Lunch at L’Espalier.

L'EspalierlogoThere’s a saying, I think, about the people you know or knowing the right people.  There may be more to it than simply that, not that it matters; I’m terrible at idioms and I don’t really have a lot of so-called connections — except at the relocated L’Espalier, which shares kitchen-space with the newest Sel de la Terre, where my cousin Niki works, which means she gets a healthy employee discount at both restaurants…

I hope you can see where I’m going here, since I’m dangerously close to confusing myself with my own addled sentences.  What I’m trying to get at is this: it helps to know people, and because then you sometimes get to eat meals like this.

L'Espalier 1We had gone to L’Espalier for the set-price lunch, but once we placed our orders the extra courses began to arrive.  Actually, now that I think of it, before we placed our orders,  first the complimentary glasses of L’Espalier’s reserve sparkling wine arrived.  The week before, some of my visiting Filipino relatives, Keith and I received similar treatment at Sel de la Terre — otherwise, we wouldn’t have been prepared for the utterly absurd amount of food we were served over what became a two-and-a-half hour lunch.  This oyster with caviar was just the beginning.

(I should note that prepared or not, I couldn’t keep up with our server’s detailed descriptions of the gifted courses.  The oyster, for example, came topped with a foam and rested on a gelée, but what type of foam and what flavor gelée?  I don’t know.)

L'Espalier 2Our second freebie (not counting the wine) was by far the table’s favorite, but let me take a minute here to state how this actual bowl was my favorite; I love Royal Copenhagen, and while I participate in the “white plate” school of thought — food looks best on a plain white plate — I would happily expel myself for just one place setting of this design.  I would, obviously, be even happier if that place setting included not only this bowl but this bowl of soup: cream of Vidalia onion over ham, fava beans and a seared diver scallop.  Honestly, if you think the bowl is pretty, you have no idea what the word means unless you’ve tasted this soup.  It was smooth and complex, and if I were forced to eat exclusively this for the rest of my life, I’d die a very contented woman.  (If you want to judge for yourself, know that the soup is currently a part of the dinner service prix-fixe.)

L'Espalier 3After our oyster amuse-bouche and precursor  course, our ordered starters arrived.  I had chosen the black pudding with chanterelles, spicy mayonnaise and a fried egg, prioritizing my love of black pudding above my dislike of spicy food and condiments.  You know, I’m so happy that I didn’t chicken out about the mayo, mostly because 1) it wasn’t that spicy after all; and 2) the black pudding was fantastic.  It was deeply flavored and incredibly textured.  I don’t think it’s that clear in the photograph, but the pudding was just barely holding itself together, breaking apart with the slightest pressure of my fork.  It was exceptionally creamy, almost like a pâté — which is one of the foods I like best in the world, so obviously anything that reminds me of it is going to get high praise from me.

L'Espalier 4At this point, I was already comfortably full.  I had purposely skipped breakfast that morning; the last time I went to L’Espalier, my skin felt stretched beyond its limit, and I really wanted to avoid that uncomfortable gorged sensation.  The folks in the kitchen, apparently, wanted to get me to that point as soon as possible, sending out yet another gratis dish of food.  This time it was a fried soft shell crab glazed with chili and served over a pickled carrot slaw (which is, as I type, now on both the dinner and lunch menus, which do change quite frequently).  If the idea of eating a crab shell and all freaks you out, try it fried, my friends.

L'Espalier 5I’d never really understood the mechanics of muscle memory before this meal, but somehow I think the arrival of my entrée just made something click in my mind.  My stomach distinctly remembered the way it felt in L’Espalier’s dining room last March.  I mean, if I was on the brink of awesome discomfort prior to the crab’s arrival, my duck confit put me over the edge.  Let’s not even go into the spring succotash or the baby carrot and pea shoot salad.  I can’t even think about the leg’s sweet and crispy skin without groaning a bit, even now.  I was definitely groaning at the table, perhaps a little too audibly.

