I had the remarkable experience of finishing my Birthday scavenger hunt this year with the clue pictured below. It read: “I’m something you’ve seen in the window. You pass by me and smile in the great
outindoors. I’m not the dog in the window but I’m Parisian. You wouldn’t expect this but please, please don’t wear sweats.”
All I could think of is the song, “How much is that doggy, in the window?” or, in this context, the French equivalent, “Combien coute ce chien, dans la vitrine?” Of course, we weren’t going to pick up a puppy, so I kept guessing and eventually it came to me, much to my utter shock and amazement. If you’re local to Boston, and have strolled through the Prudential mall, you may have noticed a window near the Lord and Taylor department store with a series of windows that look into a kitchen. At times, you may have stopped, like we had, to look in the window and wonder WHO those people are who sit in the kitchen and get served dish after dish. Are they seasoned foodies, food critics, or perhaps writers of a magazine’s restaurant review? I had no idea.
I was in disbelief when I figured out the clue and realized that my last birthday surprise of the evening was taking us to the Chef’s Table at L’Espalier for an unforgettable evening and the gift of a fine dining experience to celebrate a very special occasion.
So begins my “Backstage” review of L’Espalier’s fine hospitality.
It was a quiet night in the kitchen – in mid-summer, some of the staff rotates through vacation time and the dining room was not entirely full that evening. We were seated in that spot right by the window and occasionally, if I peered behind me, I could see small groups curiously looking inside, just as we had often done.
Unusually, however, most of the guests in the dining rooms were also ordering tasting menus, so we were able to see stages of meals prepped at the meat station, fish station, and dessert station. We also learned who the facilitators were. That night, the staff had arrived around 2 or 3 pm for a family meal together and then everyone got busy preparing for evening service beginning around 6-7 pm.
We had excellent service as well, and a seasoned young lady who had been at L’Espalier for the last 6 years took the best care of us.
L’Espalier is not a restaurant that serves strictly French cuisine, contrary to my thought: rather, it serves fine American cuisine prepared using French techniques. This includes the frequent use of exotic foam, and complex flavors and sauces. They also curate the finest local ingredients so food is fresher and doesn’t travel very far to get to the kitchen and onto plates.
And then, arrived our first course, with Laurent-Perrier, Brut Champagne.
Crème fraîche ice cream with Siberian Sturgeon Caviar, toasted hazelnut brioche and citrus.
I was very happy to have ice cream integrated into my meal, before dessert. Doesn’t that sound neat? The caviar was savory, and together with the chestnut foam, creamy ice cream, nettle, and nutty crumble this dish was impressive in its ability to encompass so many textures and flavors that unveiled themselves with each spoonful. The flavors were surprising, and developed with each taste. For this course, I enjoyed pairing the caviar with different combinations and each was different. Bubbly champagne was also perfect for this course, with the little bubbles of foam and caviar that enhanced the subtle aromas in the dish.
The next course arrived.
Salad of strawberries and rhubarb with “Harvard” Beets, lime sorbet, and raspberry vinaigrette.
This appetizer course continued the happy trend of integrating dessert elements with the meal unexpectedly. I enjoyed the freshness of this course very much, and the portion size was perfect. Both of our dishes often were plated organically but artfully, so I will sometimes share both plates of the same dish.
The first meat course arrives. For tastings, often chefs choose to open the palate with bright, fresh flavors which are also light. Then the lightest meats, the shellfish and seafood come. Then an intermezzo to cleanse the palate. Then, the red meat or game meats.
This course called for a new wine, a 2011 Rollin, Pernand Vergelesses from Burgundy, France. After our recent trip to France, where we began to try wines from France, this was nice to continue that exploration with a number of glasses from France.
Here we have a “New England Clam Bake” Maine lobster, chorizo broth, corn and potato. Sea beans.
I enjoyed this course a lot. The lobster was tender and added some heft to begin the meal, but I was satisfied with the flavors and amount. The next course featured Georges Bank scallops with sweet and sour pork belly: farro-nettle risotto, and smoked almonds. Here you see some flavored foam again, in a different flavor. The scallop was cooked beautifully and this dish seemed to transition between seafood and the upcoming meatier courses in both presentation and flavors. It was very tasty, and the nutty flavor worked well with the choice of meat.
