us who like to take pictures and notes. The rushed pacing also created a contrast between the fancy culinary presentations and the incompetence of the waitstaff. One of my favorite aspects of restaurants is the way they negotiate the structural components of the experience—the cuisine, service, and décor—and my favorite meals are invariably those that are able to arrive at a polished level of synchronization between these elements. Needless to say, the meal’s opening chapter established a structural incoherence that was never resolved.
The first item to arrive was a cube of hamachi, wasabi, and cucumber, presented on a slab of pink marble. I didn’t care for this opening, not so much for the taste but because it had little relation to the French-Italian approach espoused on the website.
Next was a macaron made from carrot and filled with goat cheese. Not only was I brought this before I’d tasted the hamachi, but to make matters worse, the server who brought it seemed to have no idea that the pacing was rushed. She was very amateurish, and while this isn’t entirely her fault (she was nice, just poorly trained), her lack of intuition and basic knowledge about the cuisine was jarring. When I mentioned that the macaron seemed like a reworking of a mignardise service, she replied with the mechanical response that this was a canapé course and that the mignardise service would be at the end.
Third was a corn madeleine made from Anson Mills corn meal and topped with crème fraiche and caviar. When I asked where they sourced the caviar, my server had no idea, and she came back and told me “Browne Trading Company.” I am familiar with Browne Trading Company as it is located in Portland, ME, but it’s unfathomable to me that she would tell me the name of the purveyor rather than the location from which the caviar was sourced. So, this necessitated another trip to the kitchen, after which she told me that it was California white sturgeon caviar. Again, the lack of basic knowledge was a real shock in the context of a restaurant with such acclaim.
I was criminally rushed through the final three canapés and actually neglected to take a picture of the final one. At any rate, the final three were: “Chestnut Veloute, Chive”; “Potato Crisp, Dehydrated Vegetables”; and “Butternut Squash, Ricotta & Pear.”
The amuse bouche was “Butter Soup,” presented by my captain as “Barbara’s signature dish.” In the shallow bowl were lobster tail, littleneck clams, white sturgeon caviar, and tasteless foam; the buttery broth was poured tableside. Foam aside, I really enjoyed this. I don’t always enjoy courses that feel like an overload of rich/fatty flavors as it can feel like a cheap tactic, but the lobster had a soft texture and went well with the butter/caviar.
Before the first course, a mini croissant was offered and it was outstanding. While I hoped that this might portend more bread pairings (a la Charlie Trotter’s), this was not the case as a few minutes later I was introduced to the bread man wielding a fairly generic basket filled with cold, mediocre offerings. There were baguette, pretzel roll, and caraway seed roll.
Course one was a substitution for the scallops that are normally served. I received “Yellowfin Tuna: Fava Bean, Boqueron, gribiche.” The tuna was seared in hay and cooked to a nice, cool temperature. The mustard-caper sauce was in fact similar to a sauce gribiche but without the egg. This course was terrific; the execution was precise and conceptually it combined elements of French and Italian cuisine.
Next was “Hake: Cracked Wheat, Lardo, Chantarelle.” The decision to use hake was risky as it runs the risk of being bland. The cracked wheat sauce and white ham were ostensibly an attempt to counteract this, but the sauce was bland and the end result was disappointing.
The meal then took a detour away from substantial proteins and I received “Matsutake Mushroom: Octopus, Daikon, Perilla.” A mushroom broth was poured tableside. The broth tasted watered down and this dish would have been more successful if the octopus had been allowed to be the star. As it was, the ingredients never gelled. A potential obstacle to deviating from the traditional tasting format is that if the experimentation isn’t justified, the narrative of the meal can lose focus. This issue is really no different from a film that subverts a particular genre or casts an actor against type; if it works, the payoff is great and the ceiling is higher, but the finished product must be engaging or it runs the risk of being alienating.
After finishing this course, I overheard one of the female captains berating a food runner for not yet having cleared my plate. This was off-putting since said runner hadn’t committed any offence. I understand that many people wouldn’t have been bothered by this at all, but having worked in a restaurant I sympathized with him—this was just another example of the faulty communication that pervaded the meal. A restaurant should never make the service look hard and this was certainly a problem. I never want to see the ‘inner workings’ of the restaurant unless it is organically tied to the meal, as is the case with kitchen tables or restaurants like Alinea that deliberately bring the chef out into the dining room to prepare a course. When I watch I film, I get a ‘guilty pleasure’ from observing instances that seem like technical mishaps, but I don’t feel the same way with regard to restaurants–hearing the conversation between the waitstaff was extremely uncomfortable and made me feel sorry for the mistreated food runner.
The fourth course was “Quadrucci: Honey Crisp, Apple, Mascarpone.” I was anticipating a sweet flavor profile but the quadrucci somehow wound up overwhelming the other components. The fibrous starchiness of the pasta was also too similar to the mushrooms in the preceding course.
