L’Espalier (December 2012)

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(L’Espalier Dining Room)

When planning our recent day trip to Boston, my mother and I had planned to head to Toro for lunch, only to realize that Saturday is the only day in which they serve only dinner. With this in mind, we decided to have our midday meal at L’Espalier, a restaurant at which I had experienced a “Chef’s Tasting Journey” just two months earlier. My impression from the previous lunch was that L’Espalier has precise technique but failed to deliver on the ambitious promise of the “Tasting Journey” label. Even if I didn’t find the restaurant especially challenging, I felt that the restaurant left very little to chance and I knew that we would have an enjoyable return meal.

My favorite aspect of my October meal was the plating compositions; as someone drawn to the visual stimuli of the restaurant experience, I was curious to see how their winter menu items would compare with the autumnal ones. While it could be seen as a backhanded compliment to say that the pleasures of L’Espalier relate as much to the plating style as to the taste, I think it’s a testament to how they’ve perfected the aesthetic of their savory dishes. At the same time, one of the themes for this meal was the relationship between the savory dishes and the pastry program, not only from a cooking standpoint but also aesthetically. During my last meal, the precise compositions of the main courses clashed with the pastries, which were either messy (the palate cleanser) or bland (the dessert proper). Having decided to order the Chef’s Tasting Journey once again, my mother and I were curious to see how the restaurant would negotiate its savory and pastry departments.

Our arrival was a case study in excellent customer service; the maitre’d mentioned to us that L’Espalier tracks their diners, and so they wanted to sit us at the same window-side table at which I’d enjoyed my previous meal. The warm welcome was much appreciated, not only because I loved the corner-window table location, but because it went a long way toward counteracting what is a relatively conservative dining room—a space that is luxurious but lacks a true centerpiece. We did, however, enjoy a great view of the activity on Boylston Street.

Having already been informed that L’Espalier tracks their diners, it came as no surprise when our server mentioned that he was aware of my scallop allergy. After informing him of our decision to order the Chef’s Tasting Journey, he asked whether we were feeling adventurous—this was welcome news to me as I’d found my last meal conservative, and so of course I mentioned that I was open to anything.

As this was a weekend, the dining room was almost filled to capacity. Most of the patrons appeared to order either a la carte or the smaller seasonal tasting, although there was one other party (seated near us) enjoying the extended tasting. For the first half of our meal, we were timed almost in synch with the other party, which was fine but made me feel almost as though we were dining in their company.

The meal began with a pair of canapés. The one on the right is a gruyere gougere; I can’t remember the one on the left, although it looks pretty self-explanatory. I’ve had gruyere gougeres preface extended tastings in the past, and so I didn’t find it very exciting.

DSCF0209The bread service included two offerings, both made in house. I can’t remember what they were and didn’t remember to take a photo.

Our very interesting first course was a dish I’d seen from other reviews of L’Espalier: egg custard with Siberian Sturgeon Caviar. My previous meal at L’Espalier also began with an egg/caviar dish, although that one was a more traditional presentation with a fried egg and blini; this iteration was not only delicious but also more adventurous. Unfortunately, the caviar had already sunk by the time I took this picture. I have seen reviews where this dish is served in a shallower vessel, which might have mitigated the possibility of the caviar falling from sight. However, I actually appreciated serving it in the tubular structure as it illuminated one of the contributions made by modernist cuisine, namely the extent to which it often forces the diner to be time-sensitive. It’s nice to see a restaurant that makes the fourth dimension an active component of the meal, as it distinguishes the restaurant from painting, sculpture, and the other static arts. In general, I would argue that restaurants would be taken more seriously as objects of study if they more actively worked to control the diner’s attention throughout the meal, and I find that restaurants that do so engender heightened engagement.

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The next dish really showcased the L’Espalier plating technique, and included a warm oyster, smoked bone marrow, faux gnocchi, and charred leak. The flavors of this dish were luxurious (a result of the marrow and oyster cream), although the charred leak added flavor and textural counterpoint that made this an exceptionally balanced dish. If I were tasked with selecting an iconic L’Espalier composition this would be it; I think L’Espalier’s compositions are best conveyed in overhead high-angle shot as the perspective captures the mix between intricacy and blatant simplicity that I find especially appealing. One of the potential drawbacks to the overhead perspective is that it flattens the composition, although oysters are flat enough that I think the two-dimensional viewpoint remains appropriate.

DSCF0220Our following course was another seafood preparation, and included butter poached lobster tail with red curry gel and Maine mussel. The bold, forthright composition recalled that of the oyster dish, although this one was unified by the ying-and-yang motif involving the mollusk, lobster, and red curry. The lobster itself was excellent, although we agreed that the red curry overpowered the lobster.

DSCF0223For the third course, we received separate offerings since my mother does not care for foie gras. As a replacement, she was served roasted beets, sunflower, hazelnut vinaigrette, and carrot-cardamom ice cream. She enjoyed the vegetarian dish, which played with textures rather than falling into the vegetarian trap of simply serving a collection of vegetables that would normally exist as accompaniments to a protein.

DSCF0227I had enjoyed the foie gras on my first visit, but this preparation was even more enjoyable. The torchon of liver was wrapped in a black truffle “veil” and accompanied by black walnut powder, kumquat-honey compote, and apricot-raisin bread. This was one of the most successful foie gras preparations I’ve ever had—the creamy liver was balanced nicely by the deeper truffle and the nutty powder. I also appreciate the textural experimentation; turning the black truffle into a gel and wrapping it around the torchon allowed me to taste the distinct ingredients while retaining the characteristically smooth mouth feel of the liver.

