For an authentic taste of France—country pâté with cornichons; grilled Mediterranean sea bass; prunes in Armagnac—go no farther than Newbury Street. La Voile, which opened in October, faithfully recreates the menu as well as the spirit of its namesake, a restaurant on the French Riviera. The co-owners, chef, and maitre d’ all came directly from France to open La Voile. The American on the team, Suzanne Eliastam, a longtime Weston resident, helped to transform a fanciful dream that began over a glass of wine into a full-fledged restaurant.
In Boston, a city where there are plenty of brasseries and bistros, but food prepared by native French chefs has become a rarity, La Voile proudly arrived in October to uphold tradition without the snootiness that often goes along with French dining. For starters, it’s a brasserie, not a fancy, Michelin three-star type of place. And co-owner Stéphane Santos and his staff try to put customers at ease right away with pleasantries instead of ultra-correct formality.
“We’re not trying to do French—we’re being it,” said Eliastam, who is officially the business developer, but also has done whatever else was needed, including translating for staff members (she speaks French fluently) and helping them find apartments. “For awhile, it looked like a scene from the film “Borat,” with everyone saying ‘Oh!’ ‘Oh!’ about all the new things they saw,” she says.
La Voile caps a long, varied series of international ventures for Eliastam, who lived in Weston for 16 years before moving to Boston last year to be closer to the restaurant. The native Californian, whose high school classmates were Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (“they were the nerds—I used to hang out in the garage with them after school”), first went abroad to work as a dental hygienist in Switzerland. While there, she also designed a line of ski clothes.
“I thought I could cook, too,” she recalls, laughing. She made lunch for a man she was dating, and thought she made a good impression. He responded by taking her to a restaurant and asking the waiter to tie a napkin around her eyes. “My date said the only way to learn to cook was to be able to taste the flavors blindfolded. This went on for many meals. I learned a lot.”
After Eliastam married a physician, they moved so he could work at the hospitals in Boston. As they looked for a place to buy a home, Eliastam says, “I fell in love with Weston—Land’s Sake, the Case Estates Arboretum, the whole area.” While raising her three children (the youngest is now 17), she maintained her interest in food and design by entertaining a lot, sometimes planning elaborate parties around a theme, such as “Casablanca.” She also kept up her international business ventures—designing maternity clothes for clients including Princess Diana and Phyllis George; developing real estate in Paris; and making decorative glass plates called Verre Unique. More recently, she helped a producer bring the Ultrasonic Rock Orchestra to the Wilbur Theater in Boston.
It was in Paris about 10 years ago that Eliastam met Pierre Honegger, the man who connected her with La Voile. An avid sailor, Honegger sometimes docked in Cannes, a small town on the French Riviera. He became a regular at La Voile au Vent, a waterfront restaurant there, and brought Eliastam as his guest. Soon, they discovered that La Voile au Vent owner Santos and his wife, Stephanie, were eager to open a restaurant in the U.S.
“I had always wanted a U.S. experience,” Santos now recalls as he takes a break from greeting guests in the dining room. “And when Suzanne brought us to Boston, it was very clear that we wanted to be here. It is the most European city in the U.S.”
It took about a year for Santos and Honegger, who became business partners, to close the restaurant in France and reopen in Boston. The restaurant seats 75 in two dining rooms joined by an entry hall. Featured prominently near the entry is a wine cooler from France with glass doors that was once a butcher’s cabinet. Also imported are the zinc bar top and the colossal, four-foot-tall Italian espresso machine behind it. Much of the décor in both rooms is nautical, playing off La Voile, which means “sail” in French, and the restaurant’s seaside origins. Honegger sent over models of ships to display in glass cases, plus photos of sailboats. Mirrors, soft lighting, dark wood trim, and waitstaff in traditional black pants with white jackets contribute to the authentic look and feel of the room.
In the kitchen, chef Sam Boussetta tries to replicate the menu at La Voile au Vent—with American ingredients. “I go to all the markets to see what tastes the best,” he says, speaking in French. Some ingredients, such as baby squid, have been difficult to track down. Others, such as herbs, don’t have quite the right American equivalent, so he has friends mail them.
What Boussetta puts on the menu does taste authentically French, starting with the bread, which is sliced and served in a specially designed linen bag lined with cherry pits, heated in the microwave, of all things, to keep the bread warm. The menu is written in French, with English translations underneath each item. Traditionalists will appreciate the Bone Marrow with Sea Salt and Toasted Country Bread ($8), and three house-made terrines ($12 each), including Duck Foie Gras. An Endive Salad with Apples, Walnuts & Roquefort Cheese ($10) is served with apple and endive chopped and molded in the center of the plate, and crisp, individual endive leaves arranged around. The Leeks in Vinaigrette “Les Halles” ($8) gets a similar presentation, with lettuce in the center and thin strips of leeks around the perimeter.
Naturally, entrées include Steak Frites ($22) with a choice of butter or green peppercorn sauce. Two specialty fish dishes, Grilled Sea Bass ($31) and Sole Meunière ($42) are presented whole, with the server then deftly de-boning them tableside. With the bass, a side dish of Brussels sprouts, green beans, and carrots is served in a mini cooking pot about four inches in diameter, complete with a lid. Bouillabaisse, the famed fish stew from Marseille, comes plain ($29) or with lobster ($43). Boussetta’s simple presentation uses a thick, saffron-laced broth to offset a few slices of potatoes, chunks of fish, and mussels. On the side are thin slices of baguette to spread with two kinds of mayonnaise (one the spicy, pepper-accented rouille; one more plain), sprinkle with shredded Gruyère cheese, and then float in the soup. The all-French wine list includes bottles from many small producers that Santos, and sommelier and general manager Philippe Canton-Lamousse have discovered, with many available by the glass.
Cheeses, presented on a rolling cart and cut to order ($12 or $19, depending on the number of selections), can be served as an appetizer to suit American tastes, or after the meal, as the French do. The Trio of Mini Desserts ($8), which changes according to the chef’s whim, is a good way to sample bite-sized servings of crème brulée and chocolate mousse, with a cookie and a shot of espresso. Traditionalists can go for the upside-down apple Tarte Tatin ($7). Dessert wines by the bottle or the glass, including Sauternes and Vouvray, can be ordered to accompany any of the desserts.
Eliastam is happy to have found a project that brings together her interests in design, entertaining, food, and travel. “I know I’ll never be a chef, but being involved fulfills a fantasy about working with food,” she says.
La Voile, 261 Newbury St., Boston