(L’Espalier Dining Room)
L’Espalier is probably the most famous restaurant in Boston. In fact, its self-congratulatory website states that “L’Espalier is often credited with being the first independently owned restaurant to bring haute cuisine to Boston, and doing so with a trailblazing commitment to using local, fresh ingredients from New England.” To his credit, Chef Frank McCLelland has received a number of accolades, including the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northeast in 2007. The restaurant holds a bit of an empire, with their own farm and a sister restaurant located next door. I was completely unfamiliar with Boston’s high-end dining, and so I ventured to the city for the day, making a lunch reservation at L’Espalier and dinner at Menton, the latter of which was really the impetus for the trip. I decided to include L’Espalier basically because they are open for lunch. Needless to say, my expectations for them weren’t especially high; perhaps because it has been around for so long, I was expecting an experience along the lines of Tru in Chicago, with stylized modern French cuisine let down by muted flavors.
L’Espalier was founded in 1978, although there really isn’t much of a sense of history to the place because they relocated to the current building in 2008. In fact, there is absolutely no geographic specificity to either the façade or the dining room, with none of the emblematic “Boston elegance” that one finds at other high-end Boston restaurants like Menton or No. 9 Park. Instead, the space has a bland luxury to it, similar to a hotel dining room. The only stylistic flourish was a hanging light fixture shaped like a Christmas ornament; while it added some originality to the design, I actually found it hideous and the pointed lights were not attractive and looked almost threatening, a bit like a sea urchin. Although it wasn’t very striking, the space was very comfortable; the padded chairs, metallic tones, and Christofle flatware imparted a clean feel. The restaurant is located on the third floor, and there is definitely the impression of an “ivory tower,” as the space is completely secluded from the bustle of the street below. It was raining outside and this made me appreciate the space even more; I didn’t mind being segregated from the street with the threatening weather. I also had a nice window seat that gave me a perch from which to observe the commotion on Boylston Street:
At lunch there are three different menu options: a la carte, seasonal degustation, and the “chef’s tasting journey.” The menu is disorienting because it feels as though they are trying to craft multiple identities; the caviar service and extended tasting options are in line with a traditional fine dining restaurant; on the other hand, they advertised their purveyors at every opportunity, including their affiliated farm, which suggested a more farm-to-table philosophy. Farm-to-table cuisine is very popular in New England and maybe they feel as though they have to play that game given the setting, but it was difficult to get a clear understanding of the restaurant’s personality. At any rate, I selected the chef’s tasting journey since my server described it as improvisational and more open-ended than the seasonal degustation. Accordingly, there were no course descriptions and my server told me that there were roughly 10 courses. My expectations were for a menu that wasn’t quite so beholden to the starter-fish-bird-red meat-dessert progression of a traditional tasting menu—it seems that more and more restaurants are moving away from the traditional tasting format and I wanted to see what L’Espalier could do without being restricted by the conventions of a classical progression.
There were three bread offerings: sourdough, multigrain, and focaccia. At lunch, the focaccia is the only bread they make in house; at dinner, they make more offerings and don’t serve the sourdough and multigrain. This is a good thing since the focaccia was the only one that was palatable—fortunately, it was amazing and its slight firm texture and sharp notes of rosemary made it among of the most satisfying focaccia I’ve had.
The first course was a local oyster with paddlefish roe. This was the same opening as that of the seasonal degustation, and while it’s nice to see them using Massachusetts oysters, this really felt like something of a cursory gesture in fine dining and more or less a throwaway. I don’t understand what precedent they expect to set with an offering like this—the caviar wasn’t very assertive and while it’s hard to be too critical of something that’s effectively functioning as an amuse bouche, I still wish the meal hadn’t begun with such a clichéd offering.
The next course was a fried egg from their farm, perched atop a potato pancake and alongside Siberian Sturgeon Caviar. This course was spot-on as the egg was bursting with flavor and the caviar held a pronounced brininess. However, it did call into question exactly why they would open the meal with the markedly inferior paddlefish caviar—this basically showcased just how mediocre the ingredients were in the preceding dish. I would have preferred it if this course had begun the meal, and the precise composition set a strong precedent for the courses to follow.
The advantage of solo dining is that provides the opportunity for a more intimate dynamic with the servers, and the service at L’Espalier was outstanding, almost on par with Ria for the best I’ve experienced. One of my favorite aspects of restaurants is the way in which the diner is both spectator and participant and this dual function is particularly pronounced when solo dining as one can more squarely direct their attention toward the cuisine and restaurant staff. I had a number of extended conversations with both my head server (a fellow U Chicago graduate) and my runner, who was also a student at Harvard. It was clear that my runner was being trained as a server, as he took a more participatory role than most runners—my three-plus hour meal was effectively an extended dialogue with my two servers.
Moving on to one of my favorite proteins, course 3 was “Butter Poached Casco Bay Lobster with Cauliflower Puree and Lobster Bisque Foam.” The foam was poured tableside and my server informed me that it was extracted from the bisque offering from the lunchtime a la carte menu. This was an instance where the decision to use foam actually paid off—it kept the bisque from overpowering the delicate lobster claw. Still, I would have appreciated the addition of a liquor as it would have added more explosiveness to the flavor. As it was, this dish tasted great but it was very much “what you see is what you get.” While the composition was similarly precise to that of Ria (no small accomplishment), it lacked the surprising ingredient that made Ria’s cuisine so memorable (and sorely missed.)
