Monday, September 22, 2008

L'Espalier's new location: What's changed and what hasn't

As we had tickets to the Randy Newman concert at Symphony Hall last night, we decided to make a completely fancy-pantsy evening of it and go to dinner at L'Espalier, which just opened in its new location in the as-yet-unfinished Mandarin Oriental hotel building last week.

The differences between old and new are apparent from the start. In L'Espalier's old Back Bay brownstone, a hostess greeted you and introduced you to the maitre d', who led you up a grandly curving staircase to the second floor.

In the new L'Espalier, a hostess greets you and presses the button for the elevator.

On the third floor, a second hostess now greets you and invites you to sit in the lounge. Then the butler (no, really! Butler!) offers drinks. This is a nice addition for the restaurant; in the old location, there was no space to lounge. Diners who arrived early had to stand in the entryway next to the coat closet and wait for their table. Now there's a space to sit and relax.

And, let's be frank, it's an opportunity for the restaurant to offer $30 glasses of Bolly while you wait.

The dining spaces are bright and light-filled with oversized windows. The feel is sleek, clean and modern, without being overly austere.

There are two large rooms and a smaller "library" (i.e. it has bookshelves) that can be used for private parties. All told, the new L'Espalier can seat about 20 more people than the old.

We were also invited to check out the kitchen, and graciously allowed to take photos. Where the old kitchen was a narrow galley, the new one is around four times the size, and is connected to the kitchen in sister restaurant Sel de la Terre next door.

I asked our waiter how the staff felt about the new kitchen. "They love it," he said. "They have much more room. They're really happy here!" And then he pointed out the glass wall along the back of the kitchen, and explained that once the adjacent corridor opened, passersby would be able to look in and watch the chefs at work. For some reason, I thought of the gorilla enclosure at Franklin Park Zoo.

Though the kitchen is bigger, the menu will stay the same, at least for the time being. Which meant we started with the lovely standard amuse-bouche of smoked salmon napoleon with dill:

I'd been particularly glad that the room was so bright, as I figured it would allow me to finally get some good photos. But no, of course not: as our apps arrived, the house lights dimmed, the sun started setting, and every shot was dark and blurry.

So you'll just have to trust me when I say the roasted pear and chestnut soup was light but creamy, perfectly flavored for fall; the salad greens with organic tomatoes were bursting with late summer flavor; the rabbit with green olives and kidneys was tender and harmonious (though frankly the herbed gnocchi were a little too gummy, and not as good as the ones at Marliave); and the beef tenderloin topped with marrow-filled ravioli was exactly what beef should be.

We weren't sure we could manage dessert, but it was included in the prix-fixe, so we really had no choice. The Boy went for a creme brulee, the burnt-sugar crust served as a separate topping, like a hat, accompanied by black sugar ice cream. I had pavlova, the meringue scented with lavender, served in a pool of intensely deep blackberry coulis.

So, the verdict? The food, of course, is as fabulous as ever. The decor is lovely, but also generic; L'Espalier now looks like any number of modern restos with dark wood, white tablecloths and upholstery in muted tones.

The other constant is the level of service. Despite the
unexpectedly casual service we'd encountered during our last visit, we think of L'Espalier as the kind of place where waiters ask what "the lady" would like to order and whether "the gentleman" would like more bread. And while I understand that this level of formality is part of the experience, it also seemed more appropriate in a genteel old townhouse filled with antiques and flowers.

In L'Espalier's new location, with its glass walls lined with wine bottles and views onto the enormous Lord and Taylor logo across the street, I don't think it would kill them to loosen up a little. Yes, by all means ladle my soup out of a silver tureen, but don't feel you have to refer to me as "milady" while you do so.

Nevertheless, I don't think L'Espalier will suffer for being in a new space. While we were there, at least four different groups of people wandered through, evidently just checking out the new location and making satisfied noises. The place has its fans, and they'd come regardless.

Oh, and the Randy Newman concert was awesome.

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Blogger Brian said...

great post...sounds like an awesome experience. do i detect shades of thomas keller, barbara lynch and grant achatz? the attention to detail looks quite impressive. the pictures were quite nice. cheers, brian

11:24 AM  

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