Saturday, May 24, 2008

Vacation part II: Nothin' special at Sel de la Terre

After a grueling day of shopping at the Natick Mall, my mother, father, and I convened for dinner at Sel de la Terre, a French restaurant in the newly-finished (and highly posh) Natick Collection.

The exterior, with a woman who is not my mother

My mom and I were there about ten minutes early. While I expected them to make us wait in the inviting bar area, they seated our incomplete party without a problem. That's something that is increasingly uncommon in Manhattan, so I appreciated the gesture.

The nice bar area, where we did not wait

While we waited for my dad to arrive, we looked over the menu. I had a hard time deciding what to eat; there wasn't anything that truly jumped out at me. The waiter came and went several times, encouraging us to look over the wine list. Since both my mom and dad were driving and I didn't necessarily want to be drinking solo, we declined the wine. Once our waiter realized he wouldn't be getting maximum value out of our table, the obsequiously friendly service became just a tiny bit icier. Nothing major, just subtly perceptible.

My dad arrived and we put in our order. I looked out over the restaurant, which was decorated in a French peasant-country style-- very comfortably done. There was a large birthday party in the back area that got going while we were dining; the staff separated the party by drawing a large curtain across the back, which was a good solution for both the party and the rest of the diners.

Since this was a French restaurant, I was looking forward to the bread basket. I saw bread baskets on several other tables, and I was seriously hungry, so after we placed our order I eagerly waited for it appear. And waited. And waited a bit more... And then a runner arrived bearing three plates of food, which he set down on our table. Unfortunately, they didn't belong to us. He was somewhat perturbed but whisked them away. Close behind him was another runner bearing my mother's salad. As he set the salad down, I asked him for a bread basket. He obliged, and when my mom was halfway through her appetizer, the bread arrived.

Bush league bread basket

The waiter placed a small dish of softened butter on the table and then unveiled the bread-- literally, as it had been covered by the folded napkin to keep it warm. He unwrapped the top folds as though he were unswaddling a baby. Inside the napkin-blanket were four kinds of thinly sliced bread. The slices were warm, and I was excited.

There are four kinds of bread in there. Really.

I chose something that looked like peasant multigrain. While I expected a warm, soft piece, it was actually somewhat toasted. I'm not sure how I felt about that at the time; it was pretty good, although usually in restaurants I want soft bread, not toast. I spread that piece with the softened butter (well done for softening the butter! Extra points for that) and sprinkled some salt on top, freshly ground from the salt grinder (also very cool).

Multigrain bread, softened butter, and fresh salt

As the bread cooled, the toasted-ness became decidedly less yummy. Ever have cold toast? Yeah, not so good. I tried bits of the other three kinds of bread. One, which I thought was raisin bread, was actually olive bread. Not great. Then my mother encouraged me to try a slice of the third kind-- she said it was a white with "an interesting spice." I tried it and nearly spat it out-- it was fennel seeds and roasted garlic. I HATE fennel seeds and all things that taste of licorice. Eew. Finally, I tried the fourth kind, which was standard crusty white bread. That was okay, but still on cold-toast-status. Overall, a disappointing bread basket, especially after I had to ask for it specially.

My mom tucked into her salad. It was described as a salad of "Pea tendrils, English peas and orange supremes with house smoked trout and barley; lemon thyme vinaigrette." The ingredients looked fresh, and the smoked trout lent an interesting touch. It was fairly reasonably sized for an appetizer salad, and my mom thought it was very well done.

Something is fishy in this salad...

Once the salad was gone, the dish and our silverware were cleared and the entrees arrived shortly after. My dad had ordered pork tenderloin, which came with spaetzle and two types of beans. Because he's "not a bean guy" (his description, not mine), he requested a small green salad instead of the beans, and the kitchen obliged.

Pork with beanless green salad

After he took a few bites, Dad said the pork was "just okay." He said there wasn't much sauce in the dish, so there wasn't much flavor. But by the time we were done with the dinner, he said the dish had improved much-- the first few bites he had taken were "just the wrong bites." The sauce drizzled on top of the remaining slices of pork lent the necessary savory flavor.

For her entree, my mother selected the crabcakes, another generously-sized dish from the appetizer column of the menu. This came with two plump, golden-brown cakes atop an asparagus puree and a rhubarb caramel. She really liked both the sauces, and happily ate the cakes. For what it's worth, the plate was also beautifully composed.

Gorgeous crabcakes

For my part, I got--wait for it-- a mixed green salad. My mom warned me that the standard appetizer size was very small, so I asked for an entree size, if possible-- just some extra greens would be good. The salad arrived and was a fairly large pile of greens, with a few slices of cucumber, a half-dozen tiny slivers of red onion and a tangle of fried carrot. The lemon-thyme vinagrette came in an adorable creamer on the side, as requested.

Mixed greens with a fried-carrot topper

The greens were very standard. The only interesting part of the salad were the fried carrots-- they were simultaneously crunchy and chewy, as you might expect a fried carrot to be if you thought about it at all. The dressing was creamy and flavorful, but after the salad was gone, I was still pretty damn hungry. But that was a good thing-- I was saving room for dessert. Not at Sel de la Terre, although I assume their desserts are very good, but in a different sort of place. Stay tuned for more news on that...

I did make a visit to the bathroom, which was an incredibly soothing place. It felt like someone's home, which I'm sure was the point. Nicely done.

I could totally take a shower in here.

Sel de la Terre is a very expensive restaurant, although they didn't charge us any more for an extra-large salad and they also didn't charge for my mom's two club sodas. But when you're paying those prices (entrees hovered around the mid-high $20s/low $30s, and this is suburban Massachusetts), you expect spectacular food. There were too many lapses of service for it to be a real special-occasion restaurant, and while the food was good, it wasn't outstanding. Plus, the bread basket was a real let-down. As a result, Sel de la Terre clocks in at two Offset Spatulas.

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