Totoro turned out to be the least of their worries. The real trouble started when I took out my Moleskine notebook to annotate my meal. Suddenly, I was a woman dining alone in a fancy restaurant, taking notes, and the excitement started. I'm not sure who they thought I was at that point, but suddenly the descriptions of the food became very elaborate, and later in the meal, I was presented with the cheese menu, with the lineup of my grand fromage course carefully numbered, and a printout of the entire menu for Chef Frank McClelland's tasting journey, which I was told would be "nine or ten courses, all small bites - not a lot of food." (Side note: I suppose it's tough to calibrate what "not a lot of food" means. I don't think it meant the same thing to me as it meant to the server who said it.) Presented below is the printout of the tasting journey. It is an eight-course menu, but it doesn't include descriptions of the h'ors d'oeuvres, the intermezzo, the grand fromage, and the dessert tasting, all of which I will describe to the best of my ability. For some details all I have are impressions rather than the ingredients.
Warm Island Creek oyster with Maine sea urchin emulsion
Apple Street Farm egg mousse with Siberian Sturgeon caviar (the server said it was paddlefish caviar)
Butter poached Cacso Bay lobster with vanilla scented Apple Street Farm butternut squash, brown butter emulsion, and apple gel
Seared Hudson Valley foie gras with cognac-compressed banana, sauce Hollandaise, and candy cap mushrooms
Spanish sea bass with Jerusalem artichoke puree, mushroom milk, pickled shallots, and "Maitre Gaspard"
Roasted squab with Black Mission "fig newton," pistachio, and burnt-licorice milk (my journey was gluten free, so I didn't have the "fig newton"
Roasted veal tenderloin with foraged mushrooms-Madeira ragout, hay-infused milk, and candied lemon peel
Colorado lamb loin, "cassoulet du Languedoc," with hazelnut-fines herbes sponge cake and Apple Street Farm root vegetables (no sponge cake for me)
Grand Dessert Tasting
That's what the menu said I would be getting (although it didn't mention the appetizers). I'm learning that when a chef says there will be eight courses, there will usually be four lighter courses (seafood or fois gras) and four "savory" courses (meat). But this doesn't include the appetizer (which in my experience is usually a trio), an intermezzo (which usually includes a sorbet), and a parade of "after dinner" experiences, such as cheese, desserts, truffles, petits fours, and so forth until you need a wheelbarrow to escape in. Each item placed before you is between one and three ounces, which, if you add everything up (a total of 6 oz. of cheese in the Grand Fromage), "not a lot of food" ends up being over a pound of very rich food. My advice to prospective travelers in the L'Espalier tasting journey: don't eat lunch. Don't take more than a taste of any bread that hits that table, or you may not make it through the journey without having to box something up. If you need to box something up, box up the cheese course, which will not suffer too much from transport and won't require your possibly inept reheating. Don't refrigerate it when you get home, just leave it on a cool place on the kitchen counter, away from the cat.
I'd like to back up now, in possibly annoying nonlinear fashion, to where my evening began. I booked two dinners for myself to celebrate the New Year: 1) L'Espalier for January 1st and; 2) No. 9 Park on January 2nd. Each restaurant has a tasting menu, and each is very expensive. Coat and tie is required (one would presume this is for the gentlemen; I didn't see any ladies in coat and tie). I dressed very carefully for dinner, diamond pendant, emerald and tanzanite rings from my rarely worn collection of such tony jewelry. New Mary Jane shoes, shiny candy apple red, but an otherwise conservative dark outfit with pinstripes. My black wool overcoat and cloche hat shaped like a bell. Strangely, I am not a clothes horse: I do not spend a lot of time thinking about clothing, shopping for clothing, or dressing. I shop without regard for labels, and think only of colors, patterns, and textures. I can wear anything with anything in my closet, because I have accumulated enough details in certain colors to bring any outfit together. Cornflower and cream, I can do that. Navies, cranberries, blacks, forest greens, rust colors, golds, browns. I am only ever conscious of what I'm wearing when I'm about to purchase something expensive and luxurious. Only then do I put on the diamonds. I think it has to do with the time I was once kicked out of an antiques shop in Sausalito, California. I was wearing a puffy denim jacket with a Tweety Bird on the sleeve, and apparently I didn't look as though I deserved to have anything to say about the quality of light on marble while wearing no makeup, and with Tweety Bird on my arm. I've found that if you add a few diamonds, they call you Madam and let you order whatever you want, even if you're dining with a stuffed Totoro.
