BY LAM HO
AAA announced its 2006 Five Diamond Awards last week, and two French restaurants in Boston were included among the 48 recipients nationwide: perennial winners Aujourd’hui for the eleventh year and L’Espalier for the seventh year-the only independent Five Diamond restaurant in New England. The AAA distinction lacks the cut-throat, genius chef commits suicide after losing a star mystique of the Michelin three- stars status, and its credibility is certainly undermined by its selection of more Five Diamond restaurants in Florida (where the guide is headquartered) than in New York or California.
But until Michelin launches its planned invasion of the US, five diamonds remain the most selective and prestigious accolade available to North American restaurants.
The reputation and passionate following among diners and critics that L’Espalier has achieved since 1982, while presiding over Bostonian haute cuisine from its Newbury Street townhouse, certainly supports its inclusion among the elite. It is consistently regarded as the best (French) restaurant in Boston. I recall thinking this even a few years ago, when my virgin experience, like most, at L’Espalier was marked by disappointment. I do remember though being highly impressed with the impeccable precision of the cooking and the control over taste for which chef Frank McClelland is lauded. It was just not enough to evoke that orgasmic floating sensation imbued by a superlative meal. I left with a general impression of stodginess in both food and atmosphere, especially in comparison to my Boston favorite Radius, a delight in gastronomical creativity and flamboyance.
The announcement of the list aroused my need for a second appraisal; thus despite my irreverence for the AAA guide, I now kowtow before its superior judgment on this occasion. On our second affair, L’Espalier definitely produced waves of epicureorgasms. It was a fervent tryst of impeccable technique, luxurious refinement, ardent sensuality, and meticulous innovation.
A friend and I arrived at the gleaming black-gated doorway of the exquisite 1880 townhouse at 6pm on Sunday, the only reservation available that weekend, and were led into a luxuriously comfortable parlor-style dining room, in which modern clean lines and colors tastefully accentuated traditional features such as a marble fireplace, classic plasterwork, and a mirrored mantle.
We both opted for the three course prix fixe option, which allows you to agonize over deciding three courses from all the aching temptations on the menu for seventy dollars. Notably, they offer a vegetarian “Degustation of Seasonal Vegetables” alongside the tradition tasting menus. Before our appetizer, I was already titillated by an amuse-bouche: a pumpkin puree concoction with coconut, yoghurt, cucumber, and shockingly, cockles. It was magnificent, the culinary equivalent to a gentle nibble and lick on your lover’s ear, exciting breathless invitation into elegant but oh so raw fantasy.
The starter definitely did not dampen that arousal, as both my escargot and my friend’s poached Maine lobster were delightful. My escargot was surrounded by Niman Ranch ham atop a frisée salad. The intricate structuring of the hot escargot with the warm ham and the cool frisee complemented the blending of semi-sweet tangy and savoury flavours. Masterful strokes and subtle caresses were also embodied in my companion’s triptych of poached Maine lobster, bacon on cabbage puree, and a lobster consommé gelée cake. Each bold piece offered an intense, distinctive palate burst, but harmony was nonetheless achieved.
The Muscovy duck main course provoked my friend David to ejaculate, “This is like heaven!” While not quite ambrosia, the duck breast and leg confit were outstanding. The breast was flawlessly cooked and had the gentlest hint of tamarind teasing the senses, while the leg confit was moderately peppered for heightened zest. It was served with herbed carrots, sprouts, and an exotic lemon pancake. Then, I found myself even more impressed by my striped bass; it perfectly captured the eroticism of French cuisine: rich, passionate decadence which melts ethereally light. The tenderness of the bass exploded in each bite, while the hearty duck-fat fried potatoes, smoked beets, and wild mushrooms grounded the airiness of the fish. Additionally, the fig bread served with the meal-there were also olive and wheat breads-was particularly fabulous, as were the reasonably priced Alsacian Barnes Buecker Pinot Noir and Alexander Valley California Cabernet Sauvignon the sommelier selected for David.
Tragically, we descended from Bifrost for the final thrust. My potato fondue with black truffles was too buttery, creating a heaviness which drowned the delicate truffles. My dessert was excellent but lacked the siren-song charisma which characterized the previous courses. I thoroughly enjoyed the silky Valrhona milk chocolate mousse with peanut croquant, caramelized banana, and banana sorbet. Each was scrupulously prepared and tasted fine, but such a description could be applied to many good restaurants, all likely to serve something similar. Dessert, the sealing kiss, is a chef’s final signature, and McClelland’s name is merely scribbled in the unadventurous dessert-a mere peck without French penetration.
Nonetheless, the meal was worth each cent of the 27,500 that I spent. L’Espalier’s ability to embody bold creativity in some of the best examples of precision cooking I have savoured, provided moments of Asgardian heights, those echelons of transcendental cuisine where food and art converge. It reminded me that magnificent food is living sensuality-stoking hunger, igniting passions, inducing spasms of unadulterated pleasure, and finally satiating gently.
30 Gloucester Street
Boston, MA 02115 (617) 262-3023
For those in Boston for Thanksgiving, L’Espalier is serving a four course tasting menu on Thursday the 24th from 1-8:30pm. The menu is $75 per person and $38 for children under 14.
Rating: 3.5 “Epicureorgasms” out 4!
Epicurean Doctrine of the Week: The difference between an “epicureogasm” and a sexual orgasm is that the pursuit of one is a search for harmony whereas the pursuit of the other is a recipe for discord.