Sunday, May 04, 2008

L'Espalier: the end of the affair

L'Espalier is closing. Not for good; just for a couple of months, while it relocates to its new home in the still-under-construction Mandarin Oriental. While the move will doubtless be a blessing for the restaurant's staff, who have had to cope with the tiny kitchen and narrow hallways of the current century-old Back Bay brownstone, it's sad news to Boston diners.

There aren't many restaurants with L'Espalier's sturdy elegance and architectural detail: the curving staircase, the plaster wall moldings, the marble fireplaces that make the house feel like, well, a house. Tables are divided between three rooms on two floors, so even though the restaurant seats more than 70, each space feels like an intimate and private dining club.

This is the second-floor room overlooking Gloucester Street.

The building is not L'Espalier's only draw, of course: the food is fabulous. And priced accordingly, which has meant, for us at least, that it's a special-occasion destination, reserved for anniversaries and birthdays. But as the clock is ticking on the current location, we figured we should make an exception and go one last time before the doors close.

So we made a 5:30 reservation (the only available option for a Saturday night at short notice) and arrived ready for an evening of elegance and indulgence.

As the hostess hung up our coats, I glanced at the evening's reservation list (helpfully illuminated on the computer screen).


Darn; unless we ate reaaally slowwwly, we'd be finished and out the door before he arrived. And anyway, fawning over celebs (or, rather, inquiring as to the veracity of the claim that a certain person has a citrus-shaped cranium) is really not The Thing To Do at L'Espalier.

Part of the joy of the L'Espalier experience is the service, which is generally flawless, graceful, subtle. The hostess introduces you by name to the maitre d', who leads you to your table. The waitstaff wear suits (actual well-cut suits, rather than penguin-waiter-wear); the plates arrive table-side covered with silver cloches, which are whisked aside with an understated flourish.

Yes, many other places have good service, but L'Espalier is special in that regard. The waitstaff are not trying to be your buddies; they don't tell you their names and explain they'll be taking care of you (as though you'd never encountered waiter service before); they're professional and discreet and speak in hushed tones, as though in church.

So it was decidedly strange to be in earshot of the second-floor waiters as they criticized the previous night's Celtics' performance, practiced gang signs and voguing, traded insults and discussed the cable show Rock of Love. It was unusual to have our waiter dribble martini on the table.

And it was, frankly, downright strange to overhear the maitre d' call the staff together--after the start of service--and explain that, as of that moment, the menu prices had all changed, and that they were to use the new prices for the rest of the evening.

On previous visits, we'd been seated on the third floor; The Boy wondered whether the second floor was less formal, or a training ground for newer staff, and that's why the vibe was different. It could also have been that the night was young, and the staff hadn't yet warmed up to the task at hand. Either way, it was unexpected. And it was actually a good thing.

I'll explain later; it's time for the food.

First, a teeny tiny amuse-bouche of smoked salmon and cream cheese napoleon, with the tiniest whisper of lemon.

Then what was described as "a welcome from the chef": a (rather tough) slice of grilled flatbread topped with a duck and rabbit pâté. And then appetizers: for me, veal sweetbreads coated in almonds, sweet and tender and subtly nutty, served with an Asian-style fresh carrot slaw:

The Boy chose foie gras, which came with--and this is the genius part--a marshmallow toasted with thyme, the cloying sweetness heightening and expanding the woodsy herb and making both of them sing.

The entrees (my roasted rabbit with gnocchi, olives and peas; The Boy's rack of lamb with carrots and fried chickpea cakes) were similarly harmonious combinations of deep, rich flavors and bright, fresh notes.

And dessert was likewise lovely, though the options all seemed too heavy after such an indulgent main; it would have been nice to have a light, fruity option within the lineup of cheesecakes and chocolates and creams.

The Boy went for the roasted barley crème brûlée, which was a reasonable version made more interesting with the addition of granola and a tangy Greek yogurt sorbet; I had an ice cream trio (tropical fruits, strawberry/mango and chocolate) which arrived in a brandy-snap basket and would have looked more impressive were they not already melting.

Which brings me back to my previous observation that the waitstaff's unexpected jocularity was a good thing.

Have you ever been in a relationship that ended before you were ready? And just as you were breaking up, he did something that made you realize he wasn't quite as dynamic and debonair as you believed, and that you had no reason to cry over him after all?

That's how it was last night. We loved L'Espalier when we saw it as the pinnacle of Boston restaurants, a place of impeccable service and flawless food. But now, the blush is ever so slightly off the rose. Sure, we'll probably visit when it opens in the new space. But there's still Clio, and Radius, and No. 9 Park, and Craigie Street. And
Guy Martin's new place opens in June, allegedly.

So, good times, while they lasted. Good memories. But there are plenty more fish, just as lightly poached and served with beurre blanc, in the sea.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that L'Espalier will lose its charm once it moves to Boylston St. Hopefully a new restaurant will occupy the special space it will soon vacate. (btw, loved your photos of Sweet!)

2:12 PM  

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