Too much praise can be a bad thing. I had
a friend who used to fix me up on blind dates. "If I were
single," she’d say, "this would be the guy for me.
You’ll love him!" I rarely did.
There was the food freak who yammered nonstop about dishes he had tried. By the time we sat down to dinner I was ravenous, but he passed on ordering - he just liked to talk.
One "creative type" commented, "Are you God or the Devil?"
"He must have been off his meds," explained my friend.
I knew her intentions were honorable. She might have enjoyed spending time with her fix-ups, but for me, well, it just didn’t click. And that’s how I would describe my dinner at Restaurant Saul. The food was well prepared and arranged beautifully on the plate. The waiters were attentive and the dining room attractive, but for me the chemistry wasn’t there.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to recommend about this restaurant. Chef Saul Bolton, who has cooked in the kitchens of David Bouley and other culinary luminaries, has a loyal following with sophisticated palates that appreciate fine food without the fireworks. The evening I was there, diners were seriously contemplating their meals, trying each other’s dishes and quietly savoring all of it.
But I found it frustrating to eat there. When a dish comes to the table and it’s a mess - overcooked meat or sauces that don’t quite hold together, or lots of little piles of ingredients on the plate that fight each other- then it’s easy to say, "This is lousy, what was he thinking?"
But that’s not the case here.
Bolton’s dishes are so close to perfect that when you taste them and they are under-seasoned, salt being the seasoning he uses too sparingly, it’s a real disappointment. You won’t find salt on the table. Ask for it, it’s available upon request.
We did have moments of real pleasure. The meat dishes were all very good. The foie gras was delectable. The crispy duck confit was a tour de force. His roasted leg of lamb was rich with flavor. An eclectic selection of reasonably priced wines is available by the glass or bottle. The cool chocolate fondant, extravagantly rich and voluptuous on the plate, could pose as the centerfold in a sexy dessert calendar.
The dining room, done in understated tones of beige and brown, is tasteful - all natural woods and simple well-crafted textiles. Nothing jumps out at you. It’s also a little dull. My dining companion, a larger-than-life character, who stood out in this sea of neutrality like a chili pepper on a bowl of white rice, described the decor as "Zen-Amish." It was an apt description. The setting, perfect if you’ve had the week from hell, isn’t going to make it if you’re looking for a "Sex and The City" night on the town.
An appetizer of crispy duck confit stopped our conversation in its tracks. Tender, rich duck breast seared to a brittle crust teamed with a sweet poached pear and topped with creamy Gorgonzola cheese, was a study in textural contrasts. The sweetness of the pear was the perfect complement to the rich duck. We also loved the duck foie gras served with a fragrant swirl of peach sauce; its sweetness contrasted nicely with the wine-infused flavor of the rich duck meat.
But a bluefin tuna tartare, which had all the elements for success - impeccably fresh and velvety tuna, crunchy apple that played off the richness of the fish and avocado whipped and pleasantly creamy in the mouth - desperately needed salt. The stuffed littleneck clams, charmingly served on a bed of sea salt, were underwhelming.
Why am I whining about salt? It’s one of those seasonings that you really miss when it’s not there. Take the day-boat codfish for instance. A fresher piece of fish would be hard to come by. I admired its crispness and the play of colors on the plate - the whiteness of the fish, the deep green of the spinach and red of the chopped tomato fondue - but all the color was in the appearance of the dish.
In stark contrast to the fish, the roasted Jamison Farm leg of lamb could not have been more satisfying. Served atop garlic toast with roasted shallots and fava beans, it’s comfort food of the highest order. It’s the kind of dish you rave about.
If a meal isn’t complete without dessert, this is what I suggest: pass on the starters and order one of the lighter fish dishes (with a side of salt). Then, order the cool chocolate fondant. Pretend not to notice the other diners staring as this circus on a plate makes its way to your table. The fondant, a mousse really, sits on a crisp chocolate wafer, with squiggles of caramel sauce on the plate as well as raspberries, crumbled peanut brittle and chocolate and peanut butter mousse. It’s the Donald Trump of desserts.
I’m also a big fan of lemon desserts; I like them almost as much as I like chocolate. But the bruleed lemon creme, a too-cute name for a dessert not quite a creme brulee and too loose to be a pudding, didn’t work for me. Its accompanying blueberry compote overpowered the tartness of the lemon.
I liked Restaurant Saul, but I might pass on a second date. Don’t let that stop you from giving Saul a try. For you, Restaurant Saul may be the perfect match.
Restaurant Saul (140 Smith St. between Dean and Bergen streets) is closed Tuesdays. Entrees: $18-23. The restaurant accepts Visa, MasterCard and Discover. For reservations, call (718) 935-9844.