Sunday, February 25, 2007

L'Espalier. Of course.

The Boy and I have always made a point of celebrating milestones appropriately; that is to say, with really good food. Even back when our finances were limited, birthdays and anniversaries were excuses to make reservations at Icarus or Clio. The fact that such meals were rare treats made them especially memorable.

As our fortunes improved year after year, each subsequent celebration was an opportunity to try a new place slightly further up the restaurant rankings. Until finally, for The Boy's birthday two years ago, we went to L'Espalier.

The food was amazing. The wine was amazing. The service was amazing. The fact that they knew--even though I didn't mention it to anyone--that it was his birthday; well, that was more spooky than anything else.

But the experience left us with a question: where next? How could we possibly expect to find a better restaurant?

So for a while we cheated: we left town altogether and celebrated in New York or England. And then we realized the only sane, rational thing to do was return to L'Espalier. Which we did, last night, for our ninth anniversary.

How to describe what makes L'Espalier so much better than any other Boston restaurant? It's not just the food; it's the whole experience. It starts with the hostess who checks us in, hangs our coats and introduces us to the maitre d' as "The LimeyG party." The maitre d' leads us up the winding staircase of the elegant brownstone, where orchids nestle in quiet corners and every staff member we pass wishes us a good evening as though we've just returned home.

Our waitron does not tell us her name or annouce, redundantly, that she'll be serving us this evening; rather, she is intelligent and quietly witty and able to use the correct French pronunciation of all the wines she pours.

And best of all, our fellow diners understand the concept of "indoor voice." Maybe it's because the service is so hushed and graceful, or because there's little competition (no piped music, no nearby kitchen clatter, and only a handful of tables in each room), or because everyone understands and respects the sense of ceremony about the place. All I know is that at no point did I have to tune out the conversation at the next table. Love it love it love it.

Oh, and there's food, too.

L'Espalier offers three basic dining options: the three-course prix fixe, the seven-course seasonal degustation and the "here's what we have in kitchen and we're going to keep bringing it out until you've tried everything" chef's tasting journey.

Guess which one we choose?

It starts with an amuse-guele: a tiny tower of smoked salmon and buckwheat napoleon, topped with creme fraiche. Then comes an espresso cup with a tasting of black quinoa stewed with octopus and cockle--rich and smoky and complex.

Then a single, fabulously fresh oyster sitting on lemon curd (trust me, it rocked) with American caviar, served with drops of sweet champagne gelée, along with a spoonful of crab topped with more caviar for me and a similar treatment in tuna for The Boy, served with a Sancerre.

Next I get butter-poached lobster, served with leeks done three ways: fried, pureed and braised, each method bringing out different aspects of sweet flavor. The Boy gets the better deal here: grilled quail with veal tongue pastrami, both ingredients playing off the deep meatiness of each other. Both dishes go well with the glass of Riesling-like Silvaner.

And then we're at the fish course: escolar (obviously the "in" fish nowadays) over pommes purees with a squid-ink sauce, and a Chardonnay.

Next, seared Hudson Valley foie gras with roasted quince and chestnut-caramel puree, perfectly paired with a sweet Greek Samos Vin Doux.

And then ... umm ...

You may have noticed that each course is paired with a glass of wine--not a full serving, thankfully, but enough to welcome the food to the table, give it a dance partner and send it on its way. If you're counting, we're now at four, and that's not including the glass of bubbly (Westport Rivers Cuvée L'Espalier for me; Beauont des Crayeres Brut Rosé for The Boy) with which we started. So forgive me if there are lapses of memory as we continue.

Up next: roasted veal sweetbread with cipollini onions and a sauce that was like heaven's own butterscotch (I tossed table manners aside and scooped up the residue with my fingers), and a light but nicely balanced Pinot Noir.

Then beef tenderloin atop something (see?), alongside a teeny cast-iron pot of venison over white-bean cassoulet with a single, perfectly turned, sweet carrot. This one came with a California Cab, a good match for the rich meaty goodness.

And now we're at the cheese course: a morbier (one of my faves), an aged, caramelly gouda, an herb-encrusted pave sauvage ... and, um, something sheepy and a mild blue.

I do remember that the cheeses came with dishes of golden raisins, honeyed pine nuts and quince paste, plus a sweet, fragrant date-nut bread. Sister restaurant Sel de la Terre provides all the breads, some of which are also sold at HoFoo, so I'll have to check for this one. The cheeses came with a 10-year-old tawny port.

Oh, look, dessert. There was some deeply rich chocolatey-fudgey thing, plus a saffron-glazed banana, plus some kind of ice-cream. Seven glasses of wine, so sue me. Actually, eight, because dessert came with something sparkling and Italian.

And then, finally, espresso and ... lordy ... petits fours. We end as we began, with tiny squares of explosive flavor (guava, chocolate, thyme. Thyme? Yes, in a buttery madeleine).

Three-plus hours after we walked in, we staggered out, full and happy and clutching a complimentary rum cannellé (you know, just in case we were still peckish).

So ... where are we eating next year?

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