Second Helpings

Leaving France for America

I've talked about a lot of the town's French restaurants this week, but one has been left out in the cold: Aix. There are a couple of reasons for this, but the most important is that Aix is no longer really a French restaurant.

It was once. Seared foie gras, simple roasted chicken and Provençal-style polenta, bowls of frites. French with a little California twist, since owner and exec chef Rachel Wolcott did time at Stars in California. But these days, Aix doesn't even call itself a French restaurant. Currently, it's either a "Restaurant + Wine Bar" (according to the website) or "a modern American bistro" (according to the menus).

I stopped in last Friday for lunch and was looking over the new(ish) menu when I had one of those moments where — too late to leave — I realized there was nothing I really wanted to eat. A few salads with assorted proteins, a bison burger, a grilled cheese sandwich, a BBQ pork sandwich, a BLT with ahi and wasabi mayo, a couple of entrees, a couple of flatbread pizzas. You know why I never spent much time in California and never tried to work there? I couldn't stand what became of California cuisine after the Bolinas rebellion of Alice Waters and company leaked out into the greater culinary gestalt. And to me, Aix's noontime board seemed perfectly indicative of that.

The evening lineup looked more promising. Aix goes bistro after dark, offering mussels with chorizo and white wine, charcuterie plates, braised short ribs with winter squash and parsnip, and pan-seared salmon with shallots, mushrooms and (again) parsnip mousseline. The dinner menu has dishes I could get excited about — neither entirely French nor entirely Californian nor entirely "American bistro," but rather a gentle collision of all three.

And even though I did end up having a good, all-starch lunch of perfectly cooked frites sprinkled with coarse salt and parsley and mascarpone-softened risotto, beautifully al dente, touched with an acidic bite of lemon and spiked with fat pieces of wild mushroom and pancetta, I still wondered what, exactly, was the point of taking a place that was once nicely focused on presenting an American take on Provençal cuisine and turning it so diffuse. Of removing from it the depth of cuisine and experience that had once made it so fine.