I’ve been to Bouley thrice now.
The first time I went was in 2007, when the restaurant resided in that sumptuously red, arched space at 120 West Broadway where Bouley Bakery is now. To this day, I count it as one of the most beautiful dining rooms I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating in.
But I was disappointed by that inaugural experience. Bouley seemed tired, an aging dinosaur on the decline. The food ranged from very good to mediocre, and the hapless service destroyed whatever pleasure there might have been left to enjoy. This was a Michelin 2-starred restaurant?
But last year (2008), Bouley moved. Not far. Just around the corner.
Overnight, the restaurant went from passé to talk of the town.
It’s new and improved, they said. Bouley is back on his game, they cheered. Go, they urged, especially before the reviews came out.
And so I did, with three of my friends. But not before Frank Bruni, then-restaurant critic of The New York Times, assigned the restaurant three rather complimentary stars. His article published the week before our reservation in late March (2009).
But we got dressed up anyway. We got excited. We ordered wine. And we ordered the big tasting: 7 courses.
Because our foursome was a coordinated lot, we covered every single option on that tasting menu. CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this dinner, or click on the course titles for the individual photos.
Tomato consomme, cauliflower puree,
salmon roe, aged balsamico
North Carolina Pink Shrimp
Uni and Ocean Herbal Broth
Harwich Wild Blue Fin Tuna
Fresh Hawaiian Heart of Palm, Yuzu-Miso Dressing.
Dungeness Crab, Black Truffle Dashi.
Line Caught Halibut
Cape Cod Razor Clams, Fresh Fava Beans, Ocean Herbal Broth.
Golden Royal Trumpet Mushrooms
Live sea scallops, foie gras terrine, black fig dressing.
Organic Connecticut Farm Egg
Serrano Ham, Steamed Polenta, Sunchoke,
Artichoke, White Truffle, Coconut-Garlic Broth.
Smoked to Order Scottish Salmon
Oscetra Caviar and Meyer Lemon,
Salad of Asian Pear, Red Endive & Frisée.
Maine Day Boat Lobster
Trumpet Royal Mushrooms, Sugar Snap Peas,
Heart of Palm, Pinot Wine Sauce.
New York State Organic Squab
Wrapped in Savoy Cabbage, Steamed with Foie Gras,
Balinese Pepper, Homemade Agnotti Pasta, Lemon Thyme Sauce.
Quince Purée, Pruneaux d’Agen,
Vieux-Armagnac Sauce, Golden Apple, Pain d’épices.
Roasted All-Natural Pennsylvania Chicken
Fricassée of Organic Carrots,
Hedgehog Mushrooms, Pencil Asparagus.
Cooperstown First of the Season Baby Spring Lamb
Fresh date, kumquat confit, Brillat-Savarin cheese.
Passionfruit, Pineapple Granité, Organic Yogurt Sorbet.
Chocolate Brûlée, Chocolate Parfait, Hazelnut Dacquoise
Chocolate-Walnut Spice Bread, Praline & Prune Armagnac Ice Creams.
Have you ever had one of those restaurant experiences where almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong?
This was that meal.
From the moment our foursome was seated – at an Olympic-sized table more appropriate for six (or eight, if the chairs hadn’t been so wide) – to the last course – a clumsily-plated carousel of appropriately named frivolity – nothing, save a couple of dishes that I’ll highlight, seemed quite right. Some of it was very wrong.
It being a weekend night, no other tables more appropriately sized for four were available. So, to make ourselves feel bit more at home, I asked for the giant candelabra in the center of the table, which was obstructing my view of the other end of the restaurant, and, more importantly, Kramer, who was seated opposite me, to be removed.
But I’ll give Bouley the benefit of the doubt and assume that the staff was being generous in giving us such a grand estate.
The buffoonery that followed, however, was unforgivable.
Wine service was not good. Someone else’s lipstick stains are something I want on my collar, NOT on my wine glass. The wines were mis-poured, unannounced, and, when asked, none of the servers seemed to be able to agree on what wines were paired with our food. This general confusion and carelessness persisted all night.
The rest of the service wasn’t much better.
Dishes and ingredients were incorrectly identified. At one point, another table’s dishes were set down before us just as the captain redirected our confused servers to the right table.