The first meat course was “Seared Foie Gras de Canard: Preserved Cherry, Black Pepper, Brioche.” The execution here was quite nice, although it had the cloying sweetness that I don’t like with hot foie gras preparations. I understand that the (heavier) seared preparation allows them to serve the foie later in the meal, but I would have preferred it if they’d served a terrine or torchon and situated it near the beginning.
For the first substantial meat course I was served Hare Roulade (shown left, below). This was the worst meat course in recent memory as the jackrabbit was way overcooked and impossible to chew. Hare is a difficult meat to cook and would take a more nuanced kitchen to prepare successfully. As it was inedible, I sent it back. To my dismay, the replacement was rabbit loin with parsley, garlic, and snail. The spring preparation was out of season and I suspect little effort went into the conception—in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they simply recycled their spring offering. However, this was at least palatable even if difficult to appreciate from a conceptual standpoint.
My heavy meat course was “Lamb: Smoked Pepper, Sourdough, Tomato.” There was a lamb duo, with loin and braised shoulder. The peppers didn’t taste smoked and were diced, as in an Argentine salsa. I enjoyed both variations although the choice to serve raw tomatoes doesn’t make sense to me; ultimately, the accompaniments were too light for my taste.
By this point it was almost 8:00 and the dining room was almost filled to capacity, this despite the fact that it was on the same night as the presidential debate. Unfortunately, the atmosphere became grating. My insufferable, heavily-boozed neighbors couldn’t figure out how to read a prix fixe menu and mocked it. Their conduct with the sommelier was alarmingly sophomoric, highlighted by one exchange in which they (playfully) questioned his masculinity. The contrast in atmosphere between the beginning and end of the meal was remarkable, an example of the extent to which the clientele can shape the experience.
Before the dessert my captain stopped by and asked if I’d like any selections from the cheese cart as a supplement. This was irritating as I was already paying a great deal for the extended tasting and didn’t appreciate being faced with another expense. I understand that their cheese program is a source of pride for them and I think it would behoove them to either include it in the tasting or feature one selection via a composed cheese course. If I’d enjoyed the meal more I probably would have sprung for the cheese cart, but I didn’t care to prolong my time in the unappealing environment.
The pre-dessert was a scoop of coconut sorbet resting on huckleberries and shiso. I had forgotten to let them know that I don’t usually consume coconut milk, although the portion was small enough that it wasn’t a major issue
Although I wasn’t keen on spending too much longer, I was nevertheless surprised to learn that there was only one proper dessert. The night’s selection was “Butter Pear Cake: Bayerischer Blue, Muscat, Caramelized Honey.” I did not enjoy this, in large part because I don’t care for blue cheese but also because serving the honey in cubed form prevented it from properly integrating with the cake, which wound up being dry. A liquor would have worked well in adding some depth, as would incorporating additional savory spices/ingredients. At any rate, this was not a dramatic end to the meal and it was difficult to consume without feeling as though there was a heavier dessert to follow. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that the tasting menu at No.9 Park, Barbara Lynch’s other restaurant, also offers just one dessert in its tasting menu.
Mignardises arrived in two presentations. First were apple pate de fruit, coffee cremeux, and chocolate almond roca. A quartet of miniature macarons were delivered with the bill.
I was unimpressed with Menton; obviously, I may have dined on an ‘off night,’ but it was remarkable just how incoherent the restaurant was. Specifically, there was no rhyme or reason to the courses or the progression of the tasting. Every meal (or book, or film) has to have some narrative or stylistic calculus structurally unifying it, and there was none in this meal. It is surprising to me that Barbara Lynch is so renowned in Boston as I couldn’t locate any defining style, either with regard to ingredients or to plating compositions. While the canapés and mignardises were plated similarly, the motif was not carried through in the main courses. There seemed to be very little intentionality behind the progression; most of the courses were not intuitively placed and seemed very arbitrary in their selection. The execution in the hare dish was also appalling and its replacement was out of season.
The service was also fairly pathetic for a restaurant at this price point. Everyone I encountered was either a toady or an automaton. I have rarely dined in a restaurant that made service look so difficult and this was particularly noticeable in contrast with the engaging service from my meal at L’Espalier hours earlier. There was no polish to the operation and it felt as though the waitstaff never managed to operate in synch. Servers were unprepared for basic questions concerning ingredients and I suspect that they are simply accustomed to catering to Barbara Lynch’s local fans.
I always consider the structure of a meal to involve food, décor, and service, the three of which form a “triad of meaning” with regard to the meal as a whole. If one of these components disappoints, the experience can be recuperated if another component truly excels. However, by the end of the meal I was underwhelmed by all three. To be fair, there were a couple of tasty items (the amuse bouche and the tuna dish, as well as the croissant) but otherwise, everything seemed scattershot. That Barbara Lynch was already a local celebrity before the restaurant ever opened suggests that perhaps the restaurant was preeminently guaranteed of glowing reviews by virtue of her fame and that perhaps people aren’t approaching it with the critical eye they’d otherwise apply. It is worth considering that the restaurant is still quite young and with room to grow, although I can’t see myself spending another evening there.