As I walked down the stairs into La Voile, the new French-Mediterranean brasserie on Newbury Street, I noticed I was close on the heels of two men speaking French, which I took as a good sign. Then one of them stopped to hold the door for me - an even better sign.
La Voile on the inside turned out to be much like it was on the outside that night: charming, intimate, authentic.
We started in the small bar area, enjoying glasses of scrumptious Bordeaux while a man ate foie gras and chicken pate next to us at the scratched metal bar. It's OK, he reassured us, I have low cholesterol. Good for him, bad for the force-fed goose.
Our reservation was accidentally recorded for the next night, but we got a table without much trouble thanks to the dazzlingly handsome maitre d'. La Voile means "the sail," and there is boating paraphernalia everywhere in the cozy dining room: model sailboats in glass display cases, pictures of sailboats, poetry about the sea written on the walls. Even the light fixtures are from an old ship.
Our waiter asked if we would prefer it if he spoke in French, and we really wished we did, because we could tell he would have preferred it. He brought out an amuse-bouche of salami and sausage and puff pastry with anchovies and tapenade, and we were in heaven. The appetizers were not as satisfying, though. The endive salad had explosive bites of Roquefort cheese in little endive boats, but the apples and walnuts didn't taste like much of anything. Ditto for the emulsion of French green lentils and roasted lobster. Once the bits of lobster were gone, the lentils just sat there like a bowl of bland gravy.
The tables all around us were full, and some of the parties seemed to know one another, lending the room the feel of a neighborhood favorite - an unusually chummy atmosphere for a brand-new restaurant. One of the owners was working the room, checking plates as they emerged from the kitchen and deboning fish tableside. Someone asked him about Cannes, where he owned La Voile au Vent, the restaurant upon which La Voile was modeled. The chef, as well as a waiter, came from the longtime and now-closed Cannes establishment to open the Boston restaurant.
We must admit that the main reason we ordered the grilled Mediterranean sea bass was to watch it be deboned with a fork and spoon at our table, and we were happy we did. It was fresh and flavorful, and accompanied by a little cocotte of snow peas, carrots, and Brussels sprouts. One bite of the steak frites revealed the meat to be a little cold, and the fries a little mushy, but once the buttery sauce was located, its prospects greatly improved. Not so quickly salvageable was the bouillabaisse, which was a bit fishy and had a disappointing thick brown base. This was the saffron broth the menu promised?
We scraped up every bit of the gooey warm chocolate cake, which came with a tiny, tasty dish of pistachio ice cream, but the napoleon "minute" with raspberries, made with layers of thin pastry and creamy pudding, didn't leave much of an impression.
The whole meal had a rustic feel, right down to the bread for the table, which was teeth-crackingly crunchy and came in a cloth bag with what we thought were marbles sewn into the bottom. It turned out they were cherry pits that had been warmed in the microwave to keep the bread warm - a thoughtful touch.
There were a lot of thoughtful touches at La Voile, come to think of it. The model sailboats, the leisurely yet attentive service - and not an ounce of pretension to be had. The food didn't blow us away, but we liked the place so much it almost didn't matter.
La Voile, 261 Newbury St., 617-587-4200. lavoileboston.net. Entrees $15-$43. Wines by the glass $5-$14 .