Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Fat Tuesday

Last night was my inaugural trip to L'Espalier. Ever since I got into the whole fine dining thing, it's been my understanding -- by way of various reviews and rankings -- that L'Espalier was one of the best, if not the best, of the gourmet establishments in all of New England. L'Espalier's philosophy puts forth an unabashed embrace of everything that is opulence, punctuated by their recent relocation, nestling into the third floor of the brand new Mandarin Oriental Hotel Boston, adjoining the Prudential Center on Boylston Street in the heart of the Back Bay.

Their menu, which features a rotating seasonal menu as well as a constantly-changing tasting pre-fixe, aims to combine local ingredients with contemporary French cuisine, accented by an infusion of traditional New England cooking styles.

As Hanah and I were attending an event as opposed to a regular reservation, the menu was completely pre-fixed, which was fine, as I found all of the courses more than agreeable by the provided menu. Each dish was paired with a wine by L'Espalier's resident wine expert, or "cork dork," Erich Schliebe. Dork he was, but that's never really a pejorative, and though I generally prefer quietude and isolation for fine dining, it was nice to have a little more light shed on some wines I would ordinarily never try (translation: reds).

The first pairing was Tasmanian salmon and shrimp roulade with lemon-apple vinaigrette and arugula with apple strips cut similarly to the strings of carrot one finds in a bland salad. In this case, however, the apple strips paired nicely to give a sweet, tart juxtaposition to the bitterness of the arugula. The vinaigrette was sparse, which is probably for the best as the roulade was plenty moist by itself. The salmon portion of the roulade, which was a good two-thirds of the portion, was surprisingly pate-like in texture; I usually expect cooked salmon to be at least somewhat flakier. The shrimp portion, nested within the more generous salmon, was the best part of the dish.

It was enjoyable, but not necessarily masterful. In my opinion, the best dishes are defined by the way each element combines to make a singular taste sensation when combined in a single bite. In the case of the roulade, the arugula and apple strips seemed fairly auxiliary. This is, perhaps a testament to the strength of the actual seafood portion, but moreso it seemed like the flora was tossed on for the sake of color and texture variation, perhaps unnecessary for this particular dish. Enjoyable, not doubt... but not quite masterful.

The wine pairing -- appropriately white -- was a 2006 Domaine Richou, "Chauvigne," Anjou, Loire. Schliebe announced that it would have a distinct "wet wool" or "barn" aroma. Though these are two "flavors" I cannot say I'd posit as enticing, and though I found the description applicable upon first inhale, I nonetheless found the taste of the wine to be enjoyable. It was gentle and a bit steely, a fine accompaniment for the dish with which it was served.

The second course was a dark meat chicken lasagne with smoked bacon, tomato, olive and red wine. The red wine, in this case, was the same wine for this dish's pairing, 2005 Chateau Dubraud, Premieres Cotes de Blaye, Bordeaux, only it was an ingredient to the abundant sauce topping the lasagne portion. A small toss of baby pea greens was resting atop the dish, and like with the appetizer, I could not really understand its presence outside of a desire to introduce color and texture diversity to a dish which stands up fine without.

I ate the pea greens as quickly as I could to get them out of the way and then focused on the lasagne and my accidentally generous pour of Bordeaux. Both were very satisfying; though I have to be coaxed into white meat chicken these days, I needed no persuasion to indulge in its fattier, darker counterpart. The lasagne was hardy and perfectly portioned for the second course of four, and the Bordeaux -- in the sauce or in the glass -- was equally full.

When Schliebe was announcing the third wine of the evening, he invited interaction from his audience by asking what kind of nose this wine had. Across the room, the frumpier female component of the only couple that might've been close to the age of Hanah and me was busy taking a deep whiff. She then lowered her glass and confidently declared, "Grapes!"

Rather than laugh, the entire rest of the patronage exchanged knowing stares of mutual understanding. It was not so much that we all hated her, or that her knowledge of wine was lacking. It was just that, should some catastrophic event have trapped us in the restaurant for an indeterminate amount of time, and should the food supplies have been exhausted, chosing the first person to cannibalize was no longer going to be as difficult as it might've otherwise been, had she said, say, bacon.

