4th Course: Fresh Washington State Black Cod
Bouley, New York
When I last left Bouley in March, I said to my dining companions that I’d never go back on my dime.
I didn’t have to. You can read about how this third visit to Bouley came about over HERE.
Doubtful I’d return to New York before the end of the year to take advantage of the restaurant’s generous offer, I surprised myself with an impromptu trip to celebrate two birthdays in October, earning me an extra lunch slot.
Kramer and Handel, two of my previous Bouley dining companions, having taken advantage of their I.O.U.s separately, and Houston being unable to make it to New York, I took a guest and invited along Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid and Mr. RBI.
As with our previous dinner, our foursome covered the entire tasting menu, thanks to an additional course that the kitchen sent out – the Eckerton Hill Heirloom Tomato Salad, the only dish that none of us ordered.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or click on the course titles for individual photos each dish.
Tomato with cauliflower crema,
salmon roe, and aged balsamico.
Eckerton Hill Heirloom Tomato Salad
Marinated garnet currants and wakame glace.
Dungeness crab, black truffle dashi.
Sashimi-Quality Big EyeTuna
Marinated cucumber, spicy radish sprouts,
Pineapple and tomato.
Gently Cooked Baby Skate
Marinated Fennel with summer herbs and warm gooseberry sauce.
Long Island Duckling
Balinese pepper crust, white truffle honey, julienne of snow peas,
Tahitian vanilla-glazed turnips, kohlrab purée, verjus, ginger dressing.
All-Natural Pennsylvania Chicken
Baked with buttermilk and black truffle, toasted sweet green cabbage and chanterelles.
Dry Aged New York Striploin
Broccoli rabe, Silamar Farm roasted onions, maitake mushrooms.
Fresh Washington State Black Cod
Organic Japanese buckwheat, sunchoke cloud, Black onion powder.
Plum sorbet with blackberry compote and pear sauce.
Hot Valhrona Chocolate Soufflé
Vermont maple and vanilla ice creams, chocolate sorbet.
Hot Caramelized Anjou Pear
Valrhona chocolate, biscuit Breton, hot toffee sauce, rosemary and Tahitian vanilla ice creams.
Organic Frog Hollow Peaches
Rose and French lavender ice creams, blackberry coulis.
Fresh local grapes, lime sorbet.
Was this lunch better than our dinner?
Though a few dishes at our previous meal were truly great, like the Porcini Flan, not a single dish at lunch was especially notable. Nothing was bad, or even less than good. Rather, we met a steady stream of decent, well-cooked food. Compared to the schizophrenic cooking I experienced last time, this was an improvement.
For $48, this four-course meal – with choices – was quite a nice deal.*
Though still rich with black truffles and crab, the “Porcini Flan” lacked that umami oomph that I so enjoyed the first time I tasted it in March. But the rest of our dishes were intrinsically more flavorful and livelier, including the amuse bouche, which, surprisingly, hadn’t changed in the intervening seven months, despite the fact that it contained tomatoes.
That amuse bouche – a strange assortment of flavors and textures had been nearly dumb and deaf to flavor the first time I had it. This time, it was a tug and play between sweet, briny, earthy, and sour. Delicate and sophisticated, perhaps this is the kind of work that Bouley built his reputation on.
The tuna was blessedly rich and full of flavor. It came with a pretty assortment of flavors and colors that gave the dish a wonderfully light balance. It wasn’t quite convincingly Asian – the yuzu-miso dressing was a bit too sweet. But this dish, among a few others, showed that Bouley hasn’t entirely abandoned his fascination with Asian flavors.**
The chicken, however, was a fine example of how Bouley has begun embracing his more classically French side.
At our dinner, the chicken and its sauce had been watery, bland, and simply unappealing. This time, the meat was tender (marinated with buttermilk) and both it and the sauce – a velvety, rich truffle cream – were full of flavor.
The rest of our main courses were fine, but relatively uneventful.
The “Dry Aged New York Striploin” and “Long Island Duckling” were both nicely cooked, rosy in the middle and nicely crisped on the surface. The accompaniments on neither of those dishes were important – just little dots of colors and textures that seemed to amount to very little.
Nothing at Bouley ever seems hot enough, but the duck was served a bit too tepid.
