By many accounts, l"Espalier is still one of the best restaurants in Boston and is the pioneer of fine dining in Boston. That is why it is all the more surprising that there were some simple things that were not done right during our meal, and frankly one problem I have never ever experienced before.
Full disclosure, we enjoyed dining at the old L'Espalier when it was on Gloucester Street and have been reluctant to taint our memories by eating at the new "more corporate" location on Boylston. We finally decided it was time.
L'Espalier still does the most important things right - namely the food is inventive, exquisite and absolutely outstanding. The wine list and pairings are thoughtful and delightful. We selected the 8 course tasting menu for our evening meal, which amounted to about 12 dishes after factoring in the amuse bouche, intermezzos, etc. Not only were the dishes fantastic but the serving sizes were also generous without being overwhelming (I did not find them small, in contrast to other reviews). We enjoy great food, but don't proclaim to be food critics, so this review will not further critique dish by dish.
The location on Boylston street is, well. . . just different. Two of the three dining areas, along Boylston and along Ring Road, have floor to ceiling windows and are not particularly intimate - more "see and be seen" in an understated way. The one room that approaches the intimacy of the old brownstone on Gloucester is the Library room in the back. It is more dimly lit and has no windows; rather the walls are lined with bookshelves. We sat here and preferred it, although the major downside to this room is there is a sliding door going into the kitchen. While the staff is good about closing this door after they open it for passage (serving plates etc)., every time the door opens it is a little jarring to hear the noise coming from the kitchen.
What went wrong? Little things, but for a restaurant of this caliber, should not be problems:
1. Our water glasses were left empty for long stretches. Finally the sommelier of all people actually took note and filled our glasses after one particularly long stretch.
2. The gentleman charged with replacing our silverware after each course was woefully in need of practice. I don't think I've ever had somebody present our forks and knives backwards, and this happened several times. Strangely, he got it right a few times. Once, he presented mine backwards and my wife's correctly. Really? I thought our waiter had noticed after the first time and said something, but apparently not.
3. Sad but perhaps just the way things are - we remember distinctly the maitre d' on Gloucester greeting us by name when we came in the door and wishing us a Happy Anniversary. That did not happen here - probably a result of booking online (which wasn't available in the Gloucester Street days), which eliminates an opportunity for a personal connection with the diners. That said, the restaurant did call to confirm, and that was a missed opportunity to gather information about a special occasion and again make a personal connection. In fairness, I believe it was our waiter who asked if we were celebrating anything, and they produced a mini flourless cake with a candle at the end of the dinner to help us celebrate.
4. While we appreciated the description of each dish as presented, the servers spoke in such hushed tones and with accents that it was almost impossible to understand them.
Less important, but notable, L'Espalier really should figure out a way to revamp their entrance. Perhaps that is in process. I understand they lost an entrance when the adjacent restaurant closed. But entering a fine restaurant through a non-descript door with simply a small elevator lobby feels less than grand.
Finally, and this is perhaps a nit, but for suburbanites who are driving in to Boston for dinner, it was surprising to me that L'Espalier does not validate parking. This might fall into the category of "if you can afford to eat here you can afford parking". However, it can also feel a little chintzy to spend several hundred dollars per head and not get validated when the lesser restaurants nearby all validate (it's the difference between $40 and $14 for parking). We did not use the valet service because (a) we were told they were "between valet services" and (b) I don't love leaving my car keys with a valet in the first place, particularly when parking is nearby and easy. We ended up going to Star Market across the street and buying a few groceries to get validated.
In summary, the food and wine is the most important thing, and for this L'Espalier remains top of the charts. It should be noted that our waiter, Matthew, who also doubles as the Fromagier, was excellent. In fact, I'd like to come back to one of their Tuesday cheese pairing dinners. And while L'Espalier has changed since it moved to the Boylston location and that is simply a reality, the change should not include overlooking some of the finer things that made L'Espalier special in the first place.
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