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L'Espalier -- Chef McClelland's Tasting Journey [long]


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L'Espalier -- Chef McClelland's Tasting Journey [long]

musteat | Aug 25, 2009 11:42 AM

I never believed the letters in this magazine until this happened to me...

DC and I were celebrating an anniversary and opted for the Tasting Journey as well as the Vintners' pairing. As we were going to be having many courses, we started early (6:30) arriving to a room that had yet to fill. We were in the front room, which we prefer to the library.Over the next 4 1/2 hours, we'd see many tables fill and empty 3 times.

Two lovely amuses-bouches were provided. First, a lovely mini-Napoleon of smoked salmon and (I believe) butter or crème fraîche with very thin pastry. This was served on a small tray cocktail-party style (a little casual touch). Following that, a perfectly grilled shrimp in skewered over a demitasse of melon soup with a fantastic parsley foam (I can feel the eyes rolling, but I'll admit it -- I love foams!) Soon after, the first wine arrived. An Allouchery-Perseval Brut Champagne was a perfect choice, yeasty-bready, all pinot noir with great body and a smooth long finish. This was a really fine champagne and would reflect the level of the rest of the wines to come. I should also note that pours were quite ample!

The champagne went well with a simply presented and perfect Skips Island Creek oyster with a nice-sized dollop of North American caviar.

The next wine was an inspired choice (and one I've repeated since the dinner). A 2007 Abbazia Di Novacella by Kerner (Alto Adige, Italy). The wine was broad and approached butteriness asymptotically -- which is to say it stayed crisp enough to pair perfectly with a serving of butter-poached Maine lobster with sweet corn and herbs and roasted watermelon. Rarely have wine and a course been so well-matched. It gets better though, another fine dollop of caviar, this time a darker, crisp sturgeon caviar.

A 1989 Lopez de Heredia Viña Tondonia Reserva (Rioja) arrived at the table looking like an aged Sauterne, as deep in color as fresh motor oil. I'm not a fan of Rioja and (oops) let this fact be known. In a moment of either extreme candor or sycophancy, the wine manager agreed, then poured a wine which will, forever, revise my expectations. Old, white riojas rock! The wine had the heft to pair well with halibut collar and grilled octopus with a vinaigrette which was carved tableside and served with perfectly crisped halibut cracklings. Oh, and a lovely German Ossetra caviar! It should be noted that the 3 caviars served were each unique and paired intelligently with their courses. Discussions of their relative merits ensued.

It was at this point that we noted that our conversations were never interrupted. Amazingly, bread appeared, butter was replaced, glasses filled, courses arrived and waitstaff just never seemed to be there except when regaling us with the narrative of our food and wine. The seamlessness of the service defied understanding until my DC noticed that various personnel were peering in from behind the glass wall of the wine locker that defines the front room to determine the perfect moment to arrive. Such care in service is truly exceptional and may set the standard in Boston.

By now, I'd been conditioned to salivate on the approach of the wine manager. I managed not to drool when he came to the table to tell us that the kitchen had thrown him a curveball and that he would need a moment more to prepare for the next course. I then saw him head for the bar. He returned with a perfect spiced bloody Mary (thanks to Junior at the bar) with an unimpeachable olive and explained that it was breakfast time (we'd been there a while, but I was fairly certain that this was not the case). The incredible, edible (fresh Codman) egg has never been so exalted; perfectly coddled and served over duck confit hash with duck prosciutto and a perfect, large escargot de Bourgogne. The flavors and the runny yolk made up for the fact that the caviar train had finally ceased to stop at our table. This was the course of the evening.

There must have been something about us that told our waitstaff we liked to drink. An intermezzo was presented which could be considered either a semi-liquid course or a semisolid cocktail: A plate was decorated with dollops of blueberry concentrate and an herbaceous yellow contrasting gelée. On the plate there is a shotglass (a very nice one) containing minced cucumber, sake, St. Germain liquer, and spherized raspberry gelatin (el Bulli style). This was the perfect palate cleanser. DC wrote "YUM" in blueberry concentrate on the rim of the plate.

Here comes the Sauterne! Foie gras time! A lovely 2001 Château Nairac is paired with a perfectly-portioned, beautifully-seared portion of foie which contrasts beautifully witht he accompanying grilled pluot. If loving it is wrong, I don't want to be right. A porcini flan (yup) was a lovely accompaniment to the Sauterne and foie.

Ah, the red wines begin. First a 2007 Belle Pente Williamette Valley pinot noir. Oregon pinots are among my favorite wines, but I must say that this was the weakest link of the meal. The wine was a bit turbid and lacked the depth for which the region is known. Notably, the wine was from a newly-opened bottle and would, as we finished the course, be markedly improved. We couldn't get too upset about this though -- the wine was still good, just could have been better. It would have paired perfectly with the incredible small-grain truffled risotto with black garlic it came with had it only been opened a little earlier.

A 2004 Gour de Chaulé Gigondas went perfectly with the best slices of duck I've yet eaten. I didn't know people were dry-aging duck, but apparently they do. Served a perfect medium rare with a summer succotash, it was a lovely course and has me thinking of wrapping some magrets in towels toward the bottom of my fridge.

By now, I should have been trusting enough not to cringe when I saw a Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon walking up to the table (fine food hallucination). The 2005 Grebennikoff was as Old World as could be -- big, strong, full of earthy flavor and markedly herbaceous. It was a perfect accompaniment to the perfectly roasted and frenched rack of lamb and the silky eggplant puree to its side. At the risk of blasphemy, this was a fine candidate for Agnus Dei.

An Offley 10 year Tawny was a fine choice for the cheese course. We've had experience with the cheeses at L'Espalier but were unaware of just how much cheese would be coming despite the food we'd already ingested. All choices were well-chosen and presented in the right order: a flinty Lakes Edge VT ash-rubbed tangy goat, pecorino fiore sardo (mixed), Greenhill Sweet Grass dairy cheese, Le Montagne de Bethmale (French Goat), a lovely extremely runny, mild Langres (Cow, Champagne, FR), Tarantaise (VT, Cow), the best Gouda of my life 5yr Holland, Fourme d'Ambert (Cow, FR).

I quietly mentioned another cheese on the cart to my DC and it immediately arrived at the table. The attention paid is superb. I bet they get some great stock tips in that room.

The usual Banfi Rosa Regale Brachetto D'Acqui accompanied dessert. While a fine choice, I do find this on way too many tastings and think it needs to be retired for a short time. Desserts were (it starts getting hazy here) watermelon ice cream, mocha panna cotta with iced tea foam, chocolate ganache with tasty crumbs and apricot gelée.

There, we're done. Oops, maybe not. Jiho Kim, the pastry chef is coming to the table with bowls and a Dewar flask. Apparently, writing "YUM" on your plate rim is unusual and rewarded. Chef Kim pours a liberal amount of liquid nitrogen into a bowl and the table is converted to a cross between an Ozzie Osbourne concert and a haunted house. The chef prepares perfect quenelles of raspberry and lychee purées, drops them into the cold liquid, and presents them on spoons. We're instructed to pop these haute popsicles into our mouths and, upon doing so, we were awash in the pure essence of the flavor and lightness as steam came out of our noses. We looked like very well-fed, angry bulls.

Chocolate truffles and pear and meringue jellies filled the last empty space in our hollow legs.

The dinner ranks among the finest we've had. Service adapted to our less formal style and we'd become friendly with our waitstaff over the course of the meal. It was a shame to leave.

I apologize for the lack of criticism in this account -- I tend not to trust a rave review. In this case, plaudits are entirely warranted.

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