A true bistro, but with a French soul
How does a kid growing up in a family of ranchers in the mountains of Wyoming wind up with the soul of a French chef? Through some sort of Dalai Lama-esque reincarnation, perhaps. This is what seems to have happened to Jason Bond of Beacon Hill Bistro. Paul Bocuse is happily still alive, or I might pinpoint him as the one - Bond's comfort with embracing tradition or poking holes in it, his market-driven cooking and grasp of technique, seem inherited from "the grumpy pope of French cuisine," as Alain Ducasse once described Bocuse in Time magazine.
This isn't a restaurant that throws around the word "bistro." It really is one - a narrow little strip of a space lined with simple dark green banquettes, black and white tiles on the floor, a chalkboard spelling out upcoming themes for Monday wine dinners. The fare is moderately priced, with entrees in the $20s and a nice chunk of the wine list under $50 per bottle. Currently, there's a "Local for the Locals" prix fixe available at $25 for two courses and $32 for three, and those wine dinners are $55 for four courses, pairings included.
Some of the dishes are eternal, solid as an old chair with armrests burnished by elbows, the legs creaking pleasantly under your weight - pate, duck confit, steak frites. They match the appealing out-of-time feeling of the restaurant and the Beacon Hill Hotel it's part of, two renovated townhouses from the 1800s. When you enter, there's a little curved desk behind which the hostess stands; one recent night it holds a package, as if for a guest who, quaintly, resides in one of the upstairs rooms. A clock ticks away on the wall.
The steak frites is one of those dishes that, when a waiter walks past with it and the olfactory trail hits your table, either crushes you or confirms your ineffable wisdom, depending on whether you ordered it. It's a strip steak, so it's tender rather than onglet-chewy, which will appeal to some and turn off others: the great steak frites divide. On this issue I'm Switzerland, and this steak pleases thoroughly, cooked just to medium-rare and juicy, topped with melted herb butter. The frites are crisp, slender, and golden - in the McDonaldian vein, which, admit it, you love.
Bond - who has also cooked at the likes of No. 9 Park, the Inn at Little Washington, and L.A. Burdick - is a longtime student of charcuterie. (He's been at Beacon Hill Bistro since 2006; the Globe last reviewed the restaurant in 2001, too long ago given Bond's talent and culinary thoughtfulness.) The pate du chef changes frequently, and all the selections are made in-house. A rustic pork terrine one night is served far too cold, so much so that it's difficult to slice, much less really taste. But another evening, a duck liver pate is silky, smooth, and delicious. It comes with several excellent mustards, cornichons, and a sort of dried-fruit chutney made from figs and apples.
Other dishes are classics folded up like origami to make something new - a beet salad to wake up the bored diner, arriving at the table as nicely dressed greens beside a piece of crimson pie: the roots sliced thin, then layered with creme fraiche and eggs and cut into triangular wedges. Its texture approaches that of a sweet omelet at a sushi shop, dense but springy.
Duck is cured in Hu-Kwa tea. The meat is beautifully tender, slightly smoky from the tea, with crisp, dark-brown skin. It's served with Brussels sprouts that have been braised with guanciale, the brassica deeply infused with the flavor of pork, as well as reddish-brown roots. What are they? Salsify cooked with red wine. The dish is unusual yet within French parameters, with a nod to local history. Hu-Kwa was the brew of choice at exclusive Beacon Hill tea parties a century ago.
Nantucket diver scallops are overwhelmed visually by the pool of jade green sauce in which they're served; this is billed as an herb broth but is more of a puree, tasting faintly of mint. The presentation seems dated; one wants a cleaner look on the plate. But once you taste the scallops it doesn't matter anymore. They are wonderful, charred on the edges and sweet, like the best thing you've ever eaten at a seaside summer cookout. A ragu of wild mushrooms completes the dish.
Striped bass has impeccably crispy skin, the flesh flavored subtly with fresh bay leaves. Bronze fennel and Macomber turnips are the earth elements here, and picholine olives and the zest and juice of the citrus bergamot (more tea allusions) their counterpoints. It's a harmonious dish, with no one flavor dominating.
And then there are dishes freshly conceived. Vegetable herb broth with diced roots and spring nettle raviolini sounds tonic and spare, but the broth turns out to be incredibly round and deep. The raviolini are flat tablets of tender pasta filled with a tangle of the green nettles and ricotta, light and wonderful.
Lasagna comes in the form of a tall cylinder rather than a flat brick, and it's as far removed from the standard in taste as it is in shape. The herbed noodles are wrapped around sweet root vegetables with mustard cream, tiny lentils pooling around the lasagna, and pea greens lending the taste of spring. All the pasta is made in-house.
Dessert is a coda paralleling the menu. Classic: a cheese plate, a straightforward lemon tart. Not-quite-classic: a walnut tart, a wonderfully simple and buttery little cake served with Armagnac ice cream; creme brulee flavored with Earl Grey tea. Like nothing you've had in a bistro before: a house-made graham cracker with a molten chocolate-and-marshmallow cake and banana ice cream. In other words, a really good s'more.
Service is always competent, but ranges from good to somewhat inattentive, in real bistro fashion. One night, we wait and wait for water while our waiter chats with other staffers on the other side of the partition beside us; another we order duck confit with grits and collards, but the waiter arrives at our table with a special of crab, grits, and sorrel. The confit's not available, but they'd already made the crab dish, and would we be interested in it? Why not, as it's at our table. The crab is OK, though more meat would be nice and the flavor of red peppers dominates; when we get our bill, the confit charge is on there. It's the same price as the crab dish, and we did eat the crab, but it also wasn't what we'd wanted. Some would have comped the dish.
Beacon Hill Bistro represents a cultural crossroads, bringing together Brahmins, younger neighborhood residents at the bar (there's a gas fireplace, very appealing on chilly nights), and a panoply of tourists. This results in amusing eavesdropping and people-watching: Who is that conservative-looking guy talking about Germaine Greer, kitchen remodeling, sex, and the songs of World War I? How does that woman get her hair to resemble a tall pouf of gray cotton candy?
The one thing they may have in common is an appreciation of Bond's elevated yet still-honest bistro fare. When searching for the soul of French cuisine in Boston, don't pass Beacon Hill Bistro by.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.