Monday, October 29, 2007

Stella Finds Its Groove

Would Stella, a swanky new addition to the South End’s “restaurant row” situated on Washington Street, live up to its billing? After all, an inordinate amount of praise has been heaped upon this establishment, whose trendy ambience and Italian fare have allegedly made this one of Boston’s new dining hotspots. Would Paul’s Palate, like the late Marlon Brando in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” scream aloud Stella’s name in the form of superlatives or shame?

‘Chic’ is the first word that immediately comes to mind upon entering Stella’s pristine interior. Its main dining area is quite large (seats 60) and extends from front-to-back, and if you loop around by the busy kitchen, you’ll find a hidden treasure buried nearby: a smaller, more intimate private room (seats 50) directly overlooking both busy Washington Street and Stella’s seasonal terrazino (an outdoor patio which seats 50 more patrons!). Stella’s all-white interior, dimmed lighting, and illuminated bar create a sleek, modern vibe that is undeniably intoxicating. I half-heartedly expect some type of celebrity to walk into the room at any moment.

This is not to say that Stella’s atmosphere does not have its shortcomings. For one, Paul’s Palate nearly resorts to shouting in order to maintain any semblance of conversation given the poor acoustics, even in the private room. Despite Stella’s painstakingly complex interior design, the plastic wavy white chairs at our table are a fashion monstrosity, if not downright humorous. Lastly, we almost miss the restaurant itself given its lack of exterior lighting and signage. Noise factors aside, most of these minor flaws appear easily correctible.

Fortunately for us, my wife recognizes Stella’s Executive Chef, Robin King, as an acquaintance of hers. Mr. King is outgoing, energetic, and most importantly, both knowledgeable and passionate about the food he prepares. He later arrives at out table and shares with us his favorite dishes on the menu that evening.

The assortment of antipasti from which we choose is both unique and delicious. We begin with crispy fried artichoke hearts, which are playfully served on a narrow plate, and sit atop creamy, zesty country mustard remoulade. I would be more than happy to simply nibble on these tasty tidbits all evening long, but I remind myself that there is much more in store for the remainder of the meal. King also highly recommends the tuna tartare with fried eggs, to which Paul’s Palate responds with slight apprehension given his lack of exposure to raw tuna. One bite of this dish, however, and his tastebuds sing. This most certainly is a winning dish, and makes me want to run into the kitchen and thank Robin for his spot-on suggestion.

As if he were reading my mind, Mr. King brings out a couple of complimentary appetizers to our table. Of the two dishes, the grilled ‘pizze’ with Quattro funghi, shiitake mushrooms, crimini, oyster, and white truffle oil is my least favorite. It is surprisingly bland and lacks the crispness previously relayed to us by Robin. The marinated beet salad, however, served with goat cheese, champagne vinaigrette, and a crunchy crostini, is a marvel of a dish. This salad, along with the tuna tartare, is the last thing Paul’s Palate would ever consider ordering from the menu. Mr King and his diverse menu have miraculously, as the Monkees’ hit song goes, transformed me into a believer.

Pasta dishes are equally delectable. My hearty homemade spaghetti, although a simple dish, is perfectly cooked al dente, and possesses several layers of complexity in flavor, with its toasted garlic, olive oil, and parmesan ingredients. My wife’s orecchiette is also tasty, though a tad too spicy for my liking (King himself rates this dish an 8 out of 10 on the spicy scale), with its chile flakes interwoven with sausage and cured tomato. The couple seated across from us is also deeply appreciative of the quality of their meals. On one plate resides Stella homemade gnocchi, which is wonderfully light, packs a potent potato flavor, and is mixed with tomato, basil, and reggiano. On the other rests a succulent lamb shank surrounded by scrumptious mushroom risotto.

For dessert, the apple crostini comes in a light and fluffy pastry, but not surprisingly, the real stars are the apples, which are moist, warm, and lumpy. Might I add that this dish is accompanied by a steamy-sweet caramel sauce for dipping purposes? This sweet symphony proves so heavenly that Paul’s Palate actually passes on vanilla gelato that also accompanies this dessert.

