review: embarrassment of riches…
Chanel No. 5 in the dining room, Yemen No. 10 in the spice pantry.
This is the dichotomy you’ll find at Café Boulud.
Yeah, yeah, I know, I was just there.
That was Gavin Kaysen’s reaction too when he saw my name pop up on the books.* A return? So soon? It had barely been a month since I was last in.
Well, let me ask you: Can you ever have too much of a good thing?
Well, can you?
Following my latest post about my recent dinner at Café Boulud, I received numerous emails from readers expressing their surprise over my enthusiasm.
I rarely rave.
I got messages from people telling me that they were canceling their birthday, anniversary, and other celebratory dinners at restaurants x, y, and z to eat at Café Boulud instead (x, y, and z all being extraordinarily good restaurants).
Good grief, no pressure or anything.
But I was confident in my commendation, and now even more so after this latest visit.
Gavin Kaysen is a walking embarrassment of riches. Really, he is.
Culinary talents aside, he’s lived an incredibly rich and meaningful life already by the age of 31.
Jesus saved the world at 33.
So where does that leave this pathetic 32 year-old blogger? I think I’ll go crawl in a hole now.
Kaysen tells good stories, both on and off the plate.
He has a wonderful sense of humor, a hybrid of self-deprecation and keen observation with a dash of wit thrown in.
He has great ideas, an inventor at heart.**
And he’s a fantastic dancer. Truly, twinkle toes himself.
But before this post turns into a love letter to Mr. Kaysen, I’ll shuffle along to talking about the little patch of lovely that he oversees between Fifth Avenue and Lexington on 76th Street. You all know it as Café Boulud.
So, how does one survive a great meal like the one I had the last time I was at this restaurant? I mean, where does one go from there? And how does one return to that place without being disappointed?
There’s only one way: with confidence. You’ve got to either trust the chef implicitly or don’t return at all. Sometimes it really is better to leave a place on a high note.
Perhaps aware of this, Kaysen jokingly tried to put the ball in my court, telling me that I had to do the ordering this time.
I would have none of that. I was positive that he could do a better job than I.
Since I had seen the majority of the menu last time, this time, Kaysen cooked for us the four newest dishes from the menu, all of which came from the “Market Specials,” a daily supplement to the regular four-part menu.
In addition, he served one of his favorite dishes from the regular menu that we didn’t have last time, “Asperges Blanches Pochées,” logs of fat, tender white asparagus relaxing under a blanket of Béarnaise. There was not a trace of bitterness here, in fact, the asparagus were sweet, especially against a velvety curl of prosciutto. A happy sunny-side (guinea?) hen egg completed la tradition magnificently.
My childhood friend Fitz and his lovely wife Palmer, last seen at table with me at Seäsonal a month earlier, joined me for this dinner.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or click on the course titles below for photos of the individual plates.
Beau Soleil Oysters
Maine Peekytoe Crab
Cantaloupe melon, lime, fennel, celery.
Asperges Blanches Pochées
Hen egg, sauce Béarnaise, frisée.
Maine sea urchin, roasted garlic, parsley.
Olive Oil Poached Organic Salmon
Baby gem lettuces, cucumber, tomato, radish, sauce vierge.
Choux a la crème, diplomat orange chiboust & granité.
Black Forest Gateau
Chocolate financier, cherries, crème fraÎche sorbet.
Mascarpone mousse, tokay gelée, basil foam, strawberry ice cream.
Coffee pot de crème, chocolate foam, hazelnut nougat ice cream.
So here’s the thing about the food at Café Boulud: it’s not the type that’s likely to prompt fist-pounding.
More likely, you’ll find yourself pausing momentarily to appreciate life a bit more. It slows you down to the speed at which the world ought to turn.
There are lovely episodes from memory tucked into the corners of each plate. Even if they’re not from your own script, you’ll recognize the lines. You don’t so much notice them as you do stumble upon them, as I did with unnatural frequency at my last meal. And Kaysen paints them all vividly in shades of the season.
For this late-spring meal, the scenery changed to a lighter, brighter slate of colors, textures, and flavors.
This time, there was a pretty little “Maine Peekytoe Crab” salad, which came with melons and thinly shaved celery, a collection of pastel greens and oranges. You’ve had this before (in fact, I had a more primitive version of this dish the very first time I ate at Café Boulud), but perhaps never quite as lovely, never quite as prescient. It was simple and clean, a breezy, seersucker start.
There was a beautiful cube of high-quality salmon, silky from a gentle bath in warm olive oil. It came dusted with some breadcrumbs and a beautiful bevy of young vegetables, some raw, some barely cooked. A light sauce vierge sprung, as if from a fresh tap, to give it all a fruity gloss; loose linen shorts on the Riviera.
And a bowl of bouncy corkscrew pasta, vibrating with garlic, received a buttery, briny nudge from sea urchins from the Atlantic, my favorite. The wiry coils were minimally dressed, though bursting with flavor. A little bit of butter, bottarga, sea urchins, and vermouth goes a long way; a piqué polo and a splash of Chablis overlooking the Amalfi. This was deeply satisfying.
I’m not sure if Kaysen has settled on featuring three or four different cuts of meat on the a la carte portion of the new “Milk Fed Suckling Pork” dish.
