A Trip to Café Boulud
Having been to Daniel a bunch of times, and generally experienced excellent food (with one superlative and one iffy experience thrown into to create a more than very positive balance), it seemed kind of silly that I hadn't visited the fancier restaurant's more casual sibling, especially since its so nearby. I went with relatively high expectations. How does one get rid of expectations prior to a meal? Maybe my expectations on two recent trips to Jean Georges were too high and so I was radically under whelmed. Are expectations a function of the rough price you know you will pay?
I called ahead of time and found out I could sit and eat at the bar without reservation, and also that there was no dress code. This is rather nice. Still, almost everyone who was eating at the place was older (avg age 55 my guess) with a jacketed man the table norm. However, two young men in jeans and T shirts walked in with reservation and were seated by the hostess without the slightest evil face contortion or even a flinch. This is normal! Which I think is a great thing since I basically hate dressing in a suit (thank god my employer mandates this only when clients show up). I went in a black T shirt and slacks.
Café Boulud's menu is divided into 4 sections; and at first glance it almost looks like there are 4 different tasting menus available to you, but you actually pick one appetizer and one main course, though there is no need to confine yourself to any one section. These divisions are Classical French, Seasonal, Vegetarian from the Farmer's Mkt, and the chef's interpretation of a regional cuisine (this month = Vietnam). There are also daily specials that have been picked by Chef Andrew Carmellini.
Overall, this was an excellent meal with revelatory moments, though not a glimpse of culinary revolutionary like Sugiyama was. I came out with $125 less in my bank account, but 40% of this was spent on 3 excellent glasses of wine (one champagne starter which was the Cafe's own import and very good, one amazing Pinot D'alsace and a lovely Muscat -the bartender gave me free half glass refills on the last two glasses). I guess this isn't cheap, but when you consider the frightening amts (Think $225 per person) that you could spend for the same quality and lesser food, and that sans vino, you could get out for $60-70 a head, then Café Boulud seems like a damn bargain in my warped world view of haute cuisine, especially as it absolutely wallops 95% of the neighborhood "our favorite local" places I get dragged into to eat supermarket dregs by friends.
Choosing the food was difficult (it took me ten minutes), because my usual menu item elimination scheme wasn't working, so I just went with the bartender recommended special for the main course and chose the Trio of 3 Soups as an appetizer.
First, three cold soups came in cappuccino-like cups. These were from the seasonal part of the menu. One was a borscht and was complex and beet-colored creamy in texture and nice, but didn't really knock me off my barstool. Second was a fabulous white gazpacho that was the epitome of what summer soups should be- cooling, rich and very fresh vegetable heaven. But the third, the vichyssoise took the cake. I guess you really have to go out of your way to screw up a dish that has smoked sturgeon, fresh watercress and caviar in it. And they didn't. Balanced and complex, one flavor after the other made its 3-second dance on the stage of the tongue before allowing space for the next. Showtime! This was spectacular.
Main course was special of the day -Hawaiian Hamachi with morels in a sweet mustard vinaigrette. The fish was grilled almost rare in small, rotund and pretty 1 and ¼ inch cuts and served over fresh morels. Hamachi was fine and had a lovely texture, but I am finding it harder and harder to eat minimally altered fish these days unless I am in good Japanese hands. It just wasn't particularly special. And discarding the fish quickly left me staring at a whole bunch of morels. Now, I am not much of a massive mushroom hound, the result of those awful stale things I think I eat on pizza as a kid. That has gradually changed as I have aged. But the morels were astounding, and in the comparison the morels absolutely usurped the fish and almost banished it to the tower of British food because they were so much better. I suppose the chef should be penalized for putting a member of the supporting cast in who would upstage the star. But I really didn't give a crap. I have had morels before, but almost never this good -almost strangely ripe.
Finally, desert, where the upstaging thing happened again. Peach tart with almond cream and thyme ice cream. Thyme ice cream?? The tart was very good but ultimately unspectacular and the ice cream was meant to melt into the tart, so I had to eat the ice cream quickly because it was so strange and voluptuous. A cool new experience in more than one sense.
So while one meal does not a decent evaluation make, and the upstaging thing was the nights main culinary theme, this was a good play, one I want to see again. Though Sugiyama still tops my "repeat eat" list.
Agreed. Boulud is a genius. The downside to your experience is that after having his version of creamed morels, you'll be disappointed with everyone else's.
I had lunch at Cafe Boulud a few months ago and the chilled fennel soup served with a tiny mound of finely chopped smoked salmon sent me reeling.
Great report and so thorough - I felt I was sitting alongside you at the bar. One question: what is your "menu item elimination scheme?" Having sat with various menus for too long a period of time while others are chomping at the bit to order - I often choose impulsively and not thoughtfully. Just curious as to your process.