At 25 Kingston St., Peking Tom's once carried a tiki torch for the American Chinese restaurants of yore, offering crab Rangoon, spare ribs, and a party located somewhere between a frat house and the Forbidden City.
Gone are the crimson walls and pictures of sloe-eyed Maoist beauties, the scorpion bowls slurped through neon straws, the girls dressed in Juicy and their new generation cellphone-toting boys. In their place are chilly white tile walls and pictures of train stations, Beaujolais slurped from stemless glasses, and a laid-back after-work crowd.
Now the address is home to Kingston Station, which carries a gas-lit torch for the railway stations of yore. That's presumably what its decor is modeled after (though the white tiles bring to mind a urinal as much as they do a terminal), and if eating in a train station is something one otherwise tries to avoid, no matter. For theatergoers and the nine-to-fivers of Downtown Crossing, a brasserie is a welcome addition.
The chef is Matthew O'Neil, who has worked at Copia and Prezza. Owner Ky Nguyen is a local boy who moved to Manhattan, worked at Pastis, and then brought its "New York bistro concept to Boston," as Kingston Station's website says. (Good idea, as the folks at Gaslight can attest.) Pastis is almost always crowded. Kingston Station isn't quite there yet. On several visits, it seems to be mainly catching the overflow from J.J. Foley's and the Good Life.
All aboard. How many places in town can you get a Sapporo with your steak frites? This may be a bistro, but it doesn't pretend to be French. The onion soup and roast chicken are here, but so are ribs with baked beans and a burger. It's called Kingston Station, not La Gare, after all.
Still, it's fluent enough in the idiom that it can sometimes pass. One night, that onion soup is enough to give a distinguished gentleman in sport coat and chapeau, sitting alone at a round table, a "Ratatouille" moment. He looks as transported by the rich broth's layered tastes - beef, onions, sherry - and topping of browned gruyere as the critic Anton Ego did by his eggplant in the movie. It is a very good version.
So are the steak frites. Even when you order the meat medium-rare, it tends to come rare, as you'd get it in France. The skirt steak is deeply flavorful, the meat coming as close to melting in your mouth as the chewy cut can; it's enhanced by a topping of maitre d'hotel butter. Watercress served on the side is supposedly truffled, but it just tastes like watercress to us, and its sharpness helps cut the rich meat and butter. The frites are hand-cut, skin on, and nicely fried.
You can also get those frites topped with gruyere, scallions, and truffle oil; this is what nachos dream of being when they grow up. And "pork and beans" is what the canned stuff aspires to. The pork in question is ribs, the meat still with a nice bit of chew to it, not too soft. They're served on top of tender baked beans laced with pancetta.
A pork chop, on the other hand, is dry despite being stuffed with prosciutto and gruyere and served with vinegar peppers and a red wine sauce. All these flavors fail to mesh. Herb-roasted chicken is simpler, served with mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and bacon. It tastes good, but again the meat is dry. And the seared tuna in a Nicoise salad tastes like it's scared to be fish - it's as mild as chicken.
The Station burger is proud to be a burger, and breakfast too. It's topped with a fried egg, bacon, and more gruyere (somewhere in the kitchen there's a huge wheel quickly getting whittled down). The giant patty is on equally giant bread, and we have to discard the top half to eat it. When we cut into the egg, the yolk runs all over the burger. It might not be finger food anymore, but it's delicious.
Wash it down with a PBR on draft, James Bond's Vesper martini, or wine from the short and basic list: a house red (George Duboeuf), Beaujolais, pinot noir, cabernet, and merlot; a chardonnay, pinot grigio, viognier, sauvignon blanc, and riesling. Each comes by the glass, half-carafe, carafe, and bottle. There's also a small reserve list. The waiters - though pleasantly dry in humor and extremely helpful (one chased us down the street one night to deliver forgotten leftovers) - could be more knowledgeable in the wine department. It's the first time I've heard someone recommend a viognier when one of the diners is eating steak frites.
Things could also be stronger in the dessert department. Chocolate chip cookies taste burned, like they were reheated in the microwave. Bread pudding bears little resemblance to bread pudding. Sorbet is icy. Kingston Station serves George Howell's organic Terroir coffee, a nice touch. It deserves a better accompaniment.
And Kingston Station deserves a bigger crowd. Maybe they should bring back Peking Tom's scorpion bowl. It would be great with steak frites.
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.