BY ALEX SUNDSTROM
For a place serving the country food of Provence, Sel de la Terre projects a lot of angst about its identity. One waiter will affect a thick French accent for the first half hour or so of the meal, then forget and lapse into a bland American inflection. Some manager or other is always wandering around sheepishly mumbling “Bon appetit!” at the customers. One unfortunate consequence of making pommes frites available as a side dish is that at lunch or brunch your waiter will ask you if you want fries with that – an experience I have yet to have in Provence itself.
Fortunately, the kitchen seems pretty immune from any insecurity about its Frenchness. Goat cheese is a staple in Provence, and the baked goat cheese here is just strongly-flavored enough atop arugula and pine nuts, yielding a satisfying and deftly assembled salad. Goat cheese polenta is a rich and fatty base for an entrée of lean, seared veal flank steak with a trendy addition of grilled peach. Frequently veal in restaurants is so paper-thin and bland that you don’t understand why it’s worth making cute little calves suffer; the veal here is so thick and moist as to immediately banish such concerns. The charcuterie features a very earthy white sausage of braised bacon, apples and raisins along with a creamy duck liver pate, although the country style veal pate with pistachios is disappointingly bland.
At $9 per appetizer and $23 per entrée, it is somewhat surprising that the food pales in comparison to the complimentary bread, which pairs perfect texture with very intense flavors – you can really taste the anise in the fig bread, which is liberally studded with figs, and the olive bread manages to get a lot more olive flavor across than the mere inclusion of olives in the bread would suggest. Taking a piece of this bread and slathering it with top-notch butter is pure pleasure. Master baker Michael Rhoads also makes dense, chewy baguettes that are better than anyone else in town and sells them out of the café in the restaurant’s entryway.
Unfortunately, Michael Rhoads is not the pastry chef; the desserts generally fall well short of the standard set by the bread – the crPme brulee is bland and watery and the chocolate desserts are far too sweet. The restaurant’s homemade ice creams are usually excellent and intensely fruit flavored. If you go during the day, you can grab one of the pastries at the “boulangerie” in the entryway instead – the religeuese has a pastry shell to match any éclair, and its chocolate mousse filling is far richer and more complex than the chocolate mousse dessert available at dinner.
Given the prices for dinner, the average student would probably want to come earlier, when the food is much cheaper and the bread is even fresher. The $19 prix fixe menu available on weekdays at lunch features three courses that change constantly, and are well matched to the weather. On a cold, rainy day, an excellent roasted carrot soup was followed by sage-flavored lamb sausage atop thinly sliced potatoes and yams, while scallop ceviche and grilled lamb complemented a warmer afternoon. The sandwiches ($8.50) are great; the thinly-sliced grilled chicken breast with smoked onions and avocado is nothing special conceptually, but every ingredient is perfect and it shines.
Brunch entrees ($10) falter a lot – the worst are the crepes, which are basically a thin, gummy whole-wheat casing for a massive orgy of salty ham and gruyere doused in bechamel sauce. The crepe skin quickly becomes saturated and ham-smelling, and the overall experience is similar to eating the ham, cheese and crackers from a package of Oscar Mayer’s Lunchables, only without Oscar Mayer’s delicate balancing of flavors. Smoked salmon hash is inconsistent: occasionally the large chunks of salmon are a great pairing with the mild flavors of spinach, expertly fried potatoes and béarnaise sauce, but more often they sink the dish with excess saltiness. Steak frites ($14) are also pretty terrible, with the task of chewing through the steak an unpleasant distraction from the crisp, thin fries. If you must go on weekends, the aforementioned sandwiches are the best option.
If you’re looking to eat somewhere that gives you the illusion of being whisked away to Europe, owner Frank McLelland’s other restaurant, L’Espalier, is a better bet. If you want an excellent meal served by an amiable if culturally confused staff, however, Sel de la Terre is a great choice.
Sel de la Terre
255 State St, Boston
Lunch Monday-Friday 11-2:30
Brunch Saturday-Sunday 11-2:30