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New designs on classic foundations

Clockwise from above: halibut on pea fricassee, crab salad drizzled in plankton vinaigrette, the cheese cart, and roast chicken with morel mushrooms and foie gras mousse. Clockwise from above: halibut on pea fricassee, crab salad drizzled in plankton vinaigrette, the cheese cart, and roast chicken with morel mushrooms and foie gras mousse. (Photos by Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 6, 2012
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In 2008, L’Espalier moved from its Gloucester Street brownstone, cramped and romantic, to a new space adjacent to the Mandarin Oriental hotel on Boylston. A few blocks away, it is a world apart, modern and spacious, the gleaming kitchens outfitted with every convenience. The look is contemporary: starburst lighting, glass walls, subdued taupes and beiges.

Something was inarguably lost — history, antique charm — but much was gained. Four years later, L’Espalier has grown into its new surroundings.

These better reflect the nature of the restaurant itself. Regardless of what appeared on one’s plate, the old space gave the sense that L’Espalier was traditional, possibly even slightly stuffy. Neither is true, as several first-time diners noted with surprise. Service is indeed formal, not missing a detail, tailored to the needs of each table and each individual at it. That person is not drinking wine? Perhaps she would like to try one of the house juice blends. This one can’t stop eating the phenomenal cheddar brioche and pretzel rolls from the bread basket? He will be offered more until he says uncle. Another is allergic to the chocolate in one dessert? An extra, free of the ingredient, appears at the table to compensate. (This exquisite attention can falter on, say, a busy night during graduation season.) But L’Espalier has always had a sense of fun. Witness its weekly Cheese Tuesday event, a three-course dinner and cheese tasting that culminates in a group chorus of a song about cheese. It’s set to the tune of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”

When it comes to food, one meal here dispels any notions of hewed-to traditionalism. Dishes are built on classic foundations. After that, they are Gehry constructions, recognizable but with new angles and perspectives. When chef-owner Frank McClelland and chef de cuisine Matthew Delisle prepare crab salad, it comes rolled in a tight cigar, set beside a juicy, sweet tempura soft-shell crab on a field of carrot-cayenne gelee in a gleeful Sunkist hue. The dish is drizzled in plankton vinaigrette. Plankton!

Oysters are available on the half shell, with champagne gelee and caviar. But Wellfleets are also served warm, in a light, creamy sauce heady with vermouth. Smoked bone marrow complements the shellfish in the way bacon might, but to richer, more luxurious effect. Charred leeks add another layer of smoke and aromatic flavor. And for more salinity and texture, there are delicate green fronds of samphire, also known as sea bean. It’s an elegant dish carefully built, Maine’s oyster stew wearing opera gloves.

A main course of slow-poached halibut is breathtaking: pure, white fish atop pea fricassee, surrounded by dollops of warm lemon curd and fragrant snips of fresh herbs, wisps of chamomile foam floating across the surface. It’s a landscape painting on a plate, and the flavors conjure spring, fresh, bright, and light. There is a keen awareness of seasons at L’Espalier. McClelland also operates Apple Street Farm, which produces ingredients that appear on the restaurant’s tables.

Simple classics like roast chicken become something more. The dish is plated with restraint but exploding with flavor: slices of the juiciest, most crisp-skinned chicken, scattered morel mushrooms with foie gras mousse, dabs of smoked pommes puree, a drizzle of jus.

L’Espalier’s finest presentation is based not on beautiful plating but beautiful service — the rib eye for two. Two staffers arrive and set up a burner tableside. Ingredients are warmed in copper dishes. Beef is carved. A brown pastry, loin roulade en croute, is sliced open. Bone marrow is scraped, mushroom ragout and crisp puffs of pommes Dauphine are apportioned. Each movement is choreographed: “On three,” one server instructs the other, and they lift together, eyes locked, with the concentration of acrobats. The dish tastes beautiful, too, Old World but not old-fashioned, the rich and complex flavors complementary.

There are times, however, when presentation trumps taste — as with a first course of scallops, pea bisque, roasted carrots, and morel mousse. Each component of the dish is just fine on its own, especially the exquisitely woodsy morel mousse. But the ingredients, scattered hither and thither on the plate, fail to come together as a unified dish. An amuse-bouche is served in a special glass jar. The concave top holds white pellets that turn out to be Asian pear ice cream. Beneath the jar is a slice of hamachi sashimi. Does one eat them together, tipping the pellets on the fish? The elements don’t add up, and the ice cream bits stick unpleasantly to the tongue.

Pastry chef Jiho Kim’s desserts are in tune with L’Espalier’s savory offerings. Fromage blanc mousse is covered by what appears to be a dehydrated raspberry Fruit Roll-Up. Crack it with a spoon. Beneath are small pieces of intensely flavored rhubarb and almond fennel cake, with raspberry frozen yogurt on the side. Another creation looks like a child’s building toy, a green log stacked on a green block beside pink cylindrical segments. Taste it and it rearranges itself into something more familiar — pistachio cake topped with a cylinder of excellent pistachio ice cream, beside red currant panna cotta.

For true art, one need look no further than L’Espalier’s four-star cheese cart, a labor of love for fromager and maitre d’ Louis Risoli. It encompasses the mild and the stinky, the creamy and the blue, the local and the far-flung, and it is a cheese lover’s dream.

Cheese requires wine. Beverage director Erich Schliebe oversees a list that offers crisp, simple sippers and elegant selections from the cellar, with an emphasis on small-scale producers. Staff members suggest a range of options that will bring out the best in one’s lamb, regardless of requested price level.

L’Espalier is an expensive restaurant. Its prix fixe menus range from $90 for three courses to $200 for McClelland’s “tasting journey” menu. But it emphasizes accessibility as best as a fine-dining establishment can — with more-affordable lunch options; a salon menu that offers cheese flights, $8 snacks and $15 plates, and Kim’s wild desserts; and decadent tea parties. This is a place that takes a hot cuppa seriously. It employs a tea sommelier.

L’Espalier’s food is very good. But its attention to detail and dedicated staff are what make the restaurant special.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.

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L’ESPALIER

774 Boylston St., Boston. 617-262-3023. www.lespalier.com. All major credit cards accepted. Wheelchair accessible.

Prices Three-course prix fixe $90. Five-course degustation $110. Degustation of vegetables $100. Tasting journey $200.

Hours Dinner daily 5:30-10:30 p.m. Lunch Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., Sat-Sun noon-1:45 p.m. Salon menu Sun-Thu 5-10:30 p.m., Fri-Sat 5-11:30 p.m. Tea

Sat-Sun 1:30-3 p.m.

Noise level Conversation easy.

May we suggest

Warm Wellfleet oysters, slow-poached halibut, roast chicken, rib eye for two, pistachio ice cream.

Extraordinary

Excellent

Good

Fair

(No stars) Poor

Ratings

  • 4 Stars Extraordinary
  • 3 Stars Excellent
  • 2 Stars Good
  • 1 Star Fair
  • No Stars Poor