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DINING OUT

Fine dining's rebirth of look, cuisine

Like one of those million-dollar homes that gets a redo every couple of years, the fine-dining restaurant in the Four Seasons Hotel, Aujourd'hui, has a new look. Of course, in restaurant life this includes more than just a few new chairs or a paint touchup. The changes -- a new bar, new furnishings, and a new chef -- redefine the restaurant and are mostly for the better. The space at the front of the second-floor restaurant was always awkward. There was a little strip of a bar, with some couches across the hall-like room. If you sat at the bar or on the couches, you were right in front of the hostess welcoming guests into the restaurant, making it difficult not to feel as though you were eavesdropping. Meeting at Aujourd'hui for a drink before dinner -- who ever thought of doing that?

These days, a comfortable bar area is required, even if there's a perfectly nice one downstairs at the Bristol Lounge. Now Aujourd'hui has its own, appointed in dark mahogany and upholstered club chairs, the walls adorned with old portraits that look like they came out of a Salem mansion. It's handsome, comfortable, and not only gives Aujourd'hui a more relaxed entry point, but is a draw on its own.

On a July weeknight, less than a week before the Democratic National Convention, the dining room, refurbished in a sort of Billy Baldwin style with lots of floral prints, under- and over-skirts on the tables and plenty of flounces, is only partly filled. The manager explains to us all the details of the renovation, pointing out the recessed ceiling above us with a trompe l'oeil painting of pale blue sky and very big chickadees (the Massachusetts state bird) flying across it. Cleared of all but a couple of banquettes along two walls, the room has a new spaciousness.

Service has always been a key element here, and the team hovering around our table holds up the tradition. Dressed in black suits, the men look crisply turned out; unfortunately, the women resemble museum guards. However, their attention is finely tuned, the water glasses are never less than full, and the courses are brought seamlessly to the table. The wine list is diverse, long, and expensive.

Aujourd'hui, which no longer serves lunch, has had a succession of chefs over the years, not unusual in a large hotel chain. It has also had a variety of culinary emphases, from hints of Southwestern to Asian fusion to that amalgam called New American. Jerome Legras, the new chef with a background at the Four Seasons in Tokyo and at Le Cinq in Paris, unabashedly concentrates on French. Each plate is as intricate and well-turned out as the decor.

Subtlety of textures added to what must be the chef's fondness for gelees shows up in several appetizers. Green pea soup, gentle in flavor, is poured by the waiter over a shallot flan and a few tiny bay shrimp. The shallots in the flan have been caramelized and give the flan a richness that almost suggests duck or other rich meat. And the textural contrast, soft flan against the fairly thick soup, is interesting, especially since another chef might have contrasted a crunchy note against the soup.

A long, narrow, rectangular plate holds folds of hamachi sashimi, topped with sassafras jelly and flanked with perfect circles of cucumber, each anointed with a drizzle of wasabi cream. It's a lovely dish. The clean, bright flavor of the expertly cut fish is complemented by the herbal notes in the sassafras jelly, and citrus notes from bits of grapefruit underneath the hamachi; the cucumbers give a crisp note and the wasabi just a hint of spice. A confit of pork shank shades toward an earthier model, with the meat still on the bone. That's balanced with a leek terrine laid out like a pretty geometric puzzle.

However, Modern French, as the Four Seasons literature describes Legras's style, moves into a rarefied and slightly weird plane with an appetizer of soft shell crab mousse with lobster gelee, caviar, and lemon-thyme sorbet. The mousse, served in an ice cream sundae glass, is an apricot shade and somehow, in the confluence of all those layers of ingredients, tastes sweet (maybe the lobster gelee), as though it really was apricot. Though doing something different than breading and frying softshell crab sounds innovative, this doesn't work. All the flavors muddle together and the overall impression is unappealing.

The entrees have many elements on each plate, but are more straightforward. Sturgeon, the sturdy white filets covered with American caviar, rests in a pool of beurre blanc laced with sauteed kale. Many different shapes and shades of potatoes, sliced and chunked, surround the fish. The dish contrasts the earthy ingredients with the richness of the sauce, a sort of fancy version of a fisherman's stew.

A small chicken with a roasted breast and gently confited legs is fine, but really a dish for the timid, since all the flavors of squash, carrots, and pea tendrils fade in memory. Then again, at $30, it is the bargain of the entree prices.

Much better is a perfectly cooked beef tenderloin on a plate with carefully separated elements: the medium-rare beef, a mound of upland cress, a pyramid-shaped pile of roasted shallots, and a little row of macaroni, plain except for a glazing of Parmesan. We tend to forget that the French eat pasta, too, and this macaroni would put any low-carb ambitions to flight, so simple and so indelibly good.

A meal at Aujourd'hui goes along at a leisurely pace, so by now we're ready for the chocolate souffle ordered with the main courses. With creme anglaise poured on top, the souffle conveys a chocolate jolt along with a lovely fluffy consistency. But the more interesting dessert is a pairing of roasted cherries with long slivers of firm goat cheese, cracker-like crisps flavored with honey, and a few scoops of merlot ice cream. The barely sweet crisps and almost winey cherries bring out the grassy notes in the cheese. And the ice cream continues the theme.

For years, Aujourd'hui held the top spot in the Zagat's popularity ranking, falling down the list in the past few years, partly because the competition in fine dining has grown fierce in that time, and also because the dining public has gravitated to a more casual model. The Four Seasons is obviously setting out to push back, choosing to hew to a high-level French cuisine and raising the stakes for itself and its competition.

There are a few missteps in Legras's first menu, and it remains to be seen whether diners will choose Modern French over other cuisines and styles. But it's an intriguing gamble, and an experience worth seeking out.

Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at www.boston.com/ae/food/restaurants.

Atasca Solid starSolid star 1/2 50 Hampshire St., Cambridge. 617-621-6991. Though fish soups and hearty stews might come to mind when Portuguese fare is suggested, the traditional small plates, slightly larger than tapas portions, are a big draw at this family-run restaurant. (7/22/04)

Maxwell's 148 Solid starSolid star 148 East Central St., Natick. 508-907-6262. Italian and Asian cuisines coexist on the menu in an upscale spot. Sometimes the dishes soar, sometimes they fall. Soliticious and friendly service, however, is consistent. (7/15/04)

Piattini Solid starSolid star 226 Newbury St., Boston. 617-536-2020. Little plates are the way to go in this cozy spot on Newbury Street. Nibble sauteed shrimp and tomatoes on bruschetta and watch the fashionable world go by. (7/8/04)

Cygnet Solid starSolid star 24 West St., Beverly Farms. 978-922-9221. Combining the feeling of a neighborhood spot with sophistication in the food and wine, Cygnet manages to appeal to a wide swath of eaters. (7/1/04)

Sophia's Solid starSolid star 1/2 1270 Boylston St., Boston. 617-351-7001. Chef Jeffrey Fournier creates magic with small plates in a funky dance club. Each is intelligently composed as well as delicious. (6/17/04)

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