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“Molecular gastronomy” is a term that has, rightly or wrongly, resisted a canonical, agreed-upon definition. However, I think there is a shared understanding that one of the hallmarks of “mg” cuisine is textural experimentation; in this regard, I think dishes like the foie gras and egg/caviar assimilate within the polarizing genre, managing to do so in an accessible way.

As a palate cleanser, we were brought an offering from the pastry kitchen, a somewhat messy dish involving oranges, brown butter ice cream, liquid nitrogen, and pear gel. Obviously, there were a number of textures at work here and the size was probably excessive for a palate cleanser, but the taste was refreshing. At the same time, after the striking compositions we’d received thus far, it was a bit of a letdown to receive a dish that didn’t quite have the composed look of the earlier plates.

DSCF0229Our savory fish course was local grey sole with Nantucket bay scallop, mandarin orange, pine nut, and warm lemon curd. In lieu of the scallop, I received a larger portion of fish. The sole was delicately cooked and retained its soft texture, although the lemon curd was too severe for my taste—a shame since I love sole. Unfortunately, this was the second seafood course that was hindered by pairing it with an overpowering accompaniment.

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The first meat dish was more successful and probably my favorite of the meal. When our server delivered this, I was taken aback as I had been expecting a bird course. However, this was one of the more challenging dishes of the afternoon—pork jowl with shrimp, garlic puree, and olive oil. I expected this dish to taste overly salty, but the shrimp mediated the garlic and pork, resulting in an immensely satisfying mix of flavors.

DSCF0234Our next course allowed us to break free from the other table enjoying the tasting, as we were brought a bonus offering—our server sensed that I had wanted to try a bird course and brought us tasting portions of a dish from the dinner menu: guinea hen two ways with turnip-black truffle risotto and pear butter. The accompanying sauce was foie gras jus. I enjoyed the meat, although the star of the dish was the risotto, which harmonized a wide array of light and dark flavors.

DSCF0236Unfortunately, luxuriating over the dishes caused me to lose sight of my archival agenda and so I forgot to take pictures of the next few courses. Our red meat dish was “Cassoulet du Languedoc,” with roasted lamb loin, sweetbreads, and herb sausage. It was also paired with fermented heirloom Maine beans and black garlic. This dish was similar to the lamb dish I received on my previous visit; while I loved the loin and sweetbreads, I remain unconvinced that the herb sausage adds a productive dimension.

With the savories complete, our next offering was the cheese tasting; we were initially served a collection of six, accompanied by zucchini bread, crackers, quince compote and honey. L’Espalier has a renowned cheese program and they were quite enjoyable. When our server cleared our plates, we chatted at length about their cheese program and in a generous gesture, he brought us a second helping with a completely different assortment of cheeses.

Our palette cleanser consisted of apple gelee, plums, and apricot sorbet. I found it better-composed than the earlier palate cleanser and it served its purpose quite well.

In my past meal, I lamented the conservative appearance of my dessert, and so I was quite thankful with the one we received to close out this meal: caramel pots de crème, spiced carrot cake, dark chocolate tuille, blood orange fluid gel, and an ice cream that I can’t recall. The flavors were precise and intuitive—perfectly in line with the style of the savories.

DSCF0243This lunch was a clear improvement over my past meal at L’Espalier. When returning to a restaurant, the experience necessarily involves some combination of replication and newness, and this meal evinced a happy medium between the two. I was particularly impressed by how there were no repeat dishes from my lunch from two months prior, and this menu progression did justice to the ambitious “Tasting Journey” designation. In particular, the pork jowl dish—the one that surprised me the most in the progression—was in the end the dish I found most satisfying. The technique was every bit as precise as my past visit, but this meal showcased more daring ingredient pairings and a playful experimentation with texture that made this one of the most accessible and appealing examples of molecular gastronomy I’ve experienced. While I found that the lobster and sole dishes were hindered by overbearing accompaniments, the taste was otherwise on par with the visual spectacle of the compositions. I do still feel that the pastry program could be more successfully integrated with the savories, as demonstrated by the first palate cleanser, but the main desert revealed an ability to harmonize the two components of the kitchen.

In the end, I think the virtue of L’Espalier lies in its ability to synthesize modern and traditional dining, not only with regard to food but to the entire experience as a whole. The service is very much in the grand luxury tradition one would find at a restaurant like White Barn Inn in Maine or Tru in Chicago, yet the cuisine was quite modern. Although L’Espalier has now lasted for 25 years, the restaurant has not grown static or decadent, offering a most satisfying (tasting) journey.

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2 thoughts on “L’Espalier (December 2012)

  1. This certainly seems to be a better meal than your previous one. But having one main dessert is somewhat anticlimactic. The use of citrus, though, as a tying motif throughout the meal is interesting.

    Btw, I appreciate your experiment with the overhead perspective. I agree with you that it is quite appropriate for the plating style of the restaurant.

    • Glad you enjoyed the overhead camera angle. I do agree with your comment on the dessert, although this was still quite a lot of food for a lunch. I believe that the dinner tasting journey has at least one more dessert, but it is twice the cost and so the lunchtime one is a better value.

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