First Bite: A Ruff Crowd at L'Espalier

The generic, large, loud, bustling spaces that make up the new L’Espalier at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel mean an entirely new concept has risen from the ashes of the old. I mourn the old, but change comes to all things. Chef’s gotta make a living, and how will he do it? Volume. And apparently appealing to a new, furrier species of clientele.

We ordered the Autumn Degustation Tasting Menu and the Vintner’s pairing. The butter-poached Maine lobster was sweet, succulent, and tender. The foie gras torchon was smooth, buttery and perfectly seasoned (though the concord grape foam that accompanied it was a tad too sweet, in our opinion). Other courses, from the poached beef tenderloin, to the escolar, to the Thai-spiced Colorado rack of lamb on native pumpkin were as lovely as ever.

And we could almost hear ourselves think over the din of the eight-top of energetic guys (clearly enjoying the wine list) the hostess seated us next to in “the library,” described the day we made our reservation as the most intimate space in the new L’Espalier. (The other rooms, we figured, were even more like Gillette Stadium on game day, so we stayed put.)

Overall, the service was courteous and efficient, if a little rushed. (At one point, three of the very excellent wine pairings were stacked up like planes in a landing pattern along the side of my plate…and I drink fast.) We left our table full, satisfied that the quality of the food and service had not suffered, but aware that something far more vital had been lost in this new translation.

I had no idea how lost until, as I was waiting for my coat, a group of nicely dressed diners emerged from a side dining room—with a King Charles spaniel in tow. “Max,” though adorable and nattily dressed in a holiday sweater and matching leash, was, still, a dog, despite his owner’s obliviousness to this fact. (Yup. A dog in L’Espalier. In a restaurant that was, until that moment, the last place in the city where I still felt an obligation to wear lipstick.) Is this the type of restaurant L’Espalier has become? Perhaps the pup was attending a private party, or had himself enjoyed the very excellent Autumn Degustation tasting menu.

When I asked the youngsters manning the hostess desk if dogs were now going to be allowed in L’Espalier’s dining room, I was met with a wall of blank (but fresh!) faces and disavowals of all knowledge. (Responding to an e-mail message sent to the restaurant in the way of follow-up, L’Espalier publicist Jessica Danforth assured us that, no, the incident was just a fluke: “The guest claimed that the dog was an assistance animal,” she explained. “While that may not have been the case, the managers chose to let it go, as the pet was not disturbing anything and they did not want to create a scene.”)

With that, we boarded the elevator to leave and bid adieu to the old, magical, truly intimate, absolutely dog-free L’Espalier. Bonne chance.

By Kris Frieswick