It was clear from the first course that dinner at Arômes (3520 Chestnut Ave.,  235-0035, aromesrestaurant.com) would be a delight: a small plate of perfectly pillowy gnocchi, topped with a foamy brown-butter sauce. It sounds simple, but this gnocchi was unlike any we’d had before. The plump little dumplings quivered under pressure from my fork before giving way to reveal the fresh-tasting ricotta tucked inside, and the flavors were complemented well by the small puddles of dark-green, puréed charred ramps that were hidden beneath the gnocchi. Somehow chef Steve Monnier had transformed butter, potatoes, cheese, and flour into a course that was simultaneously rich and light. I scraped every trace of the dish off my plate and eagerly waited to see what else Monnier had planned for us that evening.
Eating at Arômes (“aromas” in French), which describes its food as New American and French cuisine, requires a bit of a leap of faith. It’s a fixed six-course ($65) menu, which means you need to trust whatever Monnier has planned for the evening at his recently opened, 28-seat restaurant tucked away off the Avenue in Hampden (though there is a $45 option that allows diners to pick three of the courses). And Monnier is changing his locally sourced, seasonally focused menu weekly, keeping some courses while rotating out others; I visited just a few weeks ago, and already the courses have entirely changed. But you should embrace the uncertainty of it: Hand Monnier the reins and settle in for a delicious and surprising dinner.
I say surprising, because even though the paper menu lists some of the ingredients for each course, it doesn’t entirely prepare you for the creations that come out of the kitchen. The menu described the second course as merely “monkfish, crème fraiche on rye toast”—a dramatic understatement of the marvel we were served. Two small rectangles of thick rye bread were topped with a thin layer of creme fraiche and were surrounded by bright pink shavings of mild-tasting monkfish liver, which had been frozen, then shaved off, with the shavings stored in nitrogen to keep them solid (the two servers who were jointly waiting on the whole restaurant were happy to explain how each dish was created when asked, although one was consistently a bit more knowledgeable than the other). I caught an aromatic whiff of the lime zest delicately sprinkled on top as I leaned over the dish to admire it. The pleasantly mild-flavored monkfish shavings dissolved on your tongue and paired well with the savory bread and the fresh cream.
The fourth course was similarly impressive: The chef had seared an onion, then roasted it with a vanilla bean, making it perfectly browned around the side. It was placed on a heap of onion purée, topped with shortbread made with onion-infused butter, and surrounded with a light-green apple and sorrel juice. It made for a mild and earthy dish, but with the sweetness from the onion and the shortbread and the occasional taste of tang from the apple and sorrel juice, it was never boring. And as we ate, my dining companion and I couldn’t help but wonder aloud at the inventiveness of the dish—onion-infused shortbread? Who would think of that?
But the chef was clearly not operating under innovation for innovation’s sake—all of the unexpected flavor combinations made for an utter delight. And he showed his ability to cook, plain and simple, with the last savory dish of the evening in particular. A few leaves of braised cabbage served as the bed for a few roasted white carrots, airy potato puffs, and a finger-length cut of pan-seared pork belly. When I bit into the pork belly, my eyes compulsively closed in ecstasy over the meat, with deliciously gelatinous fat, that practically melted on my tongue as I bit into it. I might know how to pan-sear meat, but it was clear that I would never be able to replicate Monnier’s skill. (We weren’t the only ones impressed by the pork belly: A gentleman at the table next to us quietly breathed “holy fuck” as he took his first bite of it.)
Topping it off was a few sprinkles of a crumble that provided a sharp burst of spice—when we asked what it was, our server informed us that it was caramelized yogurt with currylike spices. (Again: caramelized yogurt? Who would think of that?) The savory meat, the mild vegetables, the crunch of the potato puffs, and the spice of the crumble made for a magnificent balance of textures and flavors—our only request would have been for the dish to have a few more bits of the crumble to give it just a touch more spice, but this was a minor detail for a dish that was pretty damn close to perfect.
We wound down after this culinary climax with dessert, a sweet potato pot de crème with a beautifully light and creamy consistency and a sprinkling of just enough cardamom and crumbs of black walnut biscotti to give a bit of depth to the texture and flavor. We sipped contentedly on our mild herbal teas (an additional $2.50) and marveled at what an enjoyable experience our dinner had been. The delivery of the courses had been well-spaced, with time to chat leisurely between dishes but not enough time passing to make us think the kitchen was lagging. And while we had at first thought the decor of the restaurant was sparse—exposed brick walls were paired with simple wooden tables, with vintage Edison-style light bulbs dangling from the ceiling—we realized that the simple interior design had allowed us to focus without distraction on the culinary experience. We’re hoping to go back soon to have Monnier guide us through that experience again.
Arômes is open Tuesday-Thursday 5-9 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 5-10 p.m. The restaurant is BYOB.