Dinner at L’Espalier.

lespalier.jpgWhen I asked Keith a few weeks ago where he wanted to go for dinner on his birthday, he barely took a moment to consider the many options before answering.

L’Espalier,” he said.

The Gloucester Street restaurant will be moving into a new space in the yet-as-unopened Mandarin Oriental hotel early this summer, and Keith had always wanted to have the experience of dining in the well-known Back Bay townhouse. Personally, as someone who has always had a special interest in architecture and design, I was looking forward to seeing the décor as well as tasting the food.

Oh, the food… but before I get into that, let me preface by stating a two things:

First: I had decided not to sneak a peek at the online menus as I normally do; this was Keith’s birthday after all, and if he wanted to order the multi-course “Chef’s Tasting Journey,” then I would be in the same boat.

Second: before leaving the house, I packed my tiny camera into my equally tiny bag but I feared I would get too self-conscious to use it. L’Espalier is known for its beyond-exceptional service, so I doubt the staff would have minded a snap-happy patron. That said, I chickened out. The setting was so extravagant and opulent that though I was enjoying myself, I too intimidated to take a photograph of anything but the exterior as we left.

Once we were seated, Keith asked if I would be interested in trying the “Spring Degustation,” the seasonal tasting menu, for ninety-five dollar each. As I looked it over, we were told that we could substitute any of the courses with selections from the à la carte menu. I had been dying to try the veal sweetbreads and Keith had been equally eager to taste the squab, so we both asked to swap out a tuna dish that was to be served with a red Thai curry.

For our first course, we were presented with Maine lobster poached in butter and served with crispy prosciutto. Of course, the lobster was rich and flavorful; how could it be anything otherwise, after having been swimming in a lavish and delicious ocean of butter? The prosciutto though, was not to my liking. I’m not quite sure of how it had been prepared — I think perhaps fried, like bacon? — but it had a certain gaminess to it that I found off-putting. I think I would have much rather preferred regular, salty prosciutto.

Next came the Muscovy duck terrine with cornichons, red onion, and brioche toast points, the last of which I absolutely loved. Keith set to work spreading the duck over the brioche and layering it with grainy mustard, red onion and a cornichon; I preferred instead to smear the mustard directly over the terrine and slice into it before spearing either a cornichon or an onion. I thought the brioche too perfect to adulterate its flavor with anything else.

The third course was where Keith and I had deviated from the menu with our squab and sweetbreads, respectively. Now, I had never had sweetbreads before and was practically kicking Keith’s leg in anticipation. What I should have done was ask as to whether I would be eating thymus or pancreas, not that it would have mattered since the dish was fantastic. The sweetbreads had been fried, then scattered amongst some truly beautiful greens. The sweetbreads were surprisingly earthy and rich, and made me wish I could ask for seconds.

For the fourth and last of the savory courses, we had grilled beef tenderloin served with a dollop of horseradish crème fraîche atop potato rösti, and a small amount of ratatouille. While it may sound as though there was a lot of contrasting flavors on the plate, I have to say that wasn’t the case at all. Instead, everything was so well-seasoned and delectable that if anything, the accompaniments just barely overshadowed the perfectly-cooked wonderfully tender tenderloin, which is really saying something.

The beef was followed by a cheese sampler and a palate cleanser of citrus sorbet over fruit compote and Port poached grapes. I will write more about the cheeses later, but I will say this about the sorbet — it was absolutely delicious. The combination of the astringent citrus and the Port-sweetened grapes was perfectly balanced, and I’m not ashamed to say that I would want to pop back in to ask for just this. Soon it will be humid and sticky in Boston, and knowing how much I enjoyed the cool treat on a blustery night, I can tell that it would be thoroughly refreshing in the summer weather.

Just when I thought we were done, we had the course I had completely forgotten about: dessert. That night it was a duo — “chocolate decadence cake” served alongside a vanilla panna cotta. Though it was the cake which was described as decadent, I would have used the adjective in regards to both sweets, for the creamy panna cotta was just was luxurious as the dense chocolate cake.

Before heading home, I braced myself for the cold with a coffee while Keith sipped at one last cocktail. Though almost three hours had passed, time seemed to both stop and whiz by. When you’re unaccustomed to being buoyed upon a cushion of elegance, it makes the utmost sense to want to linger as long as possible.

(A confession: after the meal, I stepped into the ladies’ room, where I rested my head against the wall (which was papered, I should mention, in an engrossing and interesting over-sized map of historic Paris). I had surpassed my capacity for food by the third course, and was well past the point of uncomfortable fullness. All I wanted to do at that moment was step out of my dress and lie down, but clearly that wasn’t an option. I knew I would have to drive us home first; after I parked the car and cleaned up, I fell prostrate upon the bed and didn’t move until the alarm went off the next day.)

30 Gloucester Street, until June 2008
Boston, Massachusetts 02115

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