Where did the evening at Menton first start to go awry? The opinions among our group of six differed as we began dissecting the meal outside on the sidewalk right afterward. One person mentioned the awkward lag time before a proper greeting: It was 9:15 on a Saturday when we were seated, and the night's service was at its apex. Brazilian samba bounced overhead. (The playlist soon mellowed to Snow Patrol and then somnambulant jazz.) We sat in the center of the boardroom-gone-glamorous, watching the staff deliver entrees or desserts in synchronized sweeps to other tables, or dole out creamy slivers from the cheese cart. Ten minutes later, when we were beginning to mutter about flagging someone down, a server finally approached us.
It was a clanging start, certainly. But we eventually received our share of steady, lavished attention. No, for me, the dinner's patchiness started with a friend's plate of hiramasa (yellowtail kingfish) crudo during the first of the prix fixe menu's four courses. It tasted fishy enough that she didn't want to eat it. I took a bite and agreed. The dish also included uni and lardo; the menu didn't list them and it probably should have. Perhaps they're meant to be luxury surprises, but sea urchin and cured fatback are, for many palates, make or break ingredients. And, in this instance, their emphatic presence only magnified the fish's pungency.
It was, of course, a shame we were debating the meal's sundry flaws at all. I clearly caught Menton at a transitional moment. It opened in 2010 in the burgeoning Fort Point district (part of the South Boston Waterfront) as the French-Italian crown glory of the Barbara Lynch Gruppo, which includes eight culinary businesses around the city. Lynch, who won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur this year, is one of Boston's most respected chefs, deservedly. Her South End paean to pork, The Butcher Shop, is a favorite stopover for charcuterie and pâté, and I lunched happily earlier on that Saturday at her bustling seafood bar, B&G Oysters.
In April, Menton lost its chef de cuisine, Top Chef winner Kristen Kish, who'd been in the kitchen less than a year but who'd worked for Lynch since 2010. Scott Jones—another longtime employee who was previously chef de cuisine at Lynch's flagship, No. 9 Park—took the reins.
The plates that Jones and his kitchen sent out as part of the four-course, $95 tasting menu (there is also the option of a chef's tasting for $155) were picturesque sculptures of color and geometry. At times the flavor combinations lived up to the visuals. Fresh and fried, almond-stuffed cherries buddied up nicely to a creamy round of foie gras torchon, encircled with duck rillettes and splashed with sherry vinaigrette for sweet-sour contrast. A roasted quail entree most embodied the restaurant's efforts to marry French and Italian cuisines. The plate held ponds of a Ligurian-inspired sauce that melded red wine, chicken livers, foie gras, spices, and yogurt. Chickpea farinata (a small, crisp pancake popular as a snack in Genoa) cradled grilled escargot and was used to prop the bird into various states of repose, like avian Renoir models.
But for every one dish that clicked, there were two that didn't square. Sometimes it was the composition: The chopped fresh legumes (garbanzos, peas, favas) under chilled Maine lobster had a shade too much crunch, and dots of spiced date puree distracted from the lobster's own natural sweetness. Parisian gnocchi, the version made from pâté à choux and then browned, begged for richness in their leading roll. Instead they were relegated to supporting players—fancy croutons, essentially, among crisp radicchio, chanterelle mushrooms, dabs of chickpea puree, and cherries with pickled mustard seeds. Others pointed to execution issues: While cappellacci—pretty, fluted-edged pasta filled with pine nuts and goat cheese—came off as under-seasoned, roasted halibut arrived salty enough that my tablemate didn't take more than a couple forkfuls.
That was two dishes left uneaten, and it sent the service staff into high gear. In both cases Meredith Gallagher, one of this year's Eater Young Guns, leaned in discretely to ask if the guest would like another dish instead. When they both politely declined, our server brought out a complimentary bottle of red wine (we'd already consumed two bottles). He was a man who refused hospitality defeat: His ebullience approached mania, with a level of energy that brought to mind Kathy Najimy's nun character in Sister Act. The wine was lovely, as was a plate of cheese we shared, but it didn't make up for the ensuing desserts: A tough little sticky bun surrounded by apricots and fig was particularly disappointing. I was looking less for fireworks than for basic comfort at that point.
Since Menton regularly earns some of the industry's most stratospheric awards, I must have caught Jones when he was still calibrating his style to the restaurant. But what's happening behind the scenes doesn't matter when six people walk out the door wishing they had made dinner reservations elsewhere that night.