The staff seemed to have a swarm mentality. And they had crummy timing. They were either all clustered around our table, never when you needed them, causing needless commotion, or nowhere to be seen, just when you did need them. Also, there was a palpable personality disconnect. Individually, they were polite and seemed to have good intentions. But as a group, I don’t know if they were smug, pretentious, or simply hapless – none of them seemed to understand or care about the obvious errors that were being made left and right.
Three dishes I would categorize as very good.
Both of my foie gras courses were excellent.
The seared “Foie Gras” with quince puree was my favorite dish of the night. I normally don’t choose hot preparations of foie gras, especially when squab is the other option. But pruneaux a l’Armagnac and pain d’épices bread sauce I could not resist. As with most of the courses, the portion-size was generous. The tranche sported a nicely burnished surface that held a quivering, warm center of satiny fat. The overall composition was French food at its finest.
I refer to the “Golden Royal Trumpet Mushrooms” as the l’Astrance dish because it is similar to an idea I’ve seen come out of Chef Pascal Barbot’s three Michelin-starred restaurant in Paris. But to the stack of shaved mushrooms and cold pâté of foie gras, Bouley adds a layer of raw, silky scallops. This too was excellent. The black fig dressing drizzled across the top was key here, adding a touch of dark sweetness that tempered the richness of the liver. The milky sweetness of the scallops paired amazingly well the foie gras. Others at my table didn’t care for this dish. Houston’s scallops were gritty.
The “Porcini Flan” was also very good. The flan – which I suspect is the highlight for most – I could leave behind. But the uncharacteristically thick dashi, which was rife with black truffle flecks and black truffle flavor, along with lumps of crab meat was delicious. I was truly surprised.
The rest of our meal waffled between forgettable and disturbingly botched.
As Handel put it, aptly: “Even if everything had been executed up to par this clearly would not have been one of the most impressive meals I’d ever had, but most of what made it such an astonishing fiasco can only be the result of such elementary errors of execution that something must have been very wrong in the kitchen that night. Maybe after the review period is over the crew at Bouley has simply given up?”
Having some time to think about my first two meals at Bouley, I realize that much of my disappointment with the food is due to its watery consistency. I can’t say that the food was mushy, necessarily. But much of what what was served would be gentle on octogenarians who might have left their left dentures behind.
But what I found disappointing (or unappealing) about the food may not, in fact, be a defect. Rather, it may simply be a stylistic choice that I happen not to enjoy – at least not in the setting of a tasting menu. One or two “soft and mild” courses interspersed throughout a progression (i.e. tasting menu) might be interesting – and needed. But a parade of such makes for a limp meal.
The more troubling aspect of Bouley’s food, however, is the blandness that plagued most of the dishes. Sauces were not only thin, they were wan. Otherwise flavorful products – meats and mushrooms – were breathless.
The “New York State Organic Squab” was probably the worst of the lot I saw. I’m not sure that steaming squab is such a good idea, even if it’s stuffed with foie gras. It was soggy. It had not an ounce of character. It was bad.
My first course, “North Carolina Pink Shrimp” was shockingly devoid of flavor. That simply shouldn’t happen with fresh sea urchin and sweet shrimp.
And the “Roasted All-Natural Pennsylvania Chicken” with hedgehog mushrooms was inexplicably watery. All of it. For your entertainment, I offer you my witty friend Handel’s take on it:
“Let’s focus a bit on the chicken dish which managed in its own way to be this meal’s answer to pizza pebbles. The chicken was, as noted, boring, bland, a touch overcooked. But not just bland, underseasoned overcooked skinless chicken; watery, as distinct from merely bland and underseasoned overcooked skinless chicken. It wasn’t quite as if the chicken had been water-poached, more like it had been brined (“watered”, I guess would be the term) in plain unsalted water.
And the mushrooms! The mushrooms were a marvel of culinary science. Looked like an ordinary mushroom–looked quite tasty, in fact. But take a bite and–whoosh! Your taste buds are inundated with a burst of pure, refreshing water. Remember that gum with the liquid center? Like that. And so pure and clean! You wouldn’t think such an unadulterated water taste could survive being held in a mushroom like that. You would expect it to taste at least a little bit of mushroom. But you’d be wrong.”
A couple of dishes fell victim to poor execution and planning.
