This is Petit Robert Bistro #2, or II, or deux. Or, since this space, formerly Rouge, is smaller than the original Petit Robert, maybe it’s Plus Petit Robert. Anyway, it’s a sequel to the Kenmore Square Petit Robert, which was the second bistro menu (after a spell at Pierrot) for Jacky Robert, in this his second period in Boston (he was first here as café chef at his uncle’s rather fancier Maison Robert). In any case, the South End Petit Robert has the exact same menu as the Kenmore Square restaurant, so we’re reviewing it to see how Jacky has adjusted to the success of the first Petit, and how well he can supervise, since he can’t be in both places at once.
TWICE IS NICE: Petit Robert Bistro in the South End is a sequel to the Kenmore Square location.
In general, my sense of the new place is much the same as the old one. It’s good and moderately priced, only sometimes great, and has some weird failings; for instance, how can a chef from Normandy serve something called tarte Tatin ($6) in which the apples aren’t caramelized on top, even after my first review called him out on this point?
We started happily with a trio of pâtés ($7), of which the star was the vegan pâté ($5.50 à la carte) made from roasted red peppers with an aftertaste of Roquefort cheese. It’s hard to believe there isn’t some kind of liver in there. Good-enough country pâté and a rougher terrine filled out the platter with some gherkins. The bread, as at the other place, is a kind of baguette-shaped hot sub roll, fake but satisfying on cold nights, with sweet butter.
If pâté isn’t rich enough, there’s quite a bit of foie gras ($16.75), currently with some pears in a pear-cherry reduction, or fish quenelles in lobster sauce ($9.75). Quenelles are like hot gefilte fish, only more nicely made, and here in an orange sauce that didn’t taste like lobster but perhaps a little like the sauce on lobster Newburg. There’s also a simple garden salad ($6.75; $9.75 with goat cheese). Get the goat cheese, if only for the crisp panko crust, as the greens in the salad were somewhat overdressed.
One of the cool things about the old French restaurants is that they served food with sauce on it. It’s hard to explain this if you weren’t there, but the sauce had a different flavor from the protein part of the meal, yet one that complemented it. Petit Robert’s grilled swordfish ($18.75) doesn’t exactly come with the sauce on it, but there is a separate, deconstructed pitcher of Béarnaise sauce. Julia Child once had everyone making Béarnaise at home, which isn’t easy because it’s an emulsion of melted butter in lemon juice, flavored with tarragon, and so the temperatures have to be controlled while you’re stirring. Given this fine piece of swordfish, it was worth the effort, as the rich sauce and lean fish were made for each other.
One of my favorites from the other place, duck confit and sausage with braised savoy cabbage ($18.75), is here and even better than I remembered it. I still could use a little more of the exquisite cabbage, but the current sausage is garlicky and great, the confit is done nicely, and there are oven-fried potatoes as well. Added since my visit is a “Lamb Cassoulet Bean Stew, Grilled Garlic Sausage and Bacon” ($14.75), taking advantage of the same confit duck, garlic sausage, and bacon, and adding cubes of lamb. Unfortunately it was based on a tomato sauce, so the white beans did not fully soften (due to the acidity). Besides, tomato sauce distracts from the meaty-fatty-beany-spicy quality of what ought to be the world’s greatest dish of baked beans.
The surprise of the evening was calves’ liver and onions ($14.50), something else one used to get in French restaurants because no one would cook it at home. Here the liver was tender and flavorful, especially with a lot of beautifully and fully caramelized onions and three slices of bacon.
The wine list is mostly French with some good bottles in the $20s, but we were a non-drinking crowd. Tea ($2.75) is served as bags of Harney & Sons teas, which come in a silk purse and a pot of hot water. Our night, there were no herbal or decaf teas, however. We did have a very reasonable latte ($5.25) and good coffee and decaf (both $2).
This is important because dessert is the real bargain course. But you must stick to simple things like the chocolate mousse ($5), which is perhaps too airy but smooth and delicious. The crème brûlée ($5.50) is simple, classic, and reliable, with a shortbread cookie for added crunch. And you should order ahead the soufflé ($7) — recently praline with a chunky apple sauce. It’s light and sweet and fabulous. But the ménage à poire ($7) should have been a good pear poached in red wine, or maybe that and the pear sorbet, definitely not the micro-tarte, which was over-caramelized and burnt. The tarte Tatin, while a travesty, isn’t awful, especially if you like the tart richness of crème fraîche. The pastry, however, was not special.