es Zygomates is a labyrinth of French pleasures. Frites, frites, frites fly out of the kitchen; posters celebrate Tai ">
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Les Zyg beckons; the fries are French

Email|Print| Text size + By Amy Graves and Joe Yonan
March 14, 2003

Les Zygomates is a labyrinth of French pleasures. Frites, frites, frites fly out of the kitchen; posters celebrate Taittinger and other spirits; a hostess chats away on the telephone in nasally Francais. The zinc bar on the cafe side has one of those ladders fixed on wheels that roll past stacks of wine bottles - our kind of library. Then there's a little warren of booths in the back, a hallway to more dining rooms, and another bar.

They're smoking, drinking, and singing the blues at this bar on the jazz side of Les Zyg on a Friday night. The mood is anything but indigo, however, as a skinny singer in suit and sunglasses belts one out a la John Lee Hooker.

After months of renovations, a sparkling new bar rail and some banquette seating now separate the dining area from the bar scene. The rail has a glass divider, decked in red lights, that looks suspiciously like a sneeze guard at a salad bar, only it's upright.

It does the trick. "A standing bar crowd really couldn't exist because then the diners at the tables lining the bar had someone's rear end in their face," the chef-owner Ian Just said.

Having failed to make a reservation, we dine on the cafe side. The place is jammed; the staff fans out in all directions. Our unsmiling garcon, a man beautiful enough to have his own reality TV show, is ready for our order.

But, noticing that we are perusing the bar menu - a list of snacks for $7 each - he leans in to caution us: "Just to let you know, you can't order that at the table."

We had just wanted to check out the drinks. And lucky for us, we can have one of those. When our waiter describes an espresso orange martini, Cointreau and espresso in a chilled martini glass, we take the bait.

We send it down the hatch with a dozen oysters and a plate of escargots, meaty nuggets drowned in butter. Joe helpfully demonstrates how to mash pieces of crusty French bread into the snails' cups to capture the remaining garlicky butter.

Crisp haricots verts with whipped creme fraiche arrive with a plate of short ribs; they are perfectly French and hard to match this side of the pond. The entrecote is a tad past medium rare, but the accompanying pureed carrots taste wonderfully decadent. And while the steak is a bit chewy, the frites are everything they ought to be, crisp and seasoned.

Tarte Tatin disappoints, with mealy apples and mushy crust. Joe declares it a travesty of the classic, named for the Tatin sisters who dropped their tart, which is why it is served upside-down. Chocolate fondue makes up for this.

Les Zyg can be addictive, and when we return with a friend on a weeknight, Christine, the bartender, greets us as friends. She asks what we like for wine, instead of the standard "what'll you have." We want something very red and very French, but a Chateau de Pommard doesn't go with our un-French snacks: hummus with olives and shrimp shu mai, dumplings that were served fried here.

The bar menu, unveiled last summer, offers the rare opportunity to have a glass of vino that costs twice as much as what you're eating. We assume that the kitchen isn't trying to feed us properly with anything on this list: a cheese plate, frites, charcuterie, shrimp, the hummus, and the shu mai.

Just acknowledges that it isn't all French: "French food doesn't lend itself very well to bar food. ... I'm in Chinatown, so we got these cool shrimp and shu mai and we get the products here."

The frites are a must-have. "So many people asked for them all day long when they weren't even on the menu, so I just put it on," he says. "I didn't go to cooking school to make fries all day long, but that's what I seem to do."

That Just is a snarky one, and his next plan is a party to send up the impending smoking ban for Boston restaurants, which goes into effect on May 5. "We were aggravated that it came to this," he says, so on May 4, he'll serve smoked salmon, smoked antipasto, a cherry-smoked pork chop, sirloin with smokey bacon, and blow-torched creme brulee, among other things.

A "scantily clad" cigarette matron will troll the room with free cigarettes, rolling papers, tobacco, and cigars out of a box, and the restaurant will make a donation to the American Cancer Society.

LES ZYGOMATES

Cuisine: French

Address: 129 South St., Boston

Phone: 617-617-5108

Hours: Lunch and dinner weekdays; dinner only Sat.; closed Sun.

Prices: $18-$25

Comments: Reservations preferred.

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