L'Espalier 6I managed to keep my moaning on the inside for the cheese plate our server put together — it’s cheese, people — but this predessert was another story altogether, even if it was just a a pretty little scoop of sorbet, a dollop of pineapple essence, a fruit-flavored gel and a strawberry half.  I love a sorbet, so even in my almost-bursting state I managed to chase a spoonful or two around the plate.  The gel, however, stayed exactly where it was minus an exploratory taste, only because I’m a glutton for both punishment and food, it seems.  Interestingly, I wasn’t the only martyr at the table…

L'Espalier 7See, we had a bit of a time constraint for lunch; Niki had to go to work, and L’Espalier’s generosity already had her behind schedule.  Luckily, her commute from the dining room to the kitchen was a short one, but she had been anxiously checking the time even before the arrival of the cheese plate; regardless, she ended up dashing out during our final dessert after having a bite of pain perdu, a slice of panna cotta and a taste of crème anglaise.  We, of course, were able to stay behind and linger, luxuriating in our plush chairs — though I was preoccupied with not slipping into the deepest “food coma”* ever.

Regardless of whether you’ve got an in at either L’Espalier or Sel de la Terre, the former has excellent deals on prix fixe lunches.  Even without Niki’s employee markdown, forty dollars for three courses here is a real deal, as is the twenty-four dollar “power lunch.”  We clearly had a stunner of a meal, discount or no, and while chances are incredibly slim that I’ll ever receive so many culinary tokens from a kitchen staff ever again, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t book another L’Espalier lunch and happily pay full price.  I’ll just make sure to wear elastic-waist pants.

774 Boylston Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02199

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* This is a phrase I hate, but here it’s unavoidably apt.

Dinner at No. 9 Park.

For a while now, Keith and I had been tossing around restaurant ideas, trying to decide where we wanted to go to celebrate our anniversary.  The list was pretty short, and ultimately we chose Barbara Lynch‘s No. 9 Park.  I remember when I first moved to Boston years and years ago, I would walk past the Park Street brownstone and think about how cozy the diners looked, framed in the restaurant’s warmly-lit windows.

As we walked across the Common, Keith and I chatted about the meal ahead.  Did we want to order à la carte?  Should we try the $65.00 three-course prix-fixe?  Or maybe the seven-course tasting menu for $96.00?  Keith and I both love tasting menus — there’s something to be said about me, the Indecisive Wonder, not having to make any choices whatsoever as to what I want to eat.  And, of course, there’s also the thrill of seeing what exactly a kitchen is capable of, so we determined the tasting was the way to go that night.

Our first course was a lobster gelée, which was served alongside a dollop of paddlefish roe and a combination of avocado and cucumber that had been minced incredibly finely.  The gelée was so enjoyable and had a lovely silken texture, but what I liked best was the contrast of the roe with the avocado and cucumber.  The salty globules offered just the teeniest bit of resistance against the teeth, unlike the miniscule crunchy green squares.  All in all, it was a very subtle and refined introductory plate.

Next up was a dish of Chilean turbot with celeriac,  wax beans and a summer truffle.  Like the gelée before it, this course was very elegant; I found the celeriac in particular to be a memorable ingredient, as it added a really lovely freshness to the entire plate.  Actually, as I was slicing into the fish — which was cooked absolutely perfectly, I should add — I suddenly thought to myself, This is a very feminine dish.  It was simply so delicate and light, that I can’t think of a better word to describe the overall effect.

Earlier in the month I had gotten into a dispute of sorts with a friend who insisted the menu at No. 9 was Italian; I said that No. 9 leaned more towards the French, though I was willing to concede that its cuisine could be described at Mediterranean — which could go so far as to include Italy.  Our third course would definitely fall under the Italian and/or Mediterranean category:  housemade rigatoni  in an  heirloom tomato sauce with a scorched Japanese eggplant and ricotta salata.  This sauce was absolutely delicious; it had a surprising depth and — at the risk of sounding like the fortune teller on the Japanese version of Iron Chef — it tasted like summer.  Actually, it tasted like the most delicious tomato at the height of summer, and was at once comforting and delicious.

Keith and I both chose to get an additional course, which was served midway through the meal.  As there were two options we got both, agreeing to swap plates after we had the chance to sample each one.  This is something Keith and I rarely do; we generally order our own dishes, occasionally tasting the other’s, but it is really uncommon for us to trade altogether like some other dining couples do.

I don’t think it will be a surprise to anyone to read that I was most excited about the artisan foie gras plate.  It was paired with a portion of pommes Maxine, which basically are thinly sliced golden potatoes coated in butter and then baked.  Simple as they sound, they are infinitely more satisfying than words can convey.

If the potatoes were hard to describe, think of the trouble I’m having with the foie.  Yes, it was rich; yes, it was decadent.  The foie was something else as well — it was beautifully textured, and had a mouthfeel so creamy that each piece practically melted on the tongue.  Truly: imagine a soft ice cube, if that’s possible, slowly turning to liquid in your mouth.  That’s the best job I can do in telling you about this amazing foie.

