I was trying to not eat.
But, that didn’t work.
So, then, I thought I could just eat light.
Yeah, that didn’t work either.
Despite the fact that I had a reservation at per se that evening, I tempted myself into having lunch at Café Boulud. A couple of friends who had been impressed with Gavin Kaysen’s cooking over the past few months emailed me about the restaurant, which reminded me that I needed to visit.
Perhaps more than any other Daniel Boulud operation, Café Boulud has always come with the highest commendation from other restaurant enthusiasts (although a recent surge in popularity for the newest kid on the Boulud block, Bar Boulud, might change that).
Since opening in 1998, the restaurant has seen a parade of some of the most talented young chefs in the industry. Andrew Carmellini (together with Alex Lee, the former Chef de Cuisine at Daniel) was the first executive chef. Under his 7-year tenure, chefs such as Bradford Thompson (now executive chef at Lever House), Johnny Iuzzini (now executive pastry chef at Jean Georges), and Jean Francois Bruel (now executive chef at Daniel) passed through the kitchen. In 2005, Carmellini left Café Boulud to open his own successful restaurant, A Voce. He was succeeded by his sous chef, Betrand Chemel, who served as executive chef until late, 2007. Chemel is now the executive chef of 2941 in Falls Church, Virginia.
With Chemel’s departure came the arrival of Gavin Kaysen.
I have followed Gavin Kaysen since his days as the executive chef of El Bizcocho in San Diego. With a nomination for the 2008 Rising Star award from the James Beard Foundation, I thought that this would be an opportune time to finally visit another Daniel Boulud property.
The name Café Boulud belies the seriousness of this restaurant, both in terms of service and level of cooking. I have heard (and read) that Boulud had intended it to be a “neighborhood restaurant.”
With one Michelin star, white tablecloth, a polished waitstaff, finessed food, and prices frequently sailing north of thirty, I don’t see how it could *just* be a “neighborhood restaurant.” Aesthetically, the only thing neighborhoody about it is its somewhat remote location on the Upper East Side and the occasional pair of designer denim that walked into the restaurant on the weekend lunch that my friends and I were having.
Here is what we ordered:
Hummous with confetti of peppers
Vidalia Onion Velouté
Ramp leaves and crispy onions
Heart of palm, arugula, grapefruit, tangerine, and radishes
Maine Peekytoe Crab
Grapefruit gelée, lime aioli, avocado, potato chips
Moroccan Spiced Duck
Toasted quinoa, roasted peppers, raisins, harissa vinaigrette
Arctic Char á L’Oseille
Pomme fondante, fava beans, red pearl onions, yellow wax beans
Meyer Lemon Délice
Fromage blanc mousse, blood orange, mimosa sorbet
Chocolate Pain De Gênes
Mascarpone mousse, amedei chocolate crémeux, and amaretto ice cream
The menu (as is the Café Boulud Cookbook, which I have cooked out of on occasion) is divided into four categories: “Le Tradition” (French classics and country cooking), “Le Potager” (inspired by the farmers’ market), “La Saison” (inspired by the season), and “Le Voyage” (world cuisine). At lunch, the restaurant also offers a separate $36-dollar three-course prix fixe option.
By chance, the three of us, ordering a la carte, managed to cover all of the quadrants. I was in need of some vegetables, so I ordered an additional “Citrus Salad” from the prix fixe menu.
The food at Café Boulud isn’t the type that generates or necessitates much description. For the most part, it’s very straightforward: the Vidalia Onion Velouté (Le Potager) is velvety and rife with earthy sweetness and the Maine Peekytoe-Crab (La Saison) is clean and delicate, accented with a bright grapefruit gelée. Even the Moroccan Spiced Duck (Le Voyage) wasn’t terribly far off from what one might imagine it would taste like.
The one thing that is particularly striking about the food at Café Boulud is that everything seems iconic. This is partly due to the simple and classic preparations. It also is a result of impeccable execution and clean presentation.
Despite the creative twists and accents, the flavors are vintaged and familiar. It’s as if any one of these dishes could have, believably, been served a few hundred years ago.
So, that velouté, as simple as it was, was the quintessential Vidalia onion velouté. The crab salad was the ideal crab salad – winner of the crab salad pageant, the sum of all its iterations and variations distilled into one representation.
Even the Moroccan Spiced Duck, with its exotic far-flung fare, felt innately familiar. It’s as if I had eaten this duck course, with its slightly sweet and spicy toasted quinoa, a dozen times before. Of course, I hadn’t ever met this duck. But, Kaysen managed to make me believe that I had.
