Taste of Provence

This could be where a trend starts: Sel de la Terre, hard by the site of Boston's Big Dig, offers eight first courses, all priced at $8, and...

This could be where a trend starts: Sel de la Terre, hard by the site of Boston's Big Dig, offers eight first courses, all priced at $8, and seven entrées at $21 apiece. It's prix-fixe simplicity with the flexibility of à la carte, and encourages diners to just plain order what they want. Why didn't someone think of this before?

255 State Street, at Long Wharf, Boston.
Lunch and dinner, Monday through Saturday. Sunday brunch.

Such common sense suits the restaurant's Provençal menu, inviting ambience, and name (French for "salt of the earth"). Opened last year by the owner of the ne-plus-ultra L'Espalier, and the former sous-chef there, this more accessible bistro offers upscale Mediterranean food in a relaxed, salon-like setting.

Lit by large sconces, the dining room, which seats 115, has picture windows (with views of the downtown cityscape), a flagstone floor, and dark wood tables. A glass-fronted wine cooler welcomes arriving diners with scores of bottles for their delectation. A basket holding a variety of excellent breads arrives at the table; there are four items available, at $5 apiece, to go with it. (The roasted shallot and garlic confit with top-end olive oil makes a fine, earthy spread.) A cheese plate is also offered ($8), with an understated Roquefort that doesn't upstage the bread itself (which, in our case, was studded with sweet pieces of fig).

Artichoke soup with crabmeat crostini makes a good starter--creamy but not thick, it isn't overly filling. First courses include a version of the small grilled pizzas that have become ubiquitous as appetizers; this one is neither oily nor cheesy, but has just the right amount of chèvre atop a superbly crisp (but not dry) flatbread.

Skillet-roasted salmon arrives with an engaging accompaniment of braised endive, grilled squid, jasmine rice, and raitö, a tomato-based, salmon-flavored Provençal sauce. (The plate presentations are appealing but, true to the overall ethos, not flamboyant.) A leek and mushroom ravioli dish consists of four large medallions of thick pasta stuffed with a juicy mix of the vegetables; broccoli rabe, roasted mushrooms, and artichokes accompany it. Side dishes ($5 each), like sautéed spinach with delicious, chewy slices of nutty Parmesan, or rosemary pommes frites (the herb adding more decoration than flavor) show the same focus on getting the basics right--very right.

Among the desserts ($7), the mango sorbet deserves special mention. Generously amplified with chunks of fresh mango, it was saturated with succulent, icy-sweet flavor.

The wine list is long and moderately priced, with most bottles in the $20 to $45 range. The 1997 Maréchal Burgundy ($28, or $7 a glass), for example, is a smoky pinot noir with raspberry and cherry notes.

When this pleasant room first opened, some complained that the unhurried atmosphere could go too far--that the waiters, at times, seemed to have gone to the beach. On our visit, that problem had vanished. Sel de la Terre's feeling of ease, however, remains. As we left, we almost expected to feel the mistral.


Read more articles by: Craig Lambert

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