For our tasting, he plated three cuts for each of us. All three of us received the trotter – a line of finely minced collagen mixed with tomatoes and herbs, slightly warmed by the plate – and a square of well-marbled shoulder glazed in a rich demi glace that matched perfectly with the pinot noir the wine director poured to pair.
In addition, Fitz got a roulade of pork belly, well-layered with collagen and fat. It was tender and flavorful.
Palmer’s third cut was a juicy slice of loin, a defiance to all the bad cuts of pork loin in the world.
I received perhaps my favorite of the five cuts presented, a little cake of pulled head meat wrapped in a supple rind of what appeared to be trotter collagen (though it easily could have just been entirely pork fat) and topped with a little crackling hat. I don’t really remember eating it so much as letting it just melt into my mouth.
Accompanying the pork was a toasted square of the smoothest polenta you might ever meet. That was awesome.
Too much? Scatter-shot? Unfocused? Yes, in a lesser place, this triptych could easily have been a mess. But it wasn’t. It was a tidy little tour of a baby pig, delicious, satisfying, perfect. Perhaps three was the perfect number of cuts to offer (things always travel better in odd numbers), though there was ample room for four, especially on a full, a la carte portion.
Turn with me now to pastry chef Raphael Haasz’s desserts, which we received in shitton volume.
If you doubt that he is a Frenchman, I challenge you to find a single item on his menu that doesn’t contain at least one French word.***
Haasz excels at quintessence. His lines are clean, his flavors pure. There is no doubt when you eat his desserts what you are getting yourself into.
He makes a “Strawberry Tartelette” accompanied by a turn of pink ice cream that is the very soul of strawberries. Altogether, it can be none other.
There’s “Black Forest Gateau” that looks like a jewel from the MoMA’s collection and tastes like the last word on chocolate and cherries.
“Mocha,” a cylinder layered with various shades of chocolate and coffee could not have been more true to itself. Hazelnut nougat ice cream gave it a creamy, nutty push.
And the “St. Honoré,” the Cadillac of French desserts, was as fine as it ever could be. The millefeuille was textbook – panes of flaky pastry made to be shattered – a pure delight under an airy orange chibouste brulée that was caramelized and smoky. Ladies in waiting there were three, of the fat variety – a triplet of choux a la creme with crisp shells and bellies swollen with cream. Too rich? A bowl of bright orange granita awaited. Finish with this and your virtue is restored.
Haasz’s Degustation of Artisanal Cheese might be the best summary of Café Boulud. It is not ostentatious, preferring a more intimate route. Though I do love the pageantry of a finely populated cheese cart, I also appreciate a confidently assembled progression representing the best of what an affineur has to offer.****
Here, there is variety – just enough to keep your attention, not so much as to overwhelm you. On this board, we saw an assortment of cow, sheep, and goat milk cheeses, both domestic and foreign. None of them were new to me, but a few were particular favorites, including Roncal and a pooling mass of Époisses, this one just a touch young and a bit barnyard-shy for me.
There is tradition. Toasted bread, a lovely fruit compote, and some fresh fruit to boot – nothing too distracting.
And there just a hint of playfulness. I’m still waiting for M. Boulud to authorize Kaysen to go on that road show tour I proposed in my last post. I will work for free in exchange for those squares of Rice Krispies studded with pine nuts, the Boardwalk and Park Place of the cheese board (and the cannelé de Bordeaux on the petits fours plate!). Really, it’s an offer he can’t refuse.
Service could not have been more kind or more efficient. I realize that I wasn’t just another guy in a suit here, but I didn’t notice courtesy over-extended for my friends and me, or withheld from those around us.
Both Kaysen and his sous chef, Alex Martinez, a friend whom I first met in the kitchen at Avenues during Graham Elliot Bowlse’s tenure, came out to chat with us over dessert, after which we were invited into the kitchen for a quick tour. There, we discovered, among many things, limon omani, kibbeh for the fine taco connoisseur, and Yemen No. 10.
Another satisfied customer? Yes.
Recommended? Yes, but with the caveat that you really shouldn’t expect fireworks or flares here. Although it is much improved since my first visit two years ago, Café Boulud is just as I first described it: solid and steady. Kaysen plies a subtle trade, more focused on precision and care than showmanship.
Eat here now, and you will experience some of the most well-crafted and thoughtful plates I’ve seen in New York City. I do hope dear Bibendum’s ears are ringing.
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
* Consider this disclosure of my acquaintance with Kaysen. This is probably also a good place to mention that we were each poured a glass of Champagne at the start of our meal, and a glass of Tokaji at the close of our meal, both on the house. And, though there were three of us, somehow, there mysteriously appeared four desserts and a boat of petits fours.
** Like elbow pads for the corporate worker bee, so that the corporate nurse doesn’t have to teach them how to position their arms just so during the grueling work hours to prevent them from treading their fine threads bare.
*** Leave it to the molten chocolate cake to cause problems. Minor technicality, though “Tahaitian” is not French in origin, it is a French protectorate.
**** Of course, there’s also Picholine, where the best of what Max McCalman has to offer numbers in the dozens. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.