Part of the strength of Boston’s dining scene is the capacity of the local chefs to surprise us with fresh interpretations of old tropes. Neo-Colonial cuisine? If it’s delicious, why not? Traditional Thai dressed up with Western technique? Yes, please! Yet amid that innovation, classic cuisines still hold their own, and for good reason. It’s gratifying to find a hallowed veteran like Jacky Robert, who has been flexing his well-honed French cooking chops in Boston since before many Improper readers were born, in a new location. His latest stop is Ma Maison in Beacon Hill, where he continues to hoe the familiar furrow of everyday French bistro fare.
The 50-seat room, largely unchanged from its prior incarnation as Pierrot Bistrot, oozes quintessential Parisian neighborhood atmosphere: exposed old brick, brass rails, cordovan banquettes, white tablecloths, candles on the tables, sterling tableware mounted decoratively on one wall, big chalkboard specials menu, ceiling fans, Art Nouveau sconces, flowerboxes in the windows. Django and accordion music plays on the stereo, but it all feels sincere, not like some Epcot Center pastiche.
The meal starts with an excellent baguette and good butter. Starters hit familiar comfort notes, as in a carrot-ginger vichyssoise ($7) that takes more color than flavor from its non-traditional accents. A generous slice of Uncle Lucien’s country pâté ($8) is a reminder that charcuterie has been around a lot longer than our gastropubs. Some excellent house-smoked salmon ($14) tops a chewy, niblet-laden corn pancake dressed with a bit of crème fraîche and a few capers, simple and fine. Gruyère and Muenster onion soup ($9) benefits from a good beef stock and restraint in the gooey topping. Maine lobster bisque ($10) features deep lobster-body flavor and a generous amount of lobster pieces.
The chicken du jour ($22), a simple roast half-chicken on one visit, boasts lovely, crisp, well-seasoned skin and nestles atop a mound of creamy pommes puree, though its breast meat is dry enough to require the accompanying excellent pan gravy. Braised short ribs bourguignon ($27) is rich, alternately tender and well-browned, and paired with crisp-crusted croquette potato. The hefty sirloin steak frites ($29) gets points for excellent hand-cut fries and a beautiful Béarnaise sauce, though one could wish for a smaller cut of better-quality meat.
Among entrees, the nightly offal-centric specials tend to shine most consistently, as in the smashing bargain that is tripes à la provençale ($14), tender tripe in a rich tomato sauce with the lovely, smoky accent of Spanish paprika, and veal kidneys &ldquoldquo;à l’ancienne” ($26), reminiscent of sweetbreads cooked a surprising medium-rare, topped with a creamy, vividly tangy, mushroom-rich sauce and served on rice with carrots and asparagus. These again echo the fact that some of our biggest dining trends of the past decade are merely a rediscovery of elements the French have extolled for ages.
Desserts also hit some Gallic high notes. A cheese course (five cuts for $14, two for $6) is served properly from the trolley (with gloves, at the right temperature) accompanied by dried fruits and spiced nuts. Crème brûlée ($8) with blueberries and mousse au chocolat ($8) with whipped cream are both familiar and exemplary. Worth splurging to hit the minimum order of two is the Grand Marnier soufflé ($10) dosed tableside with a pour of crème anglaise: eggy, ethereal, steamy, sweet, delectable.
The wine list offers some occasionally plonky wines by the glass ($10-$18; 17-ounce carafe, $26-$29), including a quaffable Sancerre ($12) and a pretty rough Bordeaux ($10). Better to bring a friend and mine the bottle list for bargains, like 2013 Domaine Bégude ($34), a modest, bracing, light-bodied pinot noir from Languedoc-Roussillon, or the 2011 Chateau Paveil de Luze ($65), a dark, roundly silky cabernet/merlot from Margaux. Aperitifs include standbys like the Americano ($8), a refreshing Campari/sweet vermouth highball, and the dry-vermouth-like Lillet blanc ($8). For afters, the sweet, insistently herbal monastery cordial Green Chartreuse ($12) offers good digestive properties.
If there’s an uncharacteristic note in the details that compose this emblematic French-bistro experience, it’s the cheeriness of the mostly French-accented waitstaff, who are uniformly more smiling and accommodating than their dour, workmanlike colleagues across the pond. It’s also a quieter room than is currently fashionable, enabling actual conversation at the table without shouting, doubtless a boon to its largely older, prosperous-looking Beacon Hill regulars. There’s little of the relentless novelty that draws throngs to Boston’s current It Places. Instead, Ma Maison merely shows Robert still in fine form after all these years, albeit doing a nostalgia tour featuring his greatest hits rather than offering new material. For those seeking respite from the cacophony of the new, or a lesson in why this classic form continues to endure, it’s a welcome oasis.
-House-smoked salmon with corn pancake
-Maine lobster bisque
-Braised short ribs bourguignon
-Tripes à la provençale
-Veal kidneys “à l’ancienne”
-Grand Marnier soufflé
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 11 am-10 pm
Parking: Metered street spaces
Liquor: Beer, wine and cordials
Ma Maison 272 Cambridge St., Boston (617-725-8855) mamaisonboston.com