My “Fresh Washington State Black Cod” was certainly one of the most visually arresting dishes I’ve ever seen.
Depending on your mood, it could be viewed as an elegant dome blanketed with black velvet or, a rancid plate of food filmed over with a layer of dusty black mold.
Beneath the black onion (seed) powder was a dome of airy sunchoke puree (light as whipped cream). Beneath the sunchoke was a soupy (and oily) broth which held a buttery, soft filet of black cod commingled with white beech mushrooms and grains of buckwheat.
While the flavors were really great – especially the natural, burnt caramel-like sweetness of the black onion powder and the earthy sweetness of the sunchoke – it was rather heavy – owing mostly to the oily broth. Even still, its flavors were alluring, bridging east and west in a unique way.***
This dish was the only one of our main meat courses that did not have Bouley’s baby food potato puree served on the plate, so my portion was served on the side, as it usually has been done in the past. I still don’t understand its existence, but at least they served it at the same time as my fish, rather 10 minutes afterward, as has been done at my two previous meals. I noticed the pap being served to a neighboring table more than halfway through their main course. The woman screwed her eyes and turned to her husband and filed her complaint.
Both of the third courses were fine, each one having a slight defect.
While the “Gently Cooked Baby Skate” was beautifully cooked – one instance where Bouley’s softer textures worked – the warm “gooseberry sauce” was wrecked by way too much acid. Passionfruit, I suspect, was the culprit.
The sauces on the “Rouget,” on the other hand, were exquisite: one red, tomato-based, and the other yellow, pineapple-based. Together, it was a perfect match.
Was the service better?
But it was far from faultless.
While a couple of our servers – the more junior ones (especially, a young lady) – were spotless, the back waitstaff members were clearly under-trained. So they were a little too eager clearing our plates (not all together, rather as each person finished theirs), and perhaps got a little sloppy with slapping down silverware. But none of them deserved to be dressed down for their mistakes in the dining room within earshot of paying customers. That was inexcusable.
The majority of our meal was overseen by two captains (the same alpha males that demonstrated the on-site staff disciplining). I didn’t care for their style of service, which rubbed off as insincere, elitist, and smug – a ruthless Mr. Hyde hiding behind a a silver-tongued Dr. Jekyll at your service. It reminded me of the service I received at my first meal at Bouley in 2007, and my first dinner at Daniel.
All this aside, perhaps the biggest lapse in the management during our lunch was the restaurant’s inability to properly handle the issue of mobile usage in the dining room.
I can deal with the occasional phone call – a quickie, if you will. If the ringer is off and the conversation is moderated, it’s really not much different from someone talking to their dinner companions.
What I find bothersome, however, is repeated phone calls – with the ringer on – and boorishly loud conversations.
I know that Europeans don’t bristle nearly as much as Americans do at mobile usage in public dining rooms, so it might not have been a great surprise that it was a group of Germans – one at their table – who accosted our dining room with not one, not two, not five, but twelve phone calls, all with the ringer on at volume 87. And of course, he couldn’t help but feel the need to shout into the device.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed. One couple at a corner table shot daggers with their eyes at the ringing man every time it happened. The German seemed oblivious to the discontent of the rest of us, as did the staff, who went about their chores mindlessly.
Bouley needs a mobile usage policy, either printed on their menus or as a polite reminder during service. Repeat offenders should be ejected from the dining room.
Desserts this time were much better than the chocolate buffet that we trudged through last time (it’s still on the menu). The presentations were tidier and ice creams/sorbets (delightfully, at least two different ones with each dessert) were served cold. Also, our server kindly allowed us to derogate from the two choices on the tasting menu, which afforded us the opportunity to get a wider sampling of Bouley’s pastries.
The pre-dessert, a fragrant and lovely mix of pears, plums, and blackberries, was as beautiful as it was delicious.
My “Organic Frog Hollow Peaches,” essentially a peach parfait imprisoned in a clear sugar glass tower, was my favorite dessert of the lot. It may not have been the most seasonally appropriate fruit, but the peaches were quite lovely.**** Partial to floral flavors, I especially enjoyed the rose and lavender ice creams. Both were excellent.