Yes, bacon, the cork dork announced, was the aroma of the wine. A modest inhale did nothing to validate his claim, and Hanah agreed. I figured maybe I was missing something. That, or the bitch in the frock across the room wasn't so far off with "Grapes!" But a deeper breath revealed the bacony secrets of the 2007 Domaine Les Grand Bois, "Cuvee Les Trois Sceurs," Cotes du Rhone. A taste introduced something I don't often encounter; a red wine I'd actually purchase on my own.

The rich, meaty red was completely in step with the third course of grilled flank steak over rosemary polenta with sweet vegetables. This dish was exceptional; each element combined to a distinct harmonious sensation, and separate, each flavor was still its own treat. The only improvement would've been for the dish to have been hotter upon arrival, thus maintaining the freshly-cooked texture of the polenta through the full period of consumption. Or perhaps I should just talk less and eat more when the steak is served. Either way, here, at last, was what I'd not just been hoping for, but rather, expecting from L'Espalier.

The fourth and final course was the grand cheese tasting of "Soft Comforts."

The plate featured an array of six soft cheeses, served with small slices of very lightly buttered crisp baguette. The first one tried was a "Green Hills," from Sweet Grass Dairy based out of Thomasville, Georgia. It ended up being my second favorite of the assortment, even though it had no singular distinguishing quality.

The second cheese was "Grayson" by Meadow Creek Dairy in Galax, Virginia. Hanah pegged this one early on; it was very close to the more common Muenster. The firmest of the six, texture-wise, I did not bother to spread it on the baguette chips, simply parsing bits by knife or fork and delivering them directly to the pie hole.

Third up was "Nancy's Hudson Valley Camembert" from Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in New York. Very soft, this was light and airy, and spread more like melted butter than anything else. Fine, but nothing exceptional.

Fourth was an "Organic Triple Cream" from the Champlain Valley Creamery in Vergennes, Vermont. This cheese was a strange and fickle mistress. It was distinctly bitter when it was in my mouth, and yet the moment I had finished each bite, it left an aftertaste that made me wish to taste it again. That description probably applies to a few people, too.

Fifth was the only import cheese, a "Brie de Nangis" from Normandy, France. It wasn't true brie, we learned from Louis Risoli -- cheese expert of L'Espalier -- because true brie is made from unpasteurized milk and aged only for thirty days. The United States will not allow unpasteurized dairy aged less than sixty days into the country. Apparently I'll have to go to fucking France for real brie. This "brie" was humble, though it may have been difficult for anything of subtle flavor to follow the Vermont camembert.

I was lucky enough to save what would be my favorite cheese for sixth and last, the "Colorouge" from Muoco Dairy in Fort Collins, Colorado. It spread perfectly, carried a graceful balance of salt, bitterness and even a bit of tartness. Delicious.

Really, though, it didn't matter in what order I ate the cheeses, because the wine pairing was the highlight of the evening. I am partial to Alsatian wines to begin with, and the 2005 Schoenheitz "Holder" Gewurztraminer was spicy, tangy bliss. I've got to hunt down a full bottle for myself.

The event was topped off with a small plate of sweets. A mint-filled dark chocolate, a small cube of merengue, and a nougat cube with crushed pistachio for each of us was delivered with the check, keeping me from impulsively requesting a glass of the 2007 Banfi "Rosa Regale" Brachetto d'Acqui from the Piedmont region of Italy that I'd been eyeing since discovering the limited listing of dessert beverages.

As if the unexpected sweet plate was not enough, we were given strawberry Parisian macarons at the coat check.

L'Espalier is not my new favorite restaurant, but it was a very fine place to spend Fat Tuesday, and though it seems as though rough times may lie ahead for the gourmand -- in the wake of Excelsior's closing, Pigalle is suddenly offering three courses plus drinks for twenty bucks every Tuesday, whereas the Top of the Hub is participating in the dinner set of Restaurant Week for the first time in memory -- my faith in proper indulgence has been somewhat restored. I look forward both to my upcoming Restaurant Week reservations as well as an eventual return to L'Espalier for a crack at their regular menu.

In the meantime, however, I've got to get on finding that Gewurztraminer.

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