Clio. No. 9 Park. L'Espalier. These are among the names quickly ticked off when people talk about the top restaurants in town. Why isn't Troquet more often among them? Not because of the food, which is elegant and French-inspired. ("Troquet" is French slang for a cozy bistro.) Certainly not because of the wine, which is the heart of the matter here: There are more than 40 by the glass alone, from a Hungarian furmint to Chateau d'Yquem, available in 2-ounce or 4-ounce pours. Maybe it's because the show is all in the tiny open kitchen, rather than the decor. Maybe it's because the clientele is tight-lipped - why clue people in and make it hard to get a reservation?
Today is Troquet's seventh anniversary. It earned three stars in a review when it first opened, and it earns them still. That kind of consistency is less common than it should be. But Troquet also has something new to offer, a first-floor dessert lounge called Le Patissier that opened earlier this year, and that is one reason to revisit the Theatre District restaurant. If you need more, here you go:
First there's the wine list, which changes daily depending on what co-owner Chris Campbell gets his hands on. It's replete with cult favorites and finds, but one may also snag a bottle of sauvignon blanc for $19. (Perhaps this helps explain Troquet's surprising popularity as a date spot for young couples - one Saturday night a whole wall is lined with 20-something hand-holders.) All of the bottles are priced at just $10 above retail, which makes, say, the 2005 William Fevre Chablis Les Clos a good deal at $79 - not to mention the '99 La Tache for $999 (its label has a wine stain). At either end of the spectrum, your wine will be served in the proper stemware at the proper temperature. Troquet offers safe haven amid an epidemic of red wine served far too warm. If you want to drink a high-end bottle with dinner, there may be no better place in Boston to do it.
Then, of course, there's chef Scott Hebert's food. It's hard to say whether it's the backbone supporting the wine or vice versa. Either way, the menu makes it easy to match glasses and dishes, listing harmonious pairings of appetizers, entrees, and wine. You're having a Riesling moment? Try a flight of three, from lightest to ripest; the menu will tell you they might go well with Alaskan king salmon or a Maine crab and corn bisque. A delicate crab soufflé floats in the middle of the soup, surrounded by sweet, lightly creamy bisque, tiny spheres of potato, and chive blossoms. The flavors are subtle rather than eye-opening, the M.O. of many of the dishes here: well-executed, beautifully presented, not ostentatious. The food is rich, but with an old-money modesty.
If you're craving duck confit - a superlative version with sweet-and-sour rhubarb, tiny green lentils, and skin crisp as baguette crust - the menu suggests a malbec and several cabernets that will complement it. The ease of pairing makes Troquet a wine restaurant the novice can enjoy as much as the grape geek.
Several dishes pull together multiple parts of an animal. The assiette of veal offers cheek, sweetbreads, and loin; each part is perfectly cooked, the cheek particularly good, tender, and deep in flavor. Accompaniments rotate seasonally, so on one visit it might come with spring vegetables, on another more fall-like root vegetables. The roasted suckling pig - including the loin, rib, and rillettes - is a signature dish that takes you from crisp skin to succulence, with grace notes of chipotle glaze and asiago grits.
Scallops arrive at the table piping hot from the pan (you can see your dinner being cooked if you crane your neck), yet not a hair overdone. During morel season, they're served with the mushrooms steeped in creme fraiche and butter, fat green asparagus, and skinny white asparagus. This dish exceeds your recommended daily allowance of butter, but it's worth it. Halibut is coated in Moroccan spices and is delicious, if ever so slightly dry at the center.
Not all of the food hits the mark all of the time. Poached lobster, tender and suffused with butter, is perfect; the fava bean agnolotti it comes with, unfortunately, are undercooked and hard. On one visit the suckling pig is oversalted. Bacon-wrapped sea bass looks genetically modified, the pork wrapped so tightly around the fish it appears to be one creature; the presentation is appealing, but the bacon overwhelms the fish.
The cheese makes up for any misstep: Troquet offers an array of stinky, runny selections, with accompaniments such as fresh figs, a membrillo-esque condiment made from pears (fantastic), and candied nuts, plus a basket of raisin-nut toast. As a sort of cheese subset, the butter is worth mentioning, too. It comes from Normandy and is scooped from a giant bucket onto your plate like a command: Spread the love.
And back to the sweets. Le Patissier legitimizes dessert as a course, not an afterthought, as it so often seems to be. There is a reason there are pastry chefs, after all: Not everyone can do baked goods justice. Sarah Woodfine, formerly of the White Barn Inn in Kennebunkport, Maine, takes the reins at Troquet, turning out a downstairs menu of milles-feuilles and beignets, soufflés and sticky toffee puddings. Some of these creations are also available upstairs. A fruit soufflé is elegant comfort food. On one visit it's peach, with a sugary, crunchy crust that contrasts beautifully with the eggy interior. The server breaks the crust and dollops on peach compote; there's a doll-size scoop of honey ice cream alongside. A lemon trio wins us over with its tartness: a steamed lemon pudding, a scoop of refreshing lemon-ginger sorbet, and a tiny lemon meringue tart.
The kitchen is at the top of a steep set of stairs, but you can also take the elevator up; past it is the dining room, with mirrors on dark red walls and a big poster of a monkey drinking anisette. Windows overlook the Central Burying Ground on Boston Common, originally a cemetery for the poor (if you went for the bottle of La Tache, you can go commune after dinner). At 8 p.m. on a Thursday, the dining room is half-full; French speakers are making the most of their euros, and downstairs at the bar two men in dark blue suits match each other oyster for oyster, glass of wine for glass of wine, telling stories about offering "Bob" Kraft advice that he ignored. "Next time we should skip martinis at the Bristol Lounge and just come straight here," one fellow says to the other. They should bring their friends.
Perhaps the half-full house has something to do with the frosty reception one sometimes encounters upon arrival. "Can I help you with something?" a hostess inquires dubiously on several visits. It seems fairly clear that I've arrived for dinner, not to peddle something or poach the facilities. One evening, as a staff member enters the restaurant from outside with my party behind her, she turns and sees us, and lets the door close in our faces; then, at Le Patissier, we're all but ignored as the downstairs staff socializes at the bar.
A more consistent welcome would be welcome, but once upstairs in the dining room I've always had extremely pleasant, extremely helpful service at Troquet. And when a waiter approaches with the bucket of butter, all is forgotten. There's plenty of love here to spread.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.