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.

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