Even the bread at Café Boulud is exemplary, balancing that fine line between crusty and chewy. There was an assortment of whole grains, sourdoughs, and butter balls. The traditional “baguette,” in mini loaf form, had a crisp, yet pliable shell. The inside was a pocketed field of coarse, moist crumb.
The perfect pomme fondant is like eating a cross between a finely roasted potato and a potato chip. The pomme fondant on my main course was perfect – a dense, yet inexplicably crisp, drum of starch.
My filet of Arctic char (La Tradition) was textbook too. The board of brilliant-orange flesh was sheathed in an impossibly thin, almost flaky layer of dotted skin. The lightly cooked vegetables were simply dressed with a duet of sorrel and butter sauces. This dish carried “Le Tradition” banner well.
I hesitate to pass judgment on the wines that were paired with my friend’s dishes. Although I tasted them, I can’t say that I got a good grasp on how they interacted with the food. I would be inclined to say that they were solid, but nothing particularly thrilling.
And I suppose that could be the summary of this entire meal: solid, but not particularly thrilling.
This is not to say that this meal was a disappointment. In fact, I offer it as a compliment. 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.
We ordered three desserts, which was three more than I needed.
My friends put dibs on the two I wanted to try the most, so I let our server, who, was very French–as was a good portion of the front of the house–choose mine.
The Meyer Lemon Délice (La Saison) wasn’t quite what I expected, but it was very good. The verrine showcased a beautifully layered citrus parfait. I’m not sure what the layers involved, exactly. I’m guessing that the base was pastry cream, or whipped yogurt. As good as the citrus part of the dessert was, with its flaky round of puff pastry-like biscuit, the best part was the cigarette-thin stick bridging the span of the glass.
The outside of the stick appeared to be an impossibly thin tuile tube piped with a cold daiquiri of some sort–it was like a soft sorbet spiked with alcohol. I have no idea how they did this. It was *magic.*
I’m not sure how the Chocolate Pain De Gênes that the server chose for me is a “voyage.” I suppose the whipped mascarpone filling and the ameretto ice cream makes it Italian. But, it’s definitely living very near the French border. (Read more about pain de gênes here.)
The ice cream was the best part of this dessert. I pretty much ignored the Amadei chocolate cremeaux, which I found cloyingly rich. Despite the fact that our server glowed about this–his favorite–dessert, I found it to be every bit as ordinary as I had suspected it would be.
The Raspberry-Pistachio Vacherin was in a league of its own. The raspberry-pistachio semifreddo was light and airy. It was garnished with some gently macerated raspberries, pink (I think they were raspberry) shards of crispy meringue, and pistachios. The colours were radiant and the presentation, fetching.
Service was attentive and comfortably formal. I can’t say I dig the space. It feels underground, for some reason–I suppose it is slightly sunken below street level. The “waiting” area feels like an awkwardly placed afterthought. And, sylistically, I don’t like the mirror-covered columns, which, I recognize, make the room seem bigger.
Despite my critical opinions about Daniel Restaurant, Café Boulud makes me respect Daniel Boulud as a restaurateur. He has a keen eye for young talent, as evidenced by the chefs who have passed through his kitchen. He’s also highly successful at creating a personality and feel for each of his restaurants. (I also like that Boulud sends out warm madeleines at the end of your meal, the one positive thing that Daniel Restuarant instituted.) I look forward to visiting the latest one to join his group, Bar Boulud.
I’m happy to have finally eaten Chef Gavin Kaysen’s cooking, serendipitously just a few days before he won the 2008 James Beard Award for Rising Star Chef.
We were told that the entire menu was Kaysen’s (with some approval and input from Boulud, of course). While I won’t say the menu was boring, it did lack a certain pomp and pizzaz boasted by like-minded restaurants. Perhaps this is the why the restaurant wouldn’t be my first choice for a special night out or not one that I would go out of my way to dine at. Maybe it is just a very good, reliable, high-end neighborhood restaurant after all.
But, I’m not sure how much room Café Boulud’s personality allows for innovation and creativity. You would think that having four menu “sections” would demand or result in four distinct stripes of cuisine. But, I found the distinctions less-obvious than I wanted or expected them to be.
Nearly all of our dishes could have fallen under two, if not three, of the four categories (especially the dessert menu). The only two that were inherently distinguishable were Les Voyages–essentially anything that was obviously not French–and Le Potager–vegetarian selections. Otherwise, everything exhibited French aesthetics, preparation and cooking techniques. Really, Café Boulud’s fare isn’t any different from that of the many French-biased, but internationally conscious and seasonally-minded restaurants in our world. It just cares to group them under blurry-bordered banners.
Chef de Cuisine Gavin Kaysen
20 East 76th street
New York, New York 10021