Dining Out: L’Espalier
In its flashy new digs, Frank McClelland’s gastro-luxe flagship has lots of room for improvement; cheese cart still matchless.
Boston might still have a place for a luxury restaurant where no request is too large and your every whim is intuited. And that place, logically, would be the Mandarin Oriental, the new Back Bay hotel that aims to elbow aside (ever so delicately, of course) the Four Seasons. It is not by coincidence that it was masterminded by the man who put the Four Seasons front and center in Boston, Robin Brown.
L’Espalier, with its history of cosseting diners in a grand, romantic townhouse a few blocks away, was the obvious dining anchor, and luring it to the Mandarin was a coup. On the few occasions I ate at the Gloucester Street location, all of them a good 10 years ago, I found the food beautifully prepared, if mostly unmemorable. But I always admired chef-owner Frank McClelland’s dedication to technique, as well as his knack for finding local ingredients before they were the rage—he grew up in New Hampshire farm country—and pairing food with the right wine (as he does in his recent book, Wine Mondays).
The new place is modern and very brown, with big windows that give a perfect view of the brightly lit Lord & Taylor sign across the street—not a swatch of chintz or Louis-anything in sight. It’s really the space between the tables you’re paying for. That, and the service: Many of the staffers come from the old L’Espalier and know the menu and wine list inside out; the longtime host, Louis Risoli, is a master of the glass-topped cheese cart and persuasively describes the selection of little-known Vermont (and some French and other European) cheeses. It feels good to be here, even if sometimes the attentive service is a little too much so—as when it races you to the one-seat bathroom to hold the door open.
All this attention comes at a high price. Too high. Dinner is prix fixe only, with options starting at three courses for $82, and climbing from there (vegetarian for $90, “Tasting Journey” for $185, and full tasting with wine pairings for $295). I was vaguely aware there was an additional charge for cheese, but I had no notion the “grand fromage” would add $36 to the bill. Unless L’Espalier intends to attract only superrich hotel guests, it may find that in the current economy, locals are limited to lunch, which is $35 for three courses. Wines are mostly $60 and up, though we had an excellent nero d’Avola for $40, and the wine steward was unfazed when we asked for something low-priced.
I did manage to taste almost every-thing on the fall menu, and found the food more adventurous than I remembered, while still based on rock-solid French technique. Seasoning and the use of dried and fresh herbs is delicate and exemplary—chefs should come for lessons. A spoonful of the butter, stock, and black truffle reduction under the roast chicken breast with pancetta will make you sit back and sigh, Ah, France.