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Aug 25, 2009 11:42 AM

L'Espalier -- Chef McClelland's Tasting Journey [long]

I never believed the letters in this magazine until this happened to me...

DC and I were celebrating an anniversary and opted for the Tasting Journey as well as the Vintners' pairing. As we were going to be having many courses, we started early (6:30) arriving to a room that had yet to fill. We were in the front room, which we prefer to the library.Over the next 4 1/2 hours, we'd see many tables fill and empty 3 times.

Two lovely amuses-bouches were provided. First, a lovely mini-Napoleon of smoked salmon and (I believe) butter or crème fraîche with very thin pastry. This was served on a small tray cocktail-party style (a little casual touch). Following that, a perfectly grilled shrimp in skewered over a demitasse of melon soup with a fantastic parsley foam (I can feel the eyes rolling, but I'll admit it -- I love foams!) Soon after, the first wine arrived. An Allouchery-Perseval Brut Champagne was a perfect choice, yeasty-bready, all pinot noir with great body and a smooth long finish. This was a really fine champagne and would reflect the level of the rest of the wines to come. I should also note that pours were quite ample!

The champagne went well with a simply presented and perfect Skips Island Creek oyster with a nice-sized dollop of North American caviar.

The next wine was an inspired choice (and one I've repeated since the dinner). A 2007 Abbazia Di Novacella by Kerner (Alto Adige, Italy). The wine was broad and approached butteriness asymptotically -- which is to say it stayed crisp enough to pair perfectly with a serving of butter-poached Maine lobster with sweet corn and herbs and roasted watermelon. Rarely have wine and a course been so well-matched. It gets better though, another fine dollop of caviar, this time a darker, crisp sturgeon caviar.

A 1989 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva (Rioja) arrived at the table looking like an aged Sauterne, as deep in color as fresh motor oil. I'm not a fan of Rioja and (oops) let this fact be known. In a moment of either extreme candor or sycophancy, the wine manager agreed, then poured a wine which will, forever, revise my expectations. Old, white riojas rock! The wine had the heft to pair well with halibut collar and grilled octopus with a vinaigrette which was carved tableside and served with perfectly crisped halibut cracklings. Oh, and a lovely German Ossetra caviar! It should be noted that the 3 caviars served were each unique and paired intelligently with their courses. Discussions of their relative merits ensued.

It was at this point that we noted that our conversations were never interrupted. Amazingly, bread appeared, butter was replaced, glasses filled, courses arrived and waitstaff just never seemed to be there except when regaling us with the narrative of our food and wine. The seamlessness of the service defied understanding until my DC noticed that various personnel were peering in from behind the glass wall of the wine locker that defines the front room to determine the perfect moment to arrive. Such care in service is truly exceptional and may set the standard in Boston.

By now, I'd been conditioned to salivate on the approach of the wine manager. I managed not to drool when he came to the table to tell us that the kitchen had thrown him a curveball and that he would need a moment more to prepare for the next course. I then saw him head for the bar. He returned with a perfect spiced bloody Mary (thanks to Junior at the bar) with an unimpeachable olive and explained that it was breakfast time (we'd been there a while, but I was fairly certain that this was not the case). The incredible, edible (fresh Codman) egg has never been so exalted; perfectly coddled and served over duck confit hash with duck prosciutto and a perfect, large escargot de Bourgogne. The flavors and the runny yolk made up for the fact that the caviar train had finally ceased to stop at our table. This was the course of the evening.

There must have been something about us that told our waitstaff we liked to drink. An intermezzo was presented which could be considered either a semi-liquid course or a semisolid cocktail: A plate was decorated with dollops of blueberry concentrate and an herbaceous yellow contrasting gelée. On the plate there is a shotglass (a very nice one) containing minced cucumber, sake, St. Germain liquer, and spherized raspberry gelatin (el Bulli style). This was the perfect palate cleanser. DC wrote "YUM" in blueberry concentrate on the rim of the plate.

Here comes the Sauterne! Foie gras time! A lovely 2001 Château Nairac is paired with a perfectly-portioned, beautifully-seared portion of foie which contrasts beautifully witht he accompanying grilled pluot. If loving it is wrong, I don't want to be right. A porcini flan (yup) was a lovely accompaniment to the Sauterne and foie.

Ah, the red wines begin. First a 2007 Belle Pente Williamette Valley pinot noir. Oregon pinots are among my favorite wines, but I must say that this was the weakest link of the meal. The wine was a bit turbid and lacked the depth for which the region is known. Notably, the wine was from a newly-opened bottle and would, as we finished the course, be markedly improved. We couldn't get too upset about this though -- the wine was still good, just could have been better. It would have paired perfectly with the incredible small-grain truffled risotto with black garlic it came with had it only been opened a little earlier.

A 2004 Gour de Chaulé Gigondas went perfectly with the best slices of duck I've yet eaten. I didn't know people were dry-aging duck, but apparently they do. Served a perfect medium rare with a summer succotash, it was a lovely course and has me thinking of wrapping some magrets in towels toward the bottom of my fridge.

By now, I should have been trusting enough not to cringe when I saw a Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon walking up to the table (fine food hallucination). The 2005 Grebennikoff was as Old World as could be -- big, strong, full of earthy flavor and markedly herbaceous. It was a perfect accompaniment to the perfectly roasted and frenched rack of lamb and the silky eggplant puree to its side. At the risk of blasphemy, this was a fine candidate for Agnus Dei.

