review: remembrance of things past…
It doesn’t happen often. In fact, it happens so rarely that you sometimes can’t recall the last time it happened.
But once in a few hundred meals or so, a dining experience knocks you off your duff and leaves you breathless.
I can tell you the last time this happened to me. It was at Café Boulud just a few weeks ago.
Top to bottom, east to west, my meal was flawless. (And how often does this cranky blogger say that?)
No offense to Gavin Kaysen, the Executive Chef, (cover your ears, Gavin, if you’re reading out there) but I really wasn’t expecting anything this good.
I mean, the last time I ate at Cafe Boulud, I walked away satisfied, but not gob-smacked. “Solid and steady” is how I described it.
But to be fair, I’m not sure anyone ever expects a meal this good – not even if you do know the chef.
Cafe Boulud is different from when I last saw it. For one thing, Adam Tihany got a hold of it and gave the dining room a nice face-lift (in my opinion, a more tasteful one than the one he gave Daniel).
It’s now slightly more serious, more elegant, more earthy. It’s lost that awkward “bar” area, with its floating high tops, and practically picked up half a lobby. Seemingly random hot pink and electric blue canvases add dimension, keep your eyes from settling on any one corner, on any one table.
The Surrey Hotel, which wore its age poorly, has been spiffed up as well. And Café Boulud now has a gorgeous sidekick, Bar Pleiades,* a stylish and surprisingly roomy lounge with a more-casual menu and its own clientele of well-preserved and well-groomed Upper East Siders. Mood lighting, white-on-black lacquer inlay, and a smoky soundtrack – if it could talk, it’d sound sexy.
This is where Mr. RBI, Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid (a.k.a. Wizard of Roz), and I landed at first, a touch early for our reservation in the shank of the evening. And this is where the host brought us a bottle of Champagne, a toast from Gavin. Yes, we are acquainted.
In addition to the four menu groups [la Saison (seasonal), le Potager (vegetables), le Voyager (international), and la Tradition (classic)], there’s also a list of “Daily Market” dishes.
A thorough survey of the menu left me at loss for what to order. The problem wasn’t so much that there were too many dishes I was foaming to try. Rather, the problem was that I was so certain that anything I ordered would be exceptional that I was trying to decide whether or not to order dishes I probably wouldn’t order in like circumstances elsewhere, just to see what Gavin could do with them.
And that’s when Gavin showed up to say hello and save me from my misery. With my friends in agreement, I asked him to send out what he wanted. More often than not, that really is the best way to order.
Gavin took us on a tour of the menu. Each of us was served a different dish for five courses. If you’ve read my blog posts in the past, you’ll know that this normally spells disaster – course envy creeps in, and the meal ends up feeling uncoordinated.
But here, everything was so flawless, the portion-sizes so adequate, that each of us was able to enjoy every dish equally.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or click on each course title to see the dishes individually.
Greek Sardine Escabeche
Oyster in Green Pea Soup
Risotto Croquette with Goat Cheese
Bergamot, tapioca, fennel, blood orange. (La Saison)
Terrine de Foie Gras
Hibiscus gelée, toasted peanuts, brioche, wild arugula. (La Tradition)
Thai Lobster Salad
Green papaya, mango, coconut, Thai basil. (Le Voyage)
Bouchot mussels, prawns, baby squid, fra diavolo. (La Saison)
Spring Greens Ravioli
Burrata and tomatoes. (Le Potager)
Green peas, bacon, black pepper, and quail egg yolk. (Off Menu)
Striped Bass en Paupiette
Wild mushrooms, watercress, fava beans, white vermouth velouté. (La Tradition)
Seared Yellow Fin Tuna
Fennel panna cotta, Castelvetrano olives, pommes dauphines, haricots verts. (La Saison)
Brioche Crusted Loup de Mer
Herb puree, baby leeks, romanesco, Pommery beurre blanc. (Market Special of the Day)
Roasted Rack Of Lamb
Green zucchini, sheeps milk ricotta gnocchi, bell peppers, natural jus.
Chateau La Vieille Cure Fronsac, 1999
Lavender-Honey Glazed Duck Breast
Fregula, spring onion, fiddlehead ferns, long pepper jus. (La Saison)
Veal Saltimbocca alla Romana
Sage, Parma ham, green asparagus, white wine veal jus.