This was my gift to myself for the New Year. I have resolved I will treat myself well this year. This doesn't mean I will give myself every comfort every moment; the comfort I'm giving myself today and tomorrow are symbolic of the care I will give to my spirit this year. I put on my diamonds. When I filled up my gas tank, I used Full Serve. When I drove to the restaurant, I used the valet parking. I tipped the valet, and I tipped the coat check lady for my coat and hat. I was escorted to my Table for One with everyone calling me by name, and they seated me by the window, at a very, very good table. The server noticed Totoro when I ordered my cocktail and was unfazed, but when he saw my notebook, he wobbled a little. There was a puff pasty in my appetizer trio, which he had to take away, because I had already several times specified my gluten intolerance. He brought the appetizer back, now with two barbecue sweet potato chips instead of the puff pastry, and spilled my cocktail while arranging the table for it. The cocktail was called the Aviation (gin, lemon, a very lush, dark Marachino cherry, creme de violette). The appetizer trio was the sweet potato chip (wedged into a pine cone for presentation), a spoon with a bite of smoked salmon with some sort of zingy foam and a few spikes of dill, and a shot glass with lobster bisque. When the server took away the empty plate, he came with an extra appetizer to make up for his spill: fluke sashimi with tiny radish and a citrus sauce flecked with herbs. A fluke for a fluke; I like to think L'Espalier has a sense of humor. I almost forgot that this was about me, about my comfort and luxury, as the dishes came out rapid fire and I tried to eat faster to keep up, but I eventually remembered, and gave myself permission to slow down, to carefully smell and look at each dish as it was set before me. Though it made the staff nervous, I took notes on each dish because it pleased me to do so. No doubt they thought I was a food writer, reviewing for someone or other. They probably get that all the time.
I love listening to the servers describe the dishes, especially when they do so with pride in the chef's inventiveness and the quality of his food. Good servers have an almost proprietary tone when talking about the dishes. This is the creation of their chef. He belongs to them, and his concerns are their concerns. His values are their values. The perfection of the food reflects on them, on their career decisions. There is nothing more prestigious and wonderful than to be striding across the dining room at L'Espalier carrying a cheesecloth full of mushroom powder that must be tapped over the fois gras to finish the dish at the guest's table. Good servers have a dignity in service that falls around them like a sacred order. I wonder if they have the same posture and accent when they bring dishes to the table at home. The romantic part of me hopes that they do, that's it's not just an act, that "chef" really is the honorific it sounds, and that they are proud of what they do for a living.
After the appetizer trio, and the complimentary fluke-for-a-fluke, the server brought me a plate of gluten free rolls, and I almost cried. They were redolent with parmesan, and chewy, hot, crusty. It was probably rice flour, and I was happy to have them while eating the rich and strange opening courses. In this blog post, I talk about my first experience with uni (sea urchin roe) and I'll admit that eating uni emulsion is similar to eating uni, which is like licking the smell of a bait bucket, only foamier. So I'm not such a fan of sea urchin, but the first course had such an amazing presentation, I would gladly experience the uni emulsion again. The server brought out a crystal bowl with a lighted pedestal center. In the bowl were river stones and strands of seaweed. On the lighted pedestal center was a pile of rock salt and the poached oyster in the shell. A bit of dry ice made the whole thing a misty, glowing sea jewel on the table. I'd never seen a dish so beautifully presented in my life.
If I had to pick my favorite of the dishes presented to me that night, it would be the egg mousse with paddlefish roe. It was rich and unusual and meltingly delicious, the server explained that Chef McClelland takes chief pride in the dairy produced at Apple Street Farm. I tried very hard to take good notes, but find that my notes aren't as good as the menu that I've reproduced above, so I will only lament that the menu doesn't capture the enchanting detail of a food experience of that caliber. The single leaf of celery on the poached lobster tail, the julienne apples, and various foams and gels and emulsions. The milk jelly with flash fried seaweed. The intermezzo was a spool of sweet cheese ribbon partially unraveled across a plate with two spheres of compressed pear, a tangy lime-and-something sorbet with a dot of creamy-something, and a savory crumble of something else. (Terrible notes!) The accompanying drink was presented in a cordial glass, two layers of apple cider with a "vanilla sphere" in the middle. Tapioca, or gelatin, or something, the sphere rolled across my tongue and burst with vanilla at the end of the drink, and I was so delighted I laughed out loud. Table for one; crazy lady with the plush Totoro cracking up with delight over the intermezzo. The server smiled and said he'd done the same thing when he tasted it for the first time; such kindness (he was not the spilly server who forgot I was gluten free, but another, more smiley and confident person). I had some liberal guilt over the dishes: the fois gras (duck abuse), the veal (baby cow abuse), the lamb (baby sheeps, baa!), and the squab. Squab is pigeon. I didn't feel sorry for the pigeon; I just thought it was odd to be eating something my father might call a "flying rat." I've noticed this about fine dining: you end up eating the oddest things. Bring out the beaver noses!
