Dining Out: L'Espalier

Another L’Espalier hallmark has been a freewheeling willingness to try unexpected pairings—what in its heyday was called New American cuisine. Added now are a few of the science-food techniques that cooks like Grant Achatz and Wylie Dufresne are using in Chicago and New York, respectively. This openness to the new characterizes the restaurant’s greatest current successes—and its greatest failures.

My favorite dish, frankly, sounded strange: an appetizer of veal sweetbreads on a whole-wheat waffle with pink grapefruit and citrus yogurt. The three sweetbreads were perfectly crisp on the outside and soft but not spongy. The waffle added crunch, and the citrus a sweet-and-sour note. It was both interesting and beautifully executed. So was the seared, roasted foie gras on top of a disk of sweet potato braised in butter and chicken stock, the foie gras finished with brandy, cranberries, and raisins (fruit, in fact, adorns much on the menu).

A few of the generously portioned appetizers could happily make a meal.
But you’re paying for the entrées, and too many were letdowns. The elk, a meat that deserves a wider audience for its lean tenderness, was flavorless and (yuckily) paired with escargots and a chocolate–tangerine sauce. The lamb tasted far more of its Thai spices and roasted pineapple than lamb. The Scottish squab tasted more like meat than anything else I tried (I didn’t have the tenderloin with short ribs), but it was dry. So was the Blue Foot chicken at one dinner, though another time the meat was perfect, and both times there was that wonderful jus. I didn’t order the monkfish a second time, because I was so discouraged by its rubbery, underdone texture the first. The best of the fish was a light-tasting "lemon snapper," a Hawaiian import also called ono, with couscous, pine nuts, and raisins and a Meyer lemon–white anchovy dressing to offset the sweet fruit.

Desserts lean too far toward the experimental. The greasy bacon-infused caramel on the gummy pineapple upside-down cake is best avoided; black-pepper ice cream with an "apple tart" (a bland roulade) is reach-for-the-water overwhelming. Better bets are the chocolate offerings. The acid-sweet balance of the chocolate terrine was perfect, and the mocha soufflé was textbook crisp-soft.

If only you could order à la carte, and have some appetizers and that grand cheese platter, all a bit more modestly priced! (Soon, maybe, if the grandees at the Mandarin thin out?) The service and much of the cuisine at L’Espalier is, in its homegrown way, splendid. I want to be able to afford to go back.

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