Pistachio cream, dark chocolate mousse goats milk ice cream. (Le Voyage)
Pineapple anise ice cream, raspberry sorbet, chantilly. (Le Potager)
Milk jam foam, speculos, cachaça-macadamia ice cream. (Le Voyage)
In many ways, this meal was like a greatest hits parade. Every one of the fifteen-plus dishes we saw approached, if not achieved its Platonic ideal.
“Citrus-Cured Fluke” was soft and slippery, the way a nicely rested piece of raw fish should be after a brief cure (Gavin said 6 hours, pressed between kombu and a seasonings).
A sliced terrine of foie gras could not have been more smooth, more luscious, or more flavorful, served with slices of toasted brioche.
A “Lavender-Honey Glazed Duck Breast” was juicy and moist. The skin wasn’t just glazed, like most “honey-glazed” skin is, more for color and crispness than for taste. This skin was crisp, golden, and invitingly sweet too. Perfectly cooked pearls of fregula sarda – tender, not soft; firm, but not stiff (such a rarity, sadly) – came with an assortment of baby spring vegetables, including fiddlehead and turnip. It was a wonderful composition.
The plating here is clean and simple.
Garnishes are abbreviated, but packed with flavor. A meaty cube of “Seared Yellow Fin Tuna,” rosy within, had all the rustic flavors of Provence – Niçoise, to be precise – but the finesse of 76th and Madison Ave. I’d do it all over again just to eat that sliver of dried tomato. It transported me back to the coast; a sea-side lunch with my friend on the Riviera.
Indeed, lots of the trimmings here could be packaged as gourmet snacks.
Foie gras croquette (served with that honey duck)? Yes, please, I’ll take half a dozen. Pine nut-studded rice krispies (served with the cheese)? Childhood afternoons in front of the Atari with Pac-Man; two for the road.
And little fried balls of risotto with goat cheese (part of our amuse triptych)? A street stall on my way up the Costa Brava circa 2005. Heavens yes, a basket to boot.
Boulud should finance Kaysen for a gourmet roadshow gig; park that little truck in Kansas City…
“Striped Bass en Paupiette,” an homage to that culinary icon upon which the restaurant’s namesake, Daniel Boulud, built his empire,** was as every bit as wonderful as it is legendary. I was suddenly in Lyon again, at Christmastime.
This alabaster fillet of bass was silky and moist, wrapped in a crisp potato scarf that put all other potato crusts to shame. It was sauced with creamy vermouth velouté (I love vermouth sauces) instead of Boulud’s Barolo sauce and set atop a mix of wild mushrooms and fava beans. I can see how this fish launched a thousand lips.
The last time I had a bread-crusted loup de mer as good as Gavin’s brioche-crusted one was a half decade ago.*** The top was golden and crisp. The fish was flaky and soft, padded with an emerald-green mattress of finely minced herbs. A mustardy beurre blanc ringed the plate with a creamy, vinegary edge. Marvelous fish, marvelous sauce.
Yes, the sauces here are a highlight.
But the fillet of veal was so tender, so flavorful, that it could have come naked on a plate with a spoon and I would have been thrilled. Together with a nugget of sweetbread, asparagus mousse (I’m not quite getting that right, I know I’m not), waxy prosciutto, and a whiff of sage: saltimbocca alla Upper East Side.
And the pasta. My gosh, the pasta.
Not since my meal at Quince have I had pasta as good as the ones made at Café Boulud. The “Spring Greens Ravioli” were delicate and light, perfumed with herbs. “Linguine Carbonara” found a twirl of tender noodles enrobed with a buttery broth, studded with peas and diced bacon. Fabergé could probably fashion one out of porcelain, emeralds, and pink diamonds. It was pretty enough for a princess, and delicious enough too.
Not to be hyperbolic, but the “Spaghetti Nero” rose to the level of being the dish of the century for me. Like the linguine, these two-toned (black with squid ink on one side, opaquely gray regular pasta on the other) strips – more tagliolini than spaghetti – had wonderful elasticity. Fat, plump Bouchot mussels and strips of squid practically melted into a gently spiced “fra diavolo” sauce.
