It is a hot night on Beacon Hill. Inside the tiny Ma Maison Jacky Robert, ceiling fans oscillate indifferently or not at all. The cheese cart stands empty, lest the product self-fondue in the humidity. Bottles of rosé chill in sweating silver buckets, ice cubes melting swiftly. The clientele is also rosy and damp and, appropriately, at home in this French bistro, which feels much like an actual bistro in France — not the kind of place your guidebook leads you, but the one you might stumble upon in a neighborhood removed from famous cathedrals and museums, where ordinary people eat ordinary meals.
Ma Maison used to be called Pierrot Bistrot Francais. It opened in 2004, with Jacky Robert as consulting chef, helping with the startup. Robert, who founded the Petit Robert bistros, has been a local force for French food since arriving to work at his uncle Lucien’s famed Maison Robert. In June, after more than a decade, he returned to this space, partnering with co-owner Sam Sosnitsky and renaming the restaurant. After a long career working in Boston and San Francisco, adding Petit Robert after Petit Robert (he recently sold his shares, according to a press release), it is time to come home to one small kitchen, to settle in, at least for the moment.
The space is quaint and cute — Dijon mustard-colored walls hung with silver dishes, dark wood wainscoting and columns, white tablecloths, and a chalkboard inscribed with the daily specials. One catches glimpses of Robert in the kitchen. French-speaking families eat dinner together (the language of the iPad as midmeal placater is universal). Old-school bohemians talk travel, art, and food; men in once-crisp shirts debate medical marijuana and laugh uproariously. No one is here for formality, just solid Gallic fare.
Classics are the best bet. The menu is printed with an adorable burgundy cartoon of a snail, so it seems both right and wrong to begin with escargots: a half-dozen served in a cast-iron dish with divots, bubbling beneath plentiful garlic, herbs, and melted butter. Onion soup is blanketed in Gruyere and Munster cheese, the broth lighter than some, the crock arriving atop a doily. “Uncle Lucien’s Country Pate With Condiments” is a simple slice, larded with fat and pork flavor, served with a few cornichons and a little pot of mustard.
If you never eat anything at Ma Maison beyond steak frites and dessert, you will be happy. The beef is Black Angus, a perfect medium rare, with a deep, crusty sear and just the right amount of seasoning. On the nights we order the dish, the frites come in a little silver basket, half-moons of potato that look more like home fries. They are perfect, golden-brown and crisp on the outside and creamy inside. Peppercorn sauce comes in a boat on the side, and good thing. It is aggressively loaded with peppercorns, the sort of thing that could be too much in large quantities but heightens enjoyment when applied with discretion. It’s a spot-on rendition, unfussy, hitting all the right notes.
This is true, too, of the soufflés at the end of the meal, big, eggy puffs of sweetness and light. They take time to make, and you have to order at least two — chocolate, Grand Marnier, or harlequin, a mix. The chocolate is fine, the Grand Marnier packs a boozy wallop, and they go very well together. A server will pour chocolate or vanilla sauce into the center, and both have their merits, but the latter is pleasingly subtle.
There is nothing restrained about a giant profiterole, filled with ice cream and ladled with chocolate sauce, a simple pleasure. And floating island, a special from the chalkboard, is a lovely rendition: a light meringue in a pool of creme Anglaise, drizzled in caramel.
But along the way are bumps large and small. In a landscape of entirely successful dishes, it might not matter that the tuna tartare lacks flavor, little more than raw fish mounded on baguette, or that the otherwise fine Boston Celtics salad (spinach, haricots verts, asparagus, kelp, and seared tuna) omits the kelp, the most interesting ingredient. Why is it called that, anyway? A server shrugs, bemused: “The owner really likes the Celtics.”
If it were just that the grilled pork chop and the chicken du jour, a roast bird with flabby skin, are both on the dry side, well, their flavor is fine. And slices of pan-seared duck are rosy and delicious, even if the grains they are served over seem to have been sitting under a heat lamp since before Robert’s return. The reason to order the dish is the intrigue of “duck confit wrapped in kimchee,” but this turns out to be a deflated parcel of flavorless meat bits bundled into one leaf of pickled cabbage.
All that is harder to forgive when barely seared scallops come with gummy mushroom risotto, or a prettily presented cod bouillabaisse is made with a fillet that tastes fishy, or dry, overcooked calf’s liver can’t be concealed with any amount of caramelized onions and bacon. It is a surprise to find technique and quality so uneven.
Service follows suit. On one visit, it is the highlight of the evening. Servers are attentive, friendly, and wonderfully proactive about one diner’s food restrictions. Sosnitsky makes the rounds, a gracious presence. Another night, no one can answer our questions, servers seem to have difficulty putting plates on the table (food arrives in slow motion or with a thunk at the edge of the table), and a request for more ceiling fan action is met with disinterest. At least the water refills keep coming.
It is good to have Robert installed at Ma Maison. But there is work to be done to put this house in order.