In the spirit of Julia, meals to truly savor
143 Merrimack St., Lowell
Open for lunch Tuesday-Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., dinner, Tuesday-Thursday, 5 p.m.- 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted
With a viewing of the movie “Julie & Julia’’ fresh in our minds, my review team was happy to try an evening at La Boniche, a bistro in downtown Lowell, which promises “simple dining with a French accent’’ on its website. “Julie & Julia’’ - which juxtaposed the life of Julia Child with the efforts of a neophyte blogger to cook all the recipes in Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking’’ - had awakened our longing for butter-laden dishes, succulent meats, and decadent desserts.
La Boniche, a 21-year-old institution in Lowell, seemed to fit the bill: a small storefront opened up into a spacious dining area, with high ceilings and a small bar. The peach and cream walls set off the original paintings, and exposed brick pays tribute to the major motif of this mill city.
The wine list is supplemented by a variety of trendy martinis, which here, as in many watering holes, are stretching to match sweets with spirits. Would Julia Child order a Key lime martini or a toasted coconut white chocolate raspberry martini (both $8)? Likely she would stick with the familiar champagne cocktail ($8).
The French take their bread very seriously, and La Boniche does, too; our basket of crusty slices arrived warm with small dishes of hummus spreads on the side. The restaurant offers Continental and American appetizers like crispy cod cakes ($6) and basil pesto and roasted vegetable pizza ($8), as well as more French fare like escargot with tarragon, Dijon crème, and julienne vegetable ($10), and pâté and cheese ($12).
We got down to business by ordering one of the specialties, the Chinese-flavored braised lamb shank ($20). It arrived looking like a lovingly created prop from “Julie & Julia.’’ The meat practically melted off the bone, but there was more to this dish than mere texture. The meat’s tenderness was enhanced by the insistent sauce of apricot, ginger, garlic, and soy, and the creamy mashed potatoes and perfectly fried zucchini slices made this dish a triumph.
We also sampled the grilled garlic chicken ($20), which was well done but nothing that Julia might praise. The roasted salmon with avocado ($22) was well cooked and well presented (as were all the other dishes), but the bright orange sauce promised fireworks that weren’t quite manifest in the mouth.
The real surprise of the dinner was the pasta special ($19). What could have been an ordinary bowl of spaghetti was dressed with butter, roasted tomatoes, and black olives, which brought it alive with flavor. Ordered by the vegetarian in the group, this seemingly simple dish was one of the evening’s highlights even among the carnivores.
For dessert, we sampled the bread pudding ($7.50), which exemplifies what this seemingly humble offering can do, with a compelling gooey texture veined with dried cranberries. The triple chocolate mousse cake ($7.50) promised much, with its three layers of different chocolate flavors and raspberry topping, but in the end we got calories and not much else.
Despite this disappointment, La Boniche is a place where the love of food and its presentation is palpable. While “Julie & Julia’’ may simulate the pleasure of French cooking, nothing compares with the real thing.