Great food is what makes a great meal. Consistency is what makes a great restaurant. For 15 years, chef-owner Michael Leviton’s Lumiere has been serving well-prepared, French-inspired fare in West Newton. It is about as consistent as they come.
As is often the case with well-loved neighborhood bistros, the restaurant isn’t particularly fashionable. It is a simple space with white wainscoting, beige walls hung with black-and-white photos, burgundy accents, and upholstery patterned with whimsical swirls. There is a small bar area from which one can peek into the kitchen; more seats were added during a 2010 expansion. It feels, as a friend said, like “the type of place you’d take your mother-in-law to lunch.”
So it is easy to forget that Lumiere was ahead of its time. In parts of present-day Newton, one can find gastropubs and creative cooking, mixologists and exposed brick walls — all the trappings of eating in the city, with fewer options but better parking. With its ’70s-era independent movie theater, Lumiere’s neighborhood is still stronger on character than style. In 1999, the restaurant felt even more like an outpost.
Too, menus based around seasonal, sustainably produced ingredients are something we have come to take for granted. Leviton had us eating and thinking this way before it was in vogue. Locally grown carrots are a must-have accessory for today’s chef. Should they ever find their way to the back of most closets next to fusion cuisine, vertical food, and foam, Leviton — who chairs the board at Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit organization focused on sustainability — will still be buying them. His current crop comes from Schartner Farms in Rhode Island, and he uses them in a lovely dish of roasted roots, deep orange, over dollops of bright puree with hazelnuts, raisins, capers, and parsley. The combination isn’t intuitive, yet it ropes together sweet and sour, nutty and bright, in a way that makes us want to eat our vegetables.
The celeriac and parsnips of winter come together in a silky soup, with sourdough croutons and thyme oil. It’s elegant but quiet; an amuse-bouche of curried sweet potato soup on another visit is more memorable, spicy and warming. Chef de cuisine Christopher Hallahan, sous chef Jordan Bailey, and crew do particularly well with these flavors. A special one night of steak tartare is spiked with red curry and Southeast Asian herbs, the lemongrass and heat bringing new dimension to this classic dish.
Lumiere’s scallops come from Ingrid Bengis Seafood, which has also provided oysters, lobsters, and more to chefs such as Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The description of the dish, with its detailed pedigree, could be ripped from a “Portlandia” sketch: “Seared Hand Harvested ‘Diver Terry’ Stonington Maine Sea Scallops.” (Check the restaurant’s Facebook page for a photo of Terry in his gear.) The scallops are glorious, fresh and sweet, creamy at the center, everything one wants scallops to be, served with shiitake mushrooms and fragrant with ginger, garlic, soy, and sesame. There is a reason this dish, available as an appetizer or main course, is a Lumiere signature.
That reason is not, however, portion size. The $19 appetizer includes two scallops (you get five with the $37 entree). Never mind whether the price tag is justified. Three people are sharing it, along with several other dishes. At some restaurants, a server might inquire whether they would like a third scallop added for a charge. This is not that place. Service here is sweet and personable, if not always polished. But that adds to the neighborhood feel.
Most dishes aren’t as precious. A weekday three-course prix fixe feels like a deal at $45. House-made cavatelli with rabbit ragout makes for a satisfying winter supper, although the pasta is slightly overcooked. Another evening there is a hearty braised lamb shank for two (not currently on the menu, which changes frequently), bone jutting out of the bowl. Sharp knives are provided, but they aren’t needed. The meat practically falls off the bone when you look at it. The shank is served with white beans, roasted tomatoes, and olives, with gremolata for a citrus-and-herb lift.
Bavette steak is chewy and full of flavor, served very rare, with creamed spinach and a basket of golden fries. It is fine Franco-steakhouse fare, but a side of maitake mushrooms disappoints, slightly sour and too austere; they need butter, garlic, and salt.
Chicken — often the most boring dish at the table — here is the thing everyone wants another bite of. That could be because it’s so nicely cooked, with its crisp skin and juicy meat. It might also have something to do with the wonderfully rich, Gruyere-laden mashed potatoes on the plate along with glazed carrots and pearl onions.
Some of the menu’s fish dishes are comparatively sleepy. Porgy with roasted cauliflower, capers, and mustard vinaigrette needs more of the bold, acidic elements to offset the mild fish. Tilefish with spiced lentil ragout, curry vinaigrette, and cucumber-mint raita promises complexity and cooling contrast, but the Indian-inspired flavors are a touch muted.
For dessert, a chocolate souffle cake gets lost beneath coconut sorbet, toasted coconut, candied almonds, and rum-caramel sauce. An apple tart, however, is wonderful. The crust is a surprise, tender as a crepe rather than buttery-crisp, and sour cream sorbet is a foil to the sweetness.
Lumiere has a carefully thought out wine list, divided by flavor profile — “mineral and citrus,” “rustic and earthy,” and so on. Selections are largely Old World, many sustainable or organic. The beer list offers local brews, and this may be the only alcohol list in town with a segment devoted to GMO-free whiskey.
Leviton also operates Area Four in Cambridge, A4 Pizza in Somerville, and a food truck that sells sandwiches. He is a highly respected chef who has been nominated for multiple James Beard awards (he is on a list of semifinalists again this year), was named a Food & Wine best new chef in 2000, and has earned other plaudits locally and nationally. Yet he hasn’t embraced the path of celebrity chef. His restaurants emphasize ingredients and technique rather than ego. Maybe that is why Lumiere is still going strong. Eating here, one knows what to expect: a great meal, consistently.
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