Cannes is known for its film festival, its beaches and balmy climate, its glamour and the matching price tag. It's not particularly known for its food.
Newbury Street is significantly less beachy, but it has its own brand of glamour, and its matching price tag. It also is not particularly known for its food.
But it now has one up on Cannes. La Voile ("the sail"), a new brasserie on Newbury Street, relocated from the French city in October. There it was called La Voile au Vent; the owners, lured to Boston by an American sailor friend, packed up many of the recipes, chef Sam Boussetta, and some of the decor, and moved everything here. I'm not sure why La Voile lost its "wind" along the way - maybe the staff couldn't bear to hear people rhyming it with "cent" - but it certainly didn't lose its steam.
As soon as the restaurant opened, people took notice. Chowhound posters raved about delicious dishes and reasonable prices. The place was busy every night. "There's real French food on Newbury Street!" a Back Bay-dwelling friend shouted at me in excitement after her first dinner there. So, sorry Cannes. You've got plenty of real French food, even if it's not what you're known for. We need La Voile more.
"Bon soir!" the staff greets you as you walk in, and it's not pure affectation. This is French soil, home ground for those seeking gastronomical asylum from American cheese and oak-bomb chardonnay, and some staff members seem to still be mastering English. (On a recent visit, there is one lone non-French waiter - "I'm from Vermont," he confesses.) As you take your seat, it's hard to miss the alluring cheese cart with a small selection of tomme de Savoie, camembert, and the like - nothing too far out of the ordinary, but an array pleasingly diverse in style. (The wine list, too, is all French.)
You will eat richly here, in a room filled with dark wood, mirrors, and nautical touches: photographs of boats, model ships, French verse about the ocean paint ed on the walls. Staff members sweep in with appetizers - ravioli, fish soup, foie gras creme brulee - and the man delivering a plate of monolithic bones filled with marrow sets it down with a chuckle. "Enjoy your cholesterol," he says, then relents. "No, no, it's good fat."
Good fat indeed. The flavor is clean, like a gentle beef broth, not at all gamey. The ravioli are tiny, filled with cheese and topped with a swoosh of pesto; in the thinnest of cream sauces, they are rich but surprisingly light. Or they would be if there weren't so many of them. Many appetizer portions here are big enough for a meal - the scallop salad, seared shellfish with cider vinegar, surrounded by greens, would make a lovely supper on its own.
The subtle flavor of the foie gras custard is nearly overwhelmed by the layer of crunchy sugar on top, crisped slightly too long. Beneath the sweetness, though, it's divine. Country pate, however, is served too cold: The taste is insipid where it should be bold. It's an unexpected disappointment.
The fish soup, a dish so easy to be disappointed by, is an unexpected delight. It's a thin brown liquid served in a large white vat. But don't judge by its bland appearance - the broth is heady with intense fish and shellfish flavor, slightly warm in the mouth without being truly spicy. Traditional toasts, shredded cheese, and garlicky rouille are served alongside, but even without them, each bite tastes as good as the last. It's the sort of food that can bring you back to life after a long, hard day at work.
And an entree of sweetbreads is the sort of food that will tuck you into bed a little later. Don't eat this if you need to get anything accomplished after - it's a huge serving of velvety offal poached and then braised in cream sauce with a generous serving of morels. The sauce is ridiculously rich and satisfying, and the sweetbreads melt in the mouth, but it's the morels that put the dish over the top. They're tender and grit-free, their crevices infused with cream.
For more on the cream front, there are mussels in a cream broth with frites maison. Plump, sweet, and briny, they come in a black, ovoid Staub mussel pot, one of the world's most aesthetically pleasing vessels. There's a built-in strainer partition, which keeps a pool of sauce mussel-free for easy dipping. The Staub website says the pot holds up to 2 pounds of mussels, and ours is overflowing. The frites, however, are bland, stubby potato fingers that wouldn't be hard to improve upon.
Dover sole is deboned at the table, its head and spine handily dispensed with by our waiter. But there the drama ends - the fish is served textbook style, a la meuniere with a boiled potato. There's nowhere to hide with this preparation, and our fish is on the slimy side, a texture not helped by the slick of butter coating its flesh. (This fish is also known as "slime sole," but that's supposed to be a reference to its outside.)
At $44, by far the most expensive entree, the fish is easily outdone by the roasted chicken, at $18 one of the least expensive. It's prepared simply, using the recipe from Paris restaurant L'Ami Louis (famed for its roast chicken) - a free-range bird, a few herbs, crispy skin, juicy meat. Just what you want from roast chicken, with a little cocotte of creamy mashed potatoes alongside.
If you don't finish with cheese (you can have it for dessert or as an appetizer), a cake topped with Armagnac-soaked prunes and cinnamon ice cream is a good choice. The temptingly named "Celebrated Vanilla Cream Pastry of Saint Tropez" - is it a showgirl or a dessert? - is not. The vanilla cream is scant, and it glues together two layers of a strange cake that ought to be brioche but has the texture of a stale, crunchy doughnut.
It may be celebrated in Saint-Tropez, but we're on Newbury Street, where those who live and work finally have a neighborhood restaurant worth getting excited about. That's something we can celebrate here.