As I type this blog post, I'm eating the Grand Fromage for brunch. The fromager at L'Espalier is Louis Risoli, and my selection included:
Cloud 9: Woodcock Farm, Vermont. Brie style cheese, tangy and citrusy.
Coupole, Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, Websterville, Vermont. This yummy cheese is creamy, dense, and pleasantly goaty.
Pecorino Ginepro, Emilia-Romagna, Italy. A traditionally made, well aged cheese from Northern Italy. The rind is rubbed with juniper berry and balsamic vinegar; while the interior paste is light and flaky with a robust, buttery flavor. Excellent with honey and fruit.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Seasonally made from the milk of seven breeds of cows. This outstanding semi-firm cheese has a spicy flavor, mixed with caramel and nutty flavors. A.C.S. "Best of Show is 2001, 2004, and 2011."
Nocciolo, Lombardy, Italy. A smooth-textured Taleggio-style cheese. This cheese is a nose-ful, but a nice dose of sweetness saves the day.
Bleu Benedictin, Abbaye St Benoit, Quebec. A tradition of French cheese making, established in Quebec in the 1600's, was maintained in this Abbey during the 200 "Cheddar Years" that followed the British conquest. This blue is well aged, with a natural rind and a deep, earthy flavor.
I love a history lesson with my cheese. Some of these cheeses are, indeed, a nose-ful, but it's delightful to sit here in my dining room, still enjoying the meal the next day when I'm not brimming with fish, and fowl, and all manner of culinary oddities. I had them pack up the Grand Fromage because I figured it would weather the best of all the choices, after taking a tiny bite of each of the cheeses and the accompanying garnishes of fruits and nuts (skipping the breads - another gluten free fail). I was glad to have saved a tiny, tiny bit of room for the Grand Dessert. There was a quenelle of ginger ice cream, two dense cylinders of chocolate (one dark, one caramelized white) with power-packed dots of blood orange gel, and a gorgeous, dense hemisphere of vanilla custard, the whole plate swirled with coconut mango cream. I'm reminded now of the parade of cutlery throughout the journey. I had a fork and two spoons to eat my dessert with. A knife and fork for the Grand Fromage. A fish knife for the bass. Sharp knives for the squab, veal, and lamb. Each course came with a special set of cutlery, sometimes shaped to the specific purpose. Each course came with a special plate for optimum presentation. For this meal, because of my seating, near a window in a large dining room, the focus was on the food, the service, the plate and cutlery. Bursting with eight courses and assorted warm ups and cool downs, I was faced with a box of petits fours. I took a white chocolate cranberry and a blueberry jelly, and with a trembling hand and ponderous belly, paid my bill, collected my coat and hat, summoned my car, and drove home with a bag of Grand Fromage in the back seat.
Between acts in the fabulous play of food, I took my entertainment in my fellow diners. The two thirty-something Asian women, one younger and slimmer, one older and plumper. A couple on their anniversary, sipping champagne and eating caviar. The woman was wearing an off-the-shoulder blouse and a strapless bra that provided shelf-like support for breasts she rested on the table while clapping her hands over the caviar. A Russian couple chatting away about nothing in particular, looking stoic and Vodka sotted, while consulting the sommelier for the "right" bottle of wine to have with their degustation (fewer dishes than the full tasting journey, but with the cheeses, desserts, and so forth). The thirty-something British couple possibly on a luxury vacation, possibly reveling in the power of the pound over the dollar. The upright, proper, perfectly postured wait staff, who escorted me to the W.C. three times, folding my napkin and tucking in my chair each time, with their encyclopedic knowledge of the sauces and emulsions and powders and potions on each plate. The professional coat-checker ensuring each guest received a pumpkin spiced madeleine from pastry chef Jiho Kim on the way out, with a gift card entitling the bearer to 20% off your next lunch. Going to L'Espalier was like going to a carefully choreographed modern dance. There were a few missteps here and there (I refuse to attribute the plate crash on the other side of the dining room to either Totoro or to my notebook) but it was altogether a splendid experience, and a beautiful way to start the New Year.
I feel my life telescoping strangely when I do these things for myself, when I reserve a table for one in this way, where I don't take out my reader, and instead experience haute cuisine intensely and joyfully. I admit that I Twittered the courses for those who stayed home for the sake of pocketbook and palate; after all licking the smell of a bait bucket isn't everyone's idea of a fun time, especially with that kind of price tag.
Happy New Year, food geeks.