November 1st, 2007

Sel del la Terre in Natick

So last night I went to Sel de la Terre at the Natick Mall. Even before it opened, I've had my worries about the location of the restaurant being in a shopping mall, and maybe I took that bias into my dining experience last night, but I came out although super full, unsatisfied and underwhelmed.

My fiancee and I walked in and liked how they decorated the place, it's all very comfortable chic as if Pottery Barn or Crate and Barrel came in and decorated the place floor to ceiling, but you can't help but know that your still within a shopping mall. The "windows" of the restaurant, although the curtains are drawn, do look out onto the hallway that leads to Nordstrom. It all just feels artificial, a theme that lent itself to the rest of the meal.

We started our meal with the garlic and shallot confit and the eggplant-goat cheese puree to spread on our bread. The bread that everyone has been raving about is good. It's a good bread basket. It had an interesting mix of different slices, from the standard white / potato / whole wheat to more interesting ones like a fig or a fennel rye. It's good but it didn't have that artisean feel that I thought it would, something about the bread just seemed a little too plain and without character. We did go through two baskets worth to sop up all the goodness from our petit gouter.

We moved onto our first course. I had the assorted charcuterie which was a nice plate of different pates and terrines served with accompiments like toasted brioche and baguettes, cornichons, whole grain mustard. A very good start to the meal. My fiancee had an interesting salad of honey roasted cashews, red grapes, currants, beets, chickpeas and romaine with curry vinaigrette which was a little on the bland side even with all those ingredients, the salad was underdressed.

Our main courses were both beef, I had the braised short rib with olive oil mashed potatoes, fried onions and roasted brussel sprouts, while my fiancee had the steak frite, a huge juicy rib eye in a shallot red wine reduction served with rosemary pomme frites. I'm a big fan of braised short ribs, and these were although competently cooked, had very little flavor other than of it's beefy goodness (which in itself is great, but I just wish there was just something more to it). The meat was off the bone which made me even question if the cut was short rib in the first place, it almost could have been any fatty cut of meat that was cooked until it was falling apart from itself (it probably was, just cut differently that I would have expected). The broth it was cooked didn't have any sort of contrast to the heaviness of the beef. I wish there was some sort of herb or acid component to cut the fatty beef flavor. The mash was very good, the sprouts were roasted perfectly, the fried onion were perfectly crispy mini onion rings that added great texture to the whole dish, but overall I couldn't be forgotten of the disappointing cut of meat. The steak was again competently cooked, the sauce just felt like every other red wine shallot reduction everyone's ever tasted, the frites were obviously machine cut since they were shoestring in size and way too uniform, and although crispy and delicious, in the end they're just french fries with fresh rosemary sprinkled on them.

We ended our dinner sharing the flourless chocolate cake which was the best part of the whole meal, and also the least expensive dish. The chocolate itself was heavenly, like one huge dense chocolate truffle. It came with brulee'd bananas that had a good crisp caramel coating, and a hazelnut creme anglaise that was really lacking in one thing; hazelnut flavor.

Drinks were delicious. I had my requisite martini, perfectly made but at $14 a bit steep in price. My fiancee's beer was $12 (for a 12 ounce bottle of Lindemans Framboise Lambic), my glass of wine a very respectable Zinfindel was $12; drinks are expensive, even beer on tap (Hoegarden) was $7.

Service was acceptable albeit a little inattentive. Nothing to rave about, there were a few mix ups, such as my glass of wine served well after my main course came out to accompany it, there were a few times we waited for water to be refilled, and our server seemed a little rushed in a more than half empty dining room. Portions are huge, which actually doesn't help the restaurant because it all just feels "Americanized" with big plates and big portions of mediocre food. The presentation of the dishes had a little to be desired, the presentation of the dishes were very plain, all kind of slopped onto the plate which maybe that's what they're going after, a casual French dining experience, but I couldn't help but feel like the dishes looked like they could have come from a TGIF or Applebee's kitchen.

There's obviously a lot of potential to the place, the menu is focused, the food itself is cooked properly albeit maybe a little too plainly (not that there's anything wrong with the classics, but if your going to do them straight up, you better do them perfectly since everyone else is familar with what the dish should be), the service can be worked on, but in the end it's at the Natick Mall. All of it just feels a little artificial like fake plastic trees. The restaurant will have a bit of an identity crisis, does it want to be a real French brasserie with all it's charm just in an odd location, or does it want to cater to who the new Natick Mall's clientele is which to me feels like people who have expendable income who are willing to spend more money on the perception of luxury rather than real quality.