Saul, on Smith Street’s increasingly hot restaurant strip, looks more like an Italian social club than a bistro with buzz: a modern brick front, a blind-covered picture window, and no sign whatever, unless you count the large “S” on the glass door. Beyond the portieres, you’re in a small room with brick walls, an acoustic-tile ceiling, and a bar at one end. The judicious addition of mirrors and low lighting insures that the sparse decor, no doubt inherited from some former tenant, will welcome the neighborhood, from dating couples to office friends and families. The menu is simple: seven starters and five mains, with only a massive sirloin topping the $20 mark. It’s supplemented by a few daily specials. In short, the perfect spot for my favorite octogenarians.
Arriving on a frigid February night that was a bit too much for those portieres, we were rapidly seated. A basket filled with thick slices of a country-style grain loaf came in a blink, as did a chef’s treat of frothy tomato soup topped with snipped chives and shaved parmesan. Mom spotted the star dish before I did, so I took the dieter’s high road of a salad of roasted beets punctuated with croutons and arranged around a pinwheel of haricots verts ($7). Real man that he is, Uncle Herbie scarfed down a quichelike onion tart dotted with huge chunks of bacon ($7). But though I’m so enamored of anatids that when somebody says duck, I raise my fork instead of lowering my head, I could only gaze at Mom’s confit, a full quarter bird cooked to crackling crispness and served with half a roasted pear stuffed with crumbled gorgonzola and walnuts ($8). It was all I could do not to mug her.
Mains were equally spectacular: a perfect roast chicken accompanied by a sauce of creamy roasted garlic ($15), a massive pork chop teaming up with a cake of buttery potato gratin and pearl-onion-flecked haricots verts, and the aforementioned megasirloin ($21), complete with light, butter-laden mashed potatoes that revitalized the culinary cliché and inspired taciturn Herbie to opine, “They ain’t playin’ around here.”
The temperature was more moderate when I returned several weeks later with a restaurateur friend and dibs on appetizers. This time the chef’s complimentary offering was a small wedge of the quiche with a dab of dressed alfalfa sprouts. My friend was seduced by the foie gras starter ($11) and a skate wing special, while I noted approvingly that the waiter offered not only the dish but its price ($17). The foie gras went down with a purr, and the deboned skate, its sauce faintly scented with capers, was the cat’s meow. I liked my seared scallops ($19) in their porcini puddle, and enjoyed the anise-tinged veggie medley too. But this meal peaked early, as I’d hoped it would. Crisp yet tender, playing the granular sweetness of the pear against the pungent gorgonzola, my duck was so generous that I didn’t mind giving a bite to my properly impressed companion, and so divine that when I left much later, my contented daze was still filled with thoughts of Daffy.