The (extreme) cold has hit Boston over the past few days signalling the city to bundle up, and take all precautions to keep warm! Now I don't know about you, but a good comforting meal, and perhaps a glass or two of wine, will definitely do the trick for me- ok and a few wool sweaters. A few weeks ago I was informed that Aquitaine Bar a Vin Bistrot, a lovely French Restaurant located right on Tremont Street in the South End, had recruited a new chef, Matthew Gaudet. Last night, I decided that the perfect way to warm up was to check out Aquitaine and sample some of Chef Gaudet's well touted cuisine.
Aquitaine Bar a Vin Bistrot is part of the the Aquitaine Group, a locally based restaraunt company housing several French based restaraunts around the area including several locations of Aquitaine, as well as Gaslight Brasserie and Union Street.
Chef Gaudet is actually a Boston native who left our fair city for the excitement of New York several years ago. After holding positions under Jean George Vongerichten (Jean George's) and Marcus Samuelsson (Aquavit), he has come back now to Boston to take on the position of Chef D'Cuisine at Aquitaine. I must say-we are lucky to have him back here.
Aquitaine is a beautiful spot right in the heart of the South End. Small on size, but huge on personality, it defines a French cafe with its charm, but nicely lacks the attitude. We were greeted by the hostess who couldn't have been more charming and helpful. We were assured that we would be seated right on time for our reservation, and so as we were a few moments early, we chose to head to the bar for a drink. The information that had been sent to me on the updated Aquitaine highlighted not only that they had brought Chef Gaudet on board, but that they had redone their cocktail and beer menu. Sure enough their beer list, while small, had a great collection of micro brews, many of which from the New England area. I chose a light ale and happily sipped until our table was ready- precisely at our reserved time. I do love timeliness!
After we were seated our waiter quickly greeted us, and brought with him a lovely amuse bouche of cheese puffs served warm to the touch. These were a delight, eggy and light, with a slight kick of pepper in the background. When our waiter returned and offered us a second plate of four, we eagerly accepted. Those were too good to pass up.
As has become custom for John and I, when we see mussels on a menu, we order them. Last night was no exception. We chose their Mussels en Cassoulette, touted as being made with Sancerre wine, shallots, thyme and Creme Fraiche, for our shared first course. I have eaten a lot of mussels in my time, as first course, main course, whenever, Aquitaine's have, by a LONG shot, taken the title as my favorite of all time. The Mussels were perfectly cooked, each shell nicely opened, any questionable or non living discarded. The cooking sauce though- it was unreal. Creamy without being overpowering, a slight sweet from the wine without at all being "sweet" and the herbs were so well pronounced without over powering any of the other flavors. Thyme is one of my favorite herbs to work with, and one of my favorite to taste. Unfortunately it is incredibly delicate and can often be overshadowed. Here, the thyme was perfectly complimented, but kept its own flavor throughout. Outstanding on many levels.
As a welcome from the kitchen we were each served an interim course, after we had finally restrained ourselves from drinking the remaining mussels liquid straight from the serving pot, of a seared scallop, set on top of pureed white potatoes, surrounded with pieces of escarole, whole cranberries and a smokey squash broth. I was thrilled to have been served this as I had strongly considered it as my main course. The dish was an amazing combination of flavors. The scallop was naturally sweet and slightly salty, the base of potatoes were perfectly pureed, and a wonderful neutral backdrop to the remaining flavors which were quite interesting- the smokey broth that was also somewhat sweet from the squash, offset by the tart cranberries. A taste of each of the different components all together was, in my opinion, a masterpiece. John was a bit unsure of the broth thinking that the sweet overpowered the smokey a bit, but agreed that it was definitely an intriguing dish that pushed a few limits that normally come into play.
I had selected the braised lamb shank for my main course for several reasons- the first being that the white bean cassoulet served with it sounded perfect to fight the chill in the air, and because the orange gremolata that was described as an accompaniment sounded wonderful. The lamb shank was perfect. The meat tender, and fell cleanly away from the bone, wonderful flavors, and just so tender and moist. The gremolata, had been spooned over the top of the shank post cooking and visually added a really nice contrast for the eyes from the brown and white of the dish with the vibrant green. Not only though did it add to the visual aesthetics, but also in the olfactory sense as the savory flavors of the meat and the beans were brightened with wafts of orange. Finally the flavors played so well off of each other and really made for a wonderful condiment- a word I loathe to use for it. The beans- lest they be forgotten, had wonderful flavor and texture of their own, and had their own brightening with pieces of haricots vert throughout. A wonderful meal for a cold winters night.
John had selected the Steak Frites for his main course. The fries were perfectly fried and very tasty. The salad served on the side comprised mainly of watercress with shallots was light and really nice. It was dressed with a wonderful vinaigrette that so nicely played off of the strong flavors of the watercress. The steak itself had incredible flavor, just a hint of garlic highlighting the wonderful steak flavors. The only disappoint however was that it was a rather tough piece of meat and created a chewy texture. Given the rest of the meal, though this was rather upsetting, John was able to still rave about the flavor of the meat, and thought that the fries and the salad were quite tasty.
We couldn't pass up dessert, and settled on their Apple Tarte Tatin with Calvados Caramel and Creme Fraiche. This can really only be described as "wow". First, I have to admit, I had to look up Calvados as I was entirely unsure as to what that ingredient was. It turns out that Calvados is a type of apple brandy from the Lower Normandy region in France. What I do know, is that its addition really tied together the tarte. Apple, as it should have been, was the residing flavor throughout the dessert. The pastry was fork tender, and the caramel sauce covered the plate, aside from one perfect scoop of Creme Fraiche whose creamy white color diverted the eyes from the sea of caramel. Thinking, at first, that the Creme Fraiche was more of a garnish than anything, I started in by trying the tarte on it own with the caramel sauce. The result was sweet- not exactly too sweet, but sweet for sure, strong apple flavor, and delicate crust. And then, I started working the Creme Fraiche into my bites. The slightly sour flavor of the creme brought out a whole other dimension to the dessert. The mixture of flavors was a perfect marriage of sour and sweet. The result was a heavenly dessert, a sweet end to the meal.
Aquitaine will absolutely now join my list for French in Boston, and join it very high up. The dishes are inventive, and stimulating to the palate. The staff is friendly, knowledgeable and accessible. We had a wonderful evening, and can't wait to return.
Thank you to the folks at CBH Communications, and to Alexis and staff at Aquitaine for your help and for making Aquitaine Boston a delight.
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