Next was “Foie Gras Royale with Port Wine Veil, Chartreuse Meringue, and Pistachio Sable.” I love the combination between the creamy liver and the sweet wine, and this reminded me of the sangria-poached foie gras from Sixteen Restaurant in Chicago. It’s interesting that Sixteen and L’Espalier both serve their foie with similar ingredients as the ambience and overall vibe of the two restaurants is so similar. I was torn when my server presented this because while I love foie gras (particularly cold preparations), the course progression (oyster-caviar-lobster-foie gras) could not have been more typical. Needless to say, this didn’t resonate like a “journey,” even if the execution of each course was very satisfying.
The following dish was the first that wasn’t predictable. Delivered as an intermezzo, the title was “White Wine and Lemon Granite with Sumac Gel and Crème Chantilly Ice Cream.” There was also a maple tuille. Referring to this as a palate cleanser was misleading on a couple of levels. First, the size was enormous; and second, the flavors were (overly) aggressive. The sumac was rancid and the ice wasn’t shaved finely enough. This was the most experimental dish thus far, probably attributable to the fact that it was the first pastry offering. I appreciate the attempt to include a pastry offering earlier in the meal, but this felt more like an interruption than an integration.
The first of the heavier proteins was “Butter Poached Novia Scotia Halibut with Savoy Cabbage, House Made Linguica, and New Potatoes.” One of the pleasures of dining is observing the plating style of each restaurant, and I particularly enjoyed the aesthetics of this course; the potato and linguica were symmetrically arranged and a nice counterpoint to the abstraction of the puree. Overall, the composition combined the pristine aesthetics of Ria or Sixteen with the abstraction of Charlie Trotter’s. This was also my favorite from a flavor standpoint, in no small part because halibut is my favorite fish. There was no surprise to the dish and the ingredients weren’t revisionist—pairing halibut with ham/sausage is pretty common—but the execution was clean and precise, corresponding with the rhythms of the décor.
It was fortuitous that my favorite fish should be followed by my favorite meat, and the next course was “Roasted Duck Breast with Onion Puree, Chantarelles, and Baby Carrots.” A duck jus was poured tableside. Droplets of puree were manifest in a number of courses and constitute a salient motif in their composition style. At this point, I had resigned myself to the fact that the progression wasn’t going to be a “journey” and indeed duck was a pretty textbook offering at this place in the meal. Still, the French derivation makes this exactly the sort of dish that I had been expecting from this restaurant—I couldn’t have asked for a more skilled preparation. The ingredient pairing was intuitive, and while it lacked ambition, there was clear intentionality behind each element of the composition.
The red meat course was “Roasted Lamb tenderloin, Farm Herb Sausage, Caramelized Fennel, and Roasted Figs.” The pristine arrangement recalled the earlier courses, although the flavor was a let-down as the meat was a bit over-cooked—a problem since the meat was inherently quite lean. The muted flavor was along the lines of what I’d expected from the meal, although this was the first course since the oyster that disappointed.
The next offering was “Grand Fromage,” a selection of 7 cheeses. Accompaniments included a terrific zucchini bread, flatbread, apricot chutney, and honey. At dinner, they roll out a cheese cart and I’m not sure why they opt not to do this at lunch. At any rate, the formal cheese course corresponds with the restaurant’s conservative identity, although again, it was at odds with the ambition suggested by the menu title. A composed cheese course might do a better job showcasing the kitchen’s creativity.
Transitioning to the desserts, the palate cleanser was peach sorbet with crushed lemon shortbread and droplets of raspberry syrup. This was much tamer than the earlier palate cleanser, and while it was nothing I haven’t had before, the flavors were comfortable and refreshing.
Instead of coursing out multiple desserts, L’Espalier combines three desserts onto one plate under the title “Dessert Tasting.” There was bourbon milk ice cream, vanilla bean panna cotta with pistachio crumble, and “chocolate decadence cake.” These desserts did not have the experimentation that I’d observed from reading dinner reviews of L’Espalier, and serving the three items separately (while still on the same plate) felt like a cautious move. That said, the execution was precise and the immaculate compositions were in line with the style established in the preceding courses.
After my dessert, I chatted for awhile with my server and he likened L’Espalier to Charlie Trotter’s, not so much because of the cuisine but because of their standing within their cities. Accordingly, he mentioned that L’Espalier has been a training ground for many prominent Boston chefs. I never would have thought to make this assessment as the cuisine at Trotter’s was much more experimental, although the comparison highlights how restaurants are defined not only through their cuisine but for the relationship they have with their community.
While there wasn’t anything particularly remarkable about L’Espalier, the cuisine was still delicious and the experience punctuated by the extended dialogue with my two servers. To their credit, both the kitchen and the wait staff are meticulous and leave nothing to chance, and it’s comforting to dine at a restaurant in which every action has intentionality. My experience is also positively colored by the fact that the cost of the lunchtime tasting journey is $100, exactly half the cost of the dinnertime extended tasting. I do feel like the “tasting journey” label is a misnomer; the menu progression had a standard linear progression from light proteins to savory ones, followed by cheese and desserts. I had been expecting more of the blending between savory and pastry items/ingredients that has become popular in fine dining restaurants. In this regard, L’Espalier is a bit outmoded and I feel like I could have had this exact meal five years ago. At the same time, the cuisine firmly corresponds with the conservative décor; while it would be nice to see them take more risk, extensive experimentation might feel disorienting. Still, I feel the most rewarding restaurants are those that are able to synchronize contrasting elements and L’Espalier did not succeed in this regard; while this kept it from being one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had this year, the polished execution is satisfying and I would not hesitate to return.