Took my spouse to L'Espalier recently for an anniversary celebration, where we ordered our usual: the degustation of vegetables with matched wines. As I've often posted before, this is my hands-down favorite meal in town at any price. (I've also ordered a la carte and done several meat-and-seafood tasting menus here, and the vegetarian tasting is still my favorite.)
But this time was a disappointment. The usual revelation we expected with each course wasn't there. We loved the soup, cheese, and dessert courses, but the bits in between were decidedly bland and uninspired (and dishearteningly featured Macomber turnips at every turn: no objection to that vegetable, but I don't want to see it four times in one meal). The expected real Champagne with the first course was replaced with a house-branded sparkler from Westport, MA: not terrible, but no match for the French. This wine choice reinforced an overall impression of corner-cutting in the last place in town I expect to see it.
We managed to celebrate the occasion gamely, but the staff here was too sharp to miss our lack of enthusiasm: maybe it was the unfinished portions. The manager came over after about the fourth course for our opinion of dinner. I asked, "Is the chef here tonight?" (it was a Monday, when lieutenants often take over); turns out he was. "Frankly," I said, "and this is our favorite restaurant in town, hence the anniversary dinner here, I thought he didn't bring his A Game tonight. No problems with the service, but the food didn't make us swoon as usual."
He made polite apologies, and promised to share my lukewarm review with the chef. Before we left, he said the chef understood we were less than thrilled, and would be contacting us.
I held off on spanking this place on Chowhound, despite my rather bitter disappointment with the evening. On the one hand, I get there maybe once a year: my sample size is small. On the other, this was the first time I'd ever had a remotely sub-par experience there, and that tasting menu does run you over $300 for two with tax and tip.
It took a couple of weeks, but I got a hand-written note on the chef's behalf today with a warm apology and a $100 gift certificate. That takes a lot of the sting out of that night. I'm impressed that a) they noticed our disappointment, which until they asked we had tried to hide, and b) they delivered on their promise to follow up.
It'll be a long time before I give an unqualified rave to this place, but I'm glad I don't have to write that "used to be great, now it stinks" review. The extraordinary places carry a burden of high expectations. It's a rare place that tries to make amends when it falls short of them.