An Offley 10 year Tawny was a fine choice for the cheese course. We've had experience with the cheeses at L'Espalier but were unaware of just how much cheese would be coming despite the food we'd already ingested. All choices were well-chosen and presented in the right order: a flinty Lakes Edge VT ash-rubbed tangy goat, pecorino fiore sardo (mixed), Greenhill Sweet Grass dairy cheese, Le Montagne de Bethmale (French Goat), a lovely extremely runny, mild Langres (Cow, Champagne, FR), Tarantaise (VT, Cow), the best Gouda of my life 5yr Holland, Fourme d'Ambert (Cow, FR).

I quietly mentioned another cheese on the cart to my DC and it immediately arrived at the table. The attention paid is superb. I bet they get some great stock tips in that room.

The usual Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto D'Acqui accompanied dessert. While a fine choice, I do find this on way too many tastings and think it needs to be retired for a short time. Desserts were (it starts getting hazy here) watermelon ice cream, mocha panna cotta with iced tea foam, chocolate ganache with tasty crumbs and apricot gelée.

There, we're done. Oops, maybe not. Jiho Kim, the pastry chef is coming to the table with bowls and a Dewar flask. Apparently, writing "YUM" on your plate rim is unusual and rewarded. Chef Kim pours a liberal amount of liquid nitrogen into a bowl and the table is converted to a cross between an Ozzie Osbourne concert and a haunted house. The chef prepares perfect quenelles of raspberry and lychee purées, drops them into the cold liquid, and presents them on spoons. We're instructed to pop these haute popsicles into our mouths and, upon doing so, we were awash in the pure essence of the flavor and lightness as steam came out of our noses. We looked like very well-fed, angry bulls.

Chocolate truffles and pear and meringue jellies filled the last empty space in our hollow legs.

The dinner ranks among the finest we've had. Service adapted to our less formal style and we'd become friendly with our waitstaff over the course of the meal. It was a shame to leave.

I apologize for the lack of criticism in this account -- I tend not to trust a rave review. In this case, plaudits are entirely warranted.

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  1. Wow, spectacular! I've never done this meal, have always wanted to get a detailed blow-by-blow, and you surely delivered! What was it: $400/head plus tax and tip?

    I stopped by the other day to look at the current menu, was horrified to see a couple of young men seated in the dining room for dinner, wearing t-shirts, jeans, sneakers and baseball caps (still on). Really would have frosted me had I been eating this meal and seated next to those slobs. I guess I understand how nobody can afford to turn business away these days, but some bare-minimum standards at a place this expensive would be nice.

    1 Reply
    1. re: MC Slim JB

      Actually, the meal cost much less than you guessed -- $185 for dinner $110 for wines + tax + tip. A real bargain, considering the amount and quality of ingredients, the number of true professionals employed, etc.

      Regrettably, your second point is spot-on -- there were people in jeans, shorts, and t-shirts at dinner. We were very ashamed for some of the people who passed by our table. I've found this to be a worsening problem here in Boston and do wish that L'Espalier more than "recommended" proper attire.

    2. Excellent post. My wife and I had the pleasure of taking the McClelland Tasting Journey and it is truly the most memorable food experience we ever had. Last week we were in NYC and went to Jean-Georges. I hope to expand on that experience in a separate post, but it was a monumental disappointment, and the reason is that our experiences at L'Espalier - generally but in particular the Tasting Journey - set the bar so high. Sadly for the two of us, but in the end so good for Boston: a three Michelin/four NYTimes star restaurant pales against what we have in our own back yard.

      (The dress issue, however, is a very, very serious problem, one that I did not see surface at the Gloucester Street location. Quite a shame.)

      4 Replies
      1. re: StevieC

        Our experience at L'Espalier earlier this year beat the pants off both Jean Georges in NYC (went in summer of 2008) and Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas (May 2009). Go Boston!

        1. re: Suze123

          Which one, Robuchon L'Atelier or Robuchon at the Mansion?

          1. re: Suze123

            Wonderful review, thanks so much for writing. I haven't been back to L'Espalier since they've moved, but it sounds like the food is still really something special.

            I found the Joël Robuchon at the Mansion to be really something else (in a good way) but I did once have the good fortune to eat at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in New York just a few days before L'Espalier in Boston, and while L'Atelier remains one of my favorite restaurants, everything but the dessert at L'Espalier was just better, without question. I don't mean to denigrate one restaurant compared to another, but I really do think L'Espalier is something very special and can hold its own among great restaurants in great restaurant cities. That it is significantly less expensive than L'Atelier, for example, is just an added benefit.

            I do want to make one comment about formality in the dining room. Personally, I enjoy the process of dressing up to enjoy a special meal. But I've also taken someone to L'Espalier as something of a surprise once, and while we weren't dressed like schlubs, she was wearing (very nice) jeans and I was wearing just a shirt and no jacket or tie. I hope we didn't harm any one elses' enjoyment of their meal, but I appreciated so much that even in a slightly "precious" place, where everyone else was there on some special occaison (we were the only table who didn't get a candle on their dessert to celebrate something), we received actually the best service I'd ever received at L'Espalier and were made to feel very welcome. Again, while I appreciate formality, I'd rather a restaurant err on the side of being welcoming to all than risk being so stuffy it's no fun anymmore.

        2. Wow indeed! I now understand the first line. This is the best food porn I've read in a great while. A lovely description of a fabulous meal. I was there many years ago for an excellent meal but not quite this over the top. I'm glad to see that L'Espalier is still wonderful.

          1. GREAT post! All my wife and i can say is that you bring most wonderful memories back for us when we did the same Chef's Table/Tasting Journey. The attention to detail, finesse, imagination, and spectrum of delights was overwhelmingly awesome. Thanks for putting this up.

            1. Thank you all for your kind words. Bon appetit.