Part of my “Cooperstown First of the Season Baby Spring Lamb” was overcooked – the paltry little rib chop was so small it was nearly impossible not to overcook it. Cheese with lamb? Sure, why not? Feta and lamb make a terrific couple. But unless you like scraping plastic off porcelain, melting semi-firm cheese onto a plate is simply a bad idea. This dish went mostly uneaten.
Our third course, the “Organic Connecticut Farm Egg,” seemed like the quintessential Bouley dish: soft and mushy, and mild on flavor. Whereas it was clear that the yolk was meant to be runny, I was disappointed that part of mine had cooked. And though the Serrano ham gave the dish a needed boost, it was impossible to cut with spoons, the only instrument they provided for this soupy dish. The coconut-garlic broth was interesting, a challenge to conventional tastes. An odd marriage of sweet and savory, I especially liked it with the shaved Parmesan. But, as I remarked to my friends, once the Parmesan was gone, the party ended… the rest just melded into a hazy soup of ill-defined butteriness.
Actually, the smoked salmon was excellent. It had been hot smoked at such a temperature as to yield a warm, silky interior. The smoke imparted was strong and wonderful.
The “oscetra-meyer lemon sauce,” however, was shockingly flat. It was like tartar sauce with the mute button on. But, the smoked salmon was so good on its own, it really didn’t need much else.
I maintain that my lobster was nicely cooked, even though Kramer and Houston claimed that theirs were over-cooked. My tail piece was silky and soft – textbook perfect butter-poaching/sous vide texture – just as I like it. The claw was firmer, but it was fine. The pinot noir sauce wasn’t the rich wine sauce that you expect with, say, a meat dish. This was a darker (I wondered if it was burnt at first) and spicier sauce.
Most notably, the vegetable accompaniments with the lobster were outstanding. The peas, especially, were great, as were the hearts of palm.
Save the “Crème Brûlée,” which appeared to be the standard-issue bonus to diners that evening, the desserts were uniformly disappointing.
And that “Chocolate Frivolous” that Bruni so admired would be more more aptly named the “Chocolate Ridiculous.”
The plate with a half-dozen desserts, any one of which would have been ample as the last dessert on such a large tasting menu, looked like the work of someone went to a chocolate dessert buffet and piled on a random assortment of sweets. None of it was interesting, save a prune and Armagnac ice cream, which had all but melted by the time it landed on our table. You want to know a great way to upset me? Serve me melted ice cream (I took a picture of my Houston’s plate. Her ice cream had not yet completely turned to soup). I’ve come to learn that this is standard operating procedure at Bouley – it happened at my first meal as well.
And there were still other problems with our dinner that I won’t bother agonizing you with.
It gives me no pleasure to report negatively about a restaurant experience. And I mean no disrespect to the folks who must be trying very hard to run a top-notch restaurant. As I said, the servers I encountered were very professional and polite. As a team, however, they were highly uncoordinated.
But this is the second time I’ve been disappointed by a Bouley dinner. The sheer number and types of mistakes that occurred during our meal might have been mildly amusing to witness if the show hadn’t been so expensive. At $150 plus wine, tip, and tap per person, this isn’t a matter of “cheap thrills” any more. This was seriously disturbing. The fact that Michelin awarded Bouley two stars and Bruni gave it three when clearly, “normal” diners are getting nothing short of a D minus experiences is just nuts. I’ll give any restaurant one free “out of jail card.” This is Bouley’s second.
So, never go back?
Unbeknownst to me, Kramer, who was my guest at the dinner, called the restaurant the next day to get a list of our wine pairings. During that call, she expressed her gross disappointment with our dining experience. The hostess offered to have our entire party back on the house for a lunch tasting menu with wine pairings.
While this was an extremely generous offer, I seriously considered whether it was worth accepting. First, I don’t like freebies; I get skittish at the thought of being indebted to a restaurant’s generosity. Second, given the limited number of dining slots during my occasional visits to New York, would I want to chance one of them on a possibly repeated and perfectly preventable disappointment?
Or, would third time be a charm? Could it be that I happen to catch the restaurant on two uncharacteristically bad nights? Surely David Bouley did not build his empire on disfigured meals like ours.
I decided that Bouley did deserve another visit. I took their offer as a reassuring gesture that it could perform on the level for which their reputation has stood.
So, I went back for lunch. You’ll have to wait to read my report, which will come under separate cover. In that post, I’ll also let you know what I think of the interior decor and design, which has been the topic of much chatter.
163 Duane Street
New York, New York