JUMBLE FOR YA: At Miel, the menu is jumbled and it isn’t cheap — but it has some winners.
What does it mean when Boston’s leading daily doesn’t review a major new restaurant until three months after it opens? One of its former critics once explained that since readers could be so devastated by negative reviews, he would just review good places. More recently, reviewers seem to be simply waiting for restaurants to improve.
How would you like it if a theater critic did that? And should you just assume that no news is bad news? Could Miel really be that bad? Well, no. In fact, Miel tackles its most obvious challenge — that is, attempting to prepare Mediterranean-French food during Boston’s long winters — with quite a bit of success. The chef apparently has a pipeline to some terrific basil, and does as well as anyone in town with the available tomatoes and eggplant. What I found wrong at Miel on my three well-spaced visits was the service, as well as the lighting and design of the dining room. The menu is certainly jumbled and it ain’t cheap. But on the plus side, so long as the 24/7 policy remains in effect, Miel will continue to be Boston’s most elegant place to enjoy a $15 cheeseburger or a $9 crème brûlée at 2 am. Prom planners, take note.
Let’s get back to the jumbled presentation, though. Miel has about five food themes, including Provençal fare; big hotel classics (think Dover sole); basic steak, chicken, and seafood dishes to appease hotel guests; clam chowder and lobster dishes to appease Boston tourists; and dishes that feature honey (miel in French). You can forget about the “brasserie” theme that the name implies. “Brasserie” means “brew-pub,” and there’s nothing of that sort here. It’s just another source of confusion from a restaurant that already offers too much.
So what’s a puzzled first-time diner to do? Keep it simple and focus on things French: munch on a basket of pretty good sliced baguette, dip it into great olive oil, and go Provençal with the pistou soup ($7), a kind of minestrone flavored with terrific basil and garlic. Or try the Sétoise mussel soup ($10), which is all cream and plump mussels with bouillabaisse flavor. Another fancified taste of Provençe is the socca pancakes ($16), a cylindrical salad with two chickpea crêpes, layers of chopped shrimp, and a filling of fresh arugula. A scallop and roquette salad ($14) is made of bay scallops, sliced shitake mushrooms, lots more arugula, and a dressing touched up with — what else? — honey.
Entrées bring even more themes, this time: dishes for women and dishes for men. The lemon-honey free-range chicken ($19) is boneless but plump and served in a honey-sweetened broth with boiled potato, Chinese cabbage, artichoke hearts, and flat beans. Braised spare ribs ($28) are likewise boned and beautifully made into meaty comfort food with fried onion rings, gravy, and gnocchi that’s a bit too heavy.
Returning to the Provençal theme, there’s a hot version of tuna Niçoise ($28) with grilled fresh tuna, sautéed garlic cloves and vegetables (potato, olives, flat beans), and real Picholine olive oil. Roasted halibut ($32) is fluffy and served with crisped skin-on potatoes and a side of a small vegetable casserole “tian” (really, a slice each of eggplant, summer squash, tomato, and bell pepper) over Thai jasmine rice. Magret of duck ($21) is a meaty duck breast sliced and fanned out over a little puréed celery root with a sweet lavender-honey glaze and a smaller tian of zucchini on the side.
The lunch menu is much the same, except for the addition of sandwiches and a “Quartette de Jour/ Express Lunch” ($28), which brings four courses in a kind of Bento box. There were two big problems with the latter choice. One, it took 15 minutes to get to the table. Two, pistou soup, hot; roasted halibut, cold. The Caesar salad ($10/à la carte), however, was lightly dressed and refreshing. The fourth compartment had crème brûlée ($9) — a simple version, other than the orange-blossom honey.
Miel’s wine list is more expensive than extensive, but features many of the greatly improved wines of Provençe proper, as well as a solid selection of wines from the rest of France and good food wines from around the world. Vintages aren’t listed on the menu and glasses are rather small — both impressive failures in a restaurant of such pretense. Our wines by the glass were current-market ’05s, well-suited for food. My favorite was the Jean-Luc Colombo “Rosé de Côte Bleue” syrah mourvedre ($10/glass; $39/bottle). It had most of the fruity aromas of its two red grapes, with the racier acidity and lighter body of rosé. Maison Louis Latour Domaine de Valmoissine pinot noir ($10/$39) is an ideal red with this food. If you don’t trust that, there’s also an Ironstone merlot ($9/$35) out of Lodi, California, which is softer but has some complexity to the nose. Decaf coffee ($4) was bitter and excellent; tea ($4) brings a selection of Harney bags, served in a china pot of hot water. Pay attention, as one server brought us the pot of hot water and then went back for the bag.