…but I love matches too. I don’t collect them, though — mine actually get used up. Right now, I’ve got an old teacup of Keith’s grandmother in the living room, and that’s where I keep the matchbooks. At the moment, there’s only a small assortment in there:
There’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.
We 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.)
Our 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.)
After 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.
At 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.
I’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.
I 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…
See, 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
* This is a phrase I hate, but here it’s unavoidably apt.
By now, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that I can often get stuck between a few menu choices. This time, at brunch at Sel de la Terre, it was a couple of sandwiches holding me up, and the obvious solution was to con someone into splitting them so I could sample them both.
The first sandwich I was hankering to try was the slow-roasted pork. Served with baby arugula, a sundried tomato aïoli and Comté (one of my favorite cheeses!) on black olive bread ($8.95), it sounded too good to pass up. Unfortunately, this was an incidence of an item not quite reaching its full potential. The flavors were there, but they were not nearly as intense as I would have hoped. Not only that, but I could barely taste the Comté. (Really, that’s me being kind and diplomatic — I couldn’t get any sense of my beloved Comté at all. In fact, I forgot it was supposed to be there until I consulted the menu a second time.) Also, I couldn’t help but think that there was something missing from this sandwich — aside from depth of flavor, that is. I will say that I would be curious to try this as a panino; now that I think about it, this would be a great panino… with a more generous amount of Comté, of course.
The other sandwich calling out to me had one of my other favorite cheeses as a component. The skillet-roasted crabcakes with Gruyère, house-made bacon and romaine was served on a crunchy baguette ($8.95) and was absolutely delicious. The crab was sweet and delicate, with the bacon adding a nice savory saltiness to the mix. It, unlike the slow-roasted pork, was absolutely perfect as is, and would not have made a great panino. There’s no other bread that could have possibly stood in for the baguette; this sandwich would have been the sorrier for it otherwise.
The brunch offerings at Sel de la Terre definitely skew more towards lunch than breakfast; if you’re in search of apple-cinnamon pancakes with maple syrup, I advise you to keep walking. However, if what you’re craving is a duo of poached eggs with house-made bacon or perhaps a marinated chicken sandwich with hot house tomatoes, then make Sel de la Terre your first stop.
Sel de la Terre
255 State Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02109