Good chefs and their food are always evolving. Styles change; new cooks come into the kitchen; travel and reading influence the palate of those making our food. And that all gets reflected on the plate.
But few restaurants evolve so dramatically and yet so gracefully as Chez Henri has over the years since Paul O'Connell opened it as his little sibling restaurant to the now departed Providence in Brookline. (By this I mean evolution, not wholesale change such as that of Metro in Porter Square which went from French brasserie to the Italian Guiseppe's overnight).
In 1995, O'Connell opened his French neighborhood bistro, named for his son, in the space of Chez Jean, a longtime Cambridge haunt with an unchanging menu. Chez Henri began by serving homey dishes like poached bone marrow on toast and blanquette de veau. But O'Connell's chef at the time was Corinne Mozo, who put her Cuban-French Canadian background to use by adding Cuban toasted sandwiches to the bar menu and incorporating some Latin ingredients into main courses.
She eventually moved on but the sandwiches stayed as stars of the bar scene. And O'Connell, who concentrated on his Cambridge restaurant, began to add Latin dishes as specials and then to incorporate them into the menu.
The place, brightened with new artwork by O'Connell's wife, Lisa, still has the cheery, deep red walls, dark wood and lovely hanging lamps, made by his brother, Tom O'Connell. The wine list, which offers a good range in the reasonable middle prices, favors French.
And though there are decidedly French dishes at Chez Henri, such as foie gras with truffled potatoes or cod with a chervil and lobster bordelaise sauce, almost everything on the menu has shifted south. Rum-glazed barbecued shrimp arranged on a wooden skewer comes over a salad of pickled okra and plantains. The contrast between the slightly sweet and hot sauce on the plump shrimp and the sourness of the okra is irresistible. Caesar salad gets a garlicky dressing and a topping of cured anchovies (I hate it when restaurants drop the anchovies from Caesar, figuring many diners don't like them and anyway won't notice the absence.) The Latin touch is the sharply vinegary taste to the anchovies and the pimentos.
On an earlier visit, grilled sardines swung into Spain with a romescu sauce of ground almonds, tomato, bread and garlic. The strongly flavored sardines, served with pickled red onions and potato salad, were so delicious that we ate them down to the bones.
Less interesting was a smoked salmon salad, which we were allowed to poach from the prix fixe menu; all the pieces were there -- nicely cut salmon, toast, a few slices of beets and some capers. But the cute little quail eggs on the plate had been hardboiled to baseball stage and the whole arrangement had a slightly made-ahead feel to it. So heading back to Latin flavors seems the best bet for main courses.
Chicken is marinated in plenty of lime, enough to pucker the mouth. I love it, but you have to be a believer. With it comes a fricassee of onions and bacon seasoned with a garlic-parsley mix called sofrito. Finger-length rectangles of hominy surullitos, which not surprisingly taste like toasted polenta, soak up the juices from the chicken and the fricassee in a satisfying way.
As any self-respecting place with a French name should, Chez Henri serves steak frites. But here the steak, a fine cut of sirloin, is rubbed lightly with a chile adobo and backed up with chimichurri, the Argentine answer to an all-purpose Worcestershire sauce. Except the Latin version is much prettier since the parsley tints the mixture green and the garlic and vinegar make it distinctive. The potato fries are standard and quickly get soggy in the red wine sauce; still this is a way to have your steak and still feel adventurous.
O'Connell worked at Todd English's Olives and the generous portion sizes and some of the dishes show that influence. The cod with lobster bordelaise is about as rich as this most egalitarian of fish can be. The sauce is delicious, marred only by the cod between a tad overdone. But with a hill of softly whipped potatoes and carrots poached in a surfeit of butter, plus the luxurious sauce, one hardly noticed the fish.
Although Boston is a hotbed of vegetarianism, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find meatless dishes on restaurant menus. After a spate of effort, chefs seem to have abandoned the admittedly tricky proposition of making food that fits vegetarians' needs and yet will appeal to a broad audience. Chez Henri's layered crepes show that it's possible to woo even nonvegetarians. The filling of cardamom-spiked eggplant, crumbled goat cheese and a whole salad of leafy greens has clear flavors and doesn't get too either cloying or gooey. And smoked tomatoes provide an accent point. The dish does collapse as soon as it's cut but that's a small price to pay for flavor.
Dining, of course, has more elements than the food. On a busy Friday night, the wait for a table in the crowded bar and then the wait for food to be delivered to the table made for a long but not impossible evening. But a Sunday evening gets quickly annoying. Sunday night is not the dining wasteland it once was, when only the lonely dined out. Now the restaurants, especially neighborhood places like Chez Henri, buzz with families and friends gathering before the onset of the work week. However, though the diners are pushing open the doors that night, the energy level of the establishments doesn't always follow suit.
Despite the difficulty in finding parking and the hazards of negotiating piles of icy slush on a recent Sunday, the place is quite busy. But the waitress flubs the initial order, bringing cod instead of salmon -- "Oh, sorry, I thought you said same instead of salmon" -- and then doesn't check to make sure the desserts are right. "Oh, sorry, I should have checked; you ordered the pear tart not the chocolate bread pudding, didn't you." And the delivery of each course is so slow as to cause repeated watch checking. Chez Henri didn't quite seem ready for prime time this particular evening.
Fortunately the bread pudding is almost good enough to make up for the mistake, and the creme caramel, made classic and made right, soothes us.
Chez Henri has both stood the test of time and moved into new territory, a heartening -- and delicious -- veteran in Boston dining.
Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from Boston.com at ae.boston.com/dining.
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Via Matta 79 Park Plaza, Boston. 617-422-0008. The place to be this season is also the place to dine on chef Luis Morales's finely crafted Italian fare. Lovely renditions of pasta, Florentine steak, and even the humble zucchini salad make a meal here almost as good as a trip to Italy. (10/17/02)
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