The other optional course, which Keith in particular was very interested in trying, was the prune-stuffed gnocchi.  The gnocchi came with two luscious little bite of foie, which of course was the highlight of the plate for me. The gnocchi themselves weren’t much to my liking; I thought the prunes were too much on the sweet side, and after half a gnocchi, I was ready to swap plates with Keith.  And, just so you know that I’m not too too biased towards the foie, even Keith agreed the prune aspect of the plate was too intensely flavored.

Next was the fifth course, as I am counting the gnocchi and foie count as one together.  The fifth dish threw the No. 9 cuisine debate straight out the window.  We were presented with a plate of crispy pork belly, baby bok choi and kimchi; our server then poured a gorgeous bacon consommé over everything.  Though this dish may sound odd when placed alongside its predeccesors, this pork was just as flavorful.  It was lush and tender, with a skin that crunched like hard candy under my teeth.  The kimchi was of the perfect heat, even for someone like me who admittedly is a wimp when it comes to such things.  Wimp or no, this was flawless.

I wish I could use the word flawless or a synonym to describe our final savory course, but I know that would be a lie.  It was a braised beef brisket with cranberry beans, and I was barely able to eat any of it.  The brisket sat atop a piece or ribeye, and the entire column of meat was saturated with a thick sauce — the flavor of which was too intensely sweet for me to eat.  Come to think of it, I don’t know if it was sweet exactly; in fact, I believe it would be more accurate to describe it as sickly-sweet.  The meat was wonderfully tender, but regardless of this, I was hard-pressed to get more than a few bites in me.  I felt terribly guilty; after all, no one likes to pay any amount of money for an unsatisfactory dish.  I should say that I loved the cranberry beans, which is absolutely true, but my affection for them did not make up for my feelings towards the brisket and ribeye in any way.

In all honesty, I was a bit wary of our first dessert, a perspective I established solely on the description: printed in the menu:  “huckleberry soup — lemon meringue, huckleberry confit.”  (I don’t know the reason why so many restaurants describe their courses like this — the dish’s name, followed by two-to-four components.  It seems pretentious.)  I’ve had a few fruit-based soups lately, and they all seem to be much better in theory than in practice.  I was intruigued by the huckleberries though; until this meal, my only experience with them have been cartoon-based: Huckleberry Hound and Huckleberry Pie.

This was better.

Before I begin discussing the soup, let me first discuss its appearance: gorgeous.  Honestly, could a lovelier claret color exist?  I don’t think so, especially not one that could possibly taste as rich as this.  The huckleberries have a sweetness to them not unlike that of a perfectly-ripe blueberry, though I would say the huckleberry flavor has little to no tartness.  The lemon meringues, which look like little mini marshmallows, complimented the berries fantastically, adding the tiniest bit of acid to the dessert.  I would have loved a few dozen more of them.

Our last dessert, and our final course, was a chocolate and caramel mousse, which was served with an Italian cookie called lingue de gatto, or cat’s tongue.  Our server charmingly shrugged when we raised our eyebrows at the name.

“I have no idea why it’s called that,” he said sheepishly.

Etymology nonwithstanding, the cookie was unremarkable.  As was the mousse, which I found utterly disappointing.  (The same could be said for the caramel, which I promptly scooped off of my plate and onto Keith’s, but that might just be because I’ve never really liked caramel.)  What was quite nice, however, was the single spoonful of sorbet, which in a burst not unlike sunshine concentrated the best flavors of sweet grapefruit.  If the plate had consisted solely of that, I would have been beyond pleased.

As we walked back across the Common, I tried to pinpoint how I felt about the night.  Our cocktails were wonderful, the service was lovely, and the décor was stylish — though more modern than what I expected, and comprised of nothing so noteworthy as to be distinctive.  The food, with the exception of the brisket, had all been executed perfectly; in fact, I think I used the exact word (or variations of, or synonyms) several times as descriptors.  So why was I literally dragging my feet along the pathways, struggling to put a metaphorical finger on my opinion?  I finally realized that my meal had been missing something: excitement.  Not once throughout the evening did I place a forkful into my mouth and think, This is really something.  Certainly, I thought the food was flavorful and at times delicious, but never did I find it innovative or even evocative.  It was solidly-cooked, perfect food…  that was just a little boring.

No. 9 Park
9 Park Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02108

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