The crunchy, batter-fried squid that topped the pasta? With a side of fra diavolo dipping sauce, add it to the roadshow menu. I’ll take a bag of these too.
Was Raphael Haasz the pastry chef the last time I was at Café Boulud? I can’t recall. Whether by coincidence or design, we ended up with the updated versions of the three desserts we had before.
Haasz’s desserts are works of art.
Last time: “Meyer Lémon Delice.” This time: “Mango Délice.” Fluffy and light, a cloud of milk jam foam hovered above a tropical pool of silky, ripe mango in verrine. A dusting of speculaas and a boozy cachaça-macadamia ice cream completed le voyage, taking me to Netherlands (where have my lazy Saturday mornings with stroopwafels and strong coffee gone, my weekly Wednesday afternoons at the market with wheels of gouda, and the woman who had piles of beautiful jonagolds?), then Brazil. This was truly great.
Last time: “Raspberry-Pistachio Vacherin.” This time: a playful Crayola-like “Vacherin,” with bars of pineapple-anise ice cream and raspberry sorbet topped with a cute little slug made of chantilly, meringue kisses and diced pineapples. Colorful, refreshing, delicious, and cute. (Stick that ice cream and sorbet on a stick; voila: popsicles for the roadshow dessert menu.)
Last time: “Chocolate Pain De Gênes.” This time: “Bittersweet Brownie.” Last time, almond and ameretti ice cream. This time, pistachios and goats milk ice cream. Last time, sweet, a bit too sweet even. This time, darker, richer, more bitter. This time was better.
Our server, a young Lyonnais with a Breton name, had an understated ease about him. He knew his wine. He knew his food. He knows how to serve. And so does the rest of the staff, for that matter.
I’ve thought about this meal a lot. In fact, I thought about it on my walk all the way back to my apartment in the lower 30’s. And I’m sure I’ll think about it when I’m old.
Yes, I’ll admit that part of the reason why this meal was so special is that Gavin unwittingly unlocked a host of emotional hooks that yanked me back to some of the best experiences of my past, as Proustian as those warm madeleines that appeared at the end. (Roadshow Menu Note #4: Don’t forget the warm madeleines dusted with powdered sugar.) And in doing so, he created a new anthology of memories for me to enjoy. It was like eating my own little episode of “This Is Your Life.” Thank you, chef.
But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that he did so brilliantly. The food that’s coming out of Café Boulud’s kitchen right now is some of the finest I’ve ever known.
Of the restaurant, last time I wrote:
“…I don’t think that the aim and reach of Café Boulud is to entice and dazzle the way its opulent elder, Daniel, does. Rather, Café Boulud is tasked with providing a reliably steady and familiar experience that one is likely to want to repeat with more frequency than the once- or twice-a-year special occasion.
And so, perhaps in this respect, Café Boulud does function like a neighborhood restaurant. Except, maybe, it’s better suited to a very well-endowed neighborhood, given the high prices…”
Well, the prices haven’t gotten any easier, but I do think the ambition and reach of the restaurant has changed.
Judging by the packed house on a Tuesday night, I don’t think the restaurant needs to do anything differently. And judging by the well-tailored crowd, the demographics are pretty predictable (really, where else on the U.E.S. can one eat like this at 9 p.m. on a Tuesday?).
But, with its new look, the restaurant is primped and primed for more wide-spread attention, more success. And it’s apparent that Kaysen is achieving a level of cooking that, like his predecessors have done before him, raises the culinary watermark at Café Boulud once again.
Look lively, dear Bibendum, I think there’s a promotion waiting to happen.
To read about the other restaurants I visited on this trip to New York, CLICK HERE.
20 East 76th Street
New York, New York 10021
* Judging by the way Gavin pronounced it, I’m assuming Boulud decided to go with the French pronunciation of “Pleiades” instead of its more common Greek one (play-ODD, instead of play-uh-DEEZ). Gavin also told me that the restaurant was named after the restaurant that resided in the Cafe Boulud space before the original Restaurant Daniel moved in.
** Daniel Boulud’s version was, in turn, an homage to another culinary icon, Paul Bocuse’s famous “Rouget Barbet en Écailles de Pomme de Terre Croustillantes,” which I had at Paul Bocuse in late 2008.
*** Cornelius, where are you? Come out and cook for the your adoring public!