In addition to the standard-issue crème brûlée freebie, the kitchen also sent us the “Pineapple Carpaccio,” a selection from the à la carte menu. The pineapple were shaved razor thin and painted with a brilliant, green cilantro syrup. Tropical, sweet, and refreshing, it was exquisite.
The crème brûlée was just as good as it was last time. I suspect that they use powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar for the brûlée, it’s uncharacteristically thin and dark.
As uneven as the food at Bouley has been over my past three visits, poor service has overshadowed all else. And it seems to be an issue experienced by many. This is a problem, one that may be reflected in Michelin’s demotion of Bouley to the one-star level just weeks before this lunch. In my opinion, that second star should never have been awarded in the first place.
Now, a bit on the interior décor, which has been the topic of much discussion.
Like it did at its prior location, the new Bouley greets its guests with the sweet smell of aging apples. At 163 Duane Street, they’ve enlarged the apple ante-chamber, lining the walls with moss-coloured velour and paving it with stone tiles. If Marie Antoinette had a fetish for apples, this would be her boudoir.
The host’s stand is located just beyond the apple room in a sizable hallway that doubles as a reception room. This room would be unremarkable if it weren’t for the oversize floral print mural – here, lilies hinting at Asia – that is repeated, with a lighter, but no less dramatic effect, in the last of the three dining rooms, also known as the “Winter Garden.”
Despite being a bit over-the top – a Disneyfied version of a French countryside estate – the main dining room manages to be quite beautiful. I still prefer the red dining room at the restaurant’s previous previously location. While that one was moody, seductive, and sumptuous, the new Bouley is brighter, more cheerful – awash in vibrant pastels. Save the ersatz paintings of the Provencal landscape that look like they came straight from a furniture store wall display, I found the space quite comely.
There’s no hard division, but at some point, the main dining room ends and a darker, wood-paneled area known as “the Library” begins. The tables in this section are a bit smaller. With more nooks and crannies, it’s also a bit more intimate. Behind the Library is the much larger Winter Garden.
Downstairs, there’s a private dining room, which the restaurant uses as overflow seating on busy nights. It’s a bit crypt-like for my tastes.
The bathrooms are also downstairs. Kramer described the ladies’ room as a “Moroccan bordello.” I don’t know what that’s all about. The little boys room was oppressively dark.
Regardless of whether one likes the interior or not, one can’t deny that every inch of it – from the huge floral arrangements to the stone fireplaces and plush upholstery – drips with extravagance. A friend, who got a preview tour of the restaurant, said that, considering the expense poured into the space, David Bouley might have achieved the same effect by papering the walls with Benjamin Franklins.
With such a well-appointed space, it’s tragic that not much else about Bouley, save a few stray phone calls, rings.
163 Duane Street
New York, New York
* In addition to the Eckerton Hill Heirloom Tomato Salad and a couple of desserts, we were each gifted a glass of Champagne at the beginning of our meal and a glass of sweet late-harvest wine at the close of our meal. My guest and I were supposed to get a full wine pairing with our lunch. But, as I had been indulging excessively for two days, including dinner the night before at Eleven Madison Park, which lasted until 2:30 a.m., I politely declined. Mr. RBI had a glass of El Chaparral, Garnacha, Navarra, 2008 paired with his chicken course. We also received lemon tea cakes, which have been standard issue take-home gifts every time I’ve been to the restaurant. Bouley’s lemon tea cakes are particularly good – extra juicy, very buttery, and daringly tart.
** Bouley seems to attract a high number of foreigners. The restaurant has been dominated by Asians at all three of my meals. Coincidence, perhaps, other than the German call center, I noticed at least four separate parties of Asians and one large table of Russians.
*** According to Gale Greene, this dish was inspired by a coal bin. And according to her, this fish is immersed in cream. I find that a little hard to believe since the broth was quite clear -actually, rather oily.
**** Bouley does not subscribe to the local, seasonal food movement. Given that Frog Hollow is in California, those peaches weren’t terribly sustainable. Also, I realize that the heirloom tomato growing season may be longer in some parts of the country. I, for one, am not used to seeing tomatoes last much past mid-September. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by the wonderfully juicy flavor of the “Eckerton Hill Heirloom Tomato Salad,” a dish that we all shied from due to waning tomato season. The asparagus on my skate dish, however, left something to be desired. Although it had a nice, crisp texture, it had no character whatsoever.