Every time I’m in Boston, which has been a couple times a year but usually for only one to three days per visit, I’m faced with a dilemma. Do I spend my precious few eating opportunities returning to my old-reliable favorites – Neptune, Oleana, etc. – or do I explore some new places (at least new to me)? My most recent visit on Feb. 23 presented a particularly tough choice since I had time for only one dinner before driving to Providence, RI. Ultimately, I decided to try a new place, and narrowed the list to Ribelle and Fairsted Kitchen. Although the reputed uber-friendly vibe and menu items like cumin-dusted lamb ribs, veal and caraway stuffed cabbage, and braised whole oxtail at Fairsted were tempting, I chose Ribelle based on a spectacular dinner I had at Strip-T’s about a year ago. Unfortunately, the huge wow factor I experienced at Strip-T’s wasn’t repeated at Ribelle. So much has been written about Ribelle – almost all of it highly positive – that my first inclination was not to add to the flood of words and opinions. But since I only liked Ribelle rather than loved it, I feel like a somewhat lonely voice, so here is my two cents worth.
By contrast with Strip-T’s, Ribelle seems less daring, more precious, more gentrified, and ultimately less exciting despite the ambitious menu and complex preparations. The dishes that my wife and I shared by were truffle egg toast, kohlrabi with veal tongue, golden tilefish, duck liver mousse, and lamb shoulder with Carolina gold rice and parsnip. The lightness of olive flavor in the tilefish’s leek-and-olive broth was perfect, enhancing not overpowering the delicate flavor of the fish. But the plethora of other ingredients, including caper, lardo, and tiny dots of tomato jam didn’t integrate well and just seemed like fussy affectations. In this case at least, the whole was not more than the sum of its parts. My favorite dish of the evening was the aged lamb shoulder. It was very flavorful, perfectly cooked to medium rare with a light char, and married well with the mixture of rice and parsnip puree. My least favorite dish was the duck liver mousse. The best liver mousses and patés I’ve had put the liver front and center with just a few grace notes in the background. It’s all about simplicity and clarity, demanding subtlety and restraint in its preparation. (My gold standard is the chicken liver paté prepared by Chef Greg Atkinson at Restaurant Marché on Bainbridge Island, Washington.) Ribelle’s duck liver mousse had so many strong flavors rolling around in it that the flavor of the liver was mostly lost, providing just a creamy, fatty texture for the other flavors. There was also a bitter finish that I found off-putting. After a few bites, my wife and I left this dish untouched.
Don’t get me wrong. With the exception of the duck liver, I thought the food at Ribelle was pretty good. I just didn’t think it was great or amazing, certainly not worthy of four stars, and not as good as the dinner I had the next evening at Birch in Providence. Faced with the many diverse ingredients and complex preparations, I found myself reacting in a serious, studious mode, analyzing and evaluating, but not quite getting my arms around most of the dishes. It felt like a date with a girl who is smart and interesting, but there’s no romance. Food is about more than creativity and technique. Great food seduces you. It’s about love. Therein lies its mystery.
Maybe if I lived in the Boston area I’d try Ribelle again. But since I don’t, and since my opportunities to sample the Best of Boston are so limited, I don’t see a return visit to Ribelle anytime soon in my future.
I was interested in another Chowhound thread that addressed the question of whether Strip-T’s could maintain its quality now that Tim Maslow is spending all of his time at Ribelle. (I was told that Tim’s father divides his time between Strip-T’s and Ribelle.) Some of the posts on that thread thought that the quality at Strip-T’s hadn’t suffered. I loved my experience at Strip-T’s, so I hope this is correct, but wonder about the long-term effects of Tim’s absence.