While we waited for our next course to arrive, we were able to observe a curious project going on to our left: a bunch of flower pots on trays in the dessert station. We wondered, what could be going on there?
The staff was very focused. At 8 pm, we were almost midway through the tasting and we were mostly the only ones talking at all. The executive chef likes the kitchen quiet, so we could only hear on occasion a “yes, Chef.”
Here comes a new wine, a 2005 Chateau Sigalas Rabaud, Premier Cru from Sauternes France. It accompanied a dish which was rich from the foie gras, and dark, smoky, with bitter notes and a blend of creamy, spongy, crunchy, and crisp textures that was very interesting to experience. The flavors here were more intense than the previous courses.
Presenting, Roasted Hudson Valley foie gras with Bing cherries, black sesame, oil-cured olive and black pepper jus. I enjoyed the deep flavor of the cherry paired with the foie gras. They cut their foie gras thicker than our first excellent taste in Paris, but it speaks to their knowledge of the exact cut of food they had: any thinner, and the sear would be imperfect on the foie gras and would fall apart. All in all, this course could well be described with the word “unique” and it was reminiscent of what I would imagine a forest flavor to taste like.
After the intense flavors, came the lovely answer to our query from earlier – what was in the flower pots? Our intermezzo arrived as a palate cleanser of creamy basil ice cream in a cone and standing in a pot of chocolate crumble. This was delicious. As you can probably tell, I enjoy quality ice cream.
I believe that this was a honeydew cooler with blueberry juicy boba. Creative, yes? And then, the fish course arrived, along with a new wine from Spain – a 2014 Armas de Guerra from Bierzo, Spain. It accompanied a butter poached East Coast halibut with New Jersey asparagus juice and Maître Gaspard. The fish was cooked well, but I was eagerly anticipating the red meat course.
Our final course called for a red wine, a 2010 Chateau D’Arsac, which heralded the entrée of the game and red meat.
We began with Cavendish Farms quail breast with walnut polenta, and roasted asparagus jus and caraway. Tasty! At last, the final course – wagyu beef with koji carrot, confit potatoes and beef jus. I am a meat and potatoes gal, so I was very happy with the rich, sweet beef jus to pair with the neutral roots and beef.
That’s the window behind us!
..not dessert…but a Grand Fromage cheese plate and Graham’s 20 Year Tawny Porto came. I discovered I like Porto recently, and it was nice to have with the cheese plate. We were getting SO full by this point but wanted to continue to enjoy everything! From left to right, counter-clockwise.
Lake’s Edge, ash-rubbed goat’s milk cheese, from Blue Ledge Farm in VT.
Danby goat’s milk from Bardwell Farm, VT
Moses Sleeper brie from Greensboro, VT
Schnebelhorn, alpine milk and cream from Saint Gallen Switzerland. – I think this was my favorite.
Bayley Hazen, Jasper Hill Farm, VT.
In some places, a cheese plate IS the dessert course. But we had this incredible fruit plate with delectable fruits and sorbets and edible flowers. This is my favorite.
A little espresso helped to keep us going.
Happy Birthday! How special!!! I felt so amazed that I got to share this surprise finale experience with my dear. My second taste of soufflé and I loved it. A raspberry roll, decadent raspberry chocolate cake, and vanilla ice cream resting on crumble to keep it from melting finished the grand dessert tasting. I was happy to get to blow out a birthday candle as well.
This was B’s favorite.
By 10 pm, the kitchen was in full swing scrubbing walls, counters, and any surface and here it is, spic and span – leftovers put away, and everything in its place.
These little honey pouches came too as a parting wave – they were tasty bits of melt-in-your-mouth sweetness.
Thank you SO much for an unforgettable evening and excellent hospitality, L’Espalier! And special thanks to B for a superbly planned once-in-a-lifetime day that I enjoyed so much. We’d love to return again for a much smaller fare in a different season and see and taste a couple of beautiful creations in Fall, Winter, or Spring!
Until the next review,