Value-wise, Stella ranks as one of Paul’s Palate’s all-time favorites. There is simply a dearth of high-end gourmet restaurants that offer appetizers averaging $10 and entrees from $14-$26. Given the lack of weight removed from my wallet that night, I didn’t hesitate to surrender $16 for valet parking. Novelist Terry McMillan got it right after all: Stella most certainly has got her groove back, and Paul’s Palate finds this new culinary kid on the block groovy.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Getting Spoiled at L'Espalier

Had Marie Antoinette, the French queen renowned for her extravagant lifestyle centuries ago, survived the guillotine to see L’Espalier, would she flock to eat at this prestigious French dining establishment, which also has been known to demonstrate a flair for the dramatic? After all, Chef/Proprietor Frank McClelland’s restaurant is widely regarded as the most romantic hotspot in all of Boston which boasts arguably the finest modern French cuisine around. In the absence of a time machine in which Paul’s Palate could travel to Versailles and query the Queen directly, he took it upon himself to travel in the present time to Boston and investigate this matter further.

Nestled slightly off of tranquil Gloucester Street (parallel to more bustling Newbury Street) in Boston’s Back Bay, L’Espalier’s sophistication is instantly evident. Beyond a regal-looking iron-gate entrance resides a restored 1880 townhouse in which L’Espalier is embedded. The restaurant’s pristine main dining area overlooks Gloucester Street, and its taupe and cream colored walls and cathedral-like ceiling provide a spacious, yet intimate setting. Our affable and knowledgeable Maitre d’, Louis Risoli, escorts my wife and I to our table. L’Espalier’s atmosphere, similar to its dress code, can be downright haughty and intimidating, but only if you permit it: after all, while jackets and ties are the encouraged methods of attire for male patrons, they are not required. After glancing across the room, it appears that my culinary counterparts, sans jackets and ties, provide a refreshing glimpse into what L’Espalier ultimately can be: a refined, yet relaxed dining experience.

Our first course is nothing short of excellence. My wife dives into a crisp salad layered with a zesty vinaigrette dressing and crunchy, flavorful nuts. Our server also brings over a large bowl solely containing a tiny circular substance, which leads me to ponder whether or not L’Espalier has actually fallen into the age-old stereotype of ‘French fare equates to plate bare.’ Thankfully, however, he swiftly returns and theatrically pours hot, steaming orange squash soup into the bowl. That aforementioned, questionable circular substance proves to be candied pumpkin, an innovative ingredient that meshes wonderfully with the squash and infuses additional flavor into this light, delightful concoction. Oh, and lest I forget to add that the homemade bread, particularly that of the fig and black olive varieties, is simply divine.

Our entrees also rate strongly, if slightly less so. My wife’s pan-roasted halibut is served in preserved lemon vinaigrette alongside tasty couscous. While the fish is light and buttery, the side order of couscous is almost an afterthought given its disappointing scarcity on the plate. My confit rabbit leg is cooked to perfection, which is no small feat, but once again, the meat on the leg is a bit lacking. The accompanying mashed potato-like polenta and brussel sprouts seem an odd pairing with rabbit at face value, but they surprisingly pull the dish together quite nicely.

Dessert is pure bliss. The chocolate decadence cake is artistically presented in a rectangular plate, alongside luscious blackberries and raspberries, wild strawberry anglaise, and a dollop of ethereal, uniquely flavored orange blossom ice cream.

As is to be expected in such an extravagant setting, service is superior. Although I would not characterize our server as being overly friendly, one cannot underscore the importance of the relaxed pacing he brought to the meal. Shouldn’t a meal ultimately resemble the contemplative nature one takes when sampling a fine wine, whereby conversation is reduced to a minimum so that the aromas and tastes may be more fully appreciated?

In terms of value, patrons may simply decide that traveling to France may prove more economical that venturing out to Gloucester Street. We were fortunate enough to sample the 3-course prix fixe lunch menu, which comes reasonably priced at $24 per person. Come dinner time, however, these prices soar to $75. For more ravenous (and wealthier) customers, a 7-course degustation tasting can be had for $94, and the chef’s tasting for a whopping $175. Tack on an additional $16 for valet parking (evenings only) given the congested traffic in the area and that Parisian trip might not sound so crazy after all.

Marie Antoinette was once rumored to have exclaimed, “Let them eat cake,” in reference to her unsympathetic stance on the decaying state of France’s impoverished citizens. The bottom line is this: Paul’s Palate happily ate his cake and more at L’Espalier, but could very easily have joined the ranks of the impoverished in the process. Make no mistake: he thoroughly enjoyed his dining experience there. Memorable? Yes. Unforgettable? Let’s just say that it did